Friday 11 August 2023

Banged up in Chokey

Michael Rosen read a book and invited the author Andy West in to chat on the Word of Mouth podcast. That book is The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Learning to Be Free (2022). It is not the same thing at all as A Bit of a Stretch by Chris Atkins [Guardian review] which I read in 2020. . Atkins actually did 9 months in Wandsworth for tax fraud whereas West is only in for regular three hour sojourns before going home for his tea; teaching Philosophy in a number of different parts of the English Prison service. To be fair, West's father, brother and uncle were all at different times detained by the English criminal justice system and talked [and talked] about their experiences: so he has that insight as well.

Philosophy considers the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, existence, and how to behave. You might imagine those ideas would be on message for people who have lonnng hours each day to reflect on life, the universe and everything. West has been working for the prison service for 5 years now, and has accumulated hundreds of hours of interaction with people who have offended against one or many of the precepts of civil society as it is structured by The Man. Most inmates are not BAFTA nominated documentary film-makers like Chris Atkins. They are much more likely to have spent thirteen years in the army before becoming homeless and then ending up in prison. Around one in ten men inside are armed forces veterans, swapping one regime for another. Regiment > regime, geddit? It is ironic that the military-industrial complex depends on dehumanising squaddies in order to sell more land-mines and missile-guidance systems [my Dad's speciality] and then is surprised that the transgress the rules of civil society.

The Life Inside has been shuffled and sorted into 20 chapters dealing with different aspects of the human condition and how named philosophers (Becket, Bentham, Berger, Boethius, Breton; and that's just the Bs) have thought or written about these weighty matters. What are your thoughts on . . . Identity - Freedom - Shame - Desire - Luck - Happiness - Time - Madness - Trust - Salvation - Forgetting - Trust - Looking - Laughter - Race - Inside - Change - Stories - Home - Kindness? You'll get more out the book if you've nodded in those directions before hearing a snippet of discussion from one of West's classrooms. 

Then again, this book is not Philosophy 101 it is A Memoir of Prison, Family and Learning to Be Free . . . and eating a lot of custard creams while visiting his Nan. It also touches on the normalization of mental health issues in self, in family and in society. Of course prisoners are likely to be off the rails, if not all the time. But we don't all carry The Executioner around in our heads or cannot leave the house without believing we've left the cooker on. Still, ya got to hand it to folks who can give back to society by making things a little kinder for the dispossessed.

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