Installed on hills, her head near starry bowers
Shines Edinburgh, proud of protecting powers
William Drummond of Hawthornden
Shows – 44
Hangovers – 5
Todays blog has a wee theme – that of the lovely, heart-warming topic of prison! One cannot know how important one’s liberty is until it is taken away from us. Hemmed in by four walls in a life of mundane monotony, the prisoner would give anything to merely walk among woods, let alone wander through Edinburgh at Fringe time. A week or so back I was in the Forest Cafe & stumbled upon a fanzine/small press convention where a pal of mine, Nicky Melville from SHELLSUIT MASSACRE, was selling some of his work. He was recently the writer in residence at HMP Edinburgh & this very morning I was looking through the small book of prisoner writings called Routine he’d compiled & given me at the Forest. They basically describve a prisoner’s day & I’d like to give one as an example;
Watch according to Jim
Go back to get lunch
Wait in cell for shed call
Read my books
Have a smoke
Have a wash before tea
Shellsuit Massacre in action
A far cry indeed from all the fun of teh Fringe. With this imperfect prison existence in mind I went to see the play RELEASE (16-29, not wednesdays, 14.00) at the PLEASANCE KINGSDOM. The young company is based in Chatham, Kent, & the play was devised by the actors themselves, after researching their material with real offenders. What we are given is a riveting piece of drama, telling the stories of three recently released prisoners & the people who’s lives they touch. Its really realistic by the way, & the desperation that these social-outcasts must feel is played pitch-perfect. The cast is only three-strong – a Scots lad, an Asian lad & a lassie – but they do marvellously well when changing accents & personas for their various parts. Combine this with some wicked moments of multi-media stagecraft, such as subtitles in a nightclub, & a fiery finale to never forget, it was a pleasure to see such a modern play sweeping majestically over a similarily modern topic.
Walking thro toon I was given an impromptu, once-in-a-lifetime performance of LETS GET ARRESTED by this pissed up druggy called Steve. I saw him running up & down a pedestrianized Rose Street, yelling & barging into folk. The climax of his show began when he knocked over a wee boy, resulting in members of the public restraining him & calling the cops. A few minutes later seven cop cars were inching into Rose Street, the first of which coughed up a female copper who immortalized our star with the line, “Steven, what ye ap tae!?” “I’ve just been doon the alcoholic problem clinic!” he replied, earning the answer, “That’s no excuse!” & a bundle in the back of her car. The other cops then began to take witness statements as I mused back on the earlier play, Release. It’s highly likely that young Steven has served time before, & is a prefect example of Release’s sentiment. During the play I learnt that only 27 percent of men & 13 percent of women offenders get a job when they return to ‘reality,’ the first steps on that slippery slope to recurring criminality!
My final piece of prison-themed ‘entertainment’ was at the INTERNATIONAL BOOK FESTIVAL at CHARLOTTE’S SQUARE at the west end of the New Town. It is the largest in the world & consists of several marqueed ‘theatres’ where punters can watch authors splaff on for ages for a tenner a time. There is also a bookshop & circular, circus-style Spiegletent for beer, food & free entertainment. For two weeks every year all aspects of the literary cosmos – readers, writers, publishers, booksellers & agents – all gather in the salubrious Georgian surroundings for a good old-fashioned chin-wag. Its not particularly elitists, howver, & the grounds are open to all. If anyone wishes to sample the vibe, I reccomend going along to the free AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL IMPRISONED WRITERS SERIES (13-28 – 17.45).
Amnesty was set up fifty years ago (1961) in an effort to free two young Portuguese men who had been jailed for raising a toast to freedom (the Portuguese were still clinging on to Goa at the time). The casue soon spread, fostered in that especially volatile decade that was the 1960s – a time of great social upheaval & unrest. Today’s talk was about the 60s themselves, where the writings of four prisoners were read by four modern authors. Of the writings, it was the poetry & story of Denis Brutus (read by George Makana Clark) which pleased me most. He was a black South African – imprisoned on Robben island for example – who’d been shot in the back once for trying to escape. Surviving this he was instrumental in getting SA kicked out of the 1968 Olympic Games & subsequently the entire movement. Hearing his words reminded me of poetry’s ability to record emotion & zeitgeist with just a handful of words & images. You can find his own at – www.worcester.edu/DBrutus/ , & here’s a youtube of him reading his work out before his death a couple of years back.
Of all these dissident expressions of intellectual protest, the gem has to be the letter written by Martin Luther King on April 16th 1963, from the isolation of a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. While in liberal England teh Beatles were opening up the human relations with their chart-topping single, From me to You, Birmingham was the most segregated in the entire United States & King had flown eagerly into the lion’s maw. It was read out by Vivien French, a prolific children’s author famous for her Tiara Club stories & her Tales from the Five Kingdoms. She read with great distinction, & by the end of the long letter, with King apologising for its length but saying there was little else do do in prision but think & write, I was verging on tears. King was saying stuff like the airtight cage of poverty & how no motels woudl accept him so he had to sleep in the corner of his car & how his first name was never Martin but always nigger. A sobering day, then, one sent, I think, to remind me that, although Im having a barry old time up here in the Scottish capital, in this Goan pleasure bubble, the world is still full of vast imbalances. Despite the vast imrpovements made America way in social equality, Mr King would still be dreaming, I believe…