A New Wing for the Pigeon
Foreword: All chapters of Pigeon on the Wing published on this website are in draft form only. The final version may include grammatical, syntax and content changes, as well as sidebars and illustrations to maintain a level of interest and to stop readers’ eyes from glazing over. All comments and / or criticisms of content or writing style would be most welcome. Masterpieces like this don’t just write themselves, you know.
Seriously, though – this is your book just as much as it is mine. I couldn’t have even begun to write it without all of your help and support. Thank you so much for everything you have done for me, and I hope you enjoy reading the book as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
Pigeon on the Wing – Chapter 9 – A New Wing for the Pigeon
Monday 22 May 2017 – A couple of days after my assessment in English Language, Mathematics and Computer Skills, I was approached by a prison officer as I was preparing for another exciting, fun-filled day on the wing. I have heard it said that being in prison is like being in a combat zone with the army – long periods of boredom punctuated by short bursts of terror.
It’s not a perfect analogy of course – for example, I hadn’t as yet been issued with my own sniper rifle, nor indeed had I yet been enrolled on a high explosives handling course, but I dare say that the Howard League for Penal Reform would be addressing these very issues as I write.
Maintaining prisoners’ morale is a high priority for the HLPR, and I am sure that a series of courses based on the correct handling of small arms, heavy machine guns and high explosives would have an overall positive effect on the mental well-being of most prisoners.
To be fair, the officers at HMP Thameside appeared to be working diligently to reduce the possibilities of boredom setting in, at least during “times of association” when prisoners were allowed out of their cells. My cell-mate John was in the prison gym and pumping iron, and I was halfway through a game of chess with another inmate in the communal area.
The prison officer said to me, “Get your stuff together. You’re moving.”
I thought for a moment. “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” I asked. I had got used to the prison routine and there didn’t seem to be any immediate threats to my well-being, but perhaps someone had complained that I was winning too many games of chess.
Was I likely to be thrown into solitary confinement with only bread to eat and water to drink until the end of my sentence? Or had someone at the RSPB – the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – been pulling strings to have me transferred to a “Cat A” prison with the other pigeon murderers?
The nearest Category A prison was HMP Belmarsh, just up the road from where I was in HMP Thameside. It wasn’t all bad news, if that were to be the case. Maybe I could get the “Mad Mullah”- Anjem Choudary – to sign my autograph book. He was currently cooling his heels in Belmarsh, serving a five-and-a-half year sentence for glorifying terrorism. A signature from him in my autograph book would definitely earn me some brownie points at the next meeting of the Sutton Coldfield Wheel-Tappers and Shunters Club.
“We’re moving you to Cat C,” said the officer, “be ready in five minutes.” On hearing this, I was somewhat relieved. Category C was one step down in terms of serious crime and psychopathic behaviour from Category B, and while it was not exactly a five-star upgrade to my current circumstances, the chances were that it wouldn’t be any worse.
“Do you know why I’m being moved?” I asked.
“No idea. Orders.”
I was later to find out that Paul Weston, the chairman of Liberty GB, the organisation of which I had been Radio Officer, had written in no uncertain terms to the Governor of HMP Thameside, reminding him of his duty of care towards vulnerable prisoners such as myself.
By vulnerable, I don’t mean physically or mentally weak – many years of studying the Japanese martial art of Aikido had toughened me up to the point where I could probably handle any sort of one-on-one confrontation – but the risk of large numbers of Mohammedans ganging up on me if the true nature of my conviction were discovered had obviously given the Governor pause for thought.
It would not look good for public relations if I were to be harassed – not to mention brutally slaughtered, systematically dismembered and turned into kebab meat for the benefit of the local Mohammedan prison population.
Picture the scene. A gaggle of Mohammedan prisoners are sitting around a makeshift barbecue pit in the exercise area during a summer evening. Flies buzz around, quietly murmuring as the sun sinks below the horizon. A row of kebabs is being gently grilled, hissing and sputtering over the flames.
A guttural voice is heard, swelling amongst the sound of the insects as Arabic music plays in the background. “I must say, Abdul, the kebab meat is especially tender this evening. It has the texture of soft yet succulent lamb, or perhaps camel. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.”
“Oh yes, my friend, it is indeed especially tender this evening. Praise be to Allah, for he works in mysterious ways. Oh, look, there’s an eyeball. It seems to be regarding us with a somewhat reproachful expression.”
I scooped my belongings together into a large prison-issue polythene bag and was escorted out of the Category B prison block by two prison officers through an interminable series of imposing metal doors which were mysteriously unlocked as I approached and then locked again behind me.
Prison officers must spend years choreographing this seamless operation, although I never tested it to the point where they might be persuaded to unlock the main door leading to the outside of the prison. I thought that there would be little point pushing my luck at this stage in the process.
However, I made a mental note to recommend the officers as candidates for the forthcoming series of Strictly Come Door-Unlocking, an innovative TV entertainment series that I had invented during idle hours of reverie, and which I intended to host once I was released. In my mind’s eye, it would have all the attributes of a hit TV show, a cross between Strictly Come Dancing and Prison Break, but with more sequins and less of the brutal on-screen slaughter. I think that the officers of HMP Thameside would win it hands down.
I was led across the prison grounds, past the football field and the prison garden to another prison block, virtually identical in appearance to the one I had just left. I half expected to see a welcoming party with balloons, party poppers and signs on sticks saying “You made it! Welcome to Category C!” but I was sadly disappointed. They might have at least baked me a cake.
The prison officers who had escorted me to the new block handed me over to another two prison officers. I hadn’t been handcuffed or shackled, but obviously they weren’t going to take any chances with a hardened pigeon murderer like myself. A large sheaf of paperwork changed hands. One of the new officers scrutinised the paperwork carefully.
“Let’s see. Oh, yes, Burton. You’ll be in a cell on your own.” I still wasn’t sure whether this was a good thing or a bad thing. Did this mean solitary confinement? Apparently not. “Doors locked at 6:00 p.m. Open again at 7:45 a.m. for medication. Other than that you can use the communal area apart from lock-up and roll-call between 12:00 and 14:00. You’re not going to cause us any trouble, are you?”
Trouble? Moi? “I sincerely promise to be on my best behaviour, officer.” The officer regarded me with a certain degree of wariness. “Is that right? Follow me, then.”
I was led to a cell on D-wing in the Category C block and the door was locked behind me. I surveyed my new surroundings for a moment or two. Not so very different from the Category B cell I had just vacated, I thought. On the desk in the corner was a battered-looking computer terminal, comprising of a screen, keyboard and mouse, which I had by now established was for use as an ordering system for meals and for general prison enquiries such as arranging library visits and medical requests.
The terminal also doubled as a TV, and it was perched precariously on the desk in the corner of the cell, next to four or five dog-eared hard-back books from the prison library. There was a single bunk (with the obligatory thin blue mattress and a pile of soiled bedding, presumably left behind by the previous inmate) and an open cupboard with shelves for personal belongings.
For ablutions, there was an en-suite shower area, toilet and hand basin. There was only one chair, which prompted me to note that it was going to make it difficult if I wanted to host any dinner parties in my cell. For that matter, there was a distinct lack of candelabra, napkins and wine glasses.
But most importantly, there was no kettle in the cell. This was going to be a problem. If I wanted to offer any of my guests tea or coffee I would have to make do with lukewarm water from the hot tap. Still, worse things happen at sea, I thought, and I started to unpack my belongings.
I reached into my polythene prison bag and extracted my precious co-axial cable. I plugged it in to the TV system and it immediately burst into life. It had apparently been pre-tuned for the mainstream TV channels! No more having to negotiate for the acquisition of a TV remote control with a chronically sex-starved TV maintenance man! Things were looking up.
I switched to the DVD box-set channel. There was Series 1-4 of “Line of Duty” (a gritty and realistic police detective drama series.) Hey, not bad at all! Better than Prison Break by a long chalk. I could get used to this! And indeed, for the duration of my sentence, whenever I had nothing else to occupy me, I would watch the entire box set many times over, to the point where I could recite verbatim what words the characters were going to say before they actually said them.
I don’t want you to think that this was all I had to do with my time. Over the next few weeks, I spent as much time as was allowed in the prison library and I tried to play as many games of chess as I could each day. In addition, I tried to set aside at least two hours a day for meditation – my Aikido training had acclimatised me to an hour every morning and every evening, and the hours of enforced solitude in my cell contributed immensely to the transition to a meditative state at those times.
Aikido meditation is a technique that is for everyone, not just for martial art enthusiasts. It is definitely worth cultivating as it brings long-term benefits to the average human frame. It simply involves positioning your body into a comfortable (and preferably kneeling or seated) relaxed stance, and then focusing on taking a series of deep, regular breaths until your mind drifts away from your immediate surroundings.
Once you have your breath under control – maybe four breath cycles in and out every minute, one every fifteen seconds or so, after about five or ten minutes your mind enters a different phase – and you start to leave behind material concerns and to be more open to contemplating a veritable wealth of abstract concepts, such as life, death and the meaning of the universe.
An hour or so of Aikido meditation really does bring with it a more positive outlook on life, no matter what your immediate circumstances may be, and I found it to be of immense help to me over the subsequent days and weeks, which at this moment appeared to be stretching interminably ahead.
I know this sounds weird, but it’s true. Don’t take my word for it. Try it and see. I highly recommend it. But if it doesn’t work for you then please don’t sue me, or send round a bunch of heavies to teach me the error of my ways.
As my Aikido teacher used to say – You may not be, at least at the moment, completely in tune with your spiritual side. My advice to you is to persevere.
There is a Buddhist saying – “When the student is ready, then the teacher will appear.”
(I remember pulling this very statement out of a Christmas cracker and reading it out in front of the family over a turkey dinner, when admittedly there was a high degree of inebriation and a certain lack of philosophical awareness around the table. The response was along the lines of – “That can’t be right! The teacher should be in the classroom waiting for the students to arrive!”)
Sometimes you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.
The communal area was very similar to the Category B environment I had left behind, although over time I did notice that the Category C prisoners seemed more relaxed than those in Category B. There was very little aggressive confrontation between prisoners and guards, or between the prisoners themselves as far as I could see.
However, I reminded myself to be aware of the possible dangers from the Mohammedan population of around ten to fifteen per cent (as far as I could ascertain) in the Category C environment of HMP Thameside. It only needed one leak of the real reason behind my criminal conviction to the general prison population and I could be in real trouble.
I finished unpacking, left my cell and sat down at one of the communal tables with a chess-board in front of me. I had found that simply doing this was enough to pique the interest of at least a few of the chess aficionados on the wing. Sure enough, scenting new blood, a steady trickle of prisoners introduced themselves and challenged me to a series of chess games.
My chess-playing skills were still at a comparatively high level and over the next few days I managed to chalk up a respectable number of victories. Not too respectable though, it never does for the “new boy” to appear too clever, something I had learned early on in my life while growing up and attending a typically middle-class English grammar school.
I remember one such “new boy”, Watkins Minor, who had been transferred to our school during the course of Year Six. He was a rotund, bespectacled boy with a mop of blond hair, and he appeared determined to demonstrate his superiority to the rest of us by coming top in all the school activities he participated in.
No doubt he felt that by demonstrating such superiority, reminiscent of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias – “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” it would stand him in good stead during his remaining school years and earn him our undying admiration.
However, in the manner of most healthy pre-teenage boys with a sense of social justice in what was a typically middle-class English grammar school of the 1960s, we systematically disabused him of that notion with the standard school punishment of tarring and feathering, and then tying him up and locking him with a bicycle chain to the apple tree in the garden outside the school staff room.
Admittedly he was somewhat subdued for a few days after that, but I still maintain to this day that we probably did him a favour by teaching him such a valuable lesson so early in life.
All in all, “Category C” life in HMP Thameside had much to recommend it. I wouldn’t say that I would be sorry to leave at the end of my sentence, but I resolved to upgrade the facilities to at least a three-star rating on the travel site Trip Advisor.
Trip Advisor representative: “So, Mr Burton, how do you rate the facilities of Category C at HMP Thameside?”
Me: “To be honest, I did notice some dust on the top of my wardrobe. It was only faintly detectable on the outside of my white glove, but it was definitely there. And the sheets on the bed should have been changed prior to my arrival. Other than that I would give it three stars.”
Damn. I forgot to mention the lack of a kettle. But it was too late. The Trip Advisor representative (figuratively speaking) had left the cell, the door had been locked behind him, and there was the gradually diminishing sound of footsteps in the corridor outside, faintly reverberating until all that I could hear was the sound of silence.
End of Chapter 9
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