Monday, 31 March 2014

The prison "book-ban"

I work in a prison library, so I guess I have some inside knowledge (no pun intended) of the recent "book-banning" measures that have been in the news lately. The fuss stems from a report that inmates will no longer be allowed to have books sent to them by family and friends, and letters have been sent to the press, petitions have been signed, and demonstrations have been taking place outside jails protesting at this draconian measure.
However, there's actually less to this story than meets the eye. The prison where I work has for the last couple of years implemented a system whereby relatives have been unable to send packages - including books - into prison, mainly because of the amount of contraband that was being smuggled in. One of the library orderlies told me that it used to be really easy to smuggle drugs inside books, and due to the increase in prison population and the decrease in staffing levels things were starting to get out of control. Prisoners do have access to books - they can buy them direct from Amazon in a sealed package (which usually works out to be less expensive than their families posting them in), and in the library we try to accommodate their needs, though it has to be said it's not always easy.

The most annoying thing about this whole episode is the wilful mis-interpretation of what is actually happening - the media are still talking of books being banned, with allusions to totalitarian regimes being made, and there are other stories about prisoners not receiving cards from their children, and so on. Meanwhile, there are many real problems affecting prisons and prisoners which we should be getting angry about - the creeping privatisation of the justice system, the demoralised staff and inmates, and the lack of support in society for those coming out of prison, to name but three - instead of an inflated and biased report which will prove to be a distraction from the real issues.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Diverus and Lazarus

The poor are always with us. They litter the pavements and destroy the feng-shui of our city streets with their begging. They are a blight on society, and to blame for the economic mess we are in.

As it fell out upon one day,
Rich Divès made a feast,
And he invited all his friends,
And gentry of the best.

Then Lazarus laid him down and down
And down at Divès’ door:
“Some meat and drink, brother, Diverus,
Bestow upon the poor.”

“You ain’t my brother, Lazarus,
Begging at my door;
No meat, no drink I’ll give to thee,
Nor bestow upon the poor.”

Then Lazarus laid him down and down,
All under Divès’ wall:
“Some meat, some drink, brother Diverus,
For hunger starve I shall.”

“You ain’t my brother, Lazarus,
Begging at my gate;
No meat, no drink I’ll give to thee,
For Jesus Christ His sake.”

Then Divès sent his guard dogs,
To bite him as he lay;
They hadn’t the power to bite one bite,
But licked his sores away.

Then Divès sent security,
To worry poor Lazarus away;
They’d not the power to strike one stroke,
But flung their whips away.

As it fell out upon one day,
Poor Lazarus sickened and died;
There came two angels out of heaven,
His soul therein to guide.

“Rise up! rise up! brother Lazarus,
And come along with me;
There is a place for you in heaven,
Sitting on an angel’s knee.”

As it fell out upon one day,
Rich Divès sickened and died;
There came two serpents out of hell,
His soul therein to guide.

“Rise up! rise up! brother Diverus,
And come along with me;
There is a place for you in hell
Sitting on a banker’s knee.”

Then Divès looked up with his eyes
And saw poor Lazarus blest;
“A drop of water, Lazarus,
To quench my flaming thirst.”

“O, was I now but alive again
The space of one half hour!
O, that I had my peace again
Then the devil should have no power.”

Tony Benn - a condescending old fraud.

News this morning that Tony Benn has died, and more outpouring of sorrow at the passing of another national treasure.
However, at the risk of speaking ill of the recently departed, I thought he was a condescending old fraud, who spent his time grandstanding and heckling on the sidelines, and doing bugger-all else other than perpetrating his own avuncular personality-cult.
His legacy was the rupture of the Labour Party for purely egotistical reasons, the consequences of which were eighteen years of Thatcherism and the ascendancy of Tony Blair and the New Labour project.

So yeah, sorry he's dead and all that, but he did change the face of British politics.
It's just a shame that it wasn't for the better.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Bob Crow, Millwall fan and national treasure.

So, farewell Bob Crow, Union leader, Millwall fan and national treasure. Everybody seems genuinely shocked and quite saddened by his sudden death. Even those who couldn't stand him have been falling over themselves to pay tribute to him. He was only fifty-two, which is the same age as me, although he wasn't as good-looking. He spoke his mind, and did the right thing by his members, which is a lot more than most politicians do, and membership of the RMT union actually increased by nearly twenty-thousand during his time in charge.

In a few days time the Daily Mail will run a hatchet-job on him.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Names of the Hare (his chief name is Scoundrel)

I came across this 13th century poem a good few years ago, and have been fascinated by it ever since. In this recording, I tried to keep to the original lolloping rhythm of the poem, and made only a few alterations to the text. Although a lot of the words have fallen out of use, and it reads almost like a piece of surrealist poetry, it's possible to get more than the general gist of their meaning, even though we may not entirely sure what is being said.

the man that by the hare is met
of him shall never get the better
but if he lays down on the land
that which he beareth in his hand
(be it staff, or be it bow)
and bless him with his elbow
and with well good devotion
he shall say an orison
in worship of the hare
then may he well fare

the hare, the scotart
the big-arse, the bouchart
the scotewin, the skikart
the turpin, the tirart
the way-beater, the ballart,
the go-by-ditch, the soilart
the wimount, the babbart,
the scutter, the dewbert
the stop-out, the swikebert
the friendless, the wood-cat
the broad-looker, the broom-cat
the purblind, the furze-cat
the clumsy, the west-looker
the wall-eyed, the side-looker
and also the rollicker

the stubble-deer, the long-ear
the straw-deer, the spring-heeled
the wild-deer, the leaper
the short-deer, the lurker
the wind-swift, the skulker
the hare-shagger, the hedge-squatter
the dew-beater, the dew-hopper
the sitter-still, the grass-hopper
the fettle-foot, the fold-sitter
the light-foot, the fern-sitter
the cabbage-stag, the herb-cropper
the go-by-ground, the sit-still
the pin-tail, the turn-to-hill
the quick-arise
the agitator
the white-bellied
the go-with-lambs
the chump, the churl
the niggard, the coward
the make-fare, the breaker-of-word
the sniveller, the cropped-head
(his chief name is scoundrel)

the stag with the leathery horns
the creature that dwells in the corn
the animal that all men scorn
the beast that none dare name

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Crossing Place, Lindisfarne

The Crossing Place 1 (oil on canvas 60cm x 60cm)

We spent a few days on Lindisfarne at the end of last summer, with the intention of using it as a base to explore North Northumberland and the Borders. However, once we were there, we quickly decided that we'd rather not actually leave the island, as we enjoyed the thought of being cut off from the hurly-burly of modern life, and so our time there turned into a kind of retreat, and a means to re-charge our batteries. Although neither of us are spiritual people - I think a lot of the religious stuff on the Island is nothing but charlatanism - there's something about the remoteness of the landscape which is invigorating and energising, and we found ourselves drawn every evening to the Crossing Place to watch the waders, and to listen to the seals on the sandbanks calling ethereally into the night.

The Crossing Place 2 (oil on canvas 80cm x 60cm)

Monday, 10 February 2014

Happisburgh footprints

And did those feet in ancient time...

Ancient footprints have been found preserved in mud on the beach at Happisburgh (pronounced Hazeboro), a run-down north-east Norfolk coastal town that is gradually falling into the sea. They had been made by nearly-humans almost a million years ago, and are the oldest hominin tracks outside of Africa.
Who were these people? What did they look like? What were they thinking as they squelched through the sand and mud? Were they happy?
Although we'll never know for certain, we can surmise that the prints appear to have been made by a family unit - perhaps two adults, and three or four children. The adults don't appear to be very large - around five feet six inches in height - if length of stride and size of footprint is anything to go by. And although it seems likely that they would have been scavenging for food, the random nature of the prints indicate the possibility that they could have been larking about as well. Maybe they had some kind of pre-historic beach ball that they entertained themselves with.
It seems almost miraculous to us that something so transient as a footprint should last so long, and that the only thing that remained of those people was the empty space beneath their feet, which we homo sapiens were able to measure, photograph and record, all these hundreds of thousands of years later.

And when the tide rolled in a few days afterwards and washed the prints away, it seemed fitting that the same elements which had preserved them for so long in the first place would be the ones to finally destroy them.