Archive for the month “October, 2017”

“I know, let’s make ourselves unemployed!”

The start of the idea. It was a matter of making a choice. We were living in Northampton, Linda working as a senior lecturer at the University and me working at the Brooke Weston Academy in Corby as Head of the Modern Languages Department.

We were very nicely installed. Our house was nothing special, a traditional three bedroomed, Victorian terraced house, but it suited us well. The garden, when we
bought the place, was a scruffy walled yard that was clearly of little interest to the previous owner, but which, with a bit of TLC and judicious use of our plastic card, we transformed into a rural retreat in the middle of town, complete with trees, a raised vegetable bed, water butts and enough pot plants to sink the proverbial battleship.

It was our little green haven where, weather allowing, we could eat al fresco while the bees explored the petunias or we could just sit out exploring the odd glass of wine on a summer’s evening, watching the night gradually envelop the sky.

Our social life was not too riotous. It revolved mainly around two main activities, the wine bar at the end of the road, where we ate tapas, drank too much expensive wine, listening to the resident piano player and the Royal and Derngate Theatres, where we worked most weekends as volunteer stewards.

The latter was a great wheeze! Most Fridays and Saturdays we would turn up an hour before the performance to be briefed by the duty manager, who would tell us running times, the size of the house, and any other instructions pertaining to the performance concerned.

One such instruction came from the manager of the Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle, who had decreed that anyone leaving the auditorium during his act should not be allowed back in.

Now, Boyle is a comedian who likes to shock his audience by the depths of the vulgarity that he is prepared to plumb. His followers are a heavy drinking bunch and many of them had started drinking long before they came to the theatre. Within minutes of the start of his act, some of the audience needed to take a short break. We steadfastly ignored the instruction to deny them re-entry!

Boyle’s act was probably the most tedious night I have ever spent in the theatre, with the possible exception of Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express. Most of the well-known stand-up comedians are very clever people whose acts are apparently random streams of consciousness but are in fact well-crafted pieces of work that have been well thought out in advance. Boyle’s wasn’t. He stood on the stage for two hours trying to shock us by saying ‘rude’ things.

I had just spent nearly fifteen years teaching Year 9. I wasn’t shocked, but I was mightily bored. Anyway, I digress.

Overall, however, working at the theatre was great fun and we saw shows that we would never have paid money to go and see, but many of which were nevertheless well worth seeing. Everything from the unbridled joie-de-vivre of Abba Night to the bizarre cult following that accompanied the Rocky Horror Show; from the Northampton Schools’ Music Service Annual Concert to the extraordinary Nigel Kennedy, de-stultifying classical music with the otherwise fairly stodgy Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; from Shakespeare’s Othello, set in a gang-land billiard hall, to a musical play about the last five weeks in the life of Judy Garland, which still ranks as one of the best pieces of live theatre I have ever seen.

Professionally, we were both doing well in our careers and were highly regarded in our respective institutions. We both worked hard and were virtuously tired at the end of each day and the end of each week. Weekends took on a particular importance as limped through Fridays and were grateful for the opportunity to draw breath and adjust with relief to a change of rhythm. Sundays, for me,
were spent in our cellar room, dubbed the ‘pokey hole’ by Linda, getting myself organised to take on the week that followed.

So, to quote one of the German language training videos that I used to show my students, “Alles unter Kontrolle.” We had another three or four years to go before retirement and could have just kept on keeping on, doing jobs that we were good at and earning good salaries.

But then, an idea, that had been buzzing around in the backs of our minds for many years, started to push itself forward and demand our attention.

It concerned Voluntary Service Overseas and life was about to change.


So there I was…

… walking through the Brighton Lanes, minding my own business, on my way to do my shift at the OXFAM shop, when I saw this.  It was 10.00am on a Tuesday. I was intrigued.


An hour later, I came back and saw this…


Even more intrigued.  I waited another hour and came back again.


And by the end of the morning, this particular corner of Brighton had been completely transformed.


Who? What? Why?  I have no idea, but you have to admit that Brighton has some pretty superior graffiti artists.

Look what I’ve just bought!

A few weeks ago, we decided to go and visit an old friend in Normandy.  The easiest and most relaxing way to get there was by train to Portsmouth and then by ferry across the water to France.  We sailed out past the navy dockyard.


Our departure from Portsmouth coincided with the arrival of the Royal Navy’s latest acquisition, generously paid for by me and a number of other taxpayers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth.


This massive piece of floating ironmongery cost me £3,100,000,000. (Oh, and by the way, I’ve bought two of them, although there seems to be some doubt about whether the Navy’s budget will allow them to run the other one once it is built.)

It is what the Navy calls an ‘aircraft carrier’.  It is meant to strike fear into the hearts of Britain’s enemies, to show that we are a rich and powerful nation that can ‘project its power abroad’ and to strengthen our fighting capacity all over the world.

Just one slight problem;  it doesn’t have any aircraft.  Nor indeed will it have any suitable aircraft until at least the year 2020.  In the meantime, it will house American jets.

So I have just paid £3,100,000,000 for that nice Mr Trump to have two bright, shiny, floating airfields to play with, courtesy of the British public.  You might have guessed, by the tone of this essay, I’m not enthusiastic about my latest purchase.


At first glance, I thought that the big, black letters on the side of the superstructure spelled ‘ROB’, which struck me as entirely appropriate.

The arrival of the HMS Q.E. was accompanied by a flotilla of smaller vessels, many of them filled with the news media and other enthusiasts for military hardware.  For the BBC, this story led all the news bulletins all day.  There was nothing more important happening in the entire world than the arrival of a ship into Portsmouth Harbour.  Parochial? The BBC? What gave you that idea?

But then, when you think about it, the ship had no planes to fill its cavernous hangars. It was, in fact an empty vessel, and so it was perhaps fitting that  it made most noise.


In order to avoid complete embarrassment and to ensure that the news crews had something to take pictures of, some helicopters had been mustered and displayed on the flight deck, to make it look less empty.


Last year, Britain voted to demote itself as a country and cut itself adrift from Europe.  So, to all intents and purposes, we are no longer part of the European Union, we are a small, fairly insignificant country of 60 million people, bobbing around in the Atlantic just off the coast of Europe.  The people have spoken, so that’s the end of the story.

In Britain today, our Government tells us that we are in so much debt as a nation that we have to cut Government expenditure in all areas.  So:

we have a health service that cannot meet any of the targets for waiting times that it set for itself, and was able to achieve, five years ago.  NHS managers are dreading the on-coming winter. People are sometimes having to wait years for a routine operation. We can’t recruit nurses because their wages have been frozen for years and doctors are leaving the service in record numbers;

we have record numbers of people who are homeless and sleeping on the streets.  (A two minute walk down Brighton’s main shopping street any morning will show you this. For ‘Brighton’, read almost any town in Britain today.)

we have cut  the numbers of police and prison officers so severely that crime rates are soaring everywhere;

school budgets are being cut all over the country, teachers are leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers and our educational standards compare poorly with most other European countries;

The care offered to our growing elderly population is, in some areas, little short of scandalous and mental heath services are on the verge of collapse;

But. at least, we have two new aircraft carriers!

And now we have voluntarily voted to cut ourselves off from our biggest trading partner and make ourselves poorer. The value of the pound has fallen sharply and inflation is rising.  It’s called taking back control.

Presumably the commissioning of two new aircraft carriers which won’t come into service until the next decade was not an EU directive.  It was good old British military planners preparing our Navy to fight a good old 20th Century war.  Who are we going to go to war against in our aircraft carriers? Who are our aeroplanes, or rather, the Americans’ aeroplanes,  going to bomb?

And why does Little England think it has any need, or indeed any right, to sail around the world ‘projecting its power’? Politicians love to tell us that we  “punch above our weight internationally.” Why should Britain be doing any punching.  And who are we going to punch?

Our aircraft carriers are hardly likely to impress Al Shabab or whatever terrorist group replaces ISIS and comes to wreak revenge on our streets.

And do we really think we going to halt the ascendency of China or scare North Korea into submission by parading our new boat up and down the South China Sea?

One of the TV news reporters, desperate for something to send back to his editor, was interviewing members of the public, who had come to see the HMS Queen Elizabeth sail into port.  He chose a man in his late forties or early fifties and asked him what he thought of the ship.  The man said, ” Yeah, it’s very impressive. But I used to be a sub-mariner.  As far as I’m concerned it looks like one bloody big target!”

I wonder if the Kremlin has had the same thought.


Oh, life used to be much simpler in the good old days.




recidivism (ri-sid’i-vizm), n …

… defined as ‘the habit of relapsing into crime.’  Also popularly used to describe the situation where prisoners, once released from jail, soon find themselves back behind bars.

Well, that’s exactly what happened to us last Friday. No sooner had we been released from the clutches of HMP High Down, than we found ourselves being processed back into custody and this time it was serious.

This time, we had to empty our pockets of everything, go through airport-style scanners and then we were tagged and branded!  (When I say ‘branded’, I am perhaps guilty of a little bit of exaggeration, or perhaps a modicum of poetic licence. We were actually stamped with invisible ink, that only showed up under ultra-violet light.  It didn’t actually burn itself into our skin!)

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So why were we back in jail?  Was it because we had been caught stealing the cutlery from the restaurant at lunchtime?  Was it because the cheque that I wrote to pay for lunch had bounced at the bank? No, we were going back to jail to watch a musical.

“A what?”,  I hear you cry. Yes, that’s right, a musical.

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce to you, the Pimlico Opera Company!

Since 1991, this inspiring company has been bringing music into prisons.  Thanks to the support and encouragement of  the very enlightened Governor of High Down Prison, Pimlico Opera had just spent the last four weeks casting, setting, rehearsing and staging its own production of Les Misérables  within the walls of the prison.  We were there on opening night of a week long run.

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Most of the principal roles were taken by members of the opera company, but some of the lesser roles and most of the chorus were drawn from the prisoners themselves.  For four solid weeks, prisoners and their operatic visitors had been incarcerated in the gym of the prison, as the show started to take shape.

At lunchtimes, the visitors would go to the Clink restaurant for lunch and the prisoners would go back to their cells, before resuming in the afternoons for more rehearsal.

The opera company principals were, of course, all professional singers, but for these four weeks they were also singing teachers and acting coaches to a group of men, who, for the most part had never sung, never acted and for many of them never even stood on a stage in front of an audience before.

The effect was electric! A brillaint show!

None of the prisoners who had solo singing roles would win a singing competition in the near future, but what they lacked in tunefulness, they more than made up for in commitment to their roles.

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The show ran for two hours without an interval and at the end, the entire audience of about 250 people rose to its feet.  A standing ovation!  Not a few members of the audience had tears in their eyes.

The principals came out to acknowledge their applause and then moved aside.

Then the prisoners came forward to take their bow and suddenly the professionals were nowhere to be seen.  They had left the stage, and the limelight, entirely to the prisoners.  The audience cheered as a group of about twenty men grinned and laughed and hugged each other in the sheer excitement of having achieved something that none of them would have thought possible four weeks previously.

In a short speech at the end, the governor, an impressive woman in her forties, spoke with great humanity about the importance of what we had just seen.  She was in charge of a prison of 1200 prisoners and didn’t underestimate the logistical and organisation difficulty of allowing an outside opera company to come into the prison on a daily basis to work with prisoners, Not to mention challenges around getting audiences of 200 to 300 people in and out of the prison for the each performance.

But she was entirely supportive of the whole enterprise, because she saw her role not only as keeping prisoners in prison but also trying to ensure that, at the end of their sentences, they didn’t come back.  She said that, for some of the prisoners who had performed for us, this will have been one of the very few times in their lives when the could feel proud of themselves and what they had achieved.  Lack of confidence and lack of self esteem we both major contributory factors in offending behaviour.

As she concluded her remarks, a prison officer came forward and whispered in her ear.

“Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen,”  she said.  “I’ve just been informed that the prisoners have now all been safely returned to their blocks, so we can now release you!”


The centre pages of the programme for the show contained a quotation that summed up what is going on at HMP High Down.

“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.  A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry of all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every person – these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”

And who said that?  Winston Churchill, House of Commons 1910.


Go to Jail. Go directly to Jail.

Well, I did try.  It’s just not that easy to get yourself sent to jail..

I had to start arranging it weeks in advance and even then, they only allowed me to be incarcerated for three hours.


Welcome to Her Majesty’s Prison at High Down in Surrey.

Make no mistake.  This is a proper prison.  It has over 1200 prisoners, …


a lot of locked doors …


and an awful lot of razor-wire.

The buildings themselves are modern, so the living facilities for the prisoners are decent.  But a prison is still a prison and being in prison means that you lack many things, but one thing that is not in short supply if time.  Time to be very bored, time to get very depressed, time to get into senseless and brutalising conflicts with other prisoners, time to learn the ways of more hardened criminals, time to reflect on how useless you are and time to sink into hopelessness and despair.


HMP High Down contains men serving a few months for relatively minor offences and others sitting out life sentences.

So what’s wrong with that?  Surely offenders need to be punished and that’s what prison is for, right?  Yes, of course.  The problem is that in the UK, out of every hundred men released from prison at the end of their time, around fifty will be back in jail by the end of the year.

That leads to an awful lot more human misery, both for the criminals themselves and the victims of their crimes, but it also represents a huge burden on the state, that has to capture, prosecute, try and lock up, feed and house all these returning criminals.

This fact was not lost on one Alberto C.  who was the catering manager employed to look after the catering at HMP High Down in 2009.  Alberto was surprised at the number of released prisons who found themselves back in prison after  a short and unsuccessful period of freedom on the outside. He also recognised the potential in some of the prisoners working in the kitchens under his supervision.

After a lot of discussion and with the backing of an enlightened Governor, Alberto started to introduce City & Guilds National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in Hospitality and Catering, so that prisoners would leave the prison with at least some qualifications that they could show to potential employers.

However, Alberto’s ambitions on behalf of his charges went beyond equipping them with the ability to flip burgers in a hamburger restaurant  or frying sausages in the Greasy Spoon Café on the side of the A34 to Northampton.

He wanted the men that qualified in his kitchen to have at least a fighting chance of landing and keeping a job in any restaurant in the country.  How do you train men who have never picked up a pair of oven gloves before to produce meals that could be described at ‘Fine Dining?  The answer?  Set up a proper restaurant where the men can learn to cook for, and wait upon, discerning, paying  customers. The result …?


And that’s where we were yesterday. Lunch in the Clink.




OK, so nothing’s perfect.  We had to use plastic cutlery – we were inside the walls of a men’s prison after all – and there was no wine, but having said that…..

My first course was figs with blue cheese and Linda started with pigeon and black pudding. Pretty swanky, eh?  And both were excellent.

Linda’s main course was fish and I chose the lamb.  I do not exaggerate when I say that the two lamb cutlets and the small pulled lamb pie topped with roast potatoes, garnished with carrots and broccoli was as good a restaurant meal as I can remember.  I have paid a lot more money for food a lot poorer in many restaurants before.

Our waiter, Jed, was a bit of a rough diamond, who referred to us incongruously and rather brusquely  as ‘you guys’.  He seemed ill at ease as he took our order but once we had said nice things about our starters, and not made a fuss about the fact that he had forgotten our non-alcoholic ginger beers, he relaxed a little and was happy to chat.

It turned out that he was serving a nine month sentence and was due for release next March.  He was a carpenter by trade and wasn’t sure whether he would go back to carpentry, which can often be an unreliable source of income, or whether to use his new qualification to seek work as a waiter and gain different experience.  His long-term ambition was to own his own pub.

He had had to apply for a position in the restaurant in competition with other prisoners and pass an interview before he was accepted.  He now works every day, Monday to Friday, and loves it.

I asked him what was so good about working in the restaurant and he replied that, if he didn’t have this job, he would be ‘on the block’ all day, every day, either watching television bored out of his mind or getting himself into trouble with other prisoners.  “The block can be a pretty dangerous place,” he said. “You have to keep your wits about you.”

The restaurant also serves as the staff canteen, and Jed commented that another advantage of working there was that the ‘screws’ talk to the prisoners differently in the restaurant compared to on the block.  ” I also get to talk to people like you,” he said.  “Normal people!”

Although the Clink is, to all intents and purposes, a proper restaurant, one thing they cannot allow is tips.  It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen if waiting staff received money for their services, while kitchen staff, or those left on the block, did not.

So we were encouraged to leave gratuities in an envelop to be handed to the restaurant manager so that the funds could be used to buy whites, chefs’ hats, waistcoats etc for the kitchen workers and waiters.

As I was handing our envelop to the manager, I commented on the quality of the lamb I had just eaten. His response was, “Brilliant! Thanks for telling me that.  The guy who prepared the lamb has only been in training for a month, and that’s not an easy cut to get right. I’ll pass on your comment. He’ll be delighted!”

So what’s the point of all this?  Well, as I mentioned at the start of this article, re-offending is one of the most difficult and intractable negative aspects of the criminal justice system.  I’ll let the Clink speak for itself.


Just, ‘Wow’!

Alberto, a lot of people have a lot to thank you for !


More power to your elbow!



Springing up like mushrooms.

We saw our first one in the shadow of Brighton Pier.


And then we started to see them all over town… at the train station, next to the Pavilion, even outside the OXFAM shop.  There’s even some in Hove, where the posh people live!

I refer, of course to Brighton’s latest contribution to keeping the nation fit, the Social Bike scheme.  There’s racks and racks of them – everywhere.



It’s a great scheme.  Once you’ve registered, you pay 3p per minute to use a bike, with a minimum charge of £1 and a maximum of £12.00 if you keep the bike all day.

Alternatively you can sign up for a year for £72.00, which gives you an hour’s free travel every day.  If you go over your hour, the 3p a minute comes into play.

The whole thing is controlled from the little magic box on the back of the bike which tracks you on GPS and tells you what distance you’ve travelled, how long you have been out and how much it has cost you.


The only thing that the magic box doesn’t calculate is the cost of the mug of tea and the bacon sandwich that is usually part of an early morning ride along the undercliff path to Rottingdean. (Distance 8.4 miles there and back)



And the best part is that if anything goes wrong with the bike, you just lock it back into one of the stands and someone else comes along and fixes it.


Where are we going?

This poster appeared in the window of an estate agent’s office near our house in Brighton last week. It stopped me in my tracks.


The more I stared at it, the more I wondered where this country is headed.  It can’t go on like this. Something’s got to give.

I bought my first house in 1975.  It was a two up, two down terraced house in Carlisle.  It cost me £3,000.

I had been renting a house with two other young men in Carlisle for about a year, when I plucked up the courage to go and see a mortgage adviser.  I think I was starting to feel that it would be nice to have a bit more privacy and not to be getting up tight about the mess in the kitchen or the fact that no-one else would put the rubbish out.

I asked the adviser how mortgages worked and what it would cost me to buy my own house.

He was very patient with me and explained everything in words of one syllable, but as I walked down the stairs from his office, my first thought was “Oh Lord,  it sounds awfully complicated and grown-up and very long term.  Perhaps I’ll just carry on renting and stop worrying about the irritations of sharing a house with two others.”

Then one of my house-mates bought a banjo.

You would not believe how intrusive the sound of a badly-played banjo can be in a small house.  After a few weeks I went back to the mortgage adviser and asked him to explain the whole thing to me again.

I put my first foot on the housing ladder, where it has remained ever since.

How anyone in Brighton could get into home ownership today without winning the lottery or having unfettered access to the Bank of Mum and Dad is beyond me.

The hundreds of hyped-up delegates to the Labour Party Conference in Brighton last week cannot have failed to notice the number of people sleeping on the streets in the town centre.  With the freehold on a single garage going for £38,000, even with an up and over door, what hope do people have of being decently housed?

I think we have interesting times ahead.


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