“Portsmouth Writers’ Hub,” as Forrest Gump once famously said, “is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Just so with the monthly meeting of 13th June 2012, at the New Theatre Royal, where the guest speaker was David Swann.
David, a tall, slim Lancastrian writer and and lecturer was warm, approachable, funny, modest and empathetic throughout the evening, during which he described his pathway to becoming a writer, and shared his experiences as a writer-in-residence at HMP Nottingham.
David Swann, author of The Privilege of Rain
As he talked of his career trajectory from being a local cub reporter in the North of England to living in Amsterdam, before returning to the UK and applying to become a prison’s writer-in-residence, his message was a simple one: there is no single career path for a writer. For anyone wishing to write, this is a heartening and useful point. You have to find your own way.
“Useful enough,” I thought, “though one that many of us know already…” But then, suddenly the evening took a turn into something far darker, weirder, more sinister and far more fascinating.
Dave talked about his time teaching lifers in a high security jail. He talked of the two keys he was given that would open just about every lock in the prison, how he couldn’t show those keys to any of the prisoners, because in 35 seconds flat they could memorise the cut; he talked of the 7 locked doors between the prisoners and freedom, and he talked of how little he knew when he went in as a young wet-behind-the-ears teacher.
He told us how his advice to a prisoner – “Please stop saying At the end of the day“, gave the prisoner the opportunity to articulate a dark spiral of the pain, horror and loneliness of prison life in response. Another prisoner in his forties had no concept of the consequences of his actions, and was utterly gobsmacked at the idea that when he was about to lose his temper, he might try counting to ten. It was a revolutionary idea, as he reported back the following day, with a beam of amazement on his face.
There was humour and pathos. The way the swimming pool in the prison was no longer used, but was retained as a spare water supply in case the prison was set alight in a riot. How the pool got a little colony of ducks, and how they started a brood, and the prisoners were completely obsessed with them. It was something that was different in their humdrum lives, and it gave them heart and hope. The RSPCA even put a ramp in for them, after the prisoners nagged the prison governor about them. And then, after a storm, the ducks all died… only to have a new brood come in.
There was the secret tactic the Governor employed to dispel a riot. Getting the prisoners to line up at an ice cream van and say please and thank you when they got their ice cream. A clever technique for taking them back to a time when they were forced to behave themselves? Maybe not. David also spoke of the prisoners’ love of jammy dodgers, and their abreaction to a bag of sweets that transported them to their horrendous abusive childhoods.
Every story David uttered was an extraordinary insight into a world that threw light on the human condition in new and unexpected ways. The prison rioter who finally managed to get on to the roof to protest, but forgot that it was the day to sit his maths “A” level. So, after negotiating, he had his exam delivered to him on the roof to complete, so that he could continue his protest without affecting his education.
And then there were the foxes that managed to come and go through the prison, how they were watched intently by the prisoners imagining the freedom those foxes had – and the prisoner who obsessively watched the gateway, day after day, explaining darkly to David when asked: “I’m going out with the rubbish.”
David also outlined his philosophical position, talking about the distinction between the truth and the facts – and the gaps between words where the real truth resides. He was profound, funny and compelling all at once.
In all, an extraordinary evening filled with insights which made the title of his book “The Privilege of Rain” make utter sense. When a prisoner saw him walk into the prison with an umbrella, he laughed at David and then explained: “I haven’t felt the rain in seven years.”
This Hub meeting was a privilege to attend. Thank you, David.