The entrance of Her Majesty’s Prison Grendon is blocked. An articulated lorry is stuck in the doorway of the main gate. Visitors assembled outside have to wait in the chill of a grey winter afternoon along with the next shift of prison guards. A warden pops his head around the door: ‘I am sorry we’ll get you in as soon as we can.’ My friend and colleague Joe Baden whispers, ‘It’s always a bit unnerving when screws are nice to you.’ Joe is the coordinator of the Open Book project aimed at encouraging ex-offenders to enter higher education. We are here today to visit a potential student for the scheme, who wrote to Joe from Grendon.
After twenty minutes the lorry makes its escape. The new shift of guards files in and then we are invited through. I look back and at the end of a long line of visitors is a familiar face. ‘That’s Will Self, the writer’, I tell Joe. ‘Yeah, he’s Razor Smith’s agent – he’s visiting him probably.’ Smith has fifty-eight criminal convictions and has spent most of his adult life behind bars. He earned his nickname for carrying an open razor as a young teddy boy in London during the 1970s and for his willingness to use it on rivals. Inside he taught himself to read and write and gained an honours diploma at the London School of Journalism and an A-level in law. He’s working on a sequel to his first book A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun while serving a life sentence for armed robbery.
Inside Joe hands the guard our visiting order and we have to show our passports. Prison is like another country and the guard stares back at us with the cold attention of an immigration officer. I ask if it’s ok if I bring in a book for the prisoner; it’s one of my own. The guard throws another icy look. ‘You can’t take anything in.’ There’s something deeply shocking in that even a book needs a visa to gain entry.
We pass through more security checks and then into a waiting room full of toys and children’s books. The guard reminds us that we can only take £10 into the visiting area. The rest of our effects have to be placed in a locker. Behind us the guard asks the next visitor which prisoner they are visiting. ‘Smith . . . Noel’, replies Will Self in his unmistakably mellifluous tones. He sits down and waits. Joe asks if he should go and speak to the author about the Open Book scheme. Joe grew up in Bermondsey in the 1970s and by his own admission has ‘done a bit’ inside. His origins and personal history are carried unmistakably in his voice. Yet Joe has the ability to move in different social worlds without changing or compromising himself. He bowls over to the unsuspecting author. ‘Have you got a minute?’ ‘Sure’, replies Self, looking slightly worried. Joe explains the Open Book scheme: ‘It’s run by people with histories of offending and addiction – we don’t go in for any of that missionary bullshit.’ The phrase makes the novelist laugh loudly and he repeats it in his nasal baritone. He tells Joe that he is ‘busy with a manuscript until March’ but he’d be delighted to come and speak to the twenty-seven students already studying at Goldsmiths as part of the scheme. Joe gives him his card. As they part company the novelist says with a sincerity that is not at all his usual public sardonic manner, ‘We’ll make it happen – have a good visit.’
We are called through to the visiting area. It looks like a cross between a community centre and a motorway services café. Each table has a number; we are told to wait at Number 6. The door opens and the prisoners file through one by one. A black man in his early 40s walks over to our table. ‘You must be Les’, he says and reaches over to shake my hand. Simon has a six-year tariff for malicious wounding. He greets Joe and they go to the café to get a cup of tea and some chocolate. Razor is giving Will Self a hard time about the author’s new-grown Elvis sideburns: ‘You look like that fucking guy from Supergrass.’ I overhear the visitor say self-mockingly, ‘You’re not doing much for my self-esteem.’
Simon returns and he tells me his story. He grew up in a working-class district in north-west London. ‘When I was young my attitude was ‘‘You’ve got something, you don’t deserve to have it, so I am going to take it.’’ I didn’t care about getting banged and I knew as soon as I got out I’d go back to my old ways.’ Grendon is a high security prison that offers offenders a specialized form of ‘rehabilitation’ that subjects inmates to critical therapy. Prisoners have to face up to their pasts. ‘It’s not an easy thing to do’, Simon says. ‘You have to take responsibility for the people you’ve hurt.’
Simon started studying sociology as part of an Open University programme. His enthusiasm and love of ideas is immediately evident. I ask him if he has a favourite author or set of ideas:
It would have to be Pierre Bourdieu – you know his thing about cultural capital. I mean all the boys came up to visit me. I says to them, ‘What the middle classes have got is not money. No, it’s what they give their kids – cultural capital. They take them to the opera; they teach them how to study. You can’t buy it and you can’t steal it from them.’
I ask him if sociology has helped him to think about his own past differently.
Yeah, it has, the ideas have, but mostly it has given me a sense that you have to work at learning. I’ve got something to work for now and I know when I get out I won’t be coming back here or a place like it.