Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Pandora's Box - judging the Koestler Prize

There are an astonishing 90,000 prisoners languishing in Her Majesty's jails.  All but 4,000 of them are men, and most of them are young.

But prison isn't what it used to be. Nowadays, most prisons have their own website. You can browse through the pages and (perhaps) be surprised by the enlightened attitudes of many of them.  Some offer a whole range of classes, which must be a welcome break from boredom for many of those banged up. These classes are run by an army of volunteers - including poets, writers, artists of all sorts.  People who give their time to help prisoners express themselves creatively.  Or, perhaps, simply to learn to read and write.

I am not one of those who venture into prisons, but last year and this year I am one of the judges for the Koestler Trust, who administer the prize.  Last year there were more than 5,000 entries for a total of 1,500 awards.  Total prize money is £30,000.  My area is Poetry Anthology, and this week I am taking delivery of a large box of entries from prisons all over Britain.

When I opened the box last year, all the troubles of the world flew out.  Here was remorse, anguish, love, self-pity, boredom, humour, longing, fear - and hatred.  Hope was there, too.
The anthologies showed me the reality of prison life, and changed my attitudes completely. Beyond the websites, prisons are stuffed with suffering humanity with years of empty time to reflect on the things they have done. There's no doubt that some have inflicted terrible damage on others, or on society - and often on themselves.  Some are mentally ill, or sharing a cell with someone who is mentally ill.  Some are due for release, but still take part - even though they might never know whether their contribution has won a prize.

Judging is strictly anonymous.Nicknames or first names only. I read every entry, and give each one a hand-written report, with individual contributors singled out for special praise.  The standard of work varies from the brilliant to the banal.  Presentation of the work varies, too, from pretty much professional to a hand-written one-off.  Some are illustrated. Lots of them are genuinely funny.

Later in the year, some prisoners, judges and tutors will join the great and the good at the Royal Festival Hall, where there will be an exhibition of all the winning entries. Celebrity supporters include Will Self, Grayson Perry and Jeremy Paxman.  Go to the website and take a look - I promise you, you will be amazed.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Amateur Melodramatics

Musicals were our thing at Land's End Players.*

Guys and Dolls, Finian's Rainbow, Annie Get Your Gun, Bittersweet - cutting edge stuff.  Any really ambitious show with a cast of thousands, requiring an American accent and considerable dancing skills.  And at Christmas we did panto.

There's a strong tradition of song in Cornwall, so no shortage of singers.  Our leading lady - a real "voice" - played the romantic lead as a matter of course. The leading man was pushing it a bit to call himself the juvenile lead: stout and proper Cornish and perhaps not the ideal choice for Sky Masterson. Other mature local ladies obliged as dancers or in the chorus.  Yes, folks, in my youth (38) I was a Hot Box Doll.

I also painted the scenery - wildly ambitious and given to falling over. The stage was eight trestle tables, lashed together. Performances took place in the church hall, which was meant to seat a maximum of 80 but on panto nights accommodated a hundred plus, with children on the granite window ledges, 7 feet above the floor.

Our producer was from Up North and in accordance with tradition had been born in a trunk. What she lacked in size she made up for in temperament.  At some point in every production she would flounce out.  LOOK AT YOU! she would scream to the motley band of farmers and fishermen. DRESS REHEARSAL IS ON APRIL 10 AND IT'S ALREADY JANUARY!

A delegation would be sent to her house to talk her round, which involved chocolates and humble pie.

We rehearsed in the barn, just up the road from the pub.  After rehearsals it was straight back to the pub, where the more extravert cast members played Truth, Dare.  Secrets, as well as body parts, were exposed fo the world to enjoy.  Affairs were rife, and it was reckoned that one pregnancy was set in motion for every production staged.

All my London friends came down for a good laugh, and were not disappointed.  But joining the Land's End Players was the best thing we ever did.  We got to know some brilliant local characters, and had the best fun it's possible to have in a wig.

* Not the real name.  I've got to live here, dammit!