On Writing Alphabet

You could say that I have spent  the  three years it took to complete  Alphabet  co-habiting with a dangerous  man. Someone brutal and manipulative,  but also damaged,  intelligent, and, occasionally, charming. My family were  forced to be close to this man  as well. It was something of a roller coaster ride  and from time to time, all of us felt we had had more than enough of him. The fact is, though, that when a character like this arrives, you can’t  throw him out. Just as in a real relationship, you have to keep going until whatever you came together for is  complete. It’s only afterwards that you can look back and  put it into perspective.

In this case I have to go back about ten years.  I was offered of a writer’s residency in a category B men’s prison at a time that meant I had to chose between  it  and a coveted place  on the scriptwriting course at the National  School of Film and Television.  Most of my friends were horrified when the idea of prison finally won out, but I felt that I couldn’t turn down the  chance to see and engage with part of the world I  (hopefully) wouldn’t encounter otherwise.  I went to gaol, spending about three days a week there for the next year – encouraging  the inmates to write, and supporting other creative projects, such as a play and a literary festival behind bars.

The prison had a huge effect on me. It was both fascinating and dreadful. It was a place of  frighteningly intense feelings, and, at the same time, given there was no outlet for them,  one of  utter stultification. It was about as hard a reality as you could get, yet nowhere else could fantasies  and delusions grow so thick and fast.

I  was  eventually given a set of keys and allowed to  roam the prison quite freely.  I talked to inmates in their cells, in solitary, as they worked mending TV sets or sewing  tee shirts, or outside in the yard with its geometrically patterned flowerbeds. I went to the office and read inmates’ files.  The experience was emotionally exhausting but at the same time  imaginatively very stimulating. What  was it like to work here, year in year out? What was it like be a man who had committed  murder and who must serve out his time in a place like this? What kind of relationships are possible for him?   Which was the ’real’ man, the one in the record,  the  neglected little boy he wrote about in class,  or the once charming the socks off me over a cup of tea and raising  hundreds of pounds for charity?  How much can a person change? Why do some women seem so drawn to romantic attachments with prisoners? And, to take a more abstract  approach, what exactly do we mean by justice? How should we deal with people who have hurt us? There are of course  no simple answers to any of these questions. If nothing else, I learned that.

After the residency,  I returned gladly  to my ordinary life.  I  began to write about the prison, but at least half of me wanted to get away from the place,  and in retrospect I can see that the material was too raw. It was simply beyond me at the time to find the shape for it  and do it justice –  or, you could say, I wasn’t ready to or capable of living with a man like the one I had begun to invent. Other, easier  projects came up.  It was almost ten years later, when packing up my office to move house that I came across the  few chapters I’d written and the boxes of notes, cuttings and mementoes from my time ‘inside’.
I  sat on the floor and read it  all through. Time had  performed its magic –  a kind of alchemy – and it was suddenly easy to see what to jettison and what I had  to keep: the  main character, Simon Austen, serving life.

Photos courtesy of Prison Reform Trust, UK
Copyright © 2004 Kathy Page
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