I spent a few hours in Holloway Women’s Prison last week (famous inmates have included Myra Hindley, Maxine Carr, Ruth Ellis and an illustrious rollcall of suffragettes) talking to a group of female prisoners. Some of my group of sixteen were murderers, others minor drug offenders. One looked as if she could be at school with my daughter.
The prison was far less horrifying than I’d expected, with pretty internal gardens tended by inmates, and two lovely librarians (with keys).
Though ostensibly convened to talk about How I Live Now, it quickly became apparent that the subject was something altogether else. So we talked about bad decisions I’d made in my life, the struggle to find valuable work, and the redemptive power of books — and love. Despite a few attention deficit issues, they were a great, thoughtful group with a common concern for their children and husbands and futures, women who had clearly suffered more bruising life experiences than most. I thought about John Mortimer (author of Rumpole of the Bailey)’s quote, ‘Murderers have killed the one person in the world who was bugging them and are usually quite peaceful and agreeable.’
After an hour and a half I began to flag, so resorted to what I once loved doing with my daughter’s year 5s — I read to them. I’d brought Just In Case, but at the last minuted opted for Vamoose! because it’s funny — about a teenage girl who gives birth to a moose baby. There were a few outright howls of outrage when I began. “What is this?” shouted one woman. “That can’t happen.” Which is not what I get from my usual audience. “Hang on,” said I. “Listen a bit.” And they did.
When I finished reading, half an hour later, there was total silence. And a queue to borrow the book.
Thanks to English PEN for setting it up. I was sad to leave. Not surprisingly, the person who gained most from the experience was me.