Monthly Archives: June 2009

Property Location to Buy or Changing Rooms under the Hammer

Property Location to Buy or Changing Rooms under the Hammer

Ah, property shows, the mainstay of daytime television.  Smiley smiley Carol Smillie, Laurence Llewellyn Bowen and the ever-irritating Linda (that looks really really nice) Barker with the most grating voice I’ve EVER heard have a lot to answer for.  By the way, Linda Barker, it doesn’t look really really nice, it looks rubbish.

There are so many property shows it’s almost beyond belief, from the happily now defunct Changing Rooms to the hilarious 80s throwbacks of Homes Under the Hammer, To Buy or Not to Buy, Grand Designs, Property Ladder, The Home Show, Location Location Location Location Location etc, and many more besides.  To be fair, the evening ones on Channel 4 are quite good, but the daytime ones really do suck.  By far the worst is 60 Minute Makeover on ITV during the day.  I’ve only seen it once but it really is atrocious because they actually do do it in only 60 minutes.  How good do you reckon the finish is on that then?  You’re absolutely right, it’s bloody awful.  Can you imagine going out for a trip to ASDA one lunch time only to come home and find that 437 people have traipsed mud through your house, got paint all over your carpet, put up some nasty wallpaper without smoothing out the bubbles and “distressed” your perfectly good pine furniture?  I’d be horrified.  They’re always bleating on about how much the lucky recipient deserves it so I can only assume the people that nominate them REALLY hate them.

Of course, these property shows all started when there was a massive property boom that seemed like it would never end.  And now it has, so have they all gone away?  No they haven’t.  No, instead they’ve all changed.  Now there are endless references to the “current market” and very serious faces.  Some of the shows even want you to make do with what you’ve got, rather than try and make a profit out of your bricks and mortar.  You mean….you want me to….LIVE in the house?  Good grief, I’d never thought of that!  That said, the irritating bastards they find to do Location etc still manage to have budgets of £950k and I’ve never really been able to understand how.  What the hell do they do for a living?  Steal organs and sell them on the black market?  Annoying though the couples are I do have a soft spot for Kirstie and Phil.  They have such great chemistry, something that was sorely lacking when Kirstie’s sister took over for a short while.  In fact she had her own show recently on the BBC and just came across as a rude skinny sour faced bitch.  Maybe that was just me.

I often wonder how Sarah Beeny doesn’t lose her rag at people on Property ladder.  This is a woman who has been developing property from a young age, knows exactly what she’s doing and has made an absolute fortune out of it.  So if she wasn’t presenting a property programme her advice would probably cost a mint.  But do the first time developers ever take any notice of her sage advice?  Do they?  Of course they don’t!  They know it would be much better to spend £50k on the kitchen with diamond garden gnomes on that only they like than the £2k one from B&Q.  Grrrrrrrr.

And Grand Designs, God, there are so many.  But Grand Designs is a good one.  Kevin McCloud is very honest about whether he likes each house and always goes on about architectural stuff i don’t really get.  As far as I’m concerned some of the houses look lovely at the end and some are horrible.  And not a one of them ever looks like the kind of place you could or would live in.  They all look like airport lounges.  Every one of them.

But my favourite episode of one of these shows ever was an overseas special of “Selling Houses” where they do your pigsty up so someone will actually want to buy it.  On this special show they featured a couple who’d bought a cave house on the side of a mountain.  They were complaining that it was a bit damp.  Imagine that.

I’m definitely getting old

I’m definitely getting old

I came to a realisation this weekend.  It surprised me somewhat but I don’t really like alcohol any more.  Maybe it’s because I’ve not been able to drink for so long thanks to pregnancy and breastfeeding but even then I didn’t miss it.  Or maybe it’s because we don’t go out very often any more and the only opportunities to drink are at home.  And I’ve never liked that.  Regardless of where I lived and with whom, but especially when I lived with my parents.  It’s not cool to be drunk in front of your parents.  Or your friends’ parents.  That’s even less cool.

Sadly, I think I’ve been drunk in front of plenty of people’s parents in my time and I can only remember making a twat of myself, convincing myself I sounded completely sober while doubtless slurring my words and reeking of booze.  Always a good look.  In fact, now I come to think of it, my new anti-alcohol status largely stems from the sheer weight of times I’ve made a complete tit of myself in a public place in front of people I do and don’t know.  Apart from at my wedding (where I’m sure I made a tit of myself with all that beer, champagne, snakebite and tequila swilling about in my system) the last time I really properly went out I fell asleep in the toilets of Tiger Tiger.  For about an hour.  Adam was beside himself, he thought I’d buggered off.  No, I had just passed out, and that’s the first (and last) time that’s ever happened.  At least I think it is.  Of course I looked a complete tit.  And before I’d passed out in the toilets I’d looked a tit because I was trying to dance to cheesy music, very unsteadily.

We had a party for Miss Woolley’s birthday a couple of weeks ago.  We played Rock Band.  The only way I have the guts to sing publicly is if I’ve been drinking.  Except when I’ve been drinking my singing sounds awful.  We made margaritas and I sang a bit, very quietly before anyone was really around to hear me and before they realised there was a video camera on the premises.  Phew.  But although I didn’t make too much of a tit of myself (at least that I can remember) I still woke up the next day with the overwhelming feeling that I had.  And I had a stonking hangover.

I know plenty of people for whom excessive social drinking is a way of life, it’s not a good night if there isn’t a picture of them passed out on the floor or at a table or riding something in a children’s playground.  For me, I left that kind of drinking behind when I stopped being a teenager, back in the days when I drank only to get drunk.  And now I don’t even like the feeling of being drunk, not at the time and most definitely not the day after.  I must be getting old.  I don’t like drinking wine with dinner either, I’d much rather have a glass of coke.  No wine connoisseur, me.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to become a tee-totaller who looks disapprovingly at anyone else who exercises their right to an alcoholic beverage when the mood takes them.  I even still fancy the odd cold tasty beer or glass of pinot noir, it’s just that I can’t normally stomach more than one.  When I was in prison, I really missed drinking.  When I came out of prison Adam and I went out drinking all the time and we had a lovely time and no hangovers.  But normal life has now resumed, and with a small child in the house I’m far less inclined to go out or drink.  So I’ll stick to the occasional tasty beer and keep stuffing my face with pies instead.  I mean do lots of exercise!

A little perspective required?

A little perspective required?

Yesterday saw the passing of a major star, cruelly cut down in their prime.  And then Michael Jackson pegged it and stole all of Farah Fawcett’s thunder.  So now we are subjected to endless hastily cobbled together tributes about the life and times of Michael Jackson with little reference to the fact that he was a utter nutjob.  Yes, he was.  You see, this is what annoys me.  When people are alive and well they’re plastered all over the papers and those trashy magazines.  “Journalists” (for want of a better word) like to regularly shame them by dragging up nasty little tales of wrongdoing or, if they haven’t got evidence of anything, ridicule them for the way they dress or cut their hair.

Michael Jackson was ever the subject of such things, he was mostly referred to as Wacko Jacko (or Wacko Jackson as the woman on the BBC news said this morning, silly moo), and they loved it when he was publicly tried for sexual abuse against children, they always knew he was a wrong ’un.  They didn’t like it as much when he was found not guilty because they had to go back to taking the piss out of his rather alarming looks.  And they’d been doing that for years and it had become a bit boring.

But now he’s dead.  No more Wacko Jacko, no no, behold the “King of Pop”, a “musical genius”.  Hmmm.  Now, I’m not saying he didn’t used to be good, because he was, very good but that was a long long time ago.  Back before his skin became whiter than mine, and I’m practically blue.  And yes, it is sad that he’s dead (unless you believe the conspiracy theorists).  But people die.  Other people don’t seem to realise that we all will, even those who are in the public eye.  If you watch the news (which, frankly I’m now boycotting because of it all) you will see fans, hysterical with grief, sobbing into their floral tributes and utterly inconsolable.  Oh, so you knew him personally then?  Of course they didn’t.  I really can’t understand this behaviour.  It was the same with Princess Diana and that all seemed over the top to me too.  It went on for weeks.  Yes, it’s a shock when celebrities die, especially if they’re young, but they’re just people and for me the shock passes, I might say “oh, that’s a shame” and then I get on with my life.

Seemingly that’s just me, though, because the once reviled now become revered in the public eye.  Jade Goody is the perfect example of that.  Look back to when she first became well known on Big Brother and she was all over the tabloids referred to as an ignorant fat pig.  The British public hated her.  They hated her even more when she made racist comments to Shilpa Shetty on Celebrity Big Brother.  And then she got cancer and died young.  The British public clearly has a very short memory because in some circles she is now likened to Princess Di.  Erm…. Only Michael Parkinson, it appears, had the guts to tell it like it is about Jade, “When we clear the media smoke screen from around her death, what we’re left with is a woman who came to represent all that’s paltry and wretched about Britain today.”  The tabloids were up in arms, of course they were, because they were instrumental in the reinvention of Jade the fat pig as Jade the tragic cancer stricken mother.

The world’s media, it seems, has a major problem with perspective.  Too much store is held in celebrity in the modern world and the news of Michael Jackson’s death has overshadowed the infinitely more important story of the conviction of a 15 year old boy for murdering a toddler when he was babysitting her.  Now that story made me want to cry.

The grass is always greener

The grass is always greener

Today my sister forced me against my will to drive her 6 miles north of Portsmouth and help her clean a house.  Well, not really, she sort of asked and I sort of sighed like Kevin the teenager and agreed knowing full well if I didn’t she’d have to take her pink Hetty hoover on the bus.  If I could have taken surreptitious photographs while she glared evilly at the noisy school children and the inevitable stinky person (there’s always one per journey) then I would have.  But that’s a bit mean even for me.  So I said yes.

We knew the house was going to be a bit neglected because the owner has little time to do anything but my sis assured me it just needed a bit of a spruce up and regular cleans thereafter.  It was very, very, very dusty, not unlike my house gets every week, or rather how my house would get if I left it for about two months.  But really that was the worst of it, it wasn’t dirty in any way, just a little untidy and, as I said, incredibly dusty.  And I had a serious bout of house envy.

All my life I’ve wanted to live in a big house.  When I was a child we lived on a council estate in a 3 bedroomed box.  Nothing wrong with that except I went to a private school and all my friends lived in what appeared to be mansions with huge gardens.  All of them.  So my dream was to have a massive house with huge rooms and high ceilings and en-suite bathrooms and whatever else I felt I would need.  I didn’t necessarily want a lottery winner’s gaff with all poncey gold taps and ostentatious tackiness.  No, I just wanted what my friends at school had.

Today’s house was a modern, 4 bedroomed detached number with a double garage, lovely spacious rooms downstairs, good sized bedrooms, a conservatory, a utility room, downstairs loo, en-suite to the master bedroom.  It had a lovely garden.  And a hot tub!  I sound like a bloody estate agent.  But (apart from the dust) it was great, the bathrooms were swanky, the carpets were sumptuous and it was light, bright and airy.  Most unlike modern houses usually are.  I was surprised, especially as I usually prefer old, more solidly built houses.  I coveted it.  Or one like it, a bit closer to the centre of town.

The strange thing is that my house is bigger.  It definitely is.  My house also has 4 bedrooms.  Two of those are massive, probably twice the size of the modern house’s master bedroom.  We have an en-suite.  My kitchen is huge.  We don’t have a conservatory but our second living room has a large patio door overlooking our unusually (for Southsea) large garden.  We even have a cellar.  We have very high ceilings and some stunning original cornicing and ceiling roses.  But now I have the large house I always craved as a child I don’t think I really appreciate it.  The fact that there’s no parking and all the people that go drinking in Albert Road at the weekend park here drives us mad.  The kitchen and bathrooms could do with being updated as could the decor in my bedroom.  And it’s an absolute bugger to clean.  Not once when I was a child did I consider, not even for a second that some poor bugger would have to clean the massive house of my dreams.  Especially not me with my housework aversion condition (laziness).  It’s ridiculous really, like anything in life the grass is always greener…

Fiona Goes to the Dentist

Fiona Goes to the Dentist

Well, where to start.  For a couple of weeks my blog has gone in a very singular direction and I didn’t really have to think too much because I was just relaying a story, my story.  And now it’s time to go back to normality and I apologise if my subjects are mundane and dull and it’s just like having a chat with your husband or wife after a day at work (I’m talking to you Mr Octaneflyer…).

Today I went to the dentist (you can already see this isn’t going to be inspiring stuff) for the first time in many many years.  I’ve never really had any problems with my teeth other than the fact that to me they look particularly hideous.  I smile with my mouth closed usually.  They could be worse, of course, I’m not as bad as, say, Austin Powers, but he’s a fictional character created by Americans (OK a Canadian) who think that all English people have a mouth full of pegs like, well, like the methadone queue at HMP Bronzefield.  I don’t have a mouthful of teeth like Janet Street Porter, or a mouthful of no teeth like Shane MacGowan, but that doesn’t mean to say that they’re any good.  There are gaps AND crowding.  I think that’s quite impressive.  Sadly not in a good way.

My teeth may not look much but at least they’ve always been strong.  I’d always been pleased that I’d inherited teeth like my father’s (gaps and all thanks to missing incisors) especially as my mum lost loads of hers when she had us pesky kids.  I was truly grateful that mine all remained intact.  Wow, what strong teeth I must have.  33 and never had a filling, despite all those sweets I ate as a child (oh OK, and still do) and all that full fat coke I like to drink.  Never had a filling until today that is.  And not just one, oh no, I needed two.  TWO fillings in one day!  Looks like I’d been fooling myself about the buggers being strong.

My dentist was a very nice chap, friendly, jovial, seemingly appreciative of the sarcasm I tend to employ when I’m feeling slightly nervous (luckily).  He told me what lovely teeth my husband, who had visited first, has.  Great.  I made a mental note to punch them all out later.  I told him that mine were horrible, just so he knew and wasn’t shocked and horrified before he had a look.  I expect he was wondering what a man with such lovely straight healthy teeth as Adam was doing married to a old harridan with choppers that point in every direction like me.  I would be.  So he had a look, and managed to hide his shock and horror very well by requesting an x-ray almost immediately.  This was alarming.  Now, I’m not very good at having foreign objects in my mouth as I have a very strong gag reflex.  And I know what you’re thinking, but stop it because that’s very rude.   He put the thing you’re supposed bite, let’s call it the thingamyjig, in my mouth and when I’d finished gagging after about 10 minutes took the x-ray.  Then he put the thingamyjig on the other side.  More gagging.  And lo, evidence of tooth decay.  I couldn’t see it, the x-ray just looked like a bunch of craply arranged teeth to me, but he assured me it was there and what would I know about it?

So, I had to have two fillings as the decay was on upper 6 on both sides.  Or something.  Hang on, Upper 6 was the second year of sixth form at my school.  Oh, whatever.  He asked me if I wanted an injection.  What?  Good grief, man, I may have experienced childbirth twice with no pain relief but that was down to extreme foolishness on my part.  Do I look like a masochist?  I didn’t even feel the injection.  Having never experienced this before thanks to my previously strong teeth (bah) I was a bit worried about the drilling bit.  But it was fine.  I looked at the ceiling the whole time.  It was rather stained.  And that reminded me of an amusing water stain on the ceiling at my hairdressers.  It looks like a vagina.  I kid you not.

Anyway, after much drilling, wrangling and god knows what else the ordeal was over.  My mouth felt funny, but not too bad.  I would live to fight another day.  I told the dentist that I thought I’d get rid of these rubbish teeth and go for a Hollywood smile.  He said he didn’t think that would be possible with my overbite.  Oh.

Porridge Part 12

Porridge Part 12

One thing most people seem to be interested in when they find out I’ve been to prison is what the other people are like and what they’re in for.  We all have preconceived ideas about it, I certainly did.  I pretty much expected butch lesbians with prison tattoos, hard-faced cows (like the one that looks like Sam the Eagle from the Muppets that used to be in Bad Girls and is now in EastEnders and always wears skirts up to her armpits even though she’s well into her 40s) and meek quiet women who are scared of everyone else.  That was the role I had picked for myself.  Needless to say it was nothing like that at all.  I was amazed at how…normal…a lot of the women seemed.  There were people from all walks of life, all sorts of backgrounds and many different countries.  It isn’t quite as simple to say that all of them declared their innocence, the different crimes that were represented were numerous and it and what happened to me made me realise that criminal justice isn’t as black and white as everyone (especially those Daily Mail readers) think it is.  Assuming you could believe what you were told someone was in for, that is, which is not necessarily the case.  But I wasn’t the kind of person to ask others what they’d done, there were plenty of people about to do that, and most volunteered the information, desperate for you not to think they’d done anything bad to do with kids.

Of course, what might be deemed to be the stereotypes (thanks to such quality productions as Bad Girls) were evident but nowhere near to the degree I was expecting.  I did see prison tattoos.  They’re illegal.  And rubbish.  And there were obvious lesbians, at least one of whom looked like a boy and reminded me of Perry from Kevin and Perry, “Fank you, Mrs Paterson.”  I’m sorry if you think that’s lesbian-ist, but that’s how it is.  Yes, I know I made that word up.  There was also the odd hard-faced type, but that’s more my opinion than anything else, for all I know I was one of them.  I’m often berated by builder types as I walk down the street for not having a manic grin plastered across my face. “Cheer up love, it might never ‘appen.”  Oh do fuck off, I just have one of those faces.  I’ve already mentioned the methadone queue and it shocked me to the core.  But as these women are slowly weaned off drugs you get to see them for the people they might otherwise have been, albeit with a hefty dose of paranoia and occasional mania thrown in.

For the most part prison is populated with normal people like you and me.  Really.  And their crimes ranged from the seemingly minor like benefit fraud through the very popular drug importation all the way up to armed robbery and manslaughter.  Scary stuff.  I didn’t hear of anyone who was in for life where I was but they’re pretty rare in the female estate, although Rosemary West was supposedly resident in the segregation unit at Bronzefield.  There are people who would argue that women shouldn’t be in prison, that it doesn’t work for them.  Personally I think that’s rubbish, just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you don’t know right from wrong, neither does it mean you’re incapable of doing bad things.  It is true that the incidence of suicide is greater among female prisoners as is that of self-harm but is that a good enough reason to scrap this system for women?  What about the men who commit suicide and self-harm?  Where do you draw the line of who to treat differently?

In looking at the statistics of re-offending rates amongst all prisoners you could easily argue that prison doesn’t work for anyone.  At least, not for the majority.  Approximately 67% of all prisoners re-offend within the first 2 years of release.  That is staggeringly high.  And why does this happen?  There are a number of different reasons for this, but the recipe for reducing re-offending has so many ingredients it must be incredibly difficult for most offenders to have them all.  The National Offender Management Service says there are seven pathways to reducing re-offending.  These are: accommodation, education training & employment, health, drugs & alcohol, finance benefits & debt, children & families and attitudes thinking and behaviour.  Obviously these seven items may not apply to all but it falls to the prisons and most notably the probation service, both within prison and outside in the community, to make sure that offenders address each and every one of those that apply to them.

But there are myriad difficulties in doing this.  There are only so many people working for the prison and probation services and they can only allot a small amount of time to each individual.  If you take education, training and employment as an example you should know that amongst prisoners illiteracy or poor literacy stands at 50% so before you can even start to look at the potential of an ex-offender getting employment you need to address that.  The problem is that the majority of people will have gone to prison with a short sentence, not long enough to help them.  A great deal more may not want to learn to read and you can’t force them to take part in educational courses. The final nail in the coffin for prison education is that it is poorly paid, where I was if you chose education you were paid £10 a week, but if you worked in the workshops and your productivity was high you could earn up to £80 a week.  It’s not hard to work out what most people go for.

With employment as well, even for those who do have an adequate level of education there are so many difficulties faced by ex-offenders.  The main one is, of course, disclosure.  By law if you have an unspent criminal conviction you must disclose this when applying for a job.  They advise you not to do this until interview, you wouldn’t want to end up in the situation I had with my university application, being judged without even being met face to face to state my case.  I’m not bitter.  Much.  But even then there’s no guarantee they won’t throw their hands up in horror and wrap it up quickly before hotfooting it out the door and running down the corridor waving their arms about.  You never know.

I think the biggest hurdle of all to overcome is to get the offenders to want to help themselves.    At a meeting of organisations who help offenders re-integrate with society I met someone who was a PPO, a Prolific and Priority Offender, someone who’d been in and out of prison their whole life.  Even though they were free their attitude was all wrong.  They were complaining that dole money was not available to them quickly enough on leaving prison (even though you’re given money when you leave) and that it wasn’t enough for them to buy the basics that they needed to attend interviews.  I begged to differ when you consider the low cost of basic smart clothing in the big supermarkets these days.  But as far as this PPO was concerned he could earn far more selling drugs and the sad fact is that that is probably exactly what he went back to doing before repeating the cycle with the revolving door of prison, again and again and again.  The fact that people like that think they’re owed something really galls me.  I never felt that way.  I knew that if I wanted my life not to be ruined by going to prison I had to do everything in my power to make sure it wasn’t.  I did all the courses in prison that were required of me, and more, to address my offending behaviour.  From the time I first got there until the time I left this was an important part of my life.  And my attitude completely changed over time.  At first I was angry and would not accept blame for any part of what had happened, despite the fact that I admitted the offence, up to a point.  But that changed and I realised eventually that I was fully responsible for a massive overreaction to a bad situation.  Although I still will never agree that there was ever any intent to cause harm, to my eternal shame it just happened.  Hey ho.

But I was very lucky.  I had an excellent support network, friends, family, probation (at home and in prison), the prison, Inside Job.  They all helped me to succeed in doing the things I wanted to achieve.

I was released from prison on home detention curfew on 5th January 2007 after serving thirteen and a half months.  Just a week or so before I’d been home for Christmas and had a lovely time with my family, feeling completely normal for the first time in ages and even spending Boxing Day with my lovely boys.  As arranged I met up with my old college friend, Adam, and several school friends and had a great time.  And, somehow, Adam and I got together.  It was completely out of the blue, especially as I’d thought he was still with his girlfriend, but it turns out they’d not been together for quite a while.  We’d been best friends at college but, despite the fact that he may have had hopes then, we both knew it would never happen so neither of us had any reason to imagine it would have happened this time around either.  But I’m very happy that it did, and the best part was that we didn’t have to worry about getting to know each other as we already knew each other very well.  Apparently he was attracted to my “cold cold aloofness”.  I’ve no idea what he means.  He moved back to Portsmouth from Exeter and we got married in December 2007.  Quick, maybe, but we both knew that it was right.  And that’s enough of that because there’s every chance I’m going to make myself vomit.  Let me offer my sincerest apologies if you, dear reader, have been forced to do the same.  But here’s a wedding photo, you’ll see that even 13 years later he was STILL looking down my top.  Shocking.


After my release  Inside Job helped me to secure a job as an editor compiling an e-bulletin on the seven pathways I mentioned above.  I was working again with Barbed in HMP Coldingley on the design and attending conferences and awards ceremonies, conducting interviews and all sorts which I would then write up afterwards.  As well as that I was editing contributions from other people for inclusion.  It would have been marvellous.  Yes, would have.  Sadly the plug was pulled after only a couple of months, it seemed there was a high degree of nervousness from the commissioning organisation and they decided to leave the idea, to my mind a bloody good one, in limbo for, well, you tell me.

I had to get a job, and quickly, as I had no other income.  I was incredibly worried about disclosure but realised that I would just have to bite the bullet and get on with it, expect some knockbacks and take them in my stride.  I didn’t have any other choice.  I updated my CV (very carefully), uploaded it to a job site and started looking for jobs to apply for.  I had decided that it would be highly unlikely that I’d get any media work anywhere other than London so thought it would be best if I tried to get a job as a software tester, something I had done some years previously.  I’m not sure what the thinking was behind this to be perfectly honest, but that’s what I did.  Very quickly I was contacted by an agent who had a job available locally and, without mentioning anything about being a violent criminal, I arranged an interview.  Strangely enough I was incredibly nervous.  I didn’t like the idea that I was going to give someone the opportunity to sit in judgement of me.  The interview went fairly well, the interviewer was very likable, asked me loads of questions to which it seemed I gave the correct answers.  Then he gave me a test.  On Linux and SQL.  I knew nothing about either.  But I was “willing to learn” (please give me a job).  Fortunately he told me that he’d offered jobs  to people who’d known none of the answers before, so that was a relief.  And then he asked me if I had any questions.  This was it.  I had to tell him about my conviction, and the fact that I was on tag.  I told him.  I expected a complete change in atmosphere, a distracted frostiness and a “thanks but no thanks”.  What I got was “Oooooooooh, what did you do?” and a request to see my tag.  You just never know what’ll happen.  And I got the job.  Unfortunately I hated it, but that’s another story.

Porridge Part 11

Porridge Part 11

I loved my job.  It was never boring and incredibly varied.  One day I could be in the office avoiding phoning people, the next I’d be lugging film equipment across London, then I’d be at a meeting going red when I had to introduce myself and the next I’d be at a conference taking notes on what employers are doing to engage offenders and ex-offenders (not enough).  I wrote articles and speeches, copied DVDs for distribution and printed labels on to them, I did so much.  For the first time in my life I had a job I looked forward to going to every day and didn’t watch the clock all day long.

I arrived at work every day at about 8am, at least an hour before everyone else and I usually used the time to catch up with my friends back home by sending emails.  My account was still active so for a week or two I was going through the backlog of mostly rubbish I had received over the course of 9 or 10 months.  There was a spam filter so very few of them offered me viagra or the opportunity to extend my manhood but there were a hell of a lot of emails from companies I’d subscribed to: CD WOW, the Book People and Tesco and, well, anyone you can think of.  So with all this rubbish coming in it took me a good while to notice that I had a genuine email from an old friend from college who’d sent me a message through Friends Reunited.  This was great, I hadn’t seen Adam since just after I’d had number 1 son when I was 21 and I’m not convinced he was particularly interested in my tiny baby.  Not many 19 year old blokes would be.  After that we may have spoken a couple of times on the phone but eventually lost touch as he was at university in Norwich and I was still in Portsmouth popping out babies.  When we were at college Adam was my best friend.  We sat together in Maths and Physics and were usually rather naughty, a bit silly and very cheeky.  We had a great laugh.  Of course, it was obvious to all and sundry that young 17 year old Adam had a bit of a thing about me, after all I was always catching him looking down my top, but as I was 19 that was NEVER going to happen.  And indeed it never did.  I was chuffed to bits that I’d had a message from him after all this time (9 years!) and couldn’t believe he didn’t seem to know if I’d remember him or not.  Silly boy.  I replied with an apology that I hadn’t responded immediately as I had been somewhat indisposed and that he’d NEVER guess what I’d been doing for the last year or so.  I was right, he didn’t.

Once he’d got over the initial shock and I stopped him doing the sympathetic stuff I’m not so keen on we eased back into the old banter we’d had in college days.  It seemed he’d moved to Exeter with work, bought a knackered old house with his girlfriend and spent ages doing it up.   He liked his job and appeared to have gone from being a bit of a nerd to a full on complete one.  And apparently if I saw him I’d point and laugh at his beer belly.  Well of course I would, that’s the kind of girl I am.  We sent loads of amusing messages to each other and it felt like we’d just picked up from where we left off all those years ago.  He mentioned that he might come and visit me in prison some time, which is crazy because Exeter’s a very very very long way from Sutton but I was touched that he was considering it.  In the end we arranged to meet up at Christmas when I was planning on going back to Portsmouth for a home visit, shortly before my release, and he would be staying with his family who were still in Portsmouth.  That was still a fair way off so we kept in touch regularly by email and occasional texts (day release prisoners are allowed mobile phones which are kept in lockers near the prison entrance and aren’t allowed to be brought in, they’re important in case you need to get in touch with the prison if, for example, you’re going to be late back).

One of the projects I was working on in the meantime was to create a booklet to accompany a DVD Inside Job had made for HMP Downview Resettlement.  The aim was to send them out to employers in the Sutton area in order to raise awareness of the work Downview was doing and to hopefully interest them enough to offer placements to some of the women in Resettlement. I was working with a prison based company, Barbed, in HMP Coldingley, who designed the booklet and I was really pleased that we got it to be something that looked really good, even if I say so myself.  I had to do a great deal of research because I needed to include an article that I hoped would cause people to sit up and take notice, I needed them to know that there is in fact a business case for employing offenders and ex-offenders.  I gathered a number of statistics too that would hopefully shock them into doing what I think is the right thing.  Things like: crime by ex-offenders costs the economy £11 billion a year but that those who get and keep a job are half as likely to re-offend; 25% of the working population has a criminal record yet it is 8 times more difficult for someone with a criminal record to get a job.  It’s all very worrying.  I must say, I really enjoyed this particular project, for most of it I was left to my own devices and I was really pleased with the result.  As was resettlement officer who had commissioned it.  Hurrah!

Around the same time as this my boss and I were invited to HMP High Down (the men’s prison literally next door to Downview) to attend a conference about reducing re-offending through offering employment to offenders and ex-offenders (sound familiar?).  Some local employers had been invited as had several people who were there to present the case for why this is a good idea.  Hmmm, that sounds familiar too.  I was there to chat about my experience and met a number of people who seemed surprised by me.  But….you’re not dragging your knuckles…and you have a good grasp of the English language, how can this be?  Sad to say the Daily Mail mentality (all prisoners are ignorant knuckle draggers so lock ‘em up and throw away the key!) is alive and well.  I met this kind of reaction all the time.  I enjoyed it, I liked seeing peoples’ misconceptions and prejudice called into question.  I spoke to one employer who said that obviously they’d take on someone like me but that they’d be very unlikely to take on someone with a fraud conviction.  Hmmm.  Violence is fine but fraud, not so much.  I realise I’ve simplified that ever so slightly, I am not by nature a violent person and what happened was an extreme one off, but still, it seemed an odd opinion to have.

A few weeks after that event I received a phone call from someone in the High Down kitchens on behalf of the catering manager.  They wanted to invite my boss and I to a gourmet lunch.  Bloody rah!  It seems that the catering manager has won awards for the catering course that prisoners working in the kitchens complete and every time they graduate they hold a “Gourmet Lunch for Jobs”, inviting in local restaurateurs, journalists and anyone else who might have an interest in what they do.  I’d noticed at the previous function that the food they had laid out for us (apparently the same as the prisoners’ food) was very nice indeed.  In fact I was rather put out about this because the food at Downview was pretty grim unless you are a fan of large amounts of fat and carbohydrate.  It really wasn’t fair.  Bastards.  But the gourmet lunch.  It was fabulous.  By describing it I wouldn’t really be doing it justice for I am no foodie but the quality of the food was amazing.  There was a starter, a fish course (I hate fish sadly and plumped for a lobster thing as I wanted to try it. Big mistake), a main course (guinea fowl, cue Homer type drooling…mmmmmm guinea fowl) and a delicious pudding.  We had a great time.  The catering manager told us that he had hopes of opening a restaurant within the prison and that it would be open to the public by prior arrangement of course.  This seemed a fantastic idea, especially as many people have a morbid curiosity about what prison is really like.  That’s why some of you are reading this, isn’t it?  I really hope that happens, it would be a great way to continue funding an excellent project.

As time went on I had to start thinking to my future.  I was hoping to be able to secure some kind of job before I left prison in January 2007.  I had been lucky enough to be granted the home detention curfew (which you will know as tagging) meaning that by the time I went home I would have served 13 and a half months and would complete a further 4 and a half on tag.  There were a couple of possible jobs in the pipeline but nothing was by any means guaranteed so I decided to apply for a university place and study what would essentially be a continuation of the BTEC in digital media I had done.  I found a course at the University of Portsmouth that was very similar to what I had already done and contained all of the elements I was really interested in, it was a good, practical course.  So I applied.  I had an excellent reference from one of my tutors, good qualifications (as well as the BTEC I already had 4 A Levels and 12 GCSEs. I didn’t include my gym qualifications despite my laminated certificates) and I could envisage having studying as an option should none of the potential jobs work out.  As part of the application form there is a question about having a criminal record and as I am a good, honest girl, I ticked the box and explained a little about my circumstances in the personal statement.  I am well aware of the importance of disclosure about my criminal conviction and would never keep it from anyone, be it a potential employer or a university to whom I am applying for a place.  When the application process was closed I received a letter from the university requesting further details of my conviction in my own words and was told that my case would go to a board who would consider it and decide if I would be offered a place or not.  A further few weeks later I received another letter stating that they would write to my probation officer essentially to find out if I was safe to be around other people and if she would recommend me for a place.  She replied explaining that my offence had happened only in the context of a relationship and that I was not a violent person.  As far as we were concerned that would be the clincher, the support of a professional who knew about these kind of things.  But they rejected me.  Their reason was that “on the balance of probabilities” I would pose too great a risk to their staff and students.  I was very upset.  I had naively believed that they would see past how a violent offence looks on paper, take into account my previous good character and see the person I am.  But since they didn’t even invite me in for an interview how on earth could they even begin to attempt it?  And this despite an excellent reference and the support of my probation officer.  I just supposed I would have to get used to prejudice wherever I went in future.

So a degree was out.  I really hoped a job came up instead.  Because I knew the statistics and they were pretty bleak.

Porridge Part 10

Porridge Part 10

After a first day that eased me into my new job it was time to start working properly.  There were so many things on the go there was no time to get bored.  My boss suggested that one of the first things I should do was keep a diary/blog of what I was doing and how it felt to be out in the community working.  I did it but I was worried it was going to be rubbish, apart from a couple of silly made-up articles I wrote for the media course I hadn’t written anything since I was at school. Aeons ago.  I wrote it with a light-hearted edge and, as much as I could be about something I’d written, I was quite pleased with it.

One of my main tasks when I first started working was to help with the organisation of the Inside Job Productions launch.  Nothing had really been started yet so we had a lot to do: guest list, venue, invitations, food, drink, find speaker….in fact everything you can think of when organising a company launch.  With a requirement for it to be a success.  And to be within a relatively modest budget.  In London.  No pressure then.  My main task was to help with putting together the guest list and I didn’t have a clue where to begin.  Luckily suggestions were plentiful and I was soon furiously googling hundreds of different organisations and prisons who might have an interest in what we were doing.

Within a few days I discovered I had a slight problem.  It was strange and slightly embarrassing but I had become really apprehensive about using the telephone.  This was ridiculous, I’d worked in call centres before.  So it seemed prison had had some effect on me after all.  Yes, it had rendered me a nutjob.  What an odd way for institutionalisation to manifest.  And this despite the fact I rang my children every day and my parents a couple of times a week.  Mind you, it might just have been that the office was completely open and I was worried people were listening in and hearing me say ludicrous things and that they thought me an idiot.  What a plonker I was.  But I got on with the task in hand, putting together an exhaustive list of people from all areas of business, mostly without having to lift the telephone.  God I love the internet.

The guest list was by no means my only task, however.  There was so much else to do, some related to the launch and some with our actual work, largely film making.  Like most people I’m sure I’d always had a passing interest in this sort of thing, I’d imagined it to be glamorous and exciting and I hadn’t been able to believe my luck when I’d had the chance to help make a film in prison and that I would be doing it a fair bit in my job.  So, what I learnt in prison was that I’m really shit at holding the camera, that people don’t do what they’re supposed to do and that total randoms just get in the way and ask stupid questions.  What I learnt when we were filming at the local train station was that I was still really shit at holding the camera, actors do do what they’re supposed to do but that prison officers don’t necessarily understand the concept of artistic licence and that total randoms get in the way and ask stupid questions.  And what I learnt on shoots out and about in London was that I thankfully didn’t have to hold the camera, but that I did have to carry the equipment and that it was very heavy and that I kept getting in the way.  I wonder how many shots of me scurrying away were edited out.  At least I didn’t ask any stupid questions.  But there was soooooooo much waiting and standing around.  Glamorous my arse.

We had to design invitations for the launch and that was left to me too.  It was great that they were giving me the chance to do new things, setting me different challenges and I really hoped I’d be able to live up to their expectations.  And if not I’m sure they were ready to step in and, if not take over, push me in the right direction.  So one day I and one of the interns found ourselves heading towards the printers to see about getting some invitations designed and made.  I hadn’t rung ahead (phone phobia) and we pretty much waltzed in and asked to speak to the head honcho.  He was surprisingly accommodating.  It did help that they were already printing up some A4 folders for us so it was easy enough to get them to agree to make up an A5 invitation based on those.  We shook hands and headed back to the office.  Within a few days I had my first set of proofs back.  This was so exciting, I’d never done anything like this before but I was really relishing the idea of changing things to get exactly what I want.  Hey, I hadn’t been out much.  After much back and forth (email of course, phone phobia) the invitations were exactly how I wanted them to be.  Of course if I’d known at the start that this was what I wanted I could have saved everyone a lot of time and trouble.  But that isn’t how these things work, is it?

Launch plans were coming along apace but we hadn’t yet found a suitable venue.  There had been a few suggestions but some hadn’t been easily accessible, some had been too expensive and some simply didn’t offer the facilities we needed.  Then someone suggested a bar just off Fleet Street.  It had everything, the all important bar, the space we needed and we were able to segregate ourselves from their normal punters.  I had to ring them (gah!) to see if they were available on the night we wanted and I arranged for us to go and visit.  And for everyone else to have a wine tasting.  Everyone else, of course, because as a serving prisoner I was not allowed to drink.  And as you have to do random drugs tests and breathalyser tests on return to prison after a day’s work or a town visit you’d have to be pretty bloody stupid to take the risk.  Yes, loads of people are that stupid.  More fool them.  So, along we went to the bar and it was indeed perfect which was marvellous as it was the first place we’d looked at.  Apparently all the wine was very nice too, especially the champagne.  And the second glass that was had by some, just to make sure.

I hadn’t been there long when I was asked to write an article for the Women In Prison magazine about the course and the success I’d had and the opportunities it had led to.  It seemed my boss thought me a good writer (although I was less than convinced) and wanted me to get the opportunity to write as much as possible to build on it.  She suggested I write it with a light-hearted angle, though, because normally I was just quite factual and a bit “worthy”.  Fair enough, so I wrote my article, (which I seem to have now mislaid) and I was really quite pleased with it, a first for me.  Unfortunately other people decided what was required was a serious article and thought the tone of mine was a bit too light-hearted so they re-wrote to tone it down. They kept some of my jokes in though and that made me happy.  And I was published!  Sadly, “Women In Prison” doesn’t have a particularly wide readership, but hey.

By far the scariest thing I did while working for IJP (check me out using the initials) was have to deliver a speech to delegates at a conference about reducing re-offending.  I was terrified.  I had written what I was going to say (pretty worthy again) and practised it a couple of times and it seemed I was able to fill the 5 or 10 minutes that were required of me.  But that is a hell of a long time to be up there speaking and I was never a fan of public speaking.  Do I start with “Unaccustomed as I am….”?  No.  As part of GCSE English at school we had to give a talk.  I hated it.  My first subject of choice, for no reason I can think of other than the fact that we had a book on it, was bees.  We may have had a book but I knew nothing whatsoever about bees.  I wasn’t even interested in bees.  And I don’t like honey.  I did some half-hearted research, (did you know bees are stripy?) wrote a few notes, got up in front of the class and totally clammed up.  Brilliant.  I think the rest of the class felt embarrassed for me, and it was excruciating.  The second one was about bats.  We didn’t have a book about bats, but I like them, I think they’re really cute.  Half-hearted research.  Guess what?  Yep, clammed up.  Come the third talk, the one that was being assessed for the exam and the only one that really mattered, I decided I couldn’t take the humiliation again and spoke about my Saturday job at a bakery instead of animals or insects about which I knew nothing.  And it was a hit,  I got laughs and everything.  I wasn’t expecting any laughs at the conference though, I’d be happy if I just got out alive.  It was fine I suppose, but I was so terrified I just stood in front of everyone and read out what I had written without once looking up.  Not cool.  The fact is, I knew what I was talking about, I know my story and I could (probably) have relayed it easily and comfortably if I’d just taken a few prompting notes and ad-libbed it.  But I didn’t so I looked a tit.  I did the same thing the next time I made a speech as well.  And the time after that.  And the one after that.  I’d like to think that if I were asked to do it again I’d try to do it properly.  Who knows?

Back to the launch and the guest list ended up being fairly huge.  Once complete it was time to do a mail merge (bleurgh) and print millions of labels and send out all of the invitations and information packs we spent days putting together.  And further days lugging them to the post office.  Then all we had to do was wait some more days and see how many responses we’d get and how many people would actually turn up.  It was exciting but nerve-wracking stuff.  We’d also been trying to get some famous people to come along.  We wanted someone to give a short speech to our guests before I and my prison colleague (who would have joined me working by then) would say a few words (my favourite) but we were also looking for some minor celebs just to mingle a bit.  We were struggling a bit.  We’d tried Adrian Chiles (who no-one had heard of at the time, apart from me who’d seen Working Lunch), we tried Adrian Chiles’ wife but no joy.  We tried Evan Davis of Dragon’s Den fame.  Nope.  We’d been to an evening do at one point and my evil colleagues/bosses, call them what you like, had made me go up to Monty Don and Grayson Perry and give them invitations to our launch.  They looked at me like I was mad and I was fighting the urge to stare at Mr Perry who had come dressed as a little girl, his alter ego Claire I understand.  Whatever, it was mortifying.  At the eleventh hour we got Adam Shaw, also from Working Lunch.  Phew.

And at the very last minute we managed to book Liam Halligan from the Telegraph and Ed Miliband to speak and we could breathe again.  Except for me who had to do more public speaking.  No, I didn’t look up.  Got a laugh or two though.  The launch was a big success, I had been granted an extension to my licence and didn’t have to get back until late, the prison had organised a taxi for me and my colleague, the wine flowed freely (too freely in some cases) but not to us prisoners and we had a thoroughly great time.  A number of staff from Downview were there, governors, principal officers, senior officers and normal officers and one of the governors told me I should be really proud of myself.  And I was!  My friend and I were buzzing as we headed back to prison and without a single drop of alcohol too.  I was certain Ed Miliband had asked me during the evening what I thought the government should do to improve prisons, but I may have imagined it.

Porridge Part 9

Porridge Part 9

The day arrived for my first day at work in the big wide world beyond the walls of HMP Downview.  I would be working in Shoreditch and travelling there daily by bus, train and tube.  My first day was in September, a few weeks after my first town visits and by this time I believe I’d already had a home visit, a whole weekend back in Portsmouth, so I was feeling completely at ease with being out and about.  We’d already done a bit of filming down at the local train station for a film about the difficulties of leaving prison if there’s no-one there to meet you when you’re released and we’d used the bus to get there so I was happy enough to do that again on my own.  On my first day, however, I was accompanied by one of the resettlement officers as is the norm for people going to new work placements.  The resettlement officers are amazing, they work so hard to support the prisoners that they look after, tirelessly working to raise awareness in the local community and find more work placements than the ones that are already on offer so as to give more prisoners an opportunity to reintegrate into society.  This kind of work is essential in the fight against re-offending.  The officer that was accompanying me that day had won an award that year, Prison Officer of the Year or something, that’s how good he was and how much he cared about what he did.

At about half 8 the officer came to get me and we were ready to go.  He was going to drive down to Sutton where we’d get the train to London Bridge and then the tube to Old Street.  From there we would walk to the office of Media for Development, my new employers.  It was very exciting.  Fortunately he was wearing civvies so we wouldn’t attract any attention.  There’s something of a procedure involved when leaving the prison grounds, not surprisingly.  You’re given a licence which proves that you are entitled to leave and between which hours you are allowed to be out of the prison.  You have to carry this with you at all times and essentially it’s your ticket into and, most importantly, out of the prison.  If you fail to meet the terms of your licence then you face adjudication which could result in loss of privilege and the freedoms they have entrusted to you.  For the first month because I had no wages yet I was given the exact money by the prison to buy a travelcard every day.  They’re trusting you right from the start not to spend the money on anything you shouldn’t but the fact is if they couldn’t trust you to do that it’s pretty unlikely you’d be given the opportunity to go out in the first place.  I also got a prison packed lunch.  A sandwich, a choccy bar, an apple and a yoghurt.  I felt like a school child.

So off we went, we got to the station, bought our tickets and got on the train to London Bridge.  The train was pretty busy but we found some seats and made polite conversation for the 45 minutes or so that it took.  I got on well with pretty much all the prison officers I came into contact with, you may not believe this but I have something of a reputation for cheekiness (I know, it surprises me too) and they seemed to like me for it.  They certainly mostly took the mickey out of me anyway.  But that doesn’t mean to say that you can have an easy conversation with someone when you’re stuck in a confined space and don’t want to talk too loudly about prison matters so everyone can hear.  Still, it was fine and when we got to London Bridge we walked to the tube station.  It seemed really far, stupid massive station.  The train was packed and I must say I’ve never really been a fan of the underground, except maybe when I was a teenager and it was new and exciting.  I know it’s an excellent way to get from A to B but there are far too many people squeezed into the tiny space and I always inexplicably end up with my face in someone’s sweaty armpit.  Not by choice you understand.  Fortunately London Bridge to Old Street is only a few minutes on the tube so I never had to endure it for too long.  Still didn’t like it though.  Once we’d negotiated our way up steps and escalators to get out of Old Street station we next had the problem of which way to go.  There are about 8 different options all taking you in, well, 8 different directions.  Eventually we more or less found the right way and headed to the office.  Just around the corner from where Boy George lives, dontcha know.

We took the long way it seems as we had to go back on ourselves, but at about 10 we arrived.  Hurrah!  The office was on the second floor of a trendy warehousey type building, the only office as almost all the other floors and surrounding buildings had been converted into really expensive apartments.  East London is hip apparently.  We went up and were welcomed by the smell of fresh coffee and several people, all very friendly.  Having done the course I met quite a few meedja…I mean media…types and they were very, very enthusiastic, very friendly, incredibly pleasant, but so very enthusiastic.  I was always rather taken aback, but that will be the cynic in me, it’s not my most redeeming feature.  The people at MFD were all lovely, so welcoming and really believe in what they’re doing and it’s hard not to be buoyed up by that.  I was feeling pretty nervous and didn’t really know what to expect, my role there was as a Production Assistant but that’s an incredibly varied job and who knew what it would entail.  But when we arrived we had some coffee and a biscuit and a good old chat before the officer headed back to Downview and I felt much more relaxed.  There were a number of different staff working for MFD, several who were in the office most days as well as Project Managers who were based in the prisons and various interns.  I had seen most of them before when they’d come into the prison but was introduced to those I didn’t know.  And then it was time to work!  Well, sort of.  First and foremost I had to get loads of stationery from the cupboard.  I love stationery, it’s a bit weird.  There’s something lovely about a crisp clean notebook as yet unsullied by my tiny handwriting.  And post it notes.  And new pens.  And diaries.  Maybe that’s just me.  Although I’m rubbish at ever remembering to use my diaries, I use them for a week and never look at them again.  I got all of my stuff and took it to my new desk.  I had a desk!  It was huge!  I was shown a few things around the office then fired up my computer and tried to look Production Assistanty.  I had no idea what they do.  I had a look to see of my old email address still worked.  It had been 10 months since I’d used it.  Good grief, it did!  I had about 2000 emails though which I couldn’t be arsed to tackle straight away.  I thought I’d leave it for another day.  I was given keys to let myself in and the plan was that I would leave prison daily at 6:30 to make my journey.  The problem with going out every day to work is that you are affected by the officers’ shift changes.  You can’t come or go while they’re doing a handover so if you work outside you either leave at 6:30 or after 8:30.  If I left at 8:30 I’d get in much later thanks to the train times so it made sense to go in earlier.  OK, so I’d be the first there for at least an hour, but who cared?  Not me, sounded marvellous.  And I could read my email mountain while I waited for everyone else.

So, not a great deal happened on my first day, I don’t remember doing much for which I was thankful and in the afternoon myself, the chief executive and the executive producer all went to a meeting with one of the companies that funds the MFD projects.  This was a bit scary because it was a video conference and quite a few people were in attendance.  The meeting itself wasn’t scary, no, it was the bit where everyone has to introduce themselves I didn’t like.  It’s a strange thing, but I feel myself going bright red for no reason I can fathom when all I’m doing is introducing myself to a few other people.  But it happens every time and it both sucks AND blows.  I can only assume it is some kind of residual shyness, most of which I thankfully left in my childhood.  The meeting was…well…unutterably dull.  On the plus side they had provided the poshest sandwiches I’d ever seen in my life and lovely fruit.  I became addicted to the grapes.  In fact the only people that were eating the food were the MFD contingent, I was staggered at how much the chief executive managed to put away and not a little amused, he’s a slim fella.  But I also thought he might be a bit bored because he was making pretty patterns out of the garnish on his plate.  Most amusing.  Eventually the meeting was over.  I’d understood very little of what they were talking about but it didn’t matter, my first day of work was over and I could head back to the Big House for dinner.  You’ll be surprised to know I was looking forward to getting back and having a laze on my bed in front of the telly.  This working lark is pretty hard and it had been a long day.

If you’d like to know about Media for Development the website is

The particular part of the company I was involved with was Inside Job Productions which you can find out about here.

Porridge Part 8

Porridge Part 8

I like to think of myself as being in the business of doing things selflessly so my friends don’t have to.  I got arrested so my friends don’t have to.  I spent a night in the cells so my friends don’t have to.  I had a trial so my friends don’t have to (and also so they could watch and see what one was like, it’s not like that old programme from the 80s, Crown Court, that was rubbish).  And I went to prison so my friends don’t have to.  Not that any of my friends are likely to find themselves in a position where the outcome is a prison sentence, thankfully.  Surely “get arrested” is on one of those ridiculous 100 things to do before you die jobbies?  Yes, I did it for them.  A friend of mine remarked that in the year or so before I was arrested my life was a bit like a soap opera.  All sorts of bad things happened and it’s fair to say I was in a bit of a pickle.  That’s putting it mildly.  She reckoned that at the end of every day as I went to sleep the EastEnders drums were going.  Cheeky monkey.  But in truth she wasn’t far off the mark.

This selfless act *ahem* of going to prison also meant that my friends got to see first hand what it was like.  Well, the visitors’ centre anyway.  And believe me, there were some sights to be seen.  I hope they enjoyed coming to see me, we certainly had plenty to talk about, not least the other visitors and some of the things the other prisoners got up to.  Visits for me were an opportunity to feel half way normal as long as I didn’t attempt to get out of my seat or take off my yellow sash, that is.  I was lucky too, lots of different people came for visits throughout my sentence, both friends and family.  On one occasion two of my friends’ husbands came to see me and on another the friend who said my life was a soap opera was supposed to be coming with her husband but she was ill so he come on his own.  Bless him.  I really appreciated the time and effort everyone took because it was a bit of a trek to get there.

One of the visits I remember most, though, is when my sister brought her new boyfriend to meet me.  Now, I’m not sure how the conversation went, but I suspect it was something like “Hi, my name’s Small Sis, what do you do?  I work in the pub, my dad’s an accountant, my mum works in the dockyard.  Oh, and my sister’s in prison for wounding with intent.  Do you want to the Big House with me come and meet her?”  Well done to him for not running away as fast as his legs would carry him while waving his arms about.  One of my prison friends had a visit on the same day and had already been called across so was there when I got to the visiting hall and sat in my seat.  When Small Sis and boyfriend came in we said hello and then I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  I’m not very good with knowing whether to hug or kiss strangers in social situations (for my previous blog about that go here) and decided to opt for the safe option of a handshake.  Gah!  He hugged me and kissed me on the cheek!  Now I looked a bit awkward and like a total tit.  Really, who shakes their sister’s boyfriend’s hand?  I’ll tell you who, red faced idiots.  We sat down and then were a bit more relaxed.  Apart from the embarrassing start the visit went well, my sister’s boyfriend was (and still is) very nice and he didn’t seem scared of me or the situation at all.  Even though I kept trying to frighten him by going “Garrrrrrrrrr” and pulling funny faces.  Not really.  Alas, when I got back to the wing after the visit my friend ripped me to shreds, she had witnessed the whole hug/kiss/handshake debacle and really seemed to be enjoying laughing at me about it.  For an entire week.  And to anyone that would listen.  Witch.

After 9 months inside it was time for my first town visit.  These took place on Saturdays and Sundays and you were allowed three or possibly four a month (I can’t remember exactly, it’s been a while now).  If you were working in the community you needed to spend one full day in prison in every seven day period so if you worked Monday to Friday you could have a town visit on one of the weekend days but would need to spend the other inside.  Because I hadn’t yet started my job I arranged two town visits on that first weekend on both Saturday and Sunday.  I was beyond excited but also strangely nervous.  It had only been 9 months but I’d seen The Shawshank Redemption and I feared that institutionalisation had set in.  What if I forgot my green cross code and got run over?  Remember kids, SPLINK.  “Oh my god, what does SPLINK stand for, I’ve forgotten?  I’ll get run over!”  Etc.  On the first visit my mum, dad and the family lodger came up to see me.  I was called over to the gate, searched and then….let out!  It was very odd.  Quite a few people go out each weekend so there were still a fair few milling about, waiting for the bus that goes from just across the road or getting into cars with their friends and family.  I’d like to point that most of the women go to the local hotel on their first town visits.  For…er…..conjugal stuff.  But there was no man in my life so that wasn’t an option.  I could have gone there and watched TV I suppose but that would have been not unlike being in prison anyway.  I got outside the gate and there were my parents with the family Berlingo!  It was gold.  Sahara gold.  Lovely.  Off we went.  We stayed in the local area, my mum had made a picnic and we didn’t do anything overly exciting just in case I might explode or something.  But it was a lovely day.  And everything seemed so….normal.  I’d expected there to be some kind of discomfort or weirdness but it was like I’d never been anywhere else.  Hurrah for not being institutionalised!  The next day my friend and her whole family came up to take me out.  I really do have the most lovely friends.  This was a very exciting day because they were going to take me to London, hurrah!  From the prison in Sutton to London isn’t a very long drive so we were there within an hour.  We parked on Waterloo Bridge as there’s free parking on Sundays, or at least there was then (don’t tell anyone), and they took me on the London Eye. Yay!  I really enjoyed it.  After that we went to Covent Garden and had a mooch about, not quite sure what to make of the street performers, tried loads of clothes on and had a spot of lunch.  It was a great day, I was absolutely beside myself, I just couldn’t believe what a lovely time I was having or that it was allowed.  I had to be back in the Big House by 7 at the latest otherwise there would be big trouble and no more trips outside the prison walls.  By about 4pm I started to get a little…..anxious.  I fully trusted my friend and her husband to get me back in plenty of time but my mind was working overtime and presenting to me numerous scenarios that might arise to thwart us like tons of traffic (in London? Surely not!) and make us late.  Stupid brain.  As it happened we were at least an hour early.  And I was on a high, I’d had the most fantastic weekend.  While in prison!  Amazing.