Search This Blog

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Teaching at Wandsworth Prison

So I went to Wandsworth Prison yesterday. It wasn’t an impulse visit – I was doing a face to face tutorial which is part of the work at the Open University. Some tutors choose not to actually go to the prison to see their students – his previous tutor hadn’t even given him her name! ‘How did you sign off with your marking?’ I asked. ‘Your Tutor,’ she replied sounding oddly like an educational stalker. I wanted to meet my prisoner, especially as he had gained a distinction on the previous OU course he was doing. ‘Suicide was a recurring theme on his work,’ said his previous tutor.

So as I drove the car through lush, peaceful Wandsworth and turned into the road, I wasn’t surprised to see trees almost but not quite, obscuring high wire fences with bundles of razor wire looped at the top. The air smelled damp and fresh and there were people standing outside the visitor centre chatting. I went up the steps into the visitors area which reminded me of the post office where you go to collect your too big parcels. I handed over my driver licence, my mobile and my ipod. Then I went through a sliding door into another waiting area. A prison officer wandered through with a massive bunch of keys dangling from his waist. The sound of jangling keys is a constant backdrop in prison, just like the opening credits in Porridge. I sat and waited. Several people jangled through the waiting area, so used to the routine they didn’t even have to look down at their key bundles. They would reach for the right one without breaking their stride and step through into the looking glass world.

Then the door opened and in came the education officer, Siobhan*. We walked across a prison exercise yard – wide and bare, topped with razor wire. In the corner was an aviary full of loudly shrieking canaries – doing their bird. I asked her how long she’d been working in prison. She said she’d been doing it for ten years and loved it but like everything else, the prison service were experiencing huge cutbacks. ‘And the illiteracy rate is about 50%’ she sighed. ‘And now we have a for profit company bidding to take over the education programme.’ ‘Which company?’ I asked. ‘A building firm,’ said Siobhan stoically. I looked at her and she shrugged. Yes – what possible reason could a building company have to take over the education programme in prison – except to make money? I expressed naïve amazement. ‘Yes’ she said sadly. ‘A for profit company is bidding to educate prisoners.' We discussed the shockingly high illiteracy rate in prison - (nearly 50% of all prisoners have a reading age of an 11 year old) and how this is going to go up and up. And how the rate for reoffending drops from 90% to 10% (yes!) if the prisoner has a job to go to. And how can they have a job if they have the reading ability of a child of 11? And how will they learn to read if for-profit companies take over the education sector of a prison? As we talked Siobbhan was briskly opening gates. The clatter of keys mingled with the chorus of canaries. A couple of prisoners swept the yard. We walked past a well kept garden. ‘That’s for the visitors,’ said Niamh as we went through yet another locked door and into the education centre. Gloom swept over me.
The first thing I noticed was the smell. A faintly unwashed sour smell. My prisoner, a small Glaswegian, neat and brisk, shook my hand. He and I and Siobhan sat in an office. We talked easily for a couple of hours, going over any issues he had with the course. I read a very good piece he had typed out. It was funny and well written. There were no typos and not a single spelling mistake. We discussed ideas for one of his assignments. He wanted to write about loneliness. I congratulated him on getting a distinction from his previous course. He had a pallid prison look about him but was obviously highly intelligent and genial. I remembered his previous tutor telling me that much of his work with her had a suicide theme. And just as I was wondering whether this recurring theme would be insensitive to bring up, he said that he was particularly surprised to get a distinction. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because I was going through a sex offender treatment programme,’ he said. I nodded I think – my face didn’t change. I hope it didn’t suddenly register: ‘you Nonce!’

He said that he was getting out in December and was counting down the days. I thought of those who (knowing nothing about a treatment programme for sex offenders) like to say it’s a ‘soft option’ but I can’t imagine anything harder than facing your behaviour squarely. I liked him. I admired the effort it must have taken to get through a degree course. I thought of how manipulative sex offenders are too.

As I walked back across the yard with Siobhan she asked if he was any good and I said he was. She said that she was surprised – as ‘most sex offenders though intelligent have a very narrow emotional range.’ I considered this and we talked briefly about the treatment programme. ‘Do you think he’s cured?’ ‘No’ said Siobhan. ‘They’re never cured.’
I left the prison and just walked for a long time feeling glad to be able to walk where I wanted and look up at the richly hued trees.

The Evening Standard have started a campaign to Get London Reading and it involves donating a few hours of your time to help a struggling child to read.

*Not her real name

Monday, 24 October 2011

Where Jane Root thinks good ideas come from

There’s a very interesting piece by Jane Root (former head of BBC2) about where good ideas come from. It struck a chord because it’s both sincere and thoughtful and offers hope to anyone who has mulled, nurtured, developed and polished an idea. Ideas are not often Eureka moments but naggy scratchy murmurings that develop at their own pace, or suddenly go into hibernation, only to burst forth again at a later date.
I’ve had such an idea which rattled around in my head for a few years, before becoming an idea and then an idea for a series before it was unceremoniously dropped like a wasp infested pear. So I forgot about it. And now suddenly – someone is interested again, so I’ve dusted it off and am picking through it again. And ignoring Mr Paranoia on my shoulder who softly whispers: 'It's shite.'

The academic year at the Open University has started again too and I’ve been at pains to tell my students that in the words of F.Scott Fitzgerald, it’s good to get feedback 'but in the end you have to trust your own opinion.' Now I have to follow my own advice and I’ve only just realised how annoying it is.
Oh and I’m doing some prison teaching this year, so am off to brave the security requirements of Wandsworth Prison tomorrow morning. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Critical feedback is like wheatgrass. You know it's good for you but it still tastes like shit.

Critical feedback is like oral sex in that it’s better to receive than give. Some people are very good at gently pointing out the merits of your work, followed by a long list of what’s wrong with it, followed by something nicely positive that leaves you wanting to get on with it rather than kill yourself and go into a massive sulk. Others either offer a few blanditutes or occasionally rip your work to shreds, only pausing to say in a pained voice: I’m only being honest. I’ve been giving and receiving feedback for several years now. This is what I’ve learned:

Giving Feedback

At the moment I’m reading several manuscripts from would be children’s writers and it’s astonishing how few of them actually read what’s currently out there. How can you write for a particular genre if you don’t read from it?

I generally adopt the ‘shit sandwich’ technique – this is good, this is not so good and this is great. I also go through my feedback and remove any ‘demands’ I may have drafted. So no ‘do this or that’ but ‘I suggest’ or ‘perhaps you could try’. One of my writers usually responds to my suggestions that perhaps a heroic bunny might not appeal to the 8 – 11 age group by rephrasing my words in inverted commas. I don’t think it matters that a rabbit is not ‘appealing’ he says. Well I do and so will your reader. He also baulked at the idea of a title change just because it might ‘sell’ better. Such writers are the ones who bang on about editorial suggestions compromising their artistic integrity. To which one can only reply, ‘Grow the Fuck Up.’

Receiving Feedback

It’s all down to remembering that feedback is designed to make the writing better. It’s not a personal attack. Which is what I tell myself when my first draft is returned with copious notes and red pen. I suppose that’s why I get so irritated when would be professional writers get so arsey about my carefully phrased suggestions. How I wonder are they going to survive in a professional world where their baby is returned with stuff like: ‘Not Funny’ or WTF? Or I don’t believe it! – like Victor Meldrew. One writer in another group was so resistant to any kind of feedback other than grovelling that I finally asked her why she wanted to write in the first place. ‘Because I have great truths to tell’ she said. I thought she was joking. She wasn’t.

Red pen stings though. So I sit and sulk while my producer (as it happens) tells me how and why this or that doesn’t work. But while I’m sulking I write down what she says. Then I carry on sulking. Then I leave it and go back to the piece a few days later when the sulking has dropped to a more manageable level. I used to think everything I wrote was shite and if someone didn’t like it would flagellate myself thinking of course he’s right – I’m useless what am I thinking? I was perhaps too ready to hear something was rubbish. Now after the initial (silent) roar of Fuck off! What do you know!? I feel confident enough to take on board the detail of the criticism without hearing the criticism as a destructive attack on me.