Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Old Farts

The perpetual danger that comes with being an all-lifer prison is that conversations can effortlessly veer off into a wandering exchange of "back in the days...".

No one explores or catalogues the shifts that take place from the perspective of prisoners, how seemingly small changes can have long lasting effects. Prisoners rarely write of such things, and staff don't notice or care. Penological researchers are not inside long enough to see.

How, for instance, do you light a cigarette? We are now allowed to buy disposable gas lighters, but prior to that lighting a fag could be a skill, an effort and supported a minor industry.

Tinderboxes, wicks, mops, flint, lighter making, matching, veneering, metalwork..none of these will spring to kind when you consider lighting a quick fag. For us Old Farts, though, they bring back tainted memories.

A Tinderbox is a tin, usually a tobacco tin, containing a piece of charred cloth. Using an illicit razor blade, a flint is struck to spark onto the tinder until it smoulders sufficient to light a fag. These were rare, even in my thirty years.
Overwhelmingly, my generation of prisoners used wick lighters. First obtain a "stem", the part of a lighter which holds the wheel and the flint. This could be sent in by friends or, more likely, scrounged off a screw.

This stem was then built into a lighter housing. Most often, these were made from matches glued together into a solid shape, then sanded, varnished and possibly veneered. This housing had two holes; one to slot in the stem, the other held the wick. Ah, wick...this was a strand of new mop-head. Operating this machine was simple - push up the wick to the height of the wheel, strike flint until the mophead smouldered, and extinguish by pulling the wick back into the housing.
In prisons with metalwork or engineering workshops these lighters took on a new level of quality. I have seen lighters made from solid blocks of aluminium and elaborately engraved.

Those without a lighter, especially short termers, used safety matches as a very poor substitute. Given the paucity of wages and the frequency of smoking, a single box of matches may have to last a long time...This was achieved by splitting the match. Using a razor blade or needle, each match was split into at least four, experts aiming for six or eight, slivers of match each topped by a very fragile piece of match-head.

We were not permitted gas lighters on "security grounds", the argument being that we would inevitably use them to blow things up. When sanity did prevail, we were mightily grateful but I can't help but wonder at the loss of the skills that helped us through those Dark Ages.


  1. My uncle told me about those days in jail, he was there in 78 (kate Bush Wuthering Heights was in the charts) he tells me of cutting up matches, 23 hour bang up, 4 in a cell, with slopping out.... Gosh things have changed, en-suit cells, pay-phones, having your feet up, eating sweets while watching videos, ( my stir was 2003) Though, it was worse in Victorian times, did anyone ever watch Time Team, where they un-earthed an old victirian jail and found inmates breaking rocks, and working really hard....

  2. Having your freedom taken away must be hellish in itself; to not be able to walk away from a place, catch a bus somewhere, go around the shops, go to a restaurant, go to a gig or a festival, things that we take for granted, I would hate it.

    Then if I were to be inside for whatever reason, I would take comfort in the small things in life and marvel at the human capacity, resilience and creativity as Ben does and tells us about in this post about the art and science in lighting a cigarette ( who'd a thought it!).

    When I was a smoker I could blow smoke rings which was a novelty at first until everyone it seemed was doing it, I couldn't think of other entertaining things to with cigarettes (except out smoke most of my fellow smokers! Towards the end I was on 60 a day!) and then it made my health really bad; I got ill so much.

    It annoyed me as I had to miss some very important events. So with a lot of help including drug therapy I managed to give up; and it was one of the most if not the most difficult thing I ever had to do, but I am free at last and its coming up for my ninth anniversary of non smoking.

    Entertaining and funny post as always, keep it up Ben, your blog is one of the best highlights in cyberspace!

  3. Interesting post about tinder boxes etc. Just found your blog via Tony Zimnoch. I'll be back to read more.


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