Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ben's Big Day Out

I've been out on Escorted Town Visits before, around one every 13 years or so, and they never particularly excite me. People always assume that the world has been transformed in their lifetime and yet in so many essential ways it is as it ever was. Shops are shops, people are people. So bumbling around town with a member of staff in tow, whilst being pleasant enough, has never raised my pulse rate.
This one was different, though, because it really mattered. Which made me begin to double guess myself and all I did, which increased my stress so that the day was not as relaxing or relaxed as it could have been. Still, as the point of it was to test me, this was a Big Day Out.
And lucky old me got to travel on a train, for the first time in around 33 years. There was no handle on the door, replaced by two glowing buttons to enter or exit. The seats reminded me of a cheap coach interior but then this was a mere toy of a train, a single carriage shuttle into town.
Getting on a train at a rural platform is simple enough. Getting off at a main station was not. Gone are the days of walking through the exit, waving a ticket at a conductor who would snip a chunk out of the item. Instead I was faced with a row of turnstiles. How do I present my ticket to a damn machine? On the telly people seem to wave their cards at a sensor, which allows them passage. Of course that was London, the Underground, and Oyster cards, but it was the only clue I had as to how to progress. My escort, Mr X, had slipped through without my being able to see what manoeuvres he had performed. I approached and began to wave my ticket at the machine like Harry Potter with a faulty wand. A railworker looked at me sadly and came across to rescue me. The ticket, it seems, went into a slot. Ha, simple, innit?
Finally unleashed onto the streets of Derby, cold and pissing wet, being stuck in the station actually looked like a good option. Onwards we pressed, up into the town to explore the wonders of the shopping centre and thereabouts.
Who'd have thought that every other shop would be a phoneshop, their wares seductively drawing me ever nearer? These temptations only gave way when a food retailer needed space. Phones and food, phones and food, over and over, around each corner we turned. I just had to see what the fuss was about with the IPad and so Mr X pointed me to an Apple shop. Just to make my stance perfectly clear I marched up to the boy at the counter and told him that I detested Steve Jobs and all his works but in the spirit of open mindedness, could I play with an IPad please? The boy guided me to a counter of sleek technology and I began to brush my fingers across the surface. It took me moments to find a search function, then to Google "prisonerben". Ego-surfing is a terrible vice but this was my first opportunity to see the blog on a proper screen rather than on an old phone. I like it. Uncomplicated and uncluttered. Simple. Turning to the boy I declared "hmm, I may well be back”, using a tone that implies I had a wallet full of cash that may – just may – come his way.
How do food vendors ever go bust? A cup of tea being high on our list of urgent matters, we slid into a covered market and coughed over 90p for a mug. Break that figure down, starting with a 1p tea-bag, and either the owner was a secret millionaire or had crazy overheads. The market was blighted by booths and stalls which even the owners had abandoned, closed, for rent, futile. I could have spent hours wandering the stalls, just looking, but I felt sorry for the owners. My loitering would only raise their hopes and I didn't want to add to their disappointment.

Sloshing with hot tea, I ambled around until I found a proper tobacconist. For most of my life I have smoked Old Holborn but this seems to have been supplanted by other, feebler, tobaccos in prison. So I leapt at this chance and bought an ounce of the good stuff as a treat. Given laxer prison rules and a credit card I could have spent a while at this stall, buying tobacco tins, the odd cigar, and a Zippo lighter - all of my life I have always longed for a Zippo but prison management have never been comfortable with the idea of us having access to petrol. Tsk.
I was shown the local probation building and the police inquiries place, just in case I found myself on a future trip unable to return to the prison on time. That is something we lifers dread, missing the bus could have serious ramifications for future progress but asking a policeman is a piece of advice I sincerely hope never to have to fall back upon. Not that I saw a single copper on foot in the whole day.
The main library was an obvious port of call and I headed straight for the corner packed with PC's. No sooner had I blagged a chair that I noticed that someone had not logged off their Facebook page. That resolved itself when I guy came across to point out that he was actually using that machine. Sorry, dude... Failing to log on to an adjacent, unused, PC I was noticed by a security guard. In a library. Good grief. She helpfully pointed out that I needed to check in at the main desk to be enabled and off I went. Was I a member? Nope, just passing through... Did I have any ID? Ah, this is the embarrassing bit, I said as I pulled the only paper I had out of my pocket - my Licence to be temporarily liberated from the prison. Not an eyelid was batted and, a short form filling later and I was back online. Without the distraction of an Apple nerd I was able to relax enough to pop back on to the blog, log in and read the latest comments. And immediately faced a dilemma.
Should I write a quick post? Should I respond to some comments? The lack of interactivity on the blog is something I sorely miss and am ever grateful to you for putting up with so far. The temptation to blog "live" was a real one but also fraught. As I understand it I am allowed access to the net whilst out and about (except for social networking) but I want to have it explicitly made crystal clear that I can blog. My first day out of the prison wouldn't have been the best time to do something that may be perceived as taking a liberty, and one that would drop Mr X in the poo to boot.
Temptation resisted, I popped across to Prisoners Families Voices, which never really worked well on my mobile. Amazing site, wonderful people. And, of course, a quick foray to Jailhouselawyer. Sites look so much better on a big screen! Just wait, I will be popping up and leaving comments all over the place when I have the chance.
Declining a free cup of coffee offered in the library - why? - we returned to the shopping centre to look at clothing and watches. Being an organised man I had laid out everything I needed for the day the night before, including my watch which needs a new battery. And like an idiot, I then forgot to bring it. So we zigzagged around the concourse, pausing at a few of the stalls that weren't trying to flog phones or food, until I found a guy selling watches at a fiver a pop. How could I resist? As he rang up the sale I had to ask him about his business model. How on earth can he sell watches for a fiver? The honesty was refreshing. He explained that they were made in China, would last around 6 months, and to keep them away from water. Fair enough, I thought, I only need it to work until I get home. And if that is longer than a few months, that I have a crap watch will be the least of my problems.
Another cup of tea later - I went the extra mile and forked out 95p rather than a paltry 90p - and lunch beckoned. Not that I was hungry, but as the nick had given me £3.10 for "subsistence" I was determined to eat something. The proper cafe and coffee shops were dismissed with a the haughty disdain that grows out of poverty and found a tiny corner cafe where we both went for a plate of chips and the hottest cup of tea I've ever experienced. As is the way with shopping, the next corner we turned revealed a place which would have cost us half the price. Hmm.
A long stroll away from the precincts led us past the courts, down to the riverbank. I still maintain that my suggestion that we pop into the courts and heckle those in the dock was an idea potent with entertainment options.
Money to spare, the end of the day drawing into view, so Primark and Poundland were the places to be. That I have no concept of style is not a disputed fact, and I leave it to the Editor to ensure that my wardrobe isn't a social embarrassment. The sweatshirts and socks that I bought seem to be this side of the pale, but even Mr X was hesitant about a rack of hats I was eyeing. Similar to Bowlers, but more rakish. I lost my nerve and swooped to the biscuits shelf at Poundland instead.
As we settled onto the train for our triumphant return a man clambered on. He looked slightly down and out, unkempt, but he was sporting one of the pseudo-bowler hats. Even better, he had added a long feather. I nudged Mr X. "I told you they were coming back into fashion..."


  1. A fantastic and strangely uplifting read.
    The humdrum world seen through new eyes.

    All the best

    R. Spode

  2. I usually only drop in to be argumentative (or occasionally helpful) and generally don't post just to say I like something, so I don't have a lot to say here, but...I liked this post. I'm glad you had a nice day out, and hopefully you will be blogging live and interactive soon.

  3. I live nr Blantyre house, and often see prisoners in the library on the p.c. (i need to use the printer there somtimes.) Tho would you not have prefered to spend some of your day with a hooker, than trapsing round the shops?

  4. This brings back memories of my time at Sudbury open prison...

    In response to anon: I spent many an hour in Bubbles Massage Parlour opposite the station in Derby, and quite a few quid too!

  5. How good to read this. Very pleased to hear it went well. Am still looking forwards to seeing you on the outside – and buying you tea and chips! Keep up the good work.

  6. You can tell you've been starved of interaction with the outside world when you find Derby interesting... ;)

    Glad it went well for you on the outside, hopefully it'll be permanent, soon.

  7. Great read, and heres a song for you, to celebrate your successful and interesting escorted town visit:-

    It's Rude boys outta jail by the Specials

    All the best : )

  8. I really enjoyed reading this, Ben. It reminded me of when I worked in a job centre and people would come from prison looking for work. It would be obvious from the expression on their face that job centres had changed a LOT since the last time they'd been in one :).

    Hope you get another day out soon.

  9. I really enjoyed reading your post about your day out of prison and hope that there are many more to come. I'm glad that you resisted the temptation to blog "live" without the clarification that it is not illegal. It would be such a shame if you did something to set back your release when you are potentially only months away from walking out of the prison gate and being able to get on with your life.


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