HMP Haslar is unique in the British prison estate. Everyone locked up there is an 'immigration detainee'. They were sent to jail by civil servants. They have had no trial. Some of the men - who are not to be called prisoners - have been 'held' for more than two years. The majority are refugees. Some are survivors of torture.
In Bonehead's Utopia a fictional 'Haslar' has rebelled and declared independence. It is a fairytale state, an ideal world, a state of disjuncture. In this false utopia certain of the staff have joined the 'perfect community', forging a polite and tolerant new world. But there is something wrong at the heart of this fenced Eden. Everyone is welcome - but to what?
Like painting the world with an invisible colour. Like calling the dead back to choke on their names and the names of things they might have seen. Tree – an ash with a phallic sucker – but not the willow Minaev saw. Hazel, as was in this grove – an enclosed place since before Portus came – pre–dating Rome. A closed order of brothers walking the boundary. My, how you have grown and these traditions repeat. The hard challenge, not to be led, to make your own self out of art, music, these blind words, even when under Governor's Orders or an indifferent God. Never to give in. Never to attempt the fence, which is in your head? A subliminal message, tagged whilst asleep. Like speaking an architecture that is no longer vernacular – a vocalisation of the route you guessed that took you past the cenotaph, along the backs of offices, into a park – a pastoral excess – dead end. Oddly, I went there today, for the first time. Leather straps and table tennis nets etc. missing after escape attempt. Planned escape attempt. Escapee – called D for the purposes of this text – had a dislocated shoulder, a shattered arm. Extensive cuts to arms and face, upper body. Was he observed or have we imagined him there? Elbow is pinned and arm is set. He cried. She said, 'he sat in his cell and cried for several days.' She seemed remotely upset, behind the most powerful of non–verbals. Her uniform perhaps chokes her self sometimes? Service has a cost to all who know that glamour. Bob – not his real name – moved to Rochester to go crazy there, to try out innocence in a new context, to prove the setting as you might prove a wall by banging your head on it. An artist. From Moscow. Properly trained and expressive. Gave me a photo of a girl – my wife if I'd put up money for his bail. Joking I think. Took the picture back. Loud. The iron door closes. Clichés can wear sensibilities into your skin like a blister; to create in there is to hurt. All the words we speak seem new or without history.
In the shopping precinct – which we call 'Canteen' – (it's a hatch in the wall that passes for a shop) everyone is discussing election fever, or its absence. We need to be clear, voting doesn't change a thing, but it's important to participate. The electorate are apathetic. Ideology gets everywhere, and voting is divisive, but it needn't involve politics. Open and frank discussion of the issues never solved anything. Necessity dictates. Politics is a novel in which all of the characters have been assassinated – but we don't need to know who's who, and the whodunit is an obsolete form. We judge, not who, but when? And we no longer need to know who we are. You forget. You cannot remember. So, therefore, the weight of our state is never applied against any individual, for our state is weightless and individuals were abolished after the revolution. They were always asking us who we were. (In how I speak you will notice that the individual hides between the letters of the alphabet. Something sneaks out – a glance, an ironic sound or gesture.) It's a regular event. Candidates in ribbons, a carnival in the courtyard, an old superstition we can laugh at now. There will be an election broadcast. The Officers will dance and the authentic Druids will perform a ritual at our ancient Henge and/or Parliament. The men of the Dorms made votive offerings, something of their selves, their fictional selves, was sacrificed. (Their invisible children, their mute brides.) It was fun, our day of democracy. One day we may hold another election, wheel out the Hobby Horse, make predictions, rub the sleep from our eyes. And so my friend waits in the prison of his skin, marvelling at democracy; at what it protects, and from who.
In the folklore, peasants worked in the fields. Simple folk in touch with essential things – the circuits of the moon, the seasons – they were unconscious of complexity except in how it related to the astrology of seeds. They built no temples, though they knew of them as 'wonders'. In amongst the peasants were princes, men with sensibilities, who had taken the first step into the 'gothic' revival of late 18th century England. It was a seed, culture taking root in an idea. It proved a language. It helped us out. These princes were disguised as shepherds, they loved simple country girls who they could use, confuse, idealise. 'She had a clear complexion' meant she was virtuous and thus desirable, free of disease. Her breath was sweet. In our new revised edition, based on the earliest texts, a Messiah was concealed beneath the uniform of a prison officer. At weekends, when his wife was away, he would go out and pretend to be a fireman. Women like firemen. From that we can assume women do not like prison officers? This was not spelled out, but it is still observed today. Women call them pigs, keeping up the rustic connection. Even female officers are unlucky in love, or so they believe, even if they are attractive. It's important to the plot: characters must suffer and learn in order to construct a new world from hard won philosophies. Humanity benighted, the stories and the people no-one wants to know. In this they are similar to asylum seekers, the immigrants they despise and lock up; it is an engine of the plot that prison officers bring it on themselves. Now complete the story. Bit-part characters, they walk on and off. Our scenery is cardboard – our hills are painted on a wall. It is a mural. An officer in disguise has a temporary self; a Trumpton fireman. Silly arse. He is so much like the asylum seeker he loathes, the man with a false passport. One is noble and brave and the other is scum. Guess which is which: this might be the task of the reader. Who, here, in this field of pain, is the true bearer of civilisation – the prince from the city, or the peasant he deceives? The prisoner or the officer? A novel and disposable art, the narrative; it is the most common skill, you cannot wake up without inventing a story. In this world, nothing is real. There is romance in the pain. Each man is a hero in that he is alone; his theme is redemption – not of himself, but of his jailer – and endless work, the labour involved in the manufacture of meaning. In folklore peasants worked the fields. They sang. And the song carried them away as they worked until song became their work and they were called poets. They could not be admitted then, for they would change character, plot – even the outcome and meaning of history – so they were banished from the republic. So, once more they arrive at the gate in disguise, as an officer or prisoner. Something has taken them. They are changed, trapped by the plot, forced into philosophies. It never ends.
'Brutal experiences elegantly rendered but retaining enough of a raw edge to be utterly convincing.'
'Cutting through the euphemisms that surround it (Removal Centre, Economic Migrant) Andy Jordan's cycle on the transfiguration of HMP Haslar by its prisoners is compassionate without being sentimental, alternately oblique and bracingly direct, and full of bleak exaltation. A vivid reminder that utopias are not merely a matter of bourgeois nostalgia, and a justly angry blast at Gosport's gulag.'
'a genuinely unsettling book about something happening on our doorsteps'
'why on earth a book of this calibre is not on the TS Eliot or Forward shortlists is anyone's guess... Quite simply, this is a very important book of poetry... a polemical and imaginative triumph... I couldn't recommend this book more.'
'more important than anything our so-called leading poets have written over the past quarter of a century.'
Mistress Quickly's Bed