Prison by Vince

I admit, there is a massive difference between stepping into something you know and have been able to prepare yourself for, and being forced into a situation where you have no knowledge whatsoever of what will happen, how the whole system works, and how you will be received in it; which made the description in your latest letter all the more interesting, and powerful, since I had never imagined the initial phases of what you have gone through to be so strict. That there is a certain level of security between arrival and final admission into the rank and file is clear, but I hadn’t realised that there were stages to this process, at least, not in this fashion. I think most of us are conditioned to what we have seen in films and on the television and this simplified idea that admission is going through registration and then straight out into the main yard with everyone else – having met up with your room companion(s) and settled the hierarchy. Although, as distasteful as the whole idea may seem, I can see the reasoning behind such a system; the slower assimilation into a new world so that each has a chance to adapt – from both sides – and to learn what is expected and what is demanded. It is, perhaps, something I could compare to my time in the army, but for one major difference: I could walk away.

Perhaps the best comparison I can come up with is my time at school, an institution which I had high hopes of but which, I soon realised, was going to let me down. Here there was no chance of simply walking away and starting somewhere else with a clean slate, much as many of us would have wanted. We were signed up for six or seven years, depending on which qualifications were desired, and a change would have meant a major change in our educational standards, in our surroundings and, more important, our chances of success. I was ‘consigned’ to a boarding school several hundred miles north of my home in a small village which, no matter how anyone tries to paint it, was so different to my normal world – or my previous life – it was almost as if I’d climbed aboard one of Elon Musk’s space ships and glided off to Mars. Comparing a small village, where I ended up, to the capital city of a country and trying to find similarities is doomed to failure. The only things they have in common are people, streets and houses contained within a specified area. After that, socially, culturally, even the manner in which words are spoken and ideas expressed, there is nothing similar.

And, of course, a boarding school where, as I know you can appreciate, people are lumped together who, in the worst of worlds, would never wish to have anything to do with one another. This, however, was supposed to be the best of all possible worlds, for a boy of my age, and be the formative force in my life; setting the trend for a brilliant career in the city of London or whatever it is that parents dream up for their children. Then there is the fact that a person has considerably more freedom of movement – although within certain restrictions – and learning as anywhere else, with access to one or two libraries and free time when the premises can be left behind and a completely different set of surroundings found and enjoyed. Both school and army had curfews, some movement restrictions, uniforms, and, of course, those one or two people in minor positions of authority who believed themselves to be amongst the gods when it came to exercising that authority, and tended to abuse it to the best of their abilities.

I think that working in the education programme, helping other people to better themselves, or to achieve a lifetime goal, or just to occupy their time with something worthwhile, is one of the best places to be. I can equate it to my time working in the library at school, even though this can hardly be called a time in my life when I helped other people: I was there purely for my own good and advantage, and so that I could read the books which my elders and betters – or those who regarded themselves to be better – had hidden away from view. I imagine you have many advantages as a teacher, or educator, and especially the fact that those who come to you, for the most part, want to be there and are prepared to try and plan for the future, even if that future is many years away. There are two sides to education which I learned at a very young age: you are never too young to learn something; you are never too old to learn something. You just have to want to do it, have a goal in your heart as much as your head, and the right person to show you where to search for the answers; after all, being told is one thing, real learning requires that someone finds and works the solution to a problem out for themselves. I can tell anyone how a camera works, but that doesn’t mean they will be able to use one until they take it in their hands, think for themselves and experiment. With computers, history, philosophy, even cosmetology, it is exactly the same.

I was trying, since you mention it in your letter, to work out exactly what my routine is, if I indeed have one. Up until last year it was very simple indeed: rise in the morning and complete my ablutions; walk to work; work; walk home; read, write and eat an evening meal; return to bed. Of course, such a simple listing does not include everything that I would have done and is only the basic routine which, I suspect, most of us would be subject to every single work day of the year. I can remember having a long discussion, a few years ago, with a few people who claimed that they avoided every form of routine in their lives, in order to avoid boredom as much as anything. It didn’t take long to show them that our entire life is one long act of following some form of routine, although not necessarily forced. We are creatures of habit, so people will go and shop in the same stores at much the same time each week, or eat out in the same restaurants, drink in the same bars, walk the same route to work or leisure activities. They fall into these habits as if it were second nature, and it brings a certain degree of security with it: they know what they are doing and when, there is no risk, nothing out of the ordinary in their actions.

I, too, have my routines since the major changes in my life last year, and feel quite secure within their bounds even if other people claim my life to be chaotic and without any form of foundation. The fact that I can sit and writer letters, that my other writings and my reading pleasures can be followed at any time of the day – or night – seems to scare people for some reason; it is as if these breaks with convention have taken me over onto the dark side. And yet nothing I do is unusual: even Samuel Pepys, active in the seventeenth century and a world-renowned diarist, records waking in the middle of the night, writing, holding conversations, having sex and then returning to bed for his second sleep. All of this took place within a building, of course, since the night time air was considered unhealthy and no one in their right mind would venture out of the house after dusk unless they had to. Samuel Pepys you may well recall, is the man who buried a whole cheese in his garden to save it from the Fire of London in 1666. So, a perfectly normal person for his times. He writes:

I did dig another, and put our wine in it; and I my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.

Parmesan (as we write it today) is really Parmigiano-Reggiano and was, at the time, very valuable indeed, having been made in and imported from Italy, after maturing for two or more years, and a complete cheese weighed up to two hundred pounds. They were given as gifts amongst the very rich and prominent – including Popes and Royalty – and even used as collateral for bank loans. I can well imagine that one of his routines was checking that his cheese was safe from thieves, when the city didn’t happen to be burning around his ears.

Being forced into a routine is, of course, not as pleasurable as being able to form your own and, even more disturbing, is when you have managed to get your new routine sorted and settled, and it has to be changed yet again. I can well imagine that moving from one yard to another, having become secure – as far as this is possible – in the one area, would also have been a very unsettling experience. We never know what is around the next corner, and moving into a new area, with new people, new regulations, can be disconcerting.

One of my favourite routines is travelling in to Bremen, about thirty miles from here, first thing on a Saturday morning and then spending the day first at the flea market and then either in one of the museums or just walking around the main shopping area and looking in shop windows. This routine seems to have been caught up by several people who work the flea market, and who I now know by name. An advantage is that they keep those things I am searching for to one side, and some even go out of their way to find old photographs for me. When I eat my breakfast in Bremen I am given a china cup to drink from, rather than a paper takeaway, and know that a cheese roll and an egg roll will be waiting for my arrival. Of course, this level of intimacy with those selling on the market makes it much harder to negotiate a better price, but I’m quite happy to give up this minor benefit for the pleasures of good conversation and friendliness and, of course, the major improvement from drinking coffee from a paper cup to that of enjoying it in a china one.

The other pleasurable routine I have six days a week is the walk from my home, through town, and to the post office to check and see whether anyone has written to me, something I am sure you can appreciate more than many. I know that I will have no post tomorrow – this is always so, and I have no idea why, my post box is always empty on a Monday morning – but I will still rise early, check the weather, put on a warm pullover if needs be, and make my way there and back. The rest of the day is dependent upon what happens when I open that post box: either I will have letters to answer, or a free day when I can concentrate on reading, or make my way out and about in the surrounding area and see whatever there is to see. Of course, the hope is always that I have a letter to answer but, on the other hand, having time to get out and experience gives me more to write about, so I should try and balance everything somehow.

When people abandon themselves to pleasure and live from day to day, their reasons for living are finished as each day comes to an end.

I will admit that Pliny the Younger  most certainly did not have our situations in mind when he wrote these words, which I have taken out of context, but I found them appropriate all the same. If there was nothing to look forward to, why would any of us bother getting up, or even living on, the next day? We all have something to look forward to in one way or another, even those who have been placed on Watch; we just have to realise it, and then take advantage. For me it was initially the fact that I wanted to read a certain book through to the end and, when reading it, discovered that there were cross references to other works I had not read and which, naturally enough, had to be included in order to have a complete picture. Then came the letter writing again – I had been an avid letter writer for many years anyway, but this added something since I was now writing to completely different people and on a vastly different level – and the discussions which followed as I got to know people with divergent but interesting opinions and experiences. All things which can be done within a forced routine as much as within, or despite of, a routine we have chosen for ourselves.

I suppose, in a way, it is much the same as your experience, although not quite as brutal. Neither one of us is really sure what happens next, what is around the next corner, because everything could suddenly change at the whim of someone else – whether it is someone with a little power and a big ego, or someone with the right form of authority remains to be seen. What is certain, for me at least and, I suspect, also for you., is that we both know we have a future in our own lives, and that future is going to bring us things we will both enjoy and hate, and it is up to us to pick out the best and take advantage of them. We move from one hole, one yard, to the next in our own way.