THE BOOKS HAVE IT….2.
Being a voracious reader on the outside my introduction into remand in Belfast Prison—firstly in 1972—and once again for most of 1975—meant that it was a constant search and struggle to find suitable reading material. You accepted books from any source possible—once from an IRA prisoner I met during a dental visit—and many times from screws. Sometimes—many times in fact—you read books for the sake of reading and in many cases books you would normally give a second glance to. There were books that did the rounds and were read by virtually everyone. There were others that became coveted and were worthy of multiple reads. I saw books torn in half when a reader got to a certain point to allow a friend to commence it while he finished. There were fads, habits, rituals, penances, recommendations and duties. There was the obligatory scan of the Bible—usually when ensconced in the punishment cells where other books were like gold dust and as obtainable as something pleasant to eat.
Remand time to me seemed to consist of a lot of down time when we were locked up quite a bit with virtually no recreational facilities—no television—and usually limited access to a transistor radio—so reading was one way of passing the time. “C” Wing in the early seventies wasn’t exactly a haven for books—good or otherwise so basically you accepted what came your way. I was seventeen years old during my first remand and many of the others were of a similar age—but most of the books were hand me downs from the older remand prisoners and these tended to be Westerns or War novels. It was here I was introduced to JT Edson and became familiar with Dusty Fog and the Ysabel Kid. Jack Schaffer’s Shane was much read and was passed about quite a bit. Louis L’Amour was another favourite of the time—books of his that readily spring to mind are The Ferguson Rifle—Shalako—and the Sackett novels. As Gaudeamus previously mentioned the Sven Hassel books were particularly widely read and became the topic of many conversations over a cup of tea or a dander round the exercise yard. It was common to hear the prisoners relate the exploits of Porta, Tiny and Julius from the Panzer division full of renegade soldiers who no one else wanted. Legion Of The Damned is the one Hassel book I remember most.
By 1973 I had been shifted—against my wishes it has to be said, but on the back of a 4 year sentence—to Long Kesh and into Compound 11. There were more like minded people here and many who read much more than I did. The substantial Compound library was supplemented by books sent in through the Welfare system on the outside. You still had the usual Westerns and War novels but increasingly, to me it became noticeable that many other more enlightening types of books were being read. One of the first books I remember borrowing was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and also around this time I started reading Venceremos by John Gerrasi—the writings of Che Guevara. I have to say that at this particular time I found it a little hard going and it was quite a while before I revisited that particular book. Suddenly I was spoilt for choice and time permitting—because by now I had a routine that gave very little free time during the day—I read as much as possible. Because of a new awareness and promptings from the more politically astute comrades my reading became more selective—although I still enjoyed the escapism of novels—I went through most of the Harold Robbins novels up until that date—A Stone for Danny Fisher and Never Love A Stranger were the best of these. Politically the stand outs were ATQ Stewart’s The Ulster Crisis—greatly read throughout the compound—The Making of Modern Ireland by JC Bekett, that to me gave a different perspective on Irish history—and a biography of the great preacher Charles H. Spurgeon—loaned to me by one of the “good living” prisoners. “A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting its shoes on”….was a memorable quote from Spurgeon. Throughout the years I was in Compound 11 and subsequently 18 and then 21, I have to say that I got through a huge amount of reading. More than most but certainly not as much as some—like Billy Strain who was prolific. It wouldn’t have been unusual for Billy to go through 2 or 3 novels daily!! Books that were of particular interest to me tended to be read and re read. Ones that fell into this category were Mario Puzo’s, The Godfather—which remains one of my personal fiction books. Again like Gaudeamus I went through the Vietnam thing. Dispatches by Michael Herr remains one of the greatest books about combat I have ever read. I have lost count of the copies I have gone through—lending them out never to be returned. I still have a copy today!! If I Should Die In a Combat Zone—Nam—Sand in the Wind—A Rumour of War—Dien Bien Phu—Going After Cacciato—the list is long. In between all the serious or academic reading much of my time was devoted to novels of all descriptions. Recommendations from others or trying someone new—it didn’t matter. What you did find was that a good book passed round like wildfire and if you read a new author you tended to go through their catalogue quite quickly. Stephen King—Robert Ludlum—Jack Higgins—Joe Poyer—all had their fans. Wilbur Smith was an author who caught the imagination of many. Maybe it was because he related to the adventure of the wide open spaces—usually in Africa—something that wasn’t attainable to the “captive readers”. Like most others I read them with relish and would have no problem still revisiting the trilogy of When The Lion Feeds—The Sound of Thunder and A Sparrow Falls relating to the lives of the rival families The Courtneys and The Ballentines. Superb!!
I developed quite an interest in American Crime novels around this time—an interest that has grown with age. My introduction to this genre was through reading a fine novel called The Friends of Eddie Coyle—later turned into a movie with Robert Mitchum—by George V. Higgins. I was hooked from the start and after going through his catalogue I branched out to—James M. Cain—Jim Thompson-Ross McDonald-Donald E. Westlake. I was insatiable.
Books—whether they were factual or fiction-which were prison related always held an interest and some were more memorable than others. Previously you have read about the Jimmy Boyle books—both essential reading as was–A Day In the Life..No matter how depressing it was!! Others that stand out include Midnight Express—Go Boy by Roger Caron, a story of a number of Canadian institutions visited by the author throughout his life—The Executioners Song by Norman Mailer—the trial, imprisonment and public execution of multiple killer Gary Gilmore and Brubaker—the story of the Arkansas State Prison scandal of 1967 uncovered by author Tom Murton.
It is impossible to pick any one book throughout my time in the Compounds that I could say was my favourite. Suffice to say that I read thousands—many forgettable but many more I remember fondly. Life in Long Kesh would have been much more difficult without the endless supply of books and for this avid reader, it made a Life sentence at least a little more attractive.