One of the common items throughout my life sentence was books. From the moment I went on remand in the Crum to the very last days I was able to read. I’m writing this article to ask other ex 21ers what books they recall from their stay in C21. Or indeed any of the cage men. When I first entered the Crum it was said that I was under a threat from the Provos. As a result I ended up in protection in ‘B’ wing with Basher and Billy from the Shankill. It was here I was first able to read the Roman Catholic bible. I had heard that the two bibles were different so now I had a chance to read those books that had been dropped from the Prod bible. To be honest the Apocrypha didn’t exactly rock my world, just raised questions as to who selected what books did, or did not, go into the Bible.
The Crum was a hellhole in the ‘70s and so it was with suspicion that I took a book offered me by a screw. It was ‘Run Baby Run’ by Nicky Cruz. Basically this was about gangs in New York and one finding god and salvation while he lost his great friend. It was a good book. When I got to Compound 21 one of the first books I was given was ‘Discourses’ by the philosopher Rene Descartes. Quite a step up from the Beano and Dandy. Education had a strong base in Compound 21 so it was easy getting hold of good books.
There was any amount of books in the cage and besides needing books for studying there was a library which we all shared. At one time a number of men got together and formed a book club. Money was chippe din books bought and then everyone would have access to those books. Any of us could get books left in our parcels. I was able to read many books but a theme was the Vietnam War. One of the best books for me was ‘Dispatches’ by Michael Kerr. It was early 1980s and the summers, as I recall, were far better than today. I was able to sit out on a flat roof reading this brilliant account of the Vietnam War and I could see and listen to the British army helicopters lifting in and out of the Kesh. Talk about creating an atmosphere. One book that was widely read (but now we are not so sure how much it is fact or fiction) was the ‘Devils Guard’ by George Elford. Basically this was about Vietnam after the French had got involved but before the Americans got embroiled. The twist here is that the story centres on ex Nazis who had skipped the end of the Second World War and could use their experience in this theatre of war. There are plenty of dirty deeds and a different way of fighting terrorists. On the lines of war there was a curious link with the Book ‘Firepower’. What links an ex British soldier (who was Greek), turned mercenary, the Troubles and the Angolan Civil war? The self-styled Colonel Callan (he was a corporal) led a bunch of mercenary’s during Angola’s bitter civil war in 1975. Callan was infamous for committing a few atrocities along the way. When captured the government could not break him. In order to do so (the story goes) they dug up Callans best friend and threw the remains into the cell with Callan who proceeded to crack up. His link to the troubles is that he, with some loyalists, committed an armed robbery around the Bangor area which led to him being booted out of the British Army. Callan was shot by firing squad in 1976.
Another main theme of books and closely related to what we were doing there was the Troubles both current and previous. I read every book I could on the Troubles. From Sarah Nelsons, ‘Uncertain Defenders’ to Rona Fields who wrote, “Children of the Troubles. A society on the run”. I actually met with Rona on a visit one day when she was over from the USA. The First World War loomed large in C.21. I lived in the middle hut which was called Passchendaele after the battle. There were quite a few books on the subject. It was amazing years later to actually stand on the places like Messines, Albert and Thiepval that I had only read about before. There was the essential ‘History of the 36th (Ulster) Division’ by C. Falls. ‘The Ulster Crisis’ by ATQ Stewart. Again, I had learned nothing about this history in school and yet it had meant so much to our society today.
However the book that stands out for me was George Dangerfield’s ‘That Damnable Question’. (the title is a quote from Winston Churchill) It’s about the 1916 – 1922 period and it was amazing for me to read. We were taught no Irish history at all in our school. A common experience for both RCs and Prods I have found out! This was an effort to record events properly and not with a bias to one side or other. Although it’s a debate whether history can be written with total impartiality. Politics was another big aspect of life for me. I recall being in the hospital for a period when the Governor walked in to do his rounds. He saw a copy of the ‘Crossman Dairies’ on my bed. He appeared quite surprised for me to be reading that. Richard Crossman was a leading Labour MP for years. Apparently his diaries formed part of the basis for the funny TV show ‘Yes Minster’.
On one occasion in the boards (punishment cell) I was able to get the book “10 Rillington Place” about the English killer John Christie. When the door was next opened I handed the guard the book. “Not like it” he says. ‘No. Finished it. Anything else?’ Amazing what you can read when you have the time. One book that was linked to my psychology studies which I have since borrowed again was ‘War on the Mind’ by G Watson. Incredible book and based very much in the real world. I recall in the book the actual World War 2 story which is the basis of the film ‘Dirty Dozen’. Serving prisoners and convicts in America were given the chance to fight in Europe. Most did so, many with distinction.
Science fiction was one of my favourite genres. No better way to escape for a while. I had all the usual from Arthur Clarke, Le Gunn, Bradbury, Heinlein and Asimov. I suppose the best that stands out for me because it was sent from America by a pen pal and it is a great story is ‘Childhoods End’ by A. Clarke which was first published in 1953.
Another theme in book (and film) was about prison and other peoples experiences of prison. Again there is too many to go over but the book Bandito was the experience of a white man who fought on the side of the ANC. He relays his experiences of a South African prison. It is not pleasant reading. One of the best factual books was by the Andrew Beevor. ‘The Fall of Berlin’ is a great book. Why it stands out for me was that I read it in a day. I had a usual routine of running, gym, studying, cooking, cleaning, etc but that day I just read the book straight through. A bit of a labour of love was Solzhenitsyn’s, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’. Heavy stuff but interesting. His ‘Cancer Ward’ was a book to far. Another great Russian writer was Fyodor Dostoyevsky. His ”House of the Dead” is about prison and he used his own experience of Russian prison to write the book and make it very realistic.
I actually had a signed copy of Jimmy Boyles book a “Sense of Freedom” plus his follow up ‘The Pain of Imprisonment’. Well written with some things I could totally empathize with. He was a Scottish life sentence prisoner who ahd a very violent past but completely changed and went on to have books and TV shows about his life. Another great book by a serving prisoner although of a totally different world was by Gordon Liddy. For those who grew up with ‘Watergate’, ‘President Tricky dickey Nixon’, deleted tapes, etc, this was a book from one of the central characters that was involved in the scandal. The book “Will”, is a great read.
There was loads of fiction from Steven King, Wilbur Smith, James Clavell, Higgins, Leon Uris and so on. One great book was ‘Sand in the Wind’. Again Americans in Vietnam. This was by Robert Roth. The book’ Lighter than a Feather’ by David Westheimer was a fictional story of what would have happened if the Yanks had to go into Japan without the use of the atomic bomb. Another great read. I of course have to mention the great military history books by Sven Hassel. Ahem?
So any of the ‘special cats’ reading this, what was your favourite book and why?