Book Review: Her Majesty's Philosophers

22 Oct 2013

PET Media and Public Affairs Manager, Susannah Henty, writes:

When Alan Smith was asked by the further college he was working in if he would do two weeks’ supply teaching in a prison, he said yes, not realising it would turn into a 14 year career not just in teaching but also as a Guardian columnist. Now, 18 months after he stopped teaching in prison, Smith has published a book about the experience.

Her Majesty’s Philosophers, published by Waterside Press, is both hilarious and devastating and paints a fascinating picture of a side of prison life that is rarely highlighted – the classroom. The reader is invited into debates about Aristottle, Sartre and Hobbes and meets a colourful group of protagonists, who regularly take the author on in a battle of wits and win. Smith takes us through an entertaining tour through cookery, drama, pottery, photography and yoga classes where we witness a prison production of The Tempest, prisoners learning to cook a meal for less than 60p per head and meet an award-winning-artist who earns commissions for his work in chocolate or roll-ups. The value of the ‘softandfluffy’ subjects shine through Smith’s witty anecdotes and story telling. Towards the finale, Smith pits his model of a University of Prison against the current system, with its narrow focus on ‘Employability’, work and training.

As a charity that has worked to champion the cause of education for 25 years, we were delighted with Smith’s celebration of all forms of learning and teaching. It was also fantastic to read the success stories of some of PET’s alumni. So I decided to put some of our questions to the author. 

Alan Smith: The Interview

What were your first impressions of prison life and the many organisations who work there?

When I went in I accepted everything about it - the security arrangements, the language of the guys, the role of vicar and the other organisations. I had a background in writing; I was in the habit of watching and noting, thinking that’s a good story…I was interested in the Kafkaesque three letter acronyms and abbreviations, the ‘seg’, the ‘out’,  for me this was terrific the words suggested a deep, dark, mysterious world and I plugged into that detail.

How did you get the detail, how do you remember everything?

I was writing diaries at the time, I used to jot things down that the guys said, it became a joke at one time. I told them I would pass it on to security and drop them in it. I got worried that the chaps were making things up and I’d write them down and put them in the newspaper.

Some of the things the men in your class say are really very powerful, in fact poetic, especially in Chapter 12 - did this really happen just as you describe it?

Yes I can say hand on heart it happened. Some of the things they said were devastating really, the way in which they express themselves – it was shattering. When Eddy said: “Man hands on misery to man” in that deep Scottish accent, smiling, it was ghost like. As a writer I thought thank you God for putting me in this situation. They were really intelligent, more intelligent than me but they had no schooling, no one had told them anything, many had left school at nine years old, teachers were glad to see the back on them and they fell on what I was doing like hungry wolves. If they’d had my family they’d have been academics instead of drug dealers and thugs but they had lives of abuse, it is no wonder they came out with stuff that was heart-breaking.

Shortly after you start teaching in the prison, your wife berates you at dinner for being so sympathetic to the prisoners, does she still?

For me the men weren’t concepts or figures of dread, they were just blokes and we had ordinary conversations. If, like my wife, you’ve not been into a prison you don’t have that fleshy context for the judgements you make. She has since been to prisons and met men who have been released and gone on to go to college and now she kisses them on both cheeks. As soon as you come into actual, real contact with a person your relationship is transformed. You’re confronted with a polite human being, with a family, who is interacting with you, offers you a seat so you start making ordinary judgements about him.

You mention lots of characters in the book and there is a whole chapter on Charles (not his real name), who PET funded while he was in prison, are you still in touch with him?

I can’t tell you how much I admire Charles, not just for his intelligence and work, for his sheer stoic courage. I would have stayed in contact with him anyway and sod the rules but now because he’s a professional academic and so am I we meet in the course of our work, we’ve given papers together and our contact always has that professional dimension to it. I’m not in contact with anyone else. When men leave prison they want to leave prison they don’t want to see someone like me reminding them of it and now that I’ve left prison I’m not sure I want to be either. My heart shrinks, when all’s said and done, prison is disgusting it’s a dreadful place and now the establishment is besotted with training and employability.

What do you think the guys will think of this book?

I think they’ll be fine, I don’t say anything negative about them on the grounds that there are people queuing up out there to do that. I owe them big time, they took me in, protected me, they gave me good advice and some of the best teaching experiences of my entire career. There’s this pent up intelligence that is so seductive for a teacher. When you’re a teacher you meet from time to time people who scare you, who are better informed than you or who have the sense of humour to carve you up in class. Don’t pretend to be the expert, someone told me “You taught me that I could be wrong, that I didn’t have to know everything” I learned that in prison myself. You did what you did, OK, but when you came to me you were terrific, some had done terrible things, some I know were only well behaved and cooperative in my class and they were a nightmare in the wing, they were temporarily transformed by learning.

You are very complementary of the other teachers in the book, tell me about them?

A lot of teachers in prison education go above and beyond. If a man wants to get into a particular course on release or needs to get a qualification to do that course the staff go the extra mile and do it. They were immune to disappointment, came back from whatever put down they had, got a bit cross, cursed and blinded but they did what they had to do again and again. You have all the vocab of cynicism but somehow you’re not cynical.

Why is the arts important in prison?

It is the same for people inside and outside. I get irritated that there’s no support for it, writers in prison have had all their funding cut but for many training is not appropriate. What do you do for the mad, career criminals, retired people – don’t they deserve an arts education? I think they do.

You say you became a bit obsessed with exams and qualifications. How do you encourage people to do further education, to get A-levels and apply for university?

Disregard the barriers. You say you might fail, are you bothered? Let’s just go for it, a lot of the guys will be afraid of failure and duck out but many plunge in with the same spirit that they might say yeah let’s just rob the bank and then there were some guys I put off completely. I see qualifications as a gateway for a much wider world for these guys, what I hadn’t realised is that some guys don’t want that and that was another big lesson.

How did you start writing for the national media?

I started writing about what I was doing in the TES, then the Scotsman and out of the blue I sent an article to the Guardian and they said yes we’ll run that. I kept that going. It was all about the philosophy class, all I did was rely on something new happening every week and it did.

What happened when the authorities found out?

They went bonkers, they thought I was a journalist and I was trying to ferret out scandal!

What’s next?

There isn’t a plan. I’m writing a thriller. I’m trying to get away from prison but it keeps pulling me back, I’ve just visited a prison in St Louis, USA, I give lectures and write academic papers. Maybe one day I’ll go back to teaching, but I need more time away.