Martina Cole visits HMP Thameside

21 Oct 2015

On Monday 5 October 2015 PET visited HMP Thameside to hear bestselling crime writer Martina Cole talk to a group of prisoners about the importance of reading and education. Susannah Henty reports back:

"I’ve always been an advocate of education in prisons"

Crime writer Martina Cole knows the value of giving people in prison stimulating, high quality education. Cole has spent the past 16 years visiting prisons and has seen just how important it is. For a time the crime writer taught creative writing in prison, because she says, “I could see there was a need for it, I’ve always been an advocate of education in prisons.”

In the packed chaplaincy of south east London’s HMP Thameside she told an audience of more than 80 prisoners: “For me a book has always taken me out of where I am…I didn’t do well at school, I came from a similar background as many of you. I was expelled twice. I hated the regime of school. I am self-educated. I educated myself.”

The author’s visit was organised by the prison library to promote books, learning and the Reading Ahead scheme, a challenge for participants to complete six books.

David Kendall from the Reading Agency, who manages the scheme in prisons, said: “The purpose of this is to get people back into reading or perhaps to read for the first time. Authors inspire us to read, to read more and more, to pick up new stuff. Martina Cole is not only a number one best selling author but she is also the most popular author in UK prisons. She is an author who gives us a unique perspective on life and writes books people want to read.”

Cole is an ambassador for the scheme, and an avid reader herself, who talked about how her love of reading stemmed from childhood.

“I encourage you all to read as much as possible and then go on to hopefully do some further education too” says Cole.

It was clear she was popular amongst the audience and many were self-confessed super fans. Despite the PA system failing to work just as the discussion got started, and rain pouring down noisily on the glass roof above, everyone craned to listen Cole with rapt attention.

She was also asked a series of thoughtful, intelligent questions from the audience, many of whom wanted to tell their own memoirs.

Cole encouraged the men to write their own stories: “I’m a big believer in writing as you speak. Think of a powerful image and start with that. Think about the people in your life, your parents, your kids, give them a page or two. Describe their characters. Then you can turn that into fiction. My books are fiction but some scenes within them are based on reality ‘Faceless’ came from a real experience.”

Repeatedly telling the group of prisoners, “If I can do it, you can do it,” Cole revealed that she’d had setbacks in her life and didn’t believe it was possible for her to become a writer.

“All my life I wanted to be an author but I didn’t think I could because of my background” says Cole.

This clearly struck a chord with the audience. Afterwards one prisoner wrote: “It was an inspiring and, in many ways, a humbling event. Martina doesn’t come from an academic background so it was uplifting to hear how she’d turned herself into a bestselling author through simple hard work.”

In feedback from attendees, many appreciated the writing tips Martina gave, for example, she said: “I wrote for myself, to entertain me – you should write for yourselves. Write what you want to read. Keep true to your own thoughts, your own characters.”

Cole went on to divulge further advice about writing, bringing authenticity to characters, doing research and the process of getting work published. She advised budding writers to sending a sample chapter of their best work to an editor, “They don’t care who you are or where you’re from. All they’re interested in is a good, original story.”

Finally, talking about her favourite book, which is always her latest story, she said: “You lose yourself in writing the same way you lose yourself in a book.”

Cole and Kendall then presented 15 certificates to prisoners, officers and staff who had completed the Reading Ahead scheme. It was brilliant to see how supportive the prisoners were, both to their peers and staff, as each individual received a huge round of applause as they collected their certificates and held them up for the crowd to see.

Find out more about Reading Ahead.