The PRG group at HMP Bullingdon recently welcomed Mick Herron, award-winning author of fifteen novels and described by the Sunday Times as ‘the UK’s new spy master’ for his brilliant series of Jackson Lamb books.
The Bullingdon group has been going since 2001 and lays claim as the longest-running prison reading group in the country. This is mostly thanks to the brilliant library staff who make it all happen. They publicise the meetings enthusiastically, they brief the library orderlies to spread the word and they ensure that the rest of the prison knows about the group. They also make sure workers can come to the group without loss of pay. The Governor has attended and visiting authors over the years have included Philip Pullman, Boris Johnson and Nikki French.
Fifteen men gathered for Mick’s visit and almost everyone had read Slow Horses, the chosen book. Jackson Lamb heads a crew of failed MI5 spies, banished from the buzz of Regent’s Park and ‘the ranks of the achievers’ to Slough House, ‘a dusty recess between commercial premises’ somewhere in a dreary bit of Finsbury. Lamb himself is a masterpiece of anti-social slobbery who seems to spend most of the time farting and belching a path through take-away curries which leave alarming traces on his shirt fronts. But everything changes when a boy is kidnapped in London and threatened with live broadcast beheading.
Mick talked about the origins of the novel.
‘I didn’t really know anything about the real world of spies but I’d read Len Deighton and John Le Carre. And I knew a lot about working in an office – the boredom, the fly-blown sense of failure’. The immediate catalyst was the 7/7 bombings in 2005 and the sense of London is everywhere in the novel. ‘I realised that just being in London after those bombs gave me a kind of experience and insight I could use’.
Of course we asked him how he became a writer and early influences. Enid Blyton was one because ‘she satisfied my desire for story’. One of the men quipped, ‘Yeah, but what happens to Noddy as soon as he hits Toytown? He gets arrested!’
Mick described writing as ‘taking part in a conversation with all the books you’ve read’ and this led to great discussion of reading and writing. A Traveller member talked about not being able to read when he came to prison and how proud he is of his 10-year old son ‘top of the class for reading last week’. Another man spoke of discovering letter-writing in prison and thinking about his family as readers. ‘As I write I ask myself, does this excite me? Will it excite them?’
Thanks to Mick for a terrific visit and to the Bullingdon library team who make the library the most vibrant and civilised place in the prison.