Thursday 27 October 2016

Gebler's searing truths of prison life

Short Stories: The Wing Orderly's Tales, Carlo Gébler, New Island, €9.95

Published 18/04/2016 | 02:30

Survival: Carlo Gébler spent two decades teaching in Northern Ireland prisons. Photo: David Conachy.
Survival: Carlo Gébler spent two decades teaching in Northern Ireland prisons. Photo: David Conachy.

Carlo Gebler is a highly talented and underrated writer. At over 60 now he believes publishers are no longer interested in supporting writers who try to produce books when they are over 50/60 years.

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'For someone like me who doesn't necessarily want to write a serious book but who wants to write seriously that is a disaster.'

Notwithstanding, his latest book is a collection of 12 authentic and tantalising short stories set in the fictitious North of Ireland prison of Loanend.

The searing honesty of these stories is not surprising when one considers that Gebler had first-hand experience of prisoners, having worked as a creative writing tutor in the early nineties in the Maze (Long Kesh) prison and later in HMP Maghaberry in Co Antrim.

These tales are narrated by wing orderly Chalky, a prisoner who was given 12 years for a violent crime. He is appointed to the job of orderly because he is not allowed visitors and therefore is available for duties 24/7.

The narratives bring to mind Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy for the visceral realism of their telling with human smells and noises like, as the author described in an RTE Arena interview, 'a test tube with stuff foaming up around you'.

An orderly is a prisoner who, for a small weekly stipend and certain privileges, including cheap TV rental and access to tuck shop cigarettes (a bargainable currency), has responsibility for keeping the wing clean and tidy.

As he comes in contact non-confrontationally with staff and inmates from loyalist and republican backgrounds equally, he is the ideal person to tell the prisoners' stories.

He is the Homer, as Gebler points out, vindicating the lives of these cast away and largely forgotten people. "They are us, they spring from us and will return to us very damaged. Nobody is just bad."

The soul-destroying inertia of prison life is brilliantly captured: "That's what jail does," concedes Chalky, 'it gets in you and then you do what they want automatically. Like breathing, it just happens.'

There is wonderful and imaginative writing here as when Chalky looks up from his cell window and sees the clouds: 'One was like the exploding bag of soot and another looked like a lion's head'.

And the narrow world gleaned from his Judas slit sometimes becomes bathed in red from the emergency light whirring above.

The dialogue is spot on: "All right Tiny?" I said "Yeah sweet, and you Chalky, how's it hanging?" And the food which Chalky as orderly has to dish out is utterly convincing in its unpalatability: 'Grey fish in brown batter and dry mushy peas and soggy chips and a choc-ice on a stick'.

The detailed insights into prison life such as old toothpaste used as glue to hold pictures up and the limitation of one pillow to a cell because of the necessity of two pillows to suffocate someone, mark this book out not only as a work of art but as an important sociological document.

As one reads these gripping tales, one senses danger lurking all the time with the threat to blacklegs or whingers as the paramilitaries try to run the jails and, failing, burn down wings in an attempt to reduce the system to anarchy.

And terrible things happen such as the horrendous murder of 'the lifer' Eskimo for owing drug money. Or the dreadful punishment of boiling water with sugar added to melt into the skin of a scab.

Or the grim reality of self-inflicted death as exemplified by the slow agonising suicide of the murderer SC who tied the noose around his neck and sat down because 'you haven't the drop in a cell when you hang yourself, so that's what you do - you sit down to die and you stay sitting till you're dead'.

Witness this sad but totally accurate portrayal of a prison drug-addict:

"Sweet Gene lifted his head. He'd grey eyes and a long face with scars around the edges. These were the sites of boils he'd squeezed until they burst and scarred into pits. It's a common junkie thing. When they're coming down they can't help scratching the pustules that come with using?'

It is not all unrelenting gloom, however, as we are privy to occasional outbursts of humour such as the hilarious play on a Twix bar by the know all Maurice claiming its Latin etymology.

One or two of the stories involves the wing orderly himself playing a starring role, as when he agrees to swop his cell with the prisoner from cell 13, which was supposed to be haunted, and where he gets more than the Golden Virginia tobacco and phone cards he'd bargained for.

It is interesting that the book ends with the prisoners taking a creative writing class, but even that is fraught and not necessarily the panacea sometimes thought by ideologists outside the system.

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