Saturday 21 April 2018

Books: Engrossing tales of prison life in the North

Fiction: The Wing Orderly's Tales, Carlo Gébler, New Island Books, pbk, 165 pages, €9.95

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.
The Wing Orderly Tales by Carlo Gebler

John Boland

Aside from writing fiction and memoirs, Carlo Gébler has spent more than two decades teaching in Northern Ireland prisons, and this collection of stories makes use of his experiences in these institutions. Indeed, it often reads as a manual on how to survive prison life.

The book's narrator is Harold 'Chalky' Chalkman, described in his prison record card as "intelligent, manipulative, violent, selfish", and serving 12 years for 42 burglaries and for attacking a police officer with a brick. The authorities in the fictional Loanend prison give him the job of breakfast-cooking orderly and it's from this social vantage point that he relates his stories.

Most of them are grim, both in their details and in their outcome, but you don't have to discover this for yourself because Chalky keeps telling you. He tells you, for instance, that there's always waiting in jail, adding: "Ninety-nine per cent of the time that's what jail is - waiting around bored out of your fucking mind. The other one per cent is just vicious, stupid bollocks."

You're told, too, that while most prison rules don't make any sense, "what they do manage is to annoy the fuck out of you and to make prison worse". Furthermore, jail friendships aren't proper friendships because "you don't get to pick your fellow cons", while a basic lesson to be learnt is "nobody forgets, not in jail they don't". And as a basic survival technique, it's crucial to realise that "in a jail, the more you keep hidden, and the less anyone knows about you, the better".

There are many other such tips throughout the stories - so many, in fact, that it's hard not to regard Chalky as mainly a mouthpiece for the author's own observations of prison life, though it helps that Chalky turns out to be a gruffly engaging narrator (conceding that he's selfish but "in a good way") and that the mostly violent inmates whose stories he tells are so vividly evoked.

There's fellow kitchen orderly Basher Quinn (nicknamed Eskimo after Dylan's song 'The Mighty Quinn'), who battered an old woman to death while burgling her house, but who himself falls victim to two inmates who accuse him of being a tout.

There's Sol, given a painkiller for a toothache that contains codeine, which is against prison regulations, thereby causing the withdrawal of privileges that would have enabled him to complete an Open University course.

There's loyalist paramilitary Yogi Bear, who's in jail for chopping off the fingers of his daughter's boyfriend, but who nonetheless is demanding political segregation inside. And there's Sri Lankan and former ship's engineer, Engine, who enters jail mild-mannered and friendly but who's forced by unpleasant circumstances into adopting a hardman persona.

The stories are engrossingly told and Chalky gives these men, violent though some of them are, their human due, though the prison officers remain remote figures with the exception of Hayes, who's the main screw on his wing and registers as fundamentally decent "solid and slow and generally fair" in Chalky's verdict.

Chalky himself, though, remains a largely impotent figure, either powerless to intervene when bullying or other injustices happen or simply reluctant to do anything that might compromise his own fragile standing in a system that remains all about incarceration rather than any notion of rehabilitation.

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