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Black Static


In Conversation With David Mathew

9th Jan, 2012

Author: Peter Tennant

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Back in Black Static #25 I reviewed O My Days, the latest novel by David Mathew, which is a tale of the supernatural based in a prison, and by way of a follow up I put some questions to Dave about the book and the experiences that led to his writing it.

PT: You've worked in a prison. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What were your best and worst experiences while behind bars? How did this impact on your writing of O My Days? Did any particular event act as a trigger for the book?

DM: I managed a team of teachers in the Education Department of a maximum security prison for a couple of years... and it remains the oddest job I've ever had. Before I went there I'd had a really good job with a university, but the funding dried up and as I was on a fixed term contract, the contract was not renewed and five of us were made redundant. So basically, I needed a job, whatever it happened to be, and when I saw the advert I thought it sounded interesting. I'd had discussions with various people over the years about working in prisons, and they'd made it sound a lot more glamorous than it turned out to be, I must say!

For one thing, it was dirty. No, scratch that - it was filthy. I don't just mean all the rubbish that some of the prisoners would throw out of their cell windows (either through boredom or to attack a passer-by if the 'rubbish' in question was excrement or a cup full of boiling sugar); I also mean that the yards were coated in a patina of duck crap and cigarette ends. The office itself was mucky because (for reasons of security) we were only allowed cleaners every once in a while, and the department was about thirty people strong. I will never forget the need for a shower every evening, as soon as I got home, just to rid my skin of the sense of picked-up decay!

All of this grime - plus the noise, the violence, the complaints made by the prisoners - inevitably worked away at the back of my head, but it was the language that the offenders used that made me write down notes between lessons and during the occasional tea break. I became aware of a new language - incredibly creative, fluent, powerful - and slowly I started to unravel what certain words or phrases meant. It took a while for it to dawn on me that this new language would mean anything other than an enriching of my experience in that place (I'd always been interested in language) but I remember thinking: I wonder if there's a short story in this... So that was one trigger point.

I'd heard stories of fights on the Wings, of course; there was a fight every other day, to one extent or another - even a couple inside the classroom! But it wasn't until I witnessed an attempted murder that I really understood the depth of gang feelings and the potency of gang loyalty. Someone had done something to offend someone on the outside, and the punishment was an attempted murder. I think it's fair to say that this was both one of the worst things I saw in the prison (one of the worst things I've ever seen), and also another trigger point for the novel.

But the real trigger, I suppose, was an idle comment I overheard while in the office, doing some marking as I recall. I hadn't been in the post for long, and the topic of conversation I overheard was fighting/violence, and a big old guy who taught Cookery happened to mention that he didn't mind what prisoners he had in the kitchens because he never experienced any problems, in spite of the fact that there were knives in the kitchen. Someone else asked him how he could be so confident, and he replied that the Cookery lesson (for many of the prisoners) was the only good meal of the week, and they wouldn't dare make trouble in the kitchen. And my brain took his sentence and turned it into how a prisoner himself would convey the same information: No one kicks off in the Cookery class. And from that moment on, I knew I had my first sentence; what was more, I had a language that I would be writing this (at the time) short story in; and I knew who my first person narrator would be. I had already built him - he's not a real prisoner.

And I started writing. Billy's surname was a mystery until I was driving home from a trip to Buxton, believe it or not. I knew without a shadow of a doubt, when I saw the word on a street sign, that he was Billy Alfreth. From then, it was a case of revisiting my prison language notebook for ideas.

PT: Have any of the people you've worked with read O My Days? How did they react?

DM: I left that particular job some time ago and now work for a university, but I keep in touch with a few people from those days, several of whom have read it. Two of them loved the book and one said she couldn't finish it because it 'was too realistic and too frightening'. I took that as a compliment.

PT: Much of the book is written in prison argot. Is this authentic or invented by you? What do you feel the book gains by this that made you run the risk of alienating potential readers?

DM: The simple answer is that I can't really imagine the book without the prison language. Not only would it have been a completely different experience in the writing, I doubt it would have seemed realistic in more conventional speech. The fact is, the prison language helps to keep the boys inside their own group, with antibodies towards outsiders: to such an extent that the inside of the prison becomes a world of its own, with its own mode of speech and communication. But Billy (for one) can still remember how to speak more conventionally, and does so when he needs to impress his psychologist or his girlfriend or his mum. Apart from anything else, I wanted to hint at the fact that even language - inside a prison - is a balancing act, a decision, and not something to be taken lightly. It's an environment in which you can get your teeth kicked out for the late return of a pinch of rolling tobacco. Every word counts.

I wanted this to be my own motto as well. No waste. I hoped to keep it sharp, focused, and I've been flattered by some of the comments to the effect that I have managed this.

The prison language in O My Days is largely real and authentic, only once in a while boosted by something I've invented from scratch (usually for comic purposes). But this is not to say that the dialogue is real or anything like that. I made it all up from my notes, a bit like choosing from entries in a foreign dictionary: you know what you want to say, it's a matter of finding the right phrase to get you from this part of the scene to that part of the scene. And truthfully, I love writing in different voices. When I'm publishing academically I have a particular voice, I suppose, but even this  voice will change for a particular publication, or even when discussing different aspects of online anxiety or psychoanalysis (the subjects I cover most frequently).

So no, I did not really worry about the prison language - or the book's voice - alienating readers. For this particular story it was the right voice; I doubt it will be the right voice for something else for a little while, but you never know. (I have plans for Billy in the future!) As I said above, I can't imagine O My Days in any other voice, any more than I can imagine A Clockwork Orange in any other voice than the one Burgess chose for that book. (Which is not to say that I am laying claims for my book being the masterpiece that A Clockwork Orange is, of course!) When someone said to me once, 'I can't stand hearing the author's voice' I thought it was the craziest thing. The voice is really important for me, whether it's Irvine Welsh writing in Scottish brogue or Peter Hoeg's cool Danish crispness.

PT: Time appears to be a central concern of the work, both in the sense of 'doing time' and the strange manifestations of time seen in the book's 'other' realms. What are your thoughts on this? Is time subjective or objective, possibly both or neither? Did you do any research into the nature of time?

DM: Funny that I should have just mentioned Peter Hoeg, because in Borderliners - one of my favourite ever novels - he writes a lot about the perception of time... and I suppose his characters in that book are as much prisoners as my own are in O My Days. (His characters are in the Danish care system.) And to answer your question, time is definitely a central concern of the book: from the title, half-ironic, half-iconoclastic, I hope - to the verbal preoccupations of the prisoners (and the staff) - to the place where time works differently in the alternate existences that Billy has to face... For me, time is incredibly fascinating and infuriating. 'Never enough when you need it' and all that. 'Too much when you don't want it.' But it isn't time that has changed; it is us, and our perception. So it must be subjective, right? But if that's the case, why does time go slowly for all of the prisoners? If it's a subjective experience, there is no sense in this, because 'slow' would be 'normal': a true recognition would require some sort of measurement, a balance... I don't think I'm any closer, really, to understanding time, but I've been studying it in my ham-fisted way for many years.

PT: What was your inspiration for the Hospital and the Oasis?  Is fantasy a coping mechanism for prisoners?

DM: My inspiration for the Hospital and the Oasis, in a word, was Rome. I was on holiday in Rome in 2006 and I went on one of those tour buses that take you around the city. I was particularly struck by the part of the tour that showed a kind of island in the middle of the water, where a leper hospital had once stood. I took it in, and on subsequent walks around, I kept taking a look at it, letting the ideas work their way through. In my mind, I expanded it greatly, as I did with the water, which became The Oasis. So although I ended up changing the positions of things and the sizes, I have Rome to thank for the initial throb, as Nabokov used to put it.

The question of whether or not fantasy is a coping mechanism for prisoners is an intriguing one. Every prisoner who attended classes was notionally permitted to pay one visit to the prison's Library per week. There he could borrow books, obviously (Shaun Hutson was incredibly popular) and order magazines, such as TV Guides and fairly mellow pornography. So sexual fantasy was sort of tolerated: if you wanted to buy some nude mags, that was fine... but other fantasy was frequently squashed, and I'm not at all convinced that this was always for the best.

Example: two prisoners are talking, privately. X says (for argument's sake), 'I'm going to break Z's arm.' Y says, 'You've got to do it.' Now, this is clearly encouragement to violence, and it might or might not be fantasy (violent fantasy) to begin with; but perhaps this is as far as it will go. It's idle talk; it's air; it's killing time. But if that same conversation happened to be overheard by a prison officer, there might be a swift reprimand, possibly something in writing on the prisoner's file: an attempt is made to crush the fantasy before it's properly formed. And what do we do (unconsciously or consciously, depending on our demeanours) if someone tells us not to do something? We want to do more of it. So a fantasy grows, usually suppressed by a punitive superego... but not always.

So I think that an attempt was made to stop fantasy. Or rather, to kill it. But I do think that fantasy is not so easy to stab the breath out of; and yes, I'm sure it was used as a coping mechanism. A lot.

PT: Have your experiences changed your opinion on other 'prison' based work such as Shawshank Redemption, the film based on King's novella? How true to life do you feel such stories are?

DM: I have read 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption' and seen the film, several times each. Not once has it ever occurred to me to doubt a thing about them. Both are fine examples of keeping the audience satisfied. It doesn't matter if it seems preposterous as a précis: a novella is not a précis, and neither is a film: you have to be in it for the long haul. And I love King's work anyway. I'm reading the J.F. Kennedy one at the moment, and it's a little cracker. Or a big cracker.

PT: One of your characters reminded me very much of King's Red, the Shawshank fixer, who becomes institutionalised. Do you feel that prison is effective as a deterrent? Are inmates being helped or is imprisonment simply society's revenge, or at the most a way of protecting itself?

DM: This is a difficult sociological crust to dig through! What I can state with absolute certainty is that I met plenty of prisoners, and quite a few members of staff, who had become institutionalised. But can we honestly say that for these people the prison system has been a failure? What's the alternative, we might ask ourselves. Perhaps they will be released and immediately reoffend in order to get back behind bars. Perhaps they won't be able to cope on the outside... It's hard to say. But what I am pretty sure of is that prison is ineffective as a deterrent for most prisoners who have yet to hit their mid-twenties. They don't give a bollock. Prison is home; it's where their mates live. And while many prisoners are helped by the experience inside, plenty of others are not: they are left in solitary confinement, they are put on suicide watch, they are shipped out to various activities. So in this sense, they are made to play out society's revenge (and not without good cause, let's not forget); a couple of centuries ago they would have been paraded through the streets, or had their heads put on spikes with their hair nicely brushed and their faces washed (for easier recognition).

PT: What would you say is the most obvious difference between a prison inmate and a free person?

DM: A state of mind, I think, much more than a physical wall. One can be a prisoner in one's own home, terrified of open spaces; and one can be a prisoner of what John Steiner called a psychic retreat and Donald Meltzer called the Claustrum. These are places arguably more terrifying than a bricks-and-mortar prison cell, irrespective of cockroaches and dodgy plumbing.

PT: If I wanted to read a great book, either fiction or non-fiction, that captures the feel of life behind bars, what title would you recommend, other than your own?

DM: Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault.

PT: As well as paperback, O My Days was published in electronic format. What are your feelings about the market drift to electronic books? Are you concerned, or excited by the possibilities?

DM: There was a hardback version as well, with my photo blanked out as if I were Billy Alfreth but could not be shown in the newspapers. That was fun.

Generally speaking, I suppose I'm an old-fashioned kind of guy, and I prefer to read the hardcopy over reading online, any day. But I'm certainly not against electronic publishing; it strikes me that if I keep fighting long enough, it will win me over in the same way that it has won over all my mates!

PT: What are you working on at the moment and what can we expect to see from the pen of David Mathew in the near future?

DM: A long novel called The Parry and the Lunge is doing the rounds; it's the one I'm particularly happy with. I'm very proud of that one. And I've nearly finished the first draft of a book about kidnapping, called Ventriloquists. It's another long book and I'm not looking forward to typing it up at all!

On the non-fiction front, my long paper about prison language is forthcoming in the International Forum of Psychoanalysis, and the Journal of Pedagogic Development, which I co-edit, is in preparation for the third issue. Issues 1 and 2 have been incredibly successful, and I've got something to say in all of these editions.




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