If I had been asked, as they filed in, to point out the one that most unnerved me, it would have been him. Thick set, bull-headed, covered with tattoos, including one in what looked like Arabic script across his neck, he had a penetrating stare and a menacing energy.
Several of the prisoners, I had been warned, were on methadone, and that made them dopey; but this character wasn’t dopey, he was wired. I explained that I was going to talk about, and read a bit from, my own books, and then we were going to do some exercises. ‘Let’s keep it informal,’ I added. ‘If you want to ask questions as we go along, that’s fine.’
We were in one of the visiting rooms, an upstairs space the size of a tennis court with comfortable seating and spectacular views over coils of razor wire to the nearby hills; seventeen long- and medium-term prisoners, the writer-in-residence, half a dozen curious prison officers who, for the time being, were keeping their distance, and me.
I had hardly finished my introduction when Tattoos was in with his first question. He didn’t so much ask it as fire it at me, a staccato burst of almost unintelligible Central Belt patois. I had to wait while my brain decoded what it had heard before I could answer him.
Three minutes later there was another burst. And so it continued for nearly two hours. Every time I paused, and sometimes when I didn’t, Tattoos had another question. They were smart questions: about research, about characterisation and the role of personal experience in the writing process, about what is fiction and what isn’t.
I could feel my prejudices being dismantled. This was a highly curious, intelligent person, albeit one who severely lacked an education and had doubtless been let down by both society and himself in other ways. But his hunger to learn seemed insatiable, and so was his desire to express himself.
We ended with an exercise I have always loved, where people are given a series of prompts to describe someone they know using only metaphors. The result is a poem which brings the subjects alive in a vivid, unexpected and often emotionally charged way.
‘Who would like to share what they’ve written with us?’ I asked, fully expecting the usual lowered eyes and embarrassed shuffling of feet. But Tattoos had his hand up almost before I’d finished asking. I nodded and he fired off his poem as he had done the questions, at high speed, from somewhere at the back of his throat.
It was good. He’d chosen the prison governor as his subject and it was funny and heartfelt, ironic as well as poignant. ‘You are the Gucci watch of the Scottish Prison Service’ was the opening line. If he’d read it slowly enough for everyone to hear, he would have got a big laugh.
Even so, when he’d finished there were general murmurings of appreciation and I congratulated him fulsomely. His face widened in a beam of the most utterly childlike pleasure. I’ve no idea what he was in for, but I wondered when anyone had last told him he’d made a good job of something. Forty-eight hours later I’m still carrying that smile inside me like a charge of raw solar energy.