So it was in March that I got a phone call from one of my friends in the Pagan Federation. She is a Pagan Chaplain for Channing Wood Prison near Newton Abbott and works with Pagan prisoners there, teaching, organising rituals with them, and one day played them some of my songs. They really liked them, and asked if I might play a concert at the prison – hence the phone call.
Now when you’re 8 years old and you decide to learn to play guitar you can never know where that simple decision might lead in the future. For me it’s led to some amazing experiences, playing at conferences and camps, concerts in the USA and Europe, and now to play a medium security prison. Of course I said yes straight away.
I set off at 7am and got to the prison about midday. I must admit that I found the building very imposing, and the security quite intimidating, but I was met at the ‘air lock’ and shown to the prison chapel where I was due to play two 45 minute performances. I’ve seen prisons on the TV, but I don’t think that can prepare you for the atmosphere of the place. The very fact that this small few acres of brick and concrete was the prisoners’ entire world really hit home when we walked through what seemed like locked gate after locked gate. No prisoners in sight, they were all at lunch.
The chapel was a beautiful space with fantastic acoustics (I’ve played in a couple of churches now and they are great venues for acoustic music 🙂 ), and the staff were all extremely friendly and caring people. I spent some time tuning up and warming up my voice before the audience of 50 prisoners arrived. I found myself feeling a little nervous, not knowing what to expect, but in truth I needn’t have worried at all. The guards took the names of the people there as they came into the chapel and one by one they sat down. About a third of the audience was Pagan, the others had just come to hear some live music (a rare commodity by all accounts) and be entertained. I quickly got the vibe of the audience – it wasn’t difficult – they were all men, so a blokey set was called for. I didn’t know whether they would sing along with me or not. I started with Song of Awen and the cheer at the end was deafening – it was going to be a great gig. I thought we’d try the singing on the second song, so went into Domeanna, introducing it as a ‘Dirty old sailor gets the posh bird’ song, which went down very well. Now when people sing along to this song they are often polite and gentle – not this audience, it was like playing to a load of football fans singing along at a club match. They sang with gusto. It continued like that for the rest of the set really, and I was blessed with a standing ovation at the end, and an encore. They’d also sent around a card which they’d all signed, a momento I will treasure.
As I drove home I reflected on how much the prisoners seemed to support each other, and how generally happy they were. I’m sure it’s not like that all of the time, but it reminded me of when I was an agricultural trainer and used to go to Africa quite regularly. The tribes I visited were subsistence farmers, and in truth they didn’t know if they would survive from harvest to harvest, which seemed like it should cause a great deal of stress, but it actually had the opposite effect. It meant that they lived completely for the ‘now’. There was no point worrying what the future would bring or climbing any social ladder, they could never afford a fast car, bigger house etc, so didn’t think about it, and they almost seemed happier for it. It felt similar with these men. Take away a person’s freedom and liberty, their possessions, their immediate future; and these walls, their fellow prisoners, and a few treats are all they have. To fight against that day in, day out, would send a person mad, so the only way to survive must be to surrender to the process and accept the situation. And there lies some kind of peace I guess.
I don’t know what any of them had done to end up in prison. It wasn’t my place to judge anyone, the courts had already done that. I was just a part of their lives in that small acreage of land for a couple of hours, and I had the opportunity to walk out, back into the everyday life, and freedom I seem to take so much for granted….