"I see John Reid is asking judges not to send people to prison," said the man with the dog, as he took a sip of his pint. "Bit of a turn-up for the book, isn't it? I mean, New Labour has been so keen on putting people away in the past. And now he wants them not to be put away. Gone liberal, suddenly."
"Of course he hasn't gone liberal!" said the resident Welshman, from his corner seat in the pub. "All Reid is doing is looking at the overcrowding in prisons and having a knee-jerk reaction. Which has been the New Labour policy all along."
"I don't remember that being in the Labour manifesto," said the lady with the black hair-do and creamy highlights, which matches the Guinness she is back on. "I don't remember them committing themselves to knee-jerk reactions."
"Well, of course they don't admit it," said the Welshman, "but that's what they always do. Are people stealing too many mobile phones? Make it punishable by two years in gaol! Are people driving dangerously with the mobile phones they have just stolen? Make that an imprisonable offence! Are people behaving anti-socially? Give them an Asbo! Give them speed cameras! Give them a spell inside!"
"Yes, but if the prisons are so full," said the black-and-white lady, "it must mean that people are committing more crimes."
"No," said the Welshman. "All it means is that there are more crimes. New Labour has been creating more and more offences since it came to power, faster than any other government in history, so the prisons are so full that nothing gets done to... what's the word... restore them, no, refurbish them, no, retrain them..."
"Rehabilitate them," said a stranger at the bar, who had been listening. "That's the ticket! They don't get rehabilitated so they come out and commit more crimes and get put inside again. It's so depressing..."
"Maybe that's why Big Brother is so popular," said the man with the dog. "It's a simulacrum of prison life. And so many of the viewers have already been inside, they can identify with it."
"Simulacrum," said the black 'n' white lady. "That's a long word. What does it mean?"
"I think I can tell you," said the stranger, "and curiously enough it's because I had a spell in prison as a youth. While I was there, I determined to improve myself, so I got a job in the prison library and started to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. 'Simulacrum' was in Volume XIX, I think."
"And what does it mean?"
The stranger ruminated for a moment.
"Now... let me see, let me see. The trouble is, I got sidetracked somewhere in Volume XIV, when I discovered the fascination of the Punic Wars. After that, Carthage was my passion, so my memories of 'simulacrum'..."
"The thing I have always wanted to know," said the Welshman, "is how Punic comes to be the adjective from Carthage."
That wasn't the question we wanted to ask at all, of course. What we were all longing to know was what the stranger had been inside for. Luckily, I found myself standing next to him later in the evening, when the pub was more crowded and the conversation had moved on.
"Were you really in prison?" I asked him.
"If there's one thing I know about crime," he said, "it's that you can only break the cycle of crime/prison/release/reoffend by drastic action. Same is true of pub conversations. You were going through the same old debating cycle of crowded prisons, knee-jerk reactions, government short-sightedness, etc, so I thought I'd give the conversation shock treatment with some first-hand prison experience. Seemed to work all right, didn't it?"
I thought about this for a moment. "Does that mean you weren't in prison?"
"Do you know, it's so long ago, I can't remember any more," said the stranger. "Perhaps I was, perhaps I wasn't. Funny thing, memory..."
So after that we just swapped reminiscences about our earliest memories of time spent in our prams.