PsychoGeography #3: In the nick of time

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My friend Noel "Razors" Smith is in prison, serving a life sentence for armed robbery under the "two strikes and you're out" ruling. His tariff is 11 years, which means he still has a minimum of nine to serve before release on license. Noel is inclined to view the sentence as harsh, given that he never hurt anyone during his blags, or even had a bullet in the chamber that was aimed at them. But his victims doubtless take a diametrically opposed view, and I can see their point.

Over the past couple of years I've been helping Noel with advancing his career as a writer. 2004 will see the appearance of his autobiography A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun, a book the birth of which owes something to my midwifery. The first time I visited Noel in prison he was temporarily residing at HMP Downview in Surrey, the reason being that all prisoners have to be allowed a month per year of their incarceration at an institution within 60 miles of their family.

The visit had to be fitted into the normal weal of Sunday family life, so on consulting the map it was decided that my wife and the kids would do some shopping at Ikea in Croydon, while I skirted the southern periphery of London to meet with my protégé. Even at the time this shoe-horning of a prison visit into a shopping trip had all the hallmarks of a modern nightmare: one inhuman and fixed period of time further confined by another hardly more humane or flexible. The motor-pootle through Carshalton, Sutton and Ewell did have its charm. Outer south London suburbia is a psychogeographer's paradise, where the outliers of the North Downs massif push their green fingers into the city's grey flesh. It's difficult to whoosh past a 1930s redbrick villa, complete with mullions, loggias and all the accoutrements, without wishing to stop the car, walk up the front path, ring the doorbell, and force your way into another identity altogether. At gunpoint if necessary. But the visit was stressful, and by the time I got back to Croydon my wife had suffered the predictable Ikea depression, and longed only to spend the rest of her life alone on a remote Baltic island chainsawing sheep in half.

I resolved that henceforth I would take my time visiting Noel. He had plenty of time to spare, so I would factor some more of my own by association. Furthermore, I liked the idea of radically juxtaposing our views of the locales where he was imprisoned. Noel tends to arrive at his next high security billet in one of those Securicor vans that are known in prisoner parlance as "sweatboxes". He may've been up and down the country several times, and changed sweatboxes as well, before reaching a prison only tens of miles from the last one where he resided. He never knows exactly where he is and certainly not what the world without the walls looks like. I remedy this deficiency by arriving at the jail on foot or by bicycle.

When Noel was at HMP Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire, I took the folding bike up to Peterborough on the train, and then cycled there 25 miles along the River Nene. I was able to report to him the curiously unfinished aspect of the surrounding countryside, its flatness imparting no far horizons but a distinct sense of claustrophobia. In those scattered farmhouses redolent of subsidy, it was easy to imagine that there resided atavistic farmers cut off from the march of time. Were an escaped prisoner to encounter one of these throwbacks, he'd probably be commanded to "Fertilize my land!", and then treated to both barrels.

Now Noel has moved to HMP Grendon, north of Aylesbury, the visits have become an altogether more bosky affair. In August I took the train up to Bicester in the morning and then after dropping in at the jail, pedalled back through the Three Hundreds of Aylesbury, before ascending the Chiltern scarp and rolling down to the outskirts of London. Midnight saw me dodging inebriated hippy bargees on the tow path of the Grand Union Canal. But en route I stopped in a country pub where I was bearded by a bearded youth, who asserted that he had a story to tell me. Childhood in Luton, maths degree, web site designing, trip to the USA, mad incident which ended him up in Brixton prison, hippy girlfriend, baby, Greece, Turkey, India, and now this village in Buckinghamshire where they were all living - he whispered - "on the social".

Of course, this wasn't a story at all, it was merely a succession of events strung together on the feeble continuity of his life. As I pedalled away I reflected on how it was that despite his freedom to roam the world the youth had managed only this linear narrative, while Noel, banged up in a cell a few miles away, had amassed a great tangle of convoluted tales.