Yesterday I pointed up to that bough of my family tree which, in the late 1980s, found itself creeping over the walls of Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison. As some of you may well be aware, HMP Barlinnie was, and is, an institution about which it is hard to be flippant, humorous or particularly clever, although for the purposes of this piece I shall endeavour to be all three. But I do so not to make light of the jail’s impact on its past or present inmates… and certainly not as regards how it affected my father.
He had been locked up there after being found guilty of a planning role in a campaign of non-violent animal rights direct action against one of the country’s largest practitioners of corporate vivisection. And while I may have utilised the odd custard pie when describing Barlinnie, like so many of this country’s Victorian jails, in reality it is what it is – sad, grotesque and ultimately mundane… and nothing more. Although often a great deal less. And the fact that my father, a former detective sergeant in the same city – and a vegan – managed to walk out of there supported by intact knees says much about his resilience. And, I must admit, my reaction to visiting him there says as much about my lack of same. Although, having said that, as I wrote yesterday, there were – and are – extenuating circumstances, as my relationship with my Dad has always veered from blissful, guffawing delight to the blackest of misery as swiftly as a bi-polar shopping trolley. But that’s another story; one much longer, with an appendix and suggestions for further reading.
My visit to Barlinnie began with a bus journey to the north-east Glasgow suburb of Riddrie and, after that, a moment or two spent gazing nervously up at the jail’s enormous main gate, feeling like a middle class mouse. Once inside, I was searched and put in a waiting room along with a dozen or so other people. There were more women with prams and squabbling toddlers than you might feel comfortable knowing about.
We were then led into a room which was bisected by a wall in which were set a row of grimy windows. Below each pane of safety glass was sited a thin slit, for speaking through (no Hollywood-style phones on the wall… and I recall this disappointing me a little). Each slit was covered with a thick iron mesh which meant that anything you said or heard was muffled to the point of inaudibility. This led to a situation where both inmate and visitor had to lower their heads so that their mouths or ears were as close to the slit as possible, just to hear or be heard. A memorable and, at the time, incongruously ridiculous consequence was that you spent the entire visit staring at whichever straining eyeball your opposite number was able to use to peek over the window sill while they either spoke to you or listened to what you said.
I walked along the row of windows, looking for my Dad and, about halfway along, there he was, smiling at me. “Alright, kid?” I smiled back. He looked thinner than I had ever seen him.
Tomorrow… a conversation with my father the inmate.