When he was two years old, Tom Shannon's parents abandoned him and he was placed in an orphanage run by nuns. These were not tender, unworldly nuns. The children's lives were dominated by black and white- clad figures with rigid rules and closed hearts. He was beaten for small misdemeanours. When it all became too much to bear, he used to climb to the top of a tree and, hidden in its branches, he would weep, knowing that when he came down, he would be beaten again for having climbed the forbidden tree. In his heart, he called it his "crying tree".
Tom Shannon is now 59 and in prison for murder. His harsh prison regime is lightened by letters he receives from Christopher Morgan, who was a complete stranger when their correspondence began, but who Shannon now calls his "invisible crying tree".
Their correspondence began in 1992 when, prompted by a letter from the Prison Reform Trust in the Independent asking for volunteer penfriends for lifers "to give prisoners a window on the outside world" Morgan and his wife, Ann,responded. She was allocated a prisoner called Ray; he got Shannon. They were roughly matched to the age and interests of their respective prisoners and warned not to ask what crime had landed them in jail. That was all.
Shannon's first letter announced baldly, with the imperfect spelling and grammar Morgan has, quite rightly, not tampered with, "I'm 54, soon to be 55... came home [to England] after divorce; got drunk; got in a fight; 18 weeks later charged with murder; pleaded guilty; got a life sentence. I'm not proud. That's the hard part of the letter over. I can breath out now."
Later in same the letter, he adds, "I'll have to go to the library for a book on how to write letters. I hope you can make sence of this one. There's no stopping me now Ive started. Anything you want to ask me about, me or prison life, feel free. It's nice to talk to someone."
From this stilted, self-conscious beginning arose a correspondence now published as a book. There have been interruptions - Shannon is subject to black depressions during which he cannot bring himself to write - but the exchange has gone on for four years.
Christopher Morgan met me at a train station and drove me through snow- covered fields and narrow lanes to the farm where he and Ann brought up their four children. "I think I sort of masquerade as a farmer," he says. "Peter Fry, my excellent farm manager who's been with us for 27 years, does all the real work." He does, however, look like one - fit, upright, and at 69, the very image of a vigorous countryman.
"I had a very easy childhood compared with Shannon, who had a simply appalling one. I really disliked school, which was probably a good thing because I picked up some good lessons and a few bruises. When I emerged from Eton, the war was still on, so I went straight into the Army and enjoyed it very much and decided to stay on until I was 37, at which age you get a pension. After that, I thought I'd try my hand at industry. I worked for Gallagher, the tobacco company. I'm afraid I always go into the most reprehensible trades ... the Army's about killing people, and cigarettes ... well, actually I think they do a lot to cheer up people's lives, but over the next 20 years, I found myself at dinner parties increasingly disinclined to say what I did."
Now retired, their four children grown up, the Morgans might have been tempted to take life easy. "I haven't always cared about the underdog," Morgan admits. "I've had a very happy life - I'm still happy - that probably makes me insensitive. But I suppose I was brought up with a bit of a feeling that one ought to set a good example."
Morgan remarks in one of his letters to Shannon, "I can't handle not being busy. My life is like a bicycle. As soon as it slows down, I start wobbling." This intimacy with a correspondent whom he has still met only three times in four years is typical of the exchange on both sides, and explains why their letters have such appeal.
Despite some gentle probing, Morgan has never learned the detail of Tom Shannon's crime. All he knows is that at some time in his mid-30s, Shannon rented a room in the house of a workmate, Fred. In due course, he met Fred's niece Cindy, visiting from America. Although she was 15 years his junior, they got married. Shannon went to the States with her and fathered two sons. When the marriage broke down, he returned to this country and moved back in with Fred.
After a while, he heard from Cindy that she was going to live with a former workmate of his. Shortly after this, he and Fred had a row. Shannon lost his temper, and killed the old man whose house had sheltered him for 13 years. YetMorgan still says, "I don't think he's ever been a bad man, but he's a man with a frailty; he has a short fuse and he drinks. All his life, he's been a drifter, never settled to a job. He's very anti- authority."
Does Morgan think prison has done Shannon any good? "No, I don't think so. I believe that when Shannon committed his crime, he sort of concluded that his life was over and all that remained was to try to hang on to his self-respect. The only form of self-expression left him was to stand up for a principle for all cons [convicts] - not to allow himself to be degraded."
Is it possible that he writes to impress Morgan? "Oh, I don't think so. But imagine being in jail and not having anybody - to write to, talk to, care for, go out to - so I think my letters must have had some influence, if only the effect of somebody liking him."
Morgan insists that the main reason for publishing the letters is to reveal to a largely ignorant and indifferent public what goes on behind the gates of Her Majesty's prisons. Shannon's picture of prison life reveals horror, brutality, callousness and, in certain prisons, deliberate degradation. Reading these letters, the easy retreat into cliche - that if they hadn't done wrong, they wouldn't be there - won't do. Does Morgan seeany way to get the penal system right in the face of political apathy and public inertia?
"First of all, you won't get the prisons right until you can motivate the prison staff. At the moment, they're absolutely turned off. Because there are no votes in being nice to prisoners, the only solution is for prisons, like Northern Ireland, to be taken out of the political arena. The politicians must come to an all-party agreement as to what our prisons should be like and stick to it. At the moment, they're panicking about escapes. There'll always be escapes - not even the Germans at Colditz could keep people in who were determined to escape, and nobody accused them of not being tough enough. We perform a zig-zag from tough to relaxed regimes and back again. We need to restore morale in the prison service.
"Being a prison warder is a terribly important and worthwhile job that people can take an enormous amount of pride in. I would put the decent ones in daily contact with the prisoners, and the shits" - he corrects himself - "sorry, the heavies in the front office, in charge of security and sorting out the aftermath of riots. There should be much more categorisation of prisoners, with the drug addicts and 'barons', or dealers, kept away from the rest and dealt with by the toughest police officers."
Suddenly, endearingly, he laughs. "I'm sitting here pontificating - I know nothing about prisons except what Shannon has written to me." Perhaps, but Judge Tumim, former Inspector of Prisons, says, "I commend this short book to anyone who does not know prison but wants to extend their knowledge of human nature." His successor, Sir David Ramsbotham, calls it "the best insight into prison life I have ever seen in print".
What will happen when Shannon leaves prison? "I'm never going to stop writing to him - I would never drop him. Once you've started a thing like this, you can't stop it. And in any case, I like the guy and I don't want him to think I do it out of duty. He knows we're great friends.
"I try not to patronise him, although I'm afraid I've preached in my letters from time to time, trying to help him sort things out."
Visiting Shannon last week in Kingston Prison in Portsmouth - a prison far more humane than its reputation had led him to expect - Morgan asked Shannon what these letters had meant to him. He said, "Well, it was like the book says - your letters were diamonds. Things build up in a prisoner's head, then it all bursts out. You hear at night, kicking and shouting. Letters help. Everybody looks at the boards, hoping. Other cons who've read the book say, 'What's all the fuss about? We know all this!' But then they say, "Good on yer, mate!'"
'Invisible Crying Tree' by Tom Shannon and Christopher Morgan is published by Doubleday, price pounds 12.99.
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