One of the most moving conversations I have had during my research phase came last year when I found myself sat at a kitchen table with a man who had been one of the hunger strikers in the Maze Prison (or rather the H Blocks as we referred to them back then, due to the fact that they were shaped like huge letter ‘H’s’ with the guard office in the centre bridge of the ‘H’).
I have heard all the clichés about men with haunted faces and thousand-yard stares, but I truly was shaken to my core when I met this gentleman. He was perfectly able to communicate with me, and obviously capable of existing in the everyday. But he was clearly at odds with something. Emotion seemed to be dancing behind his eyes constantly, as though his consciousness was constantly trying to reach out and nab something out of the air, but forever just missing.
I could write a million posts based on the talk that we had. His was a story filled with belief, regret, violence and cruelty. There were also moments when his words and experiences led me to wonder at how someone’s strength of conviction could lead them to take extreme actions…actions that were only ever destined to destroy the self in the face of insurmountable circumstance in a system that was built to reduce people to shadows of themselves (there is a lot of history here, and not enough space to expand on that, forgive me).
But even within the depths of his very dark and humbling recollections, a shard of human light would now and again shine through. Especially one that involved music.
The Prison System in Northern Ireland was almost entirely staffed and operated by men and women who would have identified as Unionist. By that I mean Loyal to the British crown. (I’m not sure about what it is like now, but I will endeavour to find out). This left the Prisons open to some individuals whose service was not blessed by professionalism rather than other ideologically driven agendas. I know this to be true because my family have had direct experience of this.
Bluntly put, the prison system in Northern Ireland in the 1980’s was capable of being ruthless on all levels. But this man, who was telling me of his journey through that time had warm memories of one Prison Guard. An Englishman who tried to be behave towards the inmates in a very different manner.
At that time the “Dirty Protests” were in full swing. Republican Prisoners were protesting over their status. They wanted to be viewed and treated as political prisoners and not as criminals. This meant they refused to wear prison uniform and so they would rather go naked. Many resorted to wrapping themselves in their bed blankets during this time and some also would foul their cells with their own excrement to try and upset the smooth running of the H Blocks.
So, as you can now imagine, the H Blocks resembled a little slice of hell on earth for all involved. But this English prison officer attempted to rise above the casual cruelty that had become the norm in the hallways and cells. He worked nights and very often when he arrived for his shift, he would do something extraordinary. He brought from home his own record player. He would then set it up in the middle corridor, the bar of the ‘H’ if you can imagine and point a speaker down toward each end of the cells and would play his records. He would do so at just the right volume so that the music would drift down the halls, breaking up the monotony of the prison nights.
My ex-prisoner acquaintance broke off a few times while telling me about this man, his eyes focussing on a point far away from the kitchen we were sitting in.
“He must have known, like. The nights he played his records? They stopped me from going nuts altogether. He would often play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the moon. Making sure to be never too far away when it was time to turn the record over or replace the first vinyl with the second so that we heard the whole double album.”
I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to ask him if he could still listen to the songs today, but I could see in his eyes this was not a point to ask for a detail. We sat in silence for quite a few moments after he finished telling me about it.
If you listen to that album now, it’s a haunting, experimental masterpiece. I used to love it, but these days, having been told this story and having imagined many times how that music must have floated down those corridors to the ears of men who were in the middle of denying themselves all comfort, it’s a changed record for me. I can’t bring myself to select it on my playlists ever again.
Haunting music…and a shard of human light in the most unexpected of circumstances.