English PEN has asked former cases of concern about the value of reading in prison as part of the ongoing Books for Prisoners campaign against restrictions in the UK. Here British theatre producer David Cecil explains what books meant to him during his time in detention in Uganda
An insanity I could call my own
(Words for PEN)
When I was locked up for the second time in Uganda, my girlfriend brought me three books, each singularly appropriate. They now contain scribblings in the empty pages of the front and back, concerning my thoughts and experiences of incarceration. That is one benefit of receiving books in prison – they’re another thing to write on, besides the walls.
I should voluntarily confess at this point that my period of imprisonment was brief and easy. Sure, there was stuff to complain about, but I was not beaten or buggered, and there was salt for our beans.
Seasoning for the brain came in the form of conversation. But conversation, even in the high turnover of the holding cells, was cyclical, stultifying, jeremiac. A story would meander into the present moment, and its narrator would lapse into a familiar plea bargain with fate. That was when books came into their own; a dialogue with someone outside this pitiful situation.
Kofi the Ghanaian had interesting opinions and stories about women. He picked up my copy of The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, opened it half-way through and sighed knowingly: ‘I don’t know what it is about me, but they just follow everywhere I go…’ He turned the book slowly in his fingers, so we could all see the chapter title: ‘Sex’.
Morris’s book, a corrective reduction of our proud species to that of an ape, was a wry commentary on the interactions of our little goldfish bowl. The section on ‘Conflict’ became alarmingly relevant when the incumbent RP (Resident Police, the top-dog inmate in charge of tax collection and maintaining order) left a power vacuum with his abrupt departure. In his bid for the prized position, Afaz, a young Fagin with a killer’s smile, tried to whip up a little riot. In an ensuing moment of calm, when the 30 or so inmates were packed together, seated snarling on the floor in temporary obeisance, I walked to the toilet. As I passed Afaz, I told him to shut up and slapped him on the face with a flipflop. Tension rippled until I pulled Afaz up for a hug and whispered words of calm into his ear. Simone the Kenyan nodded to me as I walked on: ‘You’re RP now.’
Simone was gripped by my book of Russian short stories, the best collection of its kind, edited by Robert Chandler. They epitomise the resilience of the Russian spirit: the ultimate salvation is an acceptance of fate. Somewhere, Nietzsche writes of the Russian soldier lying down in the snow and waiting, without complaint, for death. Simone’s favourite story was one by Tolstoy: ‘God Sees the Truth, but Waits…’ Simone had waited longer than any of us. This was now mid-February and he’d been locked in these miserable, tiny cells since before Christmas. I appointed him my Deputy and we vowed to allocate the tax levied from new prisoners fairly from now on.
I was left with Hustling is Not Stealing: Stories of an African Bar Girl. Chernoff’s transcription of this extraordinary testimony has been described as ground-breaking, genre-defying, heart-warming, etc. What most critics, whose words irritatingly bedeck the exterior of the tome, seem to miss is the key ingredient: humour. Who woulda guessed that being a third-world prostitute could be so hilarious? Awa, the heroine-narrator of the work, drank, danced, talked, fucked, hustled and sang through situations far worse than my own, barely dropping her smile all the while. Her narrative is, like the other inmates’ stories, so cyclical that I cannot truthfully say whether I have ever finished the book, but have been picking it up and putting it down for ten years, ever since I stole it from my ex-father-in-law.
These three books seemed to reflect my scenario perfectly: the human-as-animal, stuck restless in its cage; the bittersweet resignation to the inevitability of fate; and the laugh in the teeth of the shit that life throws us, especially in Africa.
These ideas did not so much save my sanity, but allowed me to become insane in precisely the way I wanted. Unsanctioned, ungoverned, unimpeachable; my mind was, in the company of these books, my own.
About the author
British theatre producer David Cecil was detained and deported from Uganda on the grounds of being ‘an undesirable person’ following performances of the play ‘The River and The Mountain’, a drama that dealt with the subject of homosexuality, through the story of a gay businessman who is murdered by his colleagues.