Inside a Prison Book Club

I’ve had some interesting invitations in my short time as an author – I’ve shared my children’s stories in school assembly halls, I’ve read my poetry at Women’s Institute meetings and I’ve spoken about my writing experiences at my local Workers’ Education Association. But a few months ago, a very unusual invitation appeared in my inbox which made me do a double take.

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The email was from Neil Barclay, who introduced himself as the librarian at HMP Thameside London and invited me to discuss my novel, ‘Not Thomas’, with their book club. At first I skimmed over the ‘HMP’, not registering its meaning. Then I did that double take. Yes, I had definitely seen the letters H, M & P and, of course, I knew exactly what they stood for – Her Majesty’s Prison.

The invitation had come completely out of the blue and it took me a moment to process that a prison would even have a book club. Then I saw Neil had included a link to the Prison Reading Groups’ website, a charity that provides books to prisoners, and it was obvious from that what an important role these clubs have. The PRG encourages reading for pleasure so that long hours spent alone can be put to good use – reading fiction is, after all, a walk in someone else’s shoes and a different perspective on the world.

Education Consultant Ruth Perry, who volunteers at the prison library, had come across my novel via a book blog. Yet again I had a reason to be thankful for those wonderful book bloggers who do a marvellous job of promoting new books from small publishers. Ruth read ‘Not Thomas’ and suggested to Neil that he might invite me to speak about it.

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With Ruth Perry who led the book club session

I was delighted Ruth had spotted my novel and extremely pleased to know that it was being read in prison. The novel is about Tomos, a neglected five-year-old boy, and I suspected that it might resonate with some of the men there. Neglect is the most common reason for a child to be taken into care, and many people in prison have been brought up in the care system. A sad childhood is not unusual among prisoners.

I eagerly accepted Neil’s invitation, curious to know what the readers at Thameside would make of my novel and keen to see the innovative library. Neil has won the prestigious Butler Trust Award for his work there and is greatly appreciated by the members of the library. In 2016 a journalist for The Guardian visited and reported on the positive effects of the power of books and it makes for very interesting reading.

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In front of the wall of titles of previous visitors, with the beautiful flowers I was given

Neil certainly succeeds in getting a wide range of guests to visit the library. Actors Sir Ian McKellen and David Morrissey have held recent events there, and authors Paula Hawkins of ‘Girl on the Train’ fame, and Val McDermid have also visited. Crime writer, Martina Cole, is a regular visitor, holding creative writing workshops at the library. I felt I was following in the footsteps of very illustrious people.

The whole morning – from meeting the book club members, as well as Neil, Ruth and Laura (an immigration lawyer who’d come along for the morning) to receiving the thoughtful and often moving feedback from the men in the group – was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Some of the comments the group made were very sad, especially from readers who could identify first hand with little Tomos. Some of the men said they’d cried as they read it – and I was impressed by their open approach in such a ‘manly’ environment.

After the book group session, Neil, Ruth and Laura took me on a short tour of part of the prison. A member of the library team kindly allowed me into his cell so I could see what living in that small space was like. It certainly made me realise the importance of the work Neil and his volunteers do there. Whether convicted of a crime or not, everyone needs a chance to relax and switch off from their environment. Reading in prison gives the men a way to do that, and it gives them a legitimate escape from their sometimes difficult surroundings.

My tour included a brightly decorated room furnished with soft toys where the men can record videos of themselves reading from picture books. It’s a wonderful project provided by the charity Storybook Dads, and it means that children don’t miss out on a bedtime story from their father while he’s away from them. Recording those videos is often an emotional experience for the men but a very worthwhile one. Neil explained that most prisons have now introduced the Storybook Dads scheme although sadly there are still some where it’s not available.

When I accepted Neil’s invitation I never imagined that spending a morning in prison would be an uplifting experience, but that’s exactly what it was. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

So a very big thank you to Ruth Perry and Neil Barclay for offering me such a wonderful opportunity, but most importantly a massive thank you to the men of HMP Thameside Book Club for reading ‘Not Thomas’ – I will never forget your sometimes sad but very kind words.

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Momentos of my visit

Sara’s debut novel ‘Not Thomas’ – a story of child neglect, love and hope, shown through the eyes of five-year-old Tomos – is published by Honno Press in paperback and as an e-book, and is available to buy direct from the publisher, from Amazon and from bookshops.

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