Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“You’ve stepped off the edge, now start flapping your arms. Nobody’s going to flap them for you.”
It started with a seemingly insignificant series of e-mail notifications. None of which I responded to. In that lack of response lay the catalyst for a decision to retrace steps and try to find or re-find the roots of what I do. It is no surprise that after 25 years as an educator, 100 miles an hour, week in week out I would feel a sense of loss. The decision to walk away was mine, but it was an intuitive rather than calculated one, and here I was in the studio on day one of my next adventure wondering who I was now. This ‘next’ adventure was not new and so wasn’t really ‘day one’ at all, it had of course started on that first occasion when I walked into Grendon approximately three years ago, it had run parallel with my other life in an art school. They had crossed over at numerous points, but now Grendon was all I had to focus on. I felt excited, exhilarated, frightened and trepidatious all at the same time. As I watched the e-mails pour in from the school my mind ticked over with the thought that I didn’t have to respond to them anymore. The space between what I was, what I am and what could be, coalesced to a silent sense of uncertainty. SWiTCH “That work you’re making with negative space and figures.” He nodded towards the wall in the studio. “Is it okay if I play around with that visual too?” I was delighted that one of the community members had been thinking through the series of works I’m making at the moment and had responded with his own concepts. “Of course! Go for it. I think it would really work with that image you’ve been thinking about.” The sound of Scott Walker’s ‘Til The Band Comes In soured through the studio. It hasn’t been a particularly popular choice with the community members so far, but James and I had persevered with it. As we all worked together, I made some notes in my sketchbooks, others etched onto plates studiously. One member of the group painted and intermittently leaned back in his chair with eyes half closed in scrutiny of the fresh brush marks he’d made. I’d introduced one of the men to the Japanese art of Kintsugi as a concept and he had started to stitch an old therapy chair with gold thread to outline the ‘damage’ and stained areas of the worn fabric in a beautifully intricate and interesting manner. I took a short moment to look around. Scott’s voice swooped heavily into the room as he sang I found myself singing along with the words under my breath, “The dawn falls hard upon my face, I’ll move as I began through fields without a plan. The things I never saw I see. To think that I’m still free and I’m not feeling cold.” SWiTCH I was reading through a list of potential titles for the work I’m making and had expressed an impasse at one piece of work, a series of etchings that I have been working on for the exhibition. James, looked over from his laptop and immediately started to make the movements that suggest a clicking on folders and subfolders, “I know you gave me a title for that work, I’m sure I wrote it down somewhere.” I couldn’t remember that happening at all, “don’t worry, something will materialise.” Moments later James punctured the silence “Middle Men!” SWiTCH I found myself wandering around Birmingham city centre a little aimlessly. I had time to kill before my train home and thought I’d find a café to sit and do some sketchbook work in, or maybe even look through a couple of record shops that I hadn’t been to for a while. It was the second thought that I opted for and was soon heading to Swordfish Records. I hadn’t been in since pre-lockdown so it made sense that it might be the place to visit. If I’m honest, I’d been avoiding going there for some time. The owner (who had been selling me records since I was 14 years old) had sadly passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Irrationally I had built up a scenario in my head where, having missed the window of opportunity to pass on my condolences and mark his passing, it would be too awkward now to go there and expect to be sold records like nothing had happened. There was still a niggling thought around this as I ventured towards Dale End where the shop is situated. I remembered a conversation I had with Swordfish owner Gaz as I walked. “I saw your exhibition at Ikon Gallery on my way in this morning. I had no idea you were an artist. You’ve been coming in all this time and I had no idea.” I recall smiling to myself, the man from Swordfish Records had recognised me, I played it down and thanked him for spending time with the film I’d made. After that moment, we were always more chatty when I visited, more at ease with each other somehow. As I moved past Oasis Market toward the law courts an old friend loomed out of the bustle into my eyeline. Tony Hancock, of course! Tony. Why hadn’t I thought to come and see him sooner? All those questions about my ruptured identity swimming around in the pit of my stomach, he’d know what I need to do. SWiTCH Turning the page in the sketchbook, I looked deep into the still image of the figure walking the corridors of Grendon in the Elvis mask. Where was the connection to me as a failed male? The pen was in my hand and before conscious thought had interrupted the flow of the ink I had written two statements alongside the still. The first a simple observation on my role within the piece, “iN MANY WAYS WHEN LOOKiNG AT THiS WORK I HAVE TO ADMiT THAT I’VE PROBABLY ALWAYS WANTED TO DO AN ELViS iMPERSONATiON.” The second about someone I once knew, “AS A YOUNG BOY I USED TO STAND iN FRONT OF THE MiRROR AND PRETEND TO BE PAUL WELLER (SOME PEOPLE WOULD SAY I’VE NEVER STOPPED DOiNG THAT!) THiS WORK TAPS iNTO THAT A LiTTLE.” SWiTCH Jonathan’s leaving event was a grand affair at Ikon. I spotted George Shaw and Martin Creed amongst others and bumped into Cornelia Parker on my way to the toilet, she momentarily looked as if she recognised me but this was probably just my imagination and I didn’t dare speak to her. After a full-on afternoon of half captured greetings in stairwells I managed to break through the melee to speak with Jonathan. He greeted me as he always had from day one, “Ah! The artist Dean Kelland. Lovely to see you.” I felt that I could only disturb him for a few moments but wanted to say something of my regard for him, and how important he had been to my development. “Happy Birthday and congratulations on everything you’ve done. Genuinely, thank you for not letting go of me.” He smiled generously, “we really did some things together, you and I, we really did.” I smiled back, “I guess we did, didn’t we.” SWiTCH “THERE HAS TO BE A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN DiSCARD ALL THOSE MASKS AND BE COMPLETELY VULNERABLE. GRENDON GiVES YOU THAT…BUT WHEN iT HAPPENS TO YOU, SHiT…iT’S FRiGHTENiNG” SWiTCH The outline of Tony Hancock was as welcoming as a cherished family member you only see at Christmas. Hugh Williams’ statue sited in the centre of the Old Square (originally home of the Birmingham Blood Transfusion Centre) is one that I have a strong affection for, not only as a native of Birmingham but it instigated my whole body of work around failed men in comedy. There are many times over the years that I’ve gone and spoken with Tony. Certain times during my PhD, other times just for a catch up. Sometimes I just visit the statue and walk by on my way elsewhere but I can never do this without patting Tony on the shoulder and saying thank you. Today, with my current uncertainties hanging over me I was delighted to see him again. As per my ritual I patted him firmly on the shoulder before saying hello. SWiTCH The image was coming on beautifully as a concept and as he worked by the printing press in the studio he gestured for me to go over and offer some thoughts. The etched self-portrait made with a halo of chaotic line to emphasise the negative space of the figure, a partial void, had come through really strongly. “I want to add the fencing over the top now, would you etch that on the same plate?” My thought was instant and I offered it immediately, “no, I think I’d do a separate plate and then it literally will sit on top of the figure won’t it.” He nodded in agreement and then rubbed his hands together, “fuckin’ freezing in here. I’m sure that heater is kicking out cold air.” SWiTCH A young girl sat on the bench not far from Tony and as her fingers shot with a pace and angularity around the screen of her phone I reasoned that she wouldn’t hear us, or if she could wouldn’t be interested. I looked at the line of gold text that sat on Tony’s plinth and thought I’d wait for him to speak first. I didn’t have to wait long. “You’ve got a nerve. How long has it been?” I shuffled toward him and, with a lowered voice, responded. “Sorry Tone, it’s been a while I know but the pandemic kept me away and then the thing with Gaz at Swordfish…anyway I need to ask your advice on something.” He laughed indignantly, “hang on right there mush, you don’t get access to the wealth of my wisdom just like that. No, no, no! Your apology will need to be better than that. You can buy me a pint or two and then we’ll see how favourably disposed I am towards you.” I sighed audibly and then became aware peripherally that the young girl on the bench had stopped her manic texting and may have been distracted by our discussion. I leaned in closer to Tony’s face. “You’ve got a cup of tea there.” I gestured subtly to the cup in front of him, “anyway, this isn’t easy for me. You are a statue now and I can’t just walk you into a pub can I? I’m probably the only one who bothers with you these days and I know it’s been a couple of years but life gets in the way, you know.” There was a moment of silence before Tony adjusted his manner and made a gentler attempt to get the conversation going. “Who is this Gaz? Another friend of yours you haven’t seen for a couple of years?” The girl on the bench was definitely staring our way now and I decided that I should walk around to the other side of Tony before continuing. Once I’d nonchalantly traversed the small space encircling him, I shot glances left and right and felt pretty safe to continue, “we weren’t exactly friends, he was the owner of Swordfish Records. I’d been going there since I was a teenager and well, he passed away suddenly. I didn’t do enough at the time to pass on my sympathy or anything. Time got away and, well, I don’t know really. I just haven’t been able to go back there since.” Tony glared at me with an unsettling and fixed stare. “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” I recognised the words instantly and before he could go on I leapt in slightly angered, “don’t just feed me lines from ‘The Blood Donor’ script, that’s not fair. Honestly, I didn’t come here to see you today but when your face appeared in front of me it made sense somehow. Do you want to help or not?” His fixed glare seemed to harden and he was clearly upset with my manner. The girl’s face appeared fleetingly as she walked by, it was clear from the shot of her glance that she was aware that I was having a conversation with a statue, and maybe slightly confused and wanted to move by as quickly as she could. I smiled politely and gave a little nod to acknowledge her attentions. Her pace increased to an escape and I returned to Tony. He wasn’t talking, so I decided to take a seat on the bench to his left and wait until he wanted to speak with me again. SWiTCH “YOU MENTiONED THAT SCENE iN STEAMBOAT BiLL JNR WHERE THE BUiLDiNG FALLS AND BUSTER KEATON ONLY HAD 2cms EiTHER SiDE OR HE’D HAVE BEEN CRUSHED…WELL iN MAiNSTREAM PRiSON YOU HAVE TO HOLD ON TO A WHOLE RANGE OF MASKS, OTHERWiSE THE BUiLDiNG WiLL FALL ON YOU AND YOUR FiNiSHED…THERE’S NO 2cm GAP EiTHER SiDE iN THERE.” SWiTCH “What do you want from me anyway? Sitting there blocking my light.” I rose from my seat and walked over to him again, I decided on a different approach and injected some softness into the dialogue. “Nice cuppa is it?” The corner of his lips turned ever so slightly upwards, “it’s cold, I should’ve drunk it ages ago…but, as you say time got away.” The air was heavy with traffic but nonetheless bright and we took a moment, looking at each other before I went on. “What would you do Tone? I left the School of Art and I’m not sure what or who I am anymore. You must have been in situations like this?” My enquiry was a gentle nod towards Tony’s decision to cease work with the writing duo Galton & Simpson. He had gone on to make The Punch and Judy Man without them (a film I adore but one that was not critically celebrated by any stretch). I think he knew I was steering things that way but remained guarded. I’d met the writers in 2010 and spent a day discussing their work. The subject of Tony’s decision to go on without them had come up and interestingly they had different views on what happened, Tony knew I’d met with Ray and Alan and he wasn’t pleased about it when I told him. He’d been a bit frosty around that subject ever since. “What would I do…what would I do…” he looked up to the sky as if searching for an answer and then returned his gaze to me. “What would Tony Hancock ‘the actor’, or Tony Hancock ‘the man’, do?” This had been an ongoing line of discussion for us both since I had started visiting Tony, we had debated and debated the notion that he was always Hancock the character and never really anything else and hadn’t got any further with a definite opinion either way. I indulged him though in a knowing retort. “Same thing isn’t it?” He looked down and I could tell by the space he left before speaking that he was going to try and answer as best as he could. He did do that sometimes in our chats, he would joke and hide behind lines from Hancock’s Half Hour all day and then suddenly you’d get this glimpse of something else, something less contrived. “Tony Hancock would go out and get drunk. I mean, really drunk. Tony Hancock would hurt everyone around him until they didn’t want to be around him anymore. Tony would drive the question of who, or what, he was away because he couldn’t face the probable answers.” He took a deep inward breath, “that isn’t you though is it. You don’t drink and as far as I can tell from what we’ve talked about in the past you care about what people think.” There were a few moments in silence, even the traffic seemed to hush itself as we each pondered Tony’s words. “You cared about people too. I know you did, you just…” as I floundered and hesitated with the words, he finished my sentence, “drank to delay having to face them.” Silence fell momentarily again before Tony sought to close the topic. “I’m not capable of an honest answer to your question my friend. The prison you mentioned last time we spoke – your answer lies there. They’ll be honest with you. For what it’s worth though, I think you should stop wallowing in all this bullshit and crack on. You need to step off a cliff if you want to find out whether you can fly or not. You’ve stepped off the edge, now start flapping your arms. Nobody’s going to flap them for you.”
Image credit: Photograph of Bruce Williams’ statue courtesy Dean Kelland
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.