Notes from HMP Grendon
By Dean Kelland, Ikon’s artist in residence at HMP Grendon
“Normality is man’s attempt to cover up disorder.”
I re-read the text message that I had composed in order to check for any errors before pressing send. ‘Hi James – I have to work tomorrow (I’m back in the School of Art building) are we heading to Grendon on Thursday? Maybe catch up later? Speak soon, Dean’. I touched the send button and spared a thought for James who must be growing tired of my pressing need to return to Grendon. I was trying to remember at what stage I had started asking and realised it had been a fairly long and consistent period of enquiry on my behalf. It’s not even as if it’s in his hands but even knowing that, I ask the question anyway. The daylight was creeping under the blind in our dining room and the thought that I might be forgotten by the residents pierced the moment sharply. I sipped from my mug and pondered how much longer I might be away from them. SWiTCH Then the paper boat collapsed entirely. Out fell the tin soldier who was promptly swallowed by a fish. SWiTCH The face mask was generating an uncomfortable level of heat around my mouth as I laboured in the 7th Floor studios to clear away the last of the discarded student work. “I’m getting too old for this!” Simon chuckled from behind his mask in response to my statement as he too lifted another old piece of work and headed to the service lift. I pulled at the corner of a board and realised that I was grasping at a work entitled ‘Lard Arse’ by one of our graduates who had departed a couple of years ago. It was a large sculpture of a female figure made entirely from lard. Let me tell you, lard is heavier than you might think and my burning muscles were stretched to their limit as I headed to the lift area to deposit it for the skip. It was always going to happen…my knees started to buckle and just short of reaching my destination I dropped to the ground. The sculpted lard slid from its current form and splatted onto the polished concrete floor in random clusters. I won’t lie, my first thought was to leave it and head away without mentioning the incident but I knew that I couldn’t leave the now hazardous gloop where it was and risk someone slipping. It provided a great source of amusement to the other staff who walked around the corner just in time to see me, the only vegan lecturer in the office scraping up large splats of old rendered pig fat from the floor. It reminded me of the discussion I’d had with B-wing members around the ethics of eating roadkill. I’m not a militant vegan, it’s just my choice and my aim is to quietly pursue that choice. Moments like this however seem to draw attention to it and usually at my expense…B-wing, I thought to myself…must check my ‘e-mail a prisoner’ inbox when I get home. SWiTCH ”I keep all your e-mails and blogs in a Rep folder and there’s plenty of offers to the lads to read them so in essence you and James are still amongst us.” SWiTCH My pillow seemed hotter than usual and once I’d focussed on the temperature I couldn’t get comfortable at all. I watched her sleep for a few moments and, realising that I would not be descending into the same state any time soon, I forced my frame upwards and out of our bed. Quietly navigating my way out of the room I glanced at the clock and saw 02.24am dancing a glow through my blurry vision. My cat, Marriott, opened an eye to greet me as I broke his sleep. Acknowledging me with this gesture was enough effort for him and he immediately returned to his slumber on the chair in front of the television. Having made tea I sat down and flicked through channels in search of a distraction from this sleepless night. A documentary I had heard about, but not had chance to watch, suddenly shot into view on the rotating list that flowed under the direction of the remote control. I Called Him Morgan was the story of Jazz musician Lee Morgan. I loved his recordings but knew very little about him, he had become a bit of mystery to me and I had naturally been intrigued by the discovery that this documentary had been made. I’d only just picked up his 1957 recording titled The Cooker on vinyl and listening to it on heavy rotation had placed him firmly at the front of my mind. Reasoning that this was as good a time as any to watch it, I settled in to learn as much as I could about the mystery trumpet player. It focused on the story of his wife, who it transpired had murdered him during the interval of a gig he was playing in 1972. SWiTCH “What about working with Boy George?” I paused at the suggestion. Linzi had been kind enough to meet me to discuss the residency and how James and I had been getting on. I hadn’t considered the possibility until this point. “…erm…well, I don’t know where the work is taking me at the moment but I guess that would be interesting.” SWiTCH I sat in the studio and started to work into the pages on an idea I had for a Grendon piece way back at the start of my time there. It had been as a guest at an awards event for the men that I had seen the members of the Grendon choir perform a version of George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun. I immediately connected my initial thoughts about Elvis impersonators with the prospect of utilising the choir in some way to produce a performative work…I parked it as an idea at the time. But now on a grey day in late September, almost a year since that momentary thought, I sat in the studio and mapped out an idea… Ladies and Gentleman…may I introduce Boy George and the Grendon Choir performing the Elvis classic “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” SWiTCH Oh, how dark it was in the fish’s stomach! It was even worse than the tunnel, and very much more cramped. But the tin soldier’s courage remained unchanged; there he lay, as steadfast as ever…SWiTCH I felt really guilty, I’d been very low with James during our weekly catch up. No news from Grendon on a return and rather than accept that it was just part of the situation at the moment I’d pushed a series of potential ideas for reconnecting with the men remotely onto the conversation. James was, as always, accommodating of my mood and took on board my proposals (proposals that he had probably thought of himself and worked through already). I was missing not being there and wanted to try everything we could before accepting the inevitable…which was…just waiting. I sent a text to apologise for my grumpiness and headed to the studio again. SWiTCH The Lee Morgan story had kept me awake…or so I thought, Marriott had joined me on the sofa and lay across my lap. As I gently stroked him I felt myself slipping into a sensory state of confusion…there was no footage of the evening he was killed but there were images of the club, beautiful black and white images of that New York venue, Slug’s Saloon in the East Village…the TV screen filled my field of view and now, I was there at one of the tables. People bustled all around me and I heard accents that I had previously only heard in films, I felt the hard wood of the bench/chair and table. I could see some spilt spirits and turned over glasses in front of me and the smell was musty, alcoholic, sweaty, hot. I could feel Marriott’s fur under my palm but the smells and sounds stretched beyond my living room to another place and time. Helen Morgan walked in and was causing a scene, I was close to it but nobody could see or acknowledge me, I watched as she remonstrated with friends and people at the adjacent tables. She was a strong looking woman, so distinctive, her force and presence took the breath out of the room but she seemed agitated and upset. She left…people shook their heads and muttered disparaging comments to each other in low tones. Then, from the stage area came Lee Morgan. He looked the same in person as he did on the LP covers. After a period of serious drug addiction that resulted in him collapsing against a metal radiator and burning part of his scalp he wore his hair straight and forward to cover the scars. It was distinctive as a look and I’d often wondered if it would have appeared strange in real life. Now I was here it looked as normal as could be, and in fact had helped me recognise him through the throng of bodies. One or two of the crowd chatted to him and he looked relaxed, he looked like the kind of person that I thought I’d like to get to know. SWiTCH “I hope you are well. Sorry for not getting back to you sooner. I’m still pouring my efforts into poetry. I managed to get my hands on a typewriter; feels good to be back in the 90s.” SWiTCH Fraser was a really positive and animated person, he was the designer of some really great books that I’d picked up in the Ikon shop. When James had suggested him as the person to put together a design for the first publication around Grendon I had been really excited. It had been a fruitful meeting and was clear that everything we were working towards was possible. I pointed out that I wanted the lower case “i” to remain in the text that I was preparing for the book. “I noticed that yes, why do you do that?” I answered as ever with the response I’ve used a number of times. “It’s a Mod thing…there was a record label called “Immediate” that used it and it stuck with me.” Fraser googled as we spoke, “That’s a nice logo but I can only see upper case lettering.” So convinced was I that I had appropriated my use of the ‘dropped i’ from the Small Faces record label that I simply stated that there were variations on the logo and some had the lower case letter. SWiTCH “I’ve done more gratitude lists during this lockdown compared to usual – just trying to focus on the positives. You guys are a permanent feature on my lists, so thank you.” SWiTCH Lee turned to head back to the stage for the second part of his set, suddenly from out of nowhere Helen had re-entered the club and her reappearance surprised a couple of people around me, but they didn’t intervene as she walked straight towards him. She threw some angry words in his direction and with his responses failing to placate her, she rummaged in her purse and pulled out a gun…I gasped and tried to reach out towards her…I was tethered in some way to my chair, I couldn’t rise and throw my cat out of my lap, somehow he was holding me down and preventing my need to reach her…the sharp noise sent the room into darkness and I jumped. My start did enough to disturb Marriott who suddenly leapt from my lap and freed me, unfortunately the freeing had arrived too late. Through the screen Helen was talking to me about what she was thinking directly after Lee’s death, “I said, well Helen, you got to get yourself together. It’s done. You done put yourself in it now. So, you got to get your mind together mentally to accept what you have done.” SWiTCH I moved my finger along the spines on the bookshelf. I had an illustrated book about the history of Immediate Records somewhere and I knew that I’d be able to locate the ‘dropped i’ logo in there and perhaps send it on to Fraser. After leafing through the pages twice and finding no evidence of the logo variant I sought my mind spiralled…had I imagined it? My Mod thing with the ‘dropped i’? I reached into the recesses and remembered writing it in the back of my English book at school in biro…I could see it clearly with the lower case ‘i’ and realised that I might have made it up myself. How embarrassing, I thought, all those people that I’d told about that label and why I wrote lower case i’s and all along it had been just (literally) a schoolboy error on my part. SWiTCH The post clattered onto the floor in the porch. A package sat bulkily amongst the other letters. I opened it swiftly and realised that James had sent me a book entitled “Prison Masculinities” edited by Don Sabo, Terry A. Kupers and Willie London. Having flicked through the opening pages I focused on a couple of chapters from the index. After a period reading through them I had made a mental note to return to a couple of sections that had chimed with my thinking and provided interesting questions for the work. Quickly reaching for my sketchbook to make notes I opened it at the latest available page and started to write some of what I felt were the key thoughts and assertions from the text I’d read. “The various ways in which prisoners do their time mirror the many ways that men out of prison express their gender identity and their humanity within the constraints of social forces that shape their masculinities…” The image that I’d noted this against was from the test shoot I’d done with Jake. The Elvis mask prominent as the figure walked ‘lost’ through the corridors. SWiTCH I checked the records on the shelf to see if any on the Immediate label could prove that I had not invented it…but to no avail. For a split second I thought to myself that actually the logo would have been improved with the addition of my lower case mistake. My eyes flittered across the multiple coloured spines and travelled to the Jazz section of my collection…there it was…the iMPULSE! label shot out and I realised that my ‘dropped i’ had been a conflation from more than one graphic. I felt relief for some reason, and breathed a little easier. SWiTCH In quiet moments I can still hear their voices…the men…each voice is unique and as I gazed out of the train window as it hurtled towards Birmingham New Street in a blurred striping of muted colours. The carriage was quiet, I was the only one on the train and my mind went back to Helen Morgan. It wasn’t her voice I was hearing though, it was a northern male voice and I was revisiting a conversation I’d had just before lockdown. “It’s a very human thing. We have all been forced into situations and positions where we can make the wrong decision, a catastrophic decision. That’s being human and we are all capable of that.” In those quiet moments, when I’m alone, I can still hear their voices. SWiTCH “Have you got any books of the work of the Die Brucke group, German Expressionism? Hope you are both well. Despite everything I’ve mentioned. All is good here… ‘Normality is man’s attempt to cover up disorder’.”
Art at HMP Grendon is supported by the Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust and HM Prison and Probation Service.