Magilligan Prison Writing

Inmates of Magilligan Prison get creative, with impressive results  

Magilligan Prison Writing: Writ, Judgement, Sentence, Parole, this fine collection of stories, poems, reviews and a play is a result of the Creative Writing programmes taking place every week at Magilligan Prison in Co Londonderry. Fifteen male writers have contributed to a handsome and neatly constructed book, giving voice to the prisoners and offering testament to the great value such workshops have.

Kevin van Dyk writes a sharp and often funny prose that pulses on the page with a fierce energy. In ‘Piranha Street’ we follow a South African drug dealer moving up through the ranks, his story told in a brutal but dazzling urban patois. The story is full-blooded and raw, less concerned with literary trappings and more with the atmosphere and honesty of the world being created on the page:

'They called me V8 because I was a supercharged motherfucker. Mama was a go-go girl and papa was a strolling bone. I could pull on a pipe of weed like an Electrolux. I had big ideas when I was a kid. Wanted to be an engineer on a ship. I wanted to see the world. I was always hanging around the docks. Greek ships, Russian ships, Singaporean, Korean, Taiwanese. I watched ships. I drew ships. My complete aversion to taking orders put paid to my plans of a life at sea...'

In Jim McGuigan’s ‘I, Barysevich’ a Russian woman looks back over the turbulent century she has lived through and tries to understand the real forces that control the world. It’s a short piece written in a stripped down prose yet covers a huge amount of time and space.

Neil Hanna’s poetry is delicate and affecting, ‘Judgement’ in particular a brief but touching contrast between the immutable confines of the cell and the ongoing flow of the natural world outside. Reid takes inspiration from Sinead Morrissey’s ‘The Juggler’ and offers a vivid snapshot of a young band-member in ‘The Stick Twirler’, which sees amazed onlookers, ’caught/By a defiance of gravity.’

Many of the pieces are told in the first person, reading like intimate accounts glowing with a bright, free-flowing energy. Frequently there’s a sense that an overlooked version of an event is being retold from a different viewpoint and the joy of that release is clearly evident. 

A book review section looks at seven titles from crime fiction to real life stories. Michael Williams is impressed with the novelistic detail of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, struck by how modern the book still feels and the humane depiction of the two main suspects. Williams sees authenticity here, but Josh Leach seems sceptical of Nick Laird’s literary crime thriller Utterly Monkey, keen to point out its implausible finale and wondering if the book is already dated:

'This novel is an accurate analysis of the sectarian divide that permeates every aspect of economic and social life within Northern Ireland communities. Ironically sectarianism is both violence and social cement... should this novel have ended with the young, sacked lawyer sipping his "plastic cup from the water fountain" stuck in a lift with his beautiful black girlfriend in London? Yes, it's frustratingly real. And no. We're left bewteen floors in the dark.'

The final part of the book is given over to Kratos by Nigel Jackson, a terrific two-act play set in the ‘seaside resort’ of Purgatory. Three men find themselves thrown together after death and having to question the prejudices that sustained them when they were alive. There’s Kendall the journalist, Roe the ex-policeman and Khan, an Asian boxer who was killed during a police operation. It’s a humane and very funny play with rich dialogue and a clear sense of the joys and possibility of theatre.

The greatest recommendation you can give for the collection is how enjoyable it is. There’s a clear sense of people getting to grips with the basics of creative writing and challenging themselves to master and exceed what’s been learned. The worlds feel instantly recognisable and there’s a humour and lack of pretension that makes the whole enterprise a thrill to read. Not only is the work good, it provides those on the outside with a glimpse of the men’s imaginations and perhaps some notion of where they’ve come from and where they’re headed.

Magilligan Prison Writing: Writ, Judgement, Sentence, Parole is for sale in Easons.