|Published by YMAA Publishing, and available in May 2016|
Here's a very brief sample from chapter one. I've just turned 18 years old inside Strangeways Prison, I've yet to discover karate. I'm serving two years behind bars for GBH, ABH and Wounding (Grievous Bodily Harm, Actual Bodily Harm...and the other...well, he pulled a knife so I hit him in the face with a house brick) on three gang members who needed to be taught a lesson.
'You may remember earlier I mentioned an incident where the prospect of being stabbed, and maybe even killed, over nothing more than a roast potato. Well, that was about to happen, and it all began innocently enough one evening after work. In Hindley (The name of the Young Offenders Prison), apart from supper, which consisted of tea and cake or sometimes a cup of soup and was consumed in your cell after lock-up, all meals were taken communally in a large room set aside for the purpose called the canteen. Within the canteen, there was an unwritten, but strict, rule about who sat where. Place yourself on the wrong chair or at the wrong table and your life and immediate health were likely to change in an instant. Although the screws (guards) called each table up to the counter to be served their meal one at a time, the inmates who served the meals were often under the control of the daddy (the inmate who ran the 'rackets' on each wing), they might be in debt to him, or be a victim of a protection racket, so they sometimes skimped on the portions of inmates who would not complain and give the extra food to the daddy, or those in his favor.
Due to my reputation, I never failed to receive my due plateful but others at my table were not so fortunate. It was a scam that always appeared cowardly to me. The food was dreadful and never plentiful. Still, mealtimes were a highlight of the day, so it just seemed wrong to me that certain people would exploit the situation for their own benefit. As I said, I never did like bullies, so one evening when the table mate in front of me was denied a roast potato and told to move on I reached over and grabbed the largest potato on the tray and dropped it on his plate. My face must have said it all because the server didn't say a word, and dished up my potato as if nothing had happened. The incident caused a hushed rumble of disbelief to ripple around the canteen. I'd made a call on a racket others had put in place. They would have to do something about that or risk losing the their ability to keep running it. They made their move that evening on the second floor landing.
'Bang up', the term used for being locked in your cell, was at nine o' clock each evening, and one hour later, it was lights out. As I made my way, alone, to the top landing where my cell was located, I was met by the gang who were running the food scam. I was half way up a flight of stairs when they stepped out from the shadows: so I stopped. The staircase was much narrower than the landing so if a fight kicked off, as I expected it to, they would have to come at me one at a time. Aware of the situation themselves, they called me up 'for a word' but I was not about to have this fight on their terms. Besides, walking farther up the stairs would have momentarily put my head level with their feet, and that would have given them far too much of an advantage No, if they wanted to get their hands on me they were going to have to do it one at a time: on the stairs. A shiv (shank) a kind of homemade knife, was brandished and passed from one pair of hands to another in a way reminiscent of the Queen card in a game of find-the-lady.
The implication was clear, I was going to be hurt, and I would never know for sure by whom: at least that was their plan. But I knew from experience that the longer the leader talked the less likely it was he would do anything. Truly dangerous people offer no preamble and they gave no warning: they just did whatever it was they had in mind to do. With each passing moment I became more and more confident that none of the people in front of me were really dangerous. Oh sure, they were capable of giving me a good beating if the circumstances were just right, but my sense of insecurity was quickly diminishing. At some point, my would-be attackers began to realize this impasse was going nowhere, and as a couple of inmates passed me on their way up to their cells, I seized the opportunity to move onto the landing with them. I immediately stood toe-to-toe with the leader. The only thing stopping him from going over the rail to the floor below was my desire to avoid more trouble, which would result in more punishment.
Although the punishment block held no fear for me, life was a lot easier here on the wing. So I made it clear to him that we have to move on from this or he would have to kill me there and then. If he didn't, if he and his cronies only gave me a beating, Then I would get out of the prison hospital at some point in the future, and I would kill him! I'm not sure if I actually meant it, but my tone of voice and posture was enough to convince him I did, and that was good enough. By now, there were a great many eyes around the landing and stairwell to witness what was happening. From that day on my time at Hindley passed without incident.'
As you can see, my take on life back then was pretty basic. I solved my problems with my fists (as well as my head to several soft targets), and because of that found myself on the wrong side of 'the wall' just days before my eighteenth birthday. I'm sure many of you reading this could have so easily found yourself in a similar place at a similar age. That you didn't is no doubt down to good luck rather than good judgment. The fact remains, my thinking back then left very little opportunity for personal growth beyond pugilism.
Next month, in chapter two, I stumble onto karate, and decide to give the instructor "...a good slapping!"