Booked On The Boards

Beano Niblock shares his memories of reading in prison. Beano Niblock is a former loyalist prisoner. He currently writes poetry, plays and commentary pieces and blogs at Long Kesh Inside Out.

A long time since I read as good a book review as this. Obviously you can let book reviews influence whether you buy or not and of course on this one the answer is in the affirmative. But more pointedly to me this reflection is more from a personal perspective and is to be commended for that.

When incarcerated one of the greatest pleasures in a strangled life is reading and in my personal experiences good books were always akin to the proverbial hens teeth. When you got them you savoured them: think The GodfatherThe Ragged Trousered Philanthropist The Day of the Jackal.

Nothing came close to the feeling you had when tucked up in the cart early with a brand new, eagerly anticipated, new novel clutched in your grubby paws. It was something you savoured. There was an ever growing queue waiting on you to finish. It passed along a designated line faster than the dash for the chicken and chips when it arrived in the cage, - every Co Quarter. And it was dispatched to said queue - after you had read it a second time.

Pre-Amazon, when it took a fortnight or so from order to delivery, you could plan your night around a book. I remember the anxious wait for such fabulous books like Tinker Tailor The Holcroft Manuscript, or Shogun. The provider of a wanted book - or indeed one that turned out to be good- became a friend for life. Even Provies-Stickies or Screws.

Magilligan, summer of 1977, and I was in Cellular Confinement for 2 days. That’s the boards in common parlance. My offence was for having a watch. Not any watch according to AG Stewart. Oh No ... an ultra modern DIGITAL Casio sort. T ink that got me the extra day, as I had previously received only day for an ordinary wee Timex.

The screw on daily duty in the boards was an Englishman - an ex rugby league player-who allowed me my door open: if I heard the outside bell ring I closed my door myself. He re-opened later. He made me tea and toast if I wanted it and we played the odd game of cards. It passed the time for the both of us. He was also an avid reader. I had brought 2 books with me-more in hope than expectation. One was Eagle in the Skies, a Wilbur Smith yarn about the Arab/Israeli War of 1967 and a blind fighter pilot. No, you read that right. I had already read it once. By chance he had the latest Smith tome around the Courtney/Ballantyne saga - A Sparrow Falls. So we were able to swap.

The other book I had was it’s predecessor - The Sound of Thunder. So, on my first night in those horrible God-forsaken boards, I re-read the book I had brought while the screw finished his. We swapped the next day and I held off from starting it until bed time. It was heaven in the County Londonderry country side ... me tucked up in bed with a new book ... and big Eddie bringing me 2 rounds of toast and a steaming cup of tea.

Ah, for the good old days ... and who said nostalgia is a thing of the past?

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

7 comments to ''Booked On The Boards"

  1. Beano,

    I love piece like this. Brings back so many good memories from the place. Read Shogun in 82 and thought it brilliant: Read the Wilbur Smith ones too and wasn't as hooked on them as others were. Ludlum was also a favourite that Big Jack McGarry introduced me to at the end of the Blanket when we were getting paperbacks.

  2. Beano
    The escapism that a good novel affords is special in normal circumstances, I can only imagine what they must give to long sentenced prisoners. Were the Patrick O'Brian Master and Commander novels popular? They are the finest historical military fiction novels ever written in my opinion.

  3. From Beano

    Peter..I am aware of the Patrick O’Brian novels but would be telling lies if I said they were popular back then. I simply cannot recall anyone reading them..could have happened though. Strangely enough Poldark—which is on television at the moment was written by Winston Graham and I remember a guy recommending all those works..I read a few. Personally I did get through the Walter Macken books at the time--particularly the trilogy. Seek the Fair land would have been my favourite of those. Another author who had a huge following especially in the 70’s was Sven Hassel. Everyone read at least one of his many books—mostly set during WW2.

  4. Beano,

    Sven Hassel - read all of his stuff. Started when I was 17 in Magilligan. In 76 when I was looking some Freddie Chambers who worked on the wings brought them in from his house for me. Freddie was decent.

  5. Haha Sven Hassel, so 70s! I'm sure Elford's Devil's Guard was popular too.

  6. from Beano

    Hassel had a cult following alright..I started reading him in 13 when I was a 17 year old YP. It was Legion of the Damned which may have been his first book. I think the subject matter appealed to a lot of us young prisoners at the time...time spent in a concentration camp-then released to form part of a penal combat unit..Hassel was a staple diet through 73 and 74..interspersed with the likes of Jim Larkin-Venceremos and the Soledad Brothers of course!!

  7. Devil's Guard was one I read in 77


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