AMI: One of the things we shared in the jail was a love of books. The first time you ever approached me was in 1982 and it was to talk about books and reading. We were still on protest although no longer on the blanket and had access to books, which were being devoured. I often say that the books stayed in Cell 26 and never came out with the prisoners given that nothing contained in them – other than those Workers Party publications – seemed to make its way to the policy level. When I was in your house it was still well stacked and when I did my will back in Belfast the thousands of books in our place were to be left to you. I have since passed on hundreds of them to you. We share a passion for books. What is it about reading that gripped you and continues to do so?
AMC: When you asked me to comment on reading books, honestly, I thought your head was cut. What could be more boring and pedestrian? Of all the interesting things to chat about like drugs, sex and rock-and-roll, you want me to wax lyrical about reading books. I will keep it as simple and straightforward as I possibly can. I did not possess a love for books growing up. We were not a book reading family like some, although I could be corrected on this point as I am separated from my youngest sibling by almost 20 years. All their schooling was done when I was in jail. Now, it is different for my own family. At least two of my daughters love reading books from a very young age. As a result, the house is full of books lying around everywhere, in cupboards, under beds. Several attempts to bring some order to the chaos have failed.
AMI: My daughter reads books quite a bit. My son not so much although he is an avid follower of news and world events online, which for a fourteen year old is not a bad interest to have.
AMC: Before going to jail, I thought book reading was for the nerdy types. In the days of gun battles, barricades and rioting, books appealed little to me, much less school. What was happening on the mean streets was far more attractive than the boredom of a classroom. My role models were IRA volunteers rather than cranky Christian Brothers and stuffy teachers tasked with my education. My behaviour in school greatly disappointed my parents and educators alike.
AMI: Much as my own did.
AMC: Corporal punishment was the preferred method for getting the best results out of unruly students. Personally, I think it was nothing more than an excuse for frustrated teachers to beat the crap out of young kids with impunity; much the same as with frustrated parents. Far from boasting about it, my hands were warmed by leather and birch on a regular basis. And I rebelled even more. But, in short, school played second fiddle to the excitement and danger to be found on the streets. Later, whenever I had the opportunity and time to read as many books as I could wish for, a new world unfolded in those millions of digested written words.
AMI: Did you ever visit the local library or were there books in the house when you were growing up? Your mother is a very intelligent and articulate woman. I remember giving her a copy of The Orange State by Michael Farrell one time as she wanted to reread it. I took her to be well read. I knew your father less well and don’t know if he had a love for books. I know in our house there were Dickens and Agatha Christie books. My father read the first and my mother was into the second. I am sure there were more. My father was registered in the library just at Utility Street on the Donegal Road but I was with the one on the Ormeau Road just above the Lagan. I recall going to it but I have this memory of thinking I wanted to grow up quicker as there seemed to be more books in the adult section. Just William, Biggles, Pocomoto, I found tedious after not too long.
AMC: I called into the local library on a few occasions, but only to get out of the rain. However, once there I scanned the shelves and found myself being drawn in by the wealth of knowledge. Maybe there was something lurking deep within me, that book need I referred to earlier. My mother and father had no time to read anything bar the local newspaper. Bringing up eight kids was pretty much a full time job. It was only in later years that books mostly to do with the Irish politics began to appear in the home, My mother only began to read books once the family was reared and she had free time on her hands. Da preferred a pint of the black and a bet on the horses to help him relax after a hard week at work. We were a typically working class family struggling to survive on scarce resources.
AMI: Yet you were a voracious reader in jail.
AMC: Yes, I was. Jail was a whole new experience, a completely different world. Being sentenced to 10 years in the H-Blocks altered the pathway of my life forever. With enough time I might have outgrown the streets and moved onto something else, but what I experienced in jail over the the next 7 years set a course for me. On the blanket protest I came into contact with previously unknown political concepts: Socialism, Secularism and non-Sectarianism - three of the five basic tenets of Irish Republicanism.
AMI: The Five Isms.
AMC: My hunger for knowledge was fed by the never ending debates and arguments between the prisoners. We did not always agree on every point. I looked forward to the occasional lecture on the exploitation of the Tara Mines by multinational conglomerates, or news about the latest developments in other national liberation struggles thousands of miles away. I heard of countries and systems that I hardly knew existed: Soviet Union, Red China, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, and many others. The groundwork was being laid for a journey of discovery and books played an essential role.
AMI: I remember it well, but it was not too long before I came to the conclusion that Marxism was the Opium of the Marxists, something I had picked up from the economist Joan Robinson. I have always admired Marxist thought when it is descriptive but put it in the hands of Marxist revolutionaries and wooden strategists seeking to impose rather than apply the formulaic, the book then becomes Animal Farm. One of my all-time favourites.
AMC: It was long enough before you became convinced of the potential for revolutionary misadventure. We have discussed this many times without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. I think you are too quick to throw out the baby with the bath water. Still, there is plenty of evidence to support your views on revolution and revolutionaries. But, we live in hope. Today, you say you are a reformer and a liberal. I would not describe myself in those terms. However, reform and revolution are not mutually exclusive, therefore, I do not think we are miles apart on many of the important questions. The power of the Marxist approach is that it takes account of new circumstance in an ever changing world. Only when it is transformed into dogma does it lose its revolutionary utility. Marxism as a diagnostic tool for understanding the world far outstrips its proven transformative power to date. I think I have digressed from the subject of reading books, but it is not entirely disconnected. For it was you that pointed me in the direction of the rich vein of Marxist literature. And I remember we would discuss books for hours on end as I attempted to get a better understanding.
AMI: A persuasive enough insight. I am liberal in terms of what individuals should have the freedom to do but very social when it comes to matters of the economy. Revolution is a great idea but one totally compromised by revolutionaries. The protest ended and there was an influx of literature. At first they tried to restrict it to fiction but we soon broke that down, helped by the incongruity of the prison library staff accessing virtually any book we requested. They were quite good and behaved as librarians rather than screws. Seemed to have a genuine interest in the job.
AMC: After the protest ended the prisoners moved into the prison system, not a popular decision with many at the time. It was at this juncture that books began to flood into the jail, making it possible to create wing libraries. As with everything else the administration attempted to dictate what type of books were permissible. Scores of books, if not hundreds, were turned away because they were deemed to be subversive. A similar situation arose recently, more than 35 years later, with the banning of Marisa McGlinchey's book by Maghaberry Prison. This is the censorial nature of the institution left to its own devices. But challenge after challenge soon broke down the arbitrary censorship imposed. I have no recollection of the positive role played by the library staff in this unnecessary battle of the books. If what you say is true, then fair play to all concerned. Although I tend to view all screws as cogs in a wheel that crushes those beneath it. A friendly smile hides a thousand sins.
AMI: The second time you came back to prison your ardour for the type of education programme in the blocks had considerably cooled. I think you felt it was not applicable to life on the outside. You were not alone in that. Did that in any way shape what you read during your second spell?
AMC: Unfortunately, I have been back to prison on two other occasions. Each time, I have automatically turned to books for comfort and solace. Humans are creatures of habit, I guess. A jail cell and a book were made for one another: The perfect match. Books are the receptacles of all human knowledge passed down from one generation to the next. If we were handed a clean slate with only books to guide us, we could build a civilisation based on the knowledge imparted. This is the power of the written word. My time in jail did very little to prepare for life on the streets. Whereas my head was full of political concepts, I felt completely out of touch with reality. Some of my new friends had little time for political theory. The struggle required a hands on approach rather than idealism. Politics was for politicians. Prisoners were more to be pitied than taken seriously. I remember one occasion when an attempt was made to introduce revolutionary politics into the equation. A well known former prisoner was asked to deliver a series of lectures to local activists. Some responded positively to this initiative while others thought it was a distraction. When I went back to jail a second time, I was less enthusiastic about political education. However, I continued to read books for personal pleasure. Education became a more personal pursuit tempered by my experience on the street.
AMI: There have been attempts to control books in British managed prisons, the USA as well. The former Labour MP, Denis McShane protested the prohibition of a bag of books he had taken into prison with him at the start of a short sentence he was to serve. I read the other day that the Howard League for Penal Reform was raising concerns about access to books for prisoners in the UK still meeting with so many obstacles, while libraries were seriously under-resourced and staffed. You have already referred to Unfinished Business by Marisa McGlinchey being banned. Although it has since been rescinded, that it was ever prohibited says something about the archaic mindset governing the unenlightened perspective of prison management. Was there any difference in the prisoner managed libraries from when you were in and from previous era? I recall sending you a few during your most recent imprisonment including the Stieg Larsson series.
AMC: The recent attempt to ban Marisa McGlinchey's book in Maghaberry was just plain silly. The chance of a successful legal challenge to that decision was a forgone conclusion. Therefore, the ban was more about dictating to prisoners than it was about the book itself. We mentioned earlier how the jail administration in the Kesh tried to do the same thing in the eighties. Maghaberry is caught in a 40-year-old groove wanting to fight old battles and hoping the outcome will be different. The mantra 'this is not the Maze' is repeated over and over again as an assertion of control and power. In other words, republican prisoners are to be kept in their box. Just like the H-Blocks, books are everywhere in Roe House. The self-made library in the 'quiet rooms' strongly resemble those in cell twenty-six. In fact a few books from yesteryear have found their way onto the shelves signed by a past generation of prisoners. It is a strange world. There are some differences in terms of new authors and topics on display. Today, the names Richard O'Rawe, Tommy McKearney and Anthony McIntyre sit alongside the illustrious Marx, Engels Lenin, Connolly, and so on. Another new addition is the books on the big issues of today, globalisation, ecology and artificial intelligence (AI). That is a credit to the prisoners as they attempt to keep up with the new trends and theories in a closed and controlled environment.
AMI: What book are you reading just now?
AMC: Normally, I would read more than one book at a time. Presently, I am rereading Christopher Hitchens' personal, powerful account of his experience with cancer, Mortality. As the book title suggests, he was staring down the barrel of his own extinction. Several of my family and friends have cancer which makes the book relevant. Hitchens approaches his life threatening disease in his usual unorthodox manner. Half the population will contract cancer at some point in their life, therefore, I would recommend this book to everyone. Life is a lottery.
Now with access to the internet and YouTube, I read far less. A world of knowledge is available on the push of a button. So much time is spent on social media, my wife complains about being invisible.
New technologies have replaced books for convenience. Amazon and Kindle have placed the high street bookshop on the list of endangered species. Public libraries are disappearing due to lack of public funding. But at the end of the day, books will continue to enrich our lives, especially inside institutions where access to technology is severely curtailed.
Books are the foundation of our civilisation.
Alex McCrory is a former political prisoner and occasional contributor to TPQ.