The Hope Machine

5.30 am, Belfast.
Sitting here listening to the central heating crack awake sucking the chill from the morning air as the dawn breaks (still blue sky – but this is Northern Ireland) on another day in the life of ‘I’. Like all things in my weird and wonderful world it takes my back to a time and place in memory. A time not so much filled with ‘Hope’ rather more to do with surviving and getting through the day. Wrote this wee number around 5.30am on the morning I went to Stormont back in 2012 (see this blog, The Re-Entry Conundrum – jail or working overseas.) to deliver my speech about writing, art and education in prison to the great and the good.

Diamonds and Skin
By Michael Irwin
HMP Magilligan

Drinking coffee, listening to ‘Elbow’
The desk lamp on –
The cups elongated shadow
Limp across the page, centre stage.
The scarred table, empty, bereft
Of all but bubbles of varnish
This soft glow of light
This Time rubbed bare
Visible through the darkness
Blurred as hesitant light
Where ghost and ghouls
Dance in the merry half night.
This tune you hum
As speckles of dust, clean clear and vivid
They settle on diamonds of skin
Near the base of forefinger and thumb
Like wrinkles of an old leathery elephant
Through time and age in increments
On a translucent blue ruler
Grain in wood, fibres in paper
This day breaking in floods
Mixing ink ‘n’ light, paper ‘n’ darkness
Tick tock, in my cell, my graveside
‘Throw those curtains wide.’

Four and a bit years on – what has changed? Apart from the obvious of ‘not being there’ it’s everything and nothing really. Must apologise first for plagiarising half the title from Shadd Maruna and Ruth Armstrong’s recent presentation at Cambridge “Beyond The Rhetoric of Reintegration : Getting Inside The Hope Machine.”

Out of the frying pan and into the fire and trying to get back in the pan again comes to mind or Michael Irwin logic – jumping from one institution to another. It dawned on me over the past few days that I had indeed lost the plot. Spent six years in the wonderful institution of Her Majesty’s Pleasure (HMP) fighting, kicking, screaming and biting at the criminal justice system whilst quietly yearning for the day I escaped it’s clutches. Then, full of ‘Hope’, on my first home leave I enter the ‘Canada Room’ and the hallowed halls of the institution of academia. I’d got a little taster of ‘hope’ and a year later (upon release) found myself sitting and getting a Master’s in Criminology.

Question – To what end? What was my rational behind it all? This question has plagued me for the past six months.

Answer – To get back into the institution I’d just left and pass on my knowledge, experience, epistemological privilege and to bring some reality to the worlds of academia and criminal justice.

Not a bad answer and it worked for a while. The trouble is, I’m not the same person I was back then. At the time I was fuelled by a sense of injustice and I’m not ashamed to admit ‘anger’ at the institution of prison. Then I discovered the institution of academia! I’ll leave the subtle innuendo out there for those who wish to translate.

Last week a received the cursory gut wrenching letter that said thank you for your PhD application which has been unsuccessful and we wish you all the best with your future career… My gut hasn’t wrenched like that for a very long time. Why am I gutted and to what end will my guttedness get me? Therein lay the conundrum. As per usual it takes me a while to work things out. I’m always thinking, always questioning myself, always reaching for hope. Why do I want this?

As per, living life and paying attention gives me the answers. Recent events in my personal and family life have enabled the pieces to gently fit into place. Firstly, A few weeks ago my friend Les published a book of poems about growing up where we live. These poems (bloody brilliant by the way mate) allowed me to remember stuff I’d forgot about growing up and the power of creative writing. Secondly, watching my Father fight and win his second operation in six weeks, kicking the ass of the beast of Cancer allowed me to realise where I get some of my strength from. A most amazing man who humbles me. Thirdly, my Art of Living breathing exercises and meditation. I haven’t properly practised since the end of last year and had lost my direction. I went to my first meet up last Sunday and practised every single day for the last two weeks.

I need to explain, in layman’s terms the power of these breathing exercises. Two weeks ago I sat in a coffee shop waiting to pick my Father up from the hospital. I was in full blown panic/anxiety attack. Trembling, shaking and spilling the coffee and couldn’t sit still. Yesterday morning, waiting to pick him up from his post op consultation, I sat in the same seat in the same coffee shop with the sun on my face as calm as you like. Not a drop was spilled and I felt at ease ready to deal with the result. “All Clear” by the way. I’ll be doing the exercise as soon as I finish this.

Fourthly, I watched the result of Hillsborough Inquest come in yesterday. The tears flowed. If, anyone has any doubt about the power of critical research and why academia is essential in our society. Well, yesterday proves it.

So, it then hit me like a thunderbolt. Why on earth am I attempting to spend the rest of my life getting into an institution in order to get into another institution that I spent six years trying to get out of? There are other means and ways of achieving and imparting my knowledge, experience and epistemological privilege to the afore said institutions. Getting my book published is number one on the list. Getting back to work – whatever that may be. Reading and writing creatively and academically and most of all living my days via breathing and meditations.

The most important thing in life is to feel grounded and centred in one’s self and recent events take me back to a certain time and place. I wrote poem one week after doing the Art of Living Prison Smart Course in 2008. I now have a BA, MSSc and will continue to write and learn.  Nothing has changed yet everything has changed, the ‘Hope Machine’ trundles on and lies at the centre of my world. I’ll leave you with a poem I wrote last Saturday morning.

By Michael Irwin

Slipping on socks on a sanitised floor, craggy nails, sliding, taking, sucking, feeling, taking, taking on circulation, life. Lived life in toes, tell a tale like rings on an aged Redwood tree. Glad it’s not me. Baby toes once, you all right Jack, toes take the weight off a my back. Carried me for years, harboured all my fears, nurtured, loved and murdered by insolent constriction of shoes. Ahhhh, the comfort of socks, slipping in and out of life with ease. Father slips on a sock to his baby with bereft, delicate intimacy, tough as old boot yet silently quiet. Fifty years later son reciprocates with a life so scarred and broken, two men healed by the sliding on of socks, in gesture that heals time itself.


About micsirwin

I'm a Postgraduate student at Queens studying Criminology, writer, poet and lover of integrity, dignity, respect and morality
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