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Low Culture Essay: Ophira Gottlieb On Feltham Sings
Ophira Gottlieb , October 24th, 2023 10:36

In this month's Low Culture subscriber essay, Ophira Gottlieb looks at the 2002 documentary collaboration between poet Simon Armitage and the inmates of Feltham Young Offenders Institution, arguing it was a notable addition to the ancient canon of prison literature

“I might be a titch, but I can handle myself / I’m a one man menace to the National Health.” Paul McBride is filmed singing these lyrics with one arm dangling casually through the bars of his prison cell. Back in 2002, he was one of six inmates in HMP Feltham to have featured in Feltham Sings, a documentary detailing the lives of inmates in Europe’s largest Young Offender Institution. Directed by Brian Hill, Feltham Sings covers precisely the ground you might expect a prison documentary to cover. Six young offenders and two members of staff tell us candidly about their home-life, work-life, the crimes they have committed, the conditions behind bars, and their future plans upon release. The only thing separating it from any other prison documentary, is that they do so almost entirely in song.

The songs in question are a product of an unlikely collaboration. The eclectic mix of pop tunes, reggae, and R&B bangers were all produced by Errol Francis, otherwise known as DJ Dextrous. The lyrics to all but two of the songs were formulated from transcripts of the inmates’ interviews, and were put to rhyme and rhythm by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage. If this seems like a strange choice – it isn’t. While still merely moonlighting as a poet, Armitage spent the better half of a decade working as a probation officer in and around Greater Manchester, and completed his Master’s thesis on the effect of violent media on young offenders. The result of his work on Feltham Sings is a collection of lyrics that went on to win him an Ivor Novello award and cement his place in the canon of Prison Literature — a tradition as enduring and ancient as writing and prisons themselves.

This wasn’t Armitage and Hill’s first collaboration, nor was it their first musi-mentary. The two had already joined forces in 1998 to create Drinking for England, a deeply sinister depiction of booze culture in the UK in which depressed housewives and ruddy-faced pub-blokes came together to recite and sing a number of numbers ranging from the darkly comical to the darkly dark. In one scene, a pub-dwelling geezer straight out the pub-dwelling geezer catalogue cheerily sings along to the Armitage-penned lyrics “Thinkings a beautiful thing for a man / Thinks from a bottle and thinks from a can,” just moments after informing the cameras that he is there alone at the pub on his fortieth birthday with “no house, no car” and definitely, definitely no drinking problem. In what is arguably the documentary’s bleakest scene, a woman fighting off alcohol withdrawal shakily repeats the lines: “Don’t you know / Tell you why / Mother drinks / So do I” while her slurring gradually increases. The entire documentary is harrowing, but still it tries pretty hard to entertain us. While Drinking for England at no point trivialises alcoholism, the musical numbers present the subject matter in a way that at times seems to soften its edges for comic effect, and at other times is so jarring it simply increases the morbidity of it all.

The songs in Feltham Sings have much the same effect, with the inmates revealing their traumatic backstories and details of grim prison conditions while dancing around their cells. Brian Hill himself responded to some doubt surrounding the concept by arguing that he “[doesn’t] think doing it as a musical belittles the problem. And some of the lads at Feltham have more talent than a lot of people who've got recording contracts.” Most of the boys in HMP Feltham come from complicated backgrounds. We are shown brief snippets of interviews in between the songs and the same themes crop up over and over again: drug addiction, domestic abuse and a history of incarceration within the family. But throughout the documentary the inmates are not depicted as entirely unhappy. We see boys lifting weights at the gym, playing chess, smoking cigarettes in bed, perusing sophisticatedly through ‘The Bash Mag’ (“cause you bash to it, you know?”) which they rent out to other inmates for anywhere between two-fifty and eight quid a wank depending on their social status within the prison. These relatively light-hearted clips provide a sharp contrast to the lyrics, which generally cover topics of violence, self-harm, sexual abuse, and general hopelessness. They also stand in stark contradiction to the press coverage that HMP Feltham had been receiving in the years before the documentary’s release. The year 2000 saw a number of suicides and a racially aggravated murder occur within the prison walls, and the Chief Inspector of prisons had damningly labelled the institute as being “rotten to the core”.

Prison is grim, putting children in prison is insane, and most if not all of those incarcerated in Feltham are victims of circumstances created by the same government that later imprisoned them. Feltham Sings itself provides the occasional devastating statistic, early in the documentary informing us that 75% of those in the prison will reoffend, a statistic that the boys featured in the documentary are not exempt from. Terell Thuesday, an inmate who at the end of the documentary we see riding a motorbike off into the sunset after being released, would a decade later be sentenced to a further seven years for vehicular manslaughter. The whole situation is as familiar as it is bleak, and yet we are drawn to these stories time and again. Feltham Prison Officer Dave Worely himself says so in the documentary. “It's that big wall. People want to know what goes on behind it.”

This fascination is not at all new. The tradition of prison literature is an ancient and enduring one, with one of the most famous examples, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, written in 523 AD. The genre is typically defined as literature written while the author was either incarcerated, such as was the case with Boethius, exiled, as in the case of Dante’s Divine Comedy, or in any other manner confined to a certain location against their will, such as President T’s SBTV freestyle that he does while under house arrest.

The popularity of prison literature has risen and fallen considerably and repeatedly since the days of Boethius, peaking in England in the early modern period owing to a drastic increase in the number of incarcerated individuals, many of whom belonged to political and literary elites. It was a time when British society’s entire perspective on ‘The Prisoner’ was unrecognisable to today: Catholicism and Protestantism dictated morality, the prisoner was perceived as a sinner, crime was perceived as an offence against God. The bottom line was that anyone could become a prisoner, that prisoners weren’t inherently different from other members of society, evidence of this being found in the cells chock-full of politicians, poets, and various other well-off intellectuals. The result was that prisons were viewed as these mysterious cultural sites, where sinful but admirable minds met behind bars, lounging around, debating the contents of the latest apocalyptic sermon.

But things are different now. There’s an interesting moment in Feltham Sings where we see an interview with the prison’s Head of Drug Counselling Service, Kenroy Cole, who is himself an ex-offender and ex-inmate of both YOI and prison. In the interview Cole claims that “the way the media portrays the offender is that he is someone who can and should do better,” nailing modern perceptions of prisoners at a time when no discussion of prison is safe from words like “rehabilitation”, “reformation” and, worst of all, “correctional facility”. Prisoners are now perceived as errors that require correcting, rather than sinners who must be redeemed through punishment. The fact that Cole then goes on to perform a long reggae track which features a line about prisoners “weaning themselves off the milk of crime and on to solid dreams” does not subtract from the truth of his statement.

What’s really fascinating is how this change in attitude towards prisons and prisoners has affected a change in prison literature. Prisoners were once perceived to have gained some sort of otherwise inaccessible wisdom through their experience of incarceration, and their resulting literature was often a documentation of this newfound enlightenment, as was the case of Boethius. Feltham Sings, on the other hand, is preoccupied with explaining the circumstances that lead to the boys committing the crimes they committed. One of the first boys to sing in the documentary, Paul ‘one-man-menace-to-the-national-health’ McBride, informs us over a slow early noughties pop backing-track that he was born in HMP Holloway, his mother having been incarcerated while pregnant. “Mother did time / Brother did time / Uncle did time / Now it’s my turn.” Drugs, too, are a repeatedly cited reason for criminal behaviour throughout the documentary, with McBride singing in the hook about how he’s “done puff and speed / and trips and crack / and smashed someone up / with a cricket bat.” At no point does he actually attempt to teach the listener any wisdom he has gained through his experience of incarceration, only recount the circumstances that lead him to be there in the first place.

But what’s crucial to remember is that we have not McBride but Armitage to thank for these lyrics. There are, however, exactly two songs in the documentary that were written not by Armitage but by the prisoners themselves, and the contrast in the lyrical content of these songs is noticeable.

One of the two examples is ‘Life in Feltham’ by Linden George. In the song, which is a rap layered over some police siren samples, George guides us in the style of the Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ten Crack Commandments’ through his top ten tips for surviving life in Feltham, starting with the specific advice of never saying “suck your mum” to a fellow inmate (“unless you are dumb and you really want some”), but then branching out into some more general advice such as to always maintain a high level of personal hygiene, to never pretend to be tough, and the age-old classic tip of trust nobody.

What’s drastically different about this song in comparison to those written by Armitage is first and foremost that George acknowledges that we, the viewers, might also end up in prison. By focussing on the boy’s backstories, Armitage’s lyrics suggest that every offender in the documentary is the product of his upbringing and surroundings, and therefore those in more fortunate circumstances need not worry about ever ending up in jail. George, on the other hand, completely breaks down this assumption, and once this separation is gone, we revert back to the mindset in which any one of us might at any point in our lives end up in jail. This means that we once again have a reason to look towards inmates as sources of wisdom and advice, rather than simply as phenomena to be understood and, in the best of cases, pitied.

Then there’s Cass Galton, who wrote the song ‘This Is Me’ that features not only at the start, but also the middle and end of Feltham Sings and who throughout the documentary gives off the overwhelming impression of being the most well-respected inmate in the prison, marginally beating George, who would otherwise have been the most respected, by getting him to do backup vocals on his track. The pair share a room which consists of two flat, green beds, with the bash mag and an ongoing chess game between them, and in their interviews they roll cigs and philosophise together on the subjective nature of modern morality. “I know the difference between right and wrong how I see it,” says Galton, “some other people might not see right and wrong how I see right and wrong.” In one oddly tender clip from their joint interview the two of them discuss feelings of guilt for the victims of their crimes. George, who was imprisoned for armed robbery, states that he does feel guilty - “it’s not their fault for having a nice car” - but Galton, who was jailed for drug smuggling, has considerably different opinions on the matter.

Galton believes that, ultimately, most people are sinful in one way or another, and that the crimes he got away with were those that were committed against sinful people, and therefore were simply retributive. However, he goes on to claim that if you commit a crime against someone innocent you will go to jail, but still he asserts that “you shouldn’t have to feel guilty for that cause you go through your own pain and suffering ten times worse.” Galton doesn’t see his experience in prison as reformative or corrective in the slightest. Instead it is merely a method of punishment, just as his own crimes are a method of punishment towards other sinners. As for smuggling and selling drugs: “The only thing that’s wrong with that is that it’s against the law.” Galton’s song, another rap, reflects these attitudes perfectly, and is also an absolute banger. Just as Boethius writes that “man towers above the rest of creation so long as he realises his own nature” so too Cass Galton aims to “rise, become wise and all-seeing” through his experience of incarceration.

There are a great many other exceptional, eye-opening moments throughout Feltham Sings. There’s Prison Officer Dave Worley, who sings a Backstreet Boys worthy pop tune with vaguely homoerotic undertones about getting the boys in prison “meaty and lean”. There’s the kid from New Zealand who was caught at a nightclub with pills, informed the police that he had more at home, and then showed them where they were, who recites a poem about the difficulties of life in prison when you “have gold in your hair and blue in your eye”. There’s the entire, incredible ‘On Road’ garage track about being in “the business of… basically… it’s car crime”. But Armitage’s finest hour? That has to be the McBride-sung lyrics:

“Mum says she’ll visit, then suddenly she can’t
So you’re sat for an hour in the corner like a cunt
Wanna be a chef, wanna be a stuntman
Don’t wanna sit in the corner like a cunt, man.”

Armitage may not have been a prisoner himself, but he and the boys in HMP Feltham have proven themselves worthy of carrying that same torch that the likes of Jean Genet once carried. Together they translated the age-old tradition of committing their experience of incarceration to paper into a format as bizarre as the modern times we live in – an idea almost as bizarre as putting children in prison.