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West End Extra - The XTRA DIARY
Published: 31 October 2008
Prison scene detail
A prison scene detail at the sale
Unlocking prisoners’ creative sides

I LEFT with a skip in my step as I walked out of the grounds of Wormwood Scrubs on Tuesday evening – despite the heavy sleet.
I had just had an exhilarating conversation with a man who clearly loves his work, helping to encourage prisoners to make art, painting, pottery, photography. It doesn’t matter which. What is important is that they discover their hidden talent, and perhaps find that art can begin to change their lives.
Tim Robertson, chief executive of the Koestler Trust, was showing me around an amazing collection of more than 2,000 works of art, mainly paintings, that seemed to cover every inch of a two-storey Victorian house next to the famous jail.
It was the evening of the private view of the annual Koestler Art Sale where paintings were going from £5 to £250, and some of them were very good.
A few – perhaps not surprisingly – had dark themes, but most were what you’d find at any collection of amateur art, amusing, uplifting, thought-provoking.
Altogether Robertson explained that 5,000 prisoners enter for the sale, each one receives a certificate, while about 2,000 go on to win awards.
The whole idea originated with writer Arthur Koestler who had been incarcerated himself for political offences and whose novel Darkness at Noon became a classic.
Ironically, only the day beforehand, justice minister Jack Straw had berated prison reformers for being too soft on offenders.
As we talked Robertson mentioned Straw’s speech. Perhaps he recognised that Straw would have had people like him in mind, people who clearly believe prisoners shouldn’t be left to rot in jail but should be helped to transform their lives.
He didn’t strike me as a sentimentalist.
He is aware if you break society’s rules you must be prepared to be locked up.
But he also believes there must be some purpose to imprisonment other than simply putting men and women behind bars.
Now in his 40s, Robertson hasn’t always worked for the Koestler Trust.
He started out as a social worker for Camden Council, working initially in the “frontline” with the child protection team. He tired of that after a few years and worked under the social services director, then Simon White, drafting council policy.
But for a man of his beliefs and temperament it wasn’t surprising, perhaps, that he should find a more permanent home in the Koestler Trust. Keeping it alive isn’t easy. His main worry is to find £300,000 a year to cover basic overheads.
After the sale ends he will be off visiting most jails around the country to hand out his awards, sometimes feeling like a headmaster, he said, handing out certificates to bright pupils.
His eyes lit up as he talked about that.

Ricky speaks from the heart

I KNEW how Ricky Tomlinson felt when he chatted before mounting the platform to make a speech.
I met Tomlinson at a meeting held on Monday at the Welsh Centre in Holborn to drum up a campaign for a public inquiry into those dark years in the 1970s when he and a fellow building worker Des Warren were jailed for conspiracy to “intimidate” during a strike.
All this, of course, was years before he became a TV star.
Looking ill at ease, he told me: “I’m bloody useless at learning lines, as Ken Loach will tell you. “I’ve had to make notes tonight. I’m going to speak for as little as possible and then open up for the floor for questions.” He kept his word.
His was a gritty tale of drugs being freely used in jail and hard times with warders.
Tomlinson started out reading from his notes but he soon abandoned them as sharp memories took over.
Bristling with anger he recalled how M15 monitored him before the trial and how a prisoner had spread a nasty rumour about him. He put a stop to that by confronting the inmate in the kitchen.
The meeting was attended by Arthur Scargill, Ken Loach and some of the other pickets who escaped imprisonment.
Scargill recalled the miners’ strike of 1984. “Even my fish and chip shop was being bugged,” he said.
He called for public ownership of not just banks but “every institution... so we can keep the manufacturing base free from intervention”, ending with a quote from Chartist leader Bronterre O’Brien about the life of the poor: “The desire of one man to live on the fruits of another’s labour is the original sin of the world.”

Time gentlemen, for direct action

NO mobile phones, hats or chewing gum, just some rules observed by the more sophisticated members of Blacks’ gentlemen’s club in Soho.
But there are some other codes of conduct not being so rigorously adhered to, according to David Bieda who lives by the three-storey Georgian townhouse in Dean Street.
But Mr Bieda, a community activist, told Diary noise from punters leaving the club on Sunday nights has got out of hand and he has resorted to “direct action” to protect his “right to a reasonable degree of peace and quiet where I live”.
Or in other words, using his “power spray hose” to remove revellers outside his house after midnight.
In an email to West End ward councillors Ian Wilder, Audrey Lewis and Glenys Roberts he said: “I don’t care if I get arrested but I have HAD ENOUGH!” He said: “This was two Sundays in a row. I just thought I’d refresh them a bit.”

Diplomats at bay over parking

DIPLOMATIC negotiations between Venezuela and Liberia must be few and far between – but in a small patch of Fitzrovia their embassies are locked in a bitter dispute.
Liberian officials stand accused of poaching parking bays reserved for the Venezuelan envoys.
Notes spotted on the dashboards of two Venezuelan vehicles – with the D-plates, showing diplomatic status – registered their annoyance.
A spokesman at the Liberian embassy told me the parking bays are “reserved for embassy cars” not one embassy in particular.
The Venezuelan’s appear to disagree.
Diplomats are often criticised for dodging parking fines under immunity laws. They also owe £17 million in fines for ignoring the congestion charge.
The US owes the most of that, £2.3 million, something that used to enrage the former mayor, and big fan of Venezuela, Ken Livingstone.

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