Jailhouse rock

Billy Bragg's charity takes an unusual approach to prisoner rehabilitation

Prisoner rehabilitation is not the most fashionable of causes for pop stars to espouse. Which is why you have to admire singer Billy Bragg's efforts to recruit his colleagues on to a project offering hope to those locked up in Britain's jails.

Bragg has persuaded the likes of the Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett, the Clash co-founder Mick Jones and Dirty Pretty Things to stage a number of low-key concerts for inmates, a world away from the backslapping of most charity events. These have now been captured in Breaking Rocks, a new documentary about the charity Jail Guitar Doors, set up by Bragg to supply prisoners with guitars and the skills to use them, in order to help them on the outside.

In the film/ Jones and Bragg perform a version of the Clash's "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" and Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" at Brixton and Wormwood Scrubs Prisons in London. After one visit Jones says: "The guys were telling us how much this scheme had helped them move on from their previous lives before prison. It was really touching to think we've helped, even if it's in a small way."

The initiative is attracting a growing number of performers. Shiflett has led a guitar class at Brixton, while the indie band Hard-Fi hope to perform inside Feltham Young Offender Institution in west London -- the setting of "Feltham Is Singing Out", their song about the suicide of a petty thief on remand. Dirty Pretty Things held a workshop inside Brixton, and the Lincoln band Eastroad played at HMP Stocken, in Rutland.

But the principal aim of Bragg's charity is not to stage star-studded concerts, but to raise money for instruments. Guitars have already been donated to HMP Styal -- Britain's largest women's prison -- as well as Guys Marsh in Dorset, Pentonville, Wandsworth, the Verne on the Isle of Portland, Wormwood Scrubs and Reading Young Offender Institution.

Bragg believes that mastering a guitar can offer a way out of the reoffending cycle into which so many prisoners fall. "I support punishment," he says, "but I also believe in rehabilitation. Prison has to be about much more than just locking people up. We want people to move on from their situation and reconnect with the outside world. Learning to play and write gives them self-confidence, which is very important in cutting reoffending. We're preparing them to deal with what life throws at them in a non-confrontational way."

Bragg and the film's director, Alan Miles, plan to screen the documentary -- whose title is taken from the opening words of the Bobby Fuller Four's classic "outlaw" song "I Fought the Law" -- at a number of jails next year. In one of the film's most moving scenes, Bragg introduces a former prisoner on to the stage at the Glastonbury Festival. The man, recently paroled from nearby HMP Shepton Mallet, soon has the crowd cheering as he performs a song he composed behind bars.

"The lifers at Shepton Mallet Prison over the hill hear the festival at night," Bragg tells them. "There are guys there who play guitar, and as musicians they know, as I know, that a guitar will help you transcend your surroundings and find a release."

"Breaking Rocks" is being screened at the Shortwave Cinema in Bermondsey, south-east London, on Sunday 22 November, then at venues nationwide in February.

 

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Whither big balls? Grayson Perry investigates masculinity better than anyone else on TV

Grayson Perry: All Man shows Perry's strength as an unjudgemental presenter. Plus: Chasing Dad reviewed.

Unusual, clever and articulate, Grayson Perry is catnip to journalists. We regard him as A Good Thing. Unfortunately, with this comes the danger that we attribute to him a great but unwarranted sagacity; that, beguiled by his ideas and his sincerity, we don’t subject him to the scrutiny we apply to others, believing he is mostly right, most of the time. Here’s an example. I watched 45 minutes of the first film in his new series, about masculinity and what it means today (Thursdays, 10pm), before I realised that, unnoticed by me, he’d moved from a wholly admirable position of tender curiosity to what I would characterise as the false certainties of off-the-shelf psychobabble.

Perhaps I’m willing to put up with his psychobabble, though. When it comes to investigating the fraught territory of such things as class, taste and gender on TV, we have no one else who comes close. Perry’s lack of embarrassment, his refusal to make a mountain out of molehill, his ability to talk to people without patronising or exploiting them: these are rare qualities. As a presenter, he is a paradox: passionate but tranquil. There often comes a moment in his films when someone confides in him. In this one, for instance, a cage fighter called Andy revealed that his adored brother, with whom he had been in care, had killed himself. Perry’s response in such situations is always the same. He goes very still, and he keeps very quiet. The seconds tick by, him blinking slowly. It is solemn, and somehow quite crisp. There’s no phoniness in it. If you then get tearful, as I did, you feel good about it, rather than merely manipulated.

Back to masculinity. What’s it for? To be blunt: whither big balls? Perry thinks it’s a bit useless, a callus on the (tattooed) hide of man. It may protect him in the short run, but to what end? Sometimes, he suggests, it is good, even vital, to let your soft bits show. Though this can be difficult, particularly if you live in a place – in the first programme, the north-east of England – whose collective memory is entirely bound up with strong men and the work they did. In an effort to unpick all this, he hung out with cage fighters, attended the Durham Miners’ Gala (“a folk-art requiem”) and talked to Thelma, whose son Daniel had killed himself 18 months earlier (the north-east has a miserably high male suicide rate). I hoped he might watch an episode of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? – a series almost unendurably sad, if you watch it now – which was on to this stuff way back in 1973. But no luck. Perry’s documentaries do rely mightily for their effects on the idea of personal revelation: he must see everything as if for the first time.

Following these encounters, he made some art: the trade-union-style banner titled Death of a Working Hero and a large pot called Shadow Boxing. The banner wasn’t so different from the ones on which it was modelled, for which reason its power was muted (the real things are stirring enough). But the pot made for a lovely sight, the light catching on its glaze lending it a numinous air. Generously feminine (am I allowed to say that?) in both its instincts and its proportions, it caught Perry’s interviewees off-guard, at which point it was lump-in-throat time all round. “Hard men but soft-hearted,” a man from Trimdon, County Durham, had said of the generations that had come before. This pot was the essence of that. It had been fired to biscuity perfection; the merest push will break it into a dozen pieces.

While we’re on lumps in throats, a word about Chasing Dad, Phillip Wood’s remarkable documentary about his heroin-addict father, screened on BBC1 (3 May, 10.45pm) following a first outing on BBC3. It was hard to watch, not only for the obvious reasons, but because addiction – repetitive, sleep-inducing – is frequently boring. But I kept going. I wanted to know if Phillip Sr would get clean, but I also longed to catch sight of his son, who’d left home 15 years ago, wanting no more of the chaos. Hearing his voice, sanguine and weary, wasn’t enough. I needed to catch a glimpse of him – and when it came, in the film’s final frame, it was about as heart-tearing a sight as I’ve seen. There he was, dark-haired, bespectacled . . . intact

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred