Chronic boredom is like the dull itch of a pair of Seventies school trousers

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

I have been suffering lately from something very like boredom. “Only boring people are bored,” runs the tiresome mantra, delivered by those tiresome people who consider life to be a glorious cycle of song and a medley of extemporanea. (For those who are unfamiliar with the lines, from Dorothy Parker, they continue: “And love is a thing that can never go wrong;/And I am Marie of Romania.” I do not quote these lines in the main body of my piece because, for once, love for me is not going wrong, touch wood.)

It is the kind of boredom that is actually more like the flu, in that it seems to be caused not by anything visible, but everything you do becomes imbued by suffering. I remember Vyvyan the punk in The Young Ones staggering around, smashing himself in the head with his own cricket bat in an attempt to relieve the tedium.

“Bored, bored, BORED,” Vyvyan would say, in time to the clouts to his own brains. It felt like that – everything was boring. Eating toast was boring. Being on a train was boring. Or perhaps not so much boring as mildly unpleasant, like wearing an itchy suit. (Note to younger readers: it was, until around the late Seventies, the rule for formal wear of whatever kind – whether it was a business, dinner, or school suit – to be made of a material that afforded the wearer the continual sensation of active discomfort, especially about the legs. To feel mildly pleased, or even neutral, about putting on a pair of trousers was considered to be unmanly, disgraceful and effete.)

Things on the horizon weren’t looking any better because the Beloved was going off to see her sister in Durham and I was to be left alone for a few days. Cohabitation has proved to be a delight, with the really rather counterintuitive side effect that the longer we stay together at a stretch, the more affectionate we are with each other, which is hell for other people – but nuts to them. Left to my own devices, though, I rediscover the fundamental meaninglessness of the universe, and plumping up the pillows as I retire to bed on my own becomes a terrifyingly lonely act, like the mysteriously ageing astronaut eating his solitary meals in silence towards the end of 2001.

How strange it is that men are in two horribly conflicted states of mind when it comes to this kind of thing! Those friends of mine who are married and parents would love to come out for a drink but find themselves prisoners in their own home. Do they like it, deep down, or do they chafe, as if wearing vintage trousers? The other day Martin Rowson, the rather wonderful cartoonist, discovered that all his immediate family members had scattered to various corners of the globe, and rather than potter around his house on his own, he came down to the Hovel, bearing gifts.

That was fun and he declared the Beloved THE BEST PERSON EVER (his caps) because she told him how she had been rude to Toby Young without even knowing who he was. (It was a conversation about musical education and he really should have thought twice before engaging with the B on the subject. But then these days poor Toby should think twice before saying anything. I wonder, sometimes, if he has had some kind of accident, which would account in some way for his increasing nuttiness.)

In the end, I found the perfect cure for my boredom: a game of cricket. Playing, not watching. It seems that Vyvyan was on the right lines all along. I have not done this for a couple of years and feared great rustiness, which would lead to some kind of terrible accident with the ball. It’s jolly hard, you know, and some of those people can really whack it. But the whole business of playing, the state of mild alertness you have to maintain on the field, the banter of one’s teammates, the play of the summer sun on the clouds, the trees, and even the picturesque sheep in the next field, put one in a state of something approaching bliss.

It was heaven and even the visiting American, who admittedly spent half the afternoon asleep, declared himself charmed, if baffled. (But not as baffled as the elderly Englishwoman a few feet away. “Why are they moving?” she would ask. “Is he the only one allowed to wear a hat?”) So that was all fine, until I got back and foolishly decided, for reasons that escape me, to check my bank balance. Any emotion I had vanished and was replaced by fear. That was bad. I don’t like the fear. I prefer the boredom.

Dorothy Parker (left) famously wrote that "only boring people are bored". Photo: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.