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From Strangeways to the ‘Write Stuff’

James MacVeigh

James MacVeigh’s first play hit the stage in a prestigious London theatre. Here he tells the story of how he went from robber to writer.

My Dad kicked me out in 1963 at the age of 16. After I was caught breaking into cars, I was sent to a Detention Centre as a bookish wimp and came out 3 months later, dangerous. Already awaiting sentence for Robbery, having been driven to a filling station by two guys in their mid-20s who put a tyre lever into my hand and said, ‘Hit that old geezer over the head while we grab the money,’ I was sentenced to Borstal 4 days later. Sent from Liverpool prison first to Strangeways and then Wormwood Scrubs, I arrived at Borstal after months and had it on my toes straight away.

Caught days later, it was back onto the merry-go-round, only this time when I arrived at the Scrubs it was into a stripped cell in the Block with only a Bible to read and bread-and-water 3 days on, 3 days off.

My crime continued and I later did a 3-year sentence, but in 1976 I moved from Merseyside to Bristol, unaware I was making a fresh start until I hooked up with a girl who helped me reform. In 1982 I wrote a book about a lad called Graham Gaskin, “an account of the British prison system not quickly forgotten,” and years later at the age of 46 I got married.

With a bun in my wife’s oven, I decided to get a steady job and started as a humble Caretaker for the council, but did a day release course and qualified as a Warden in sheltered housing, a position of trust where I had a pass key to the flats of vunerable older people. When Graham Gaskin died of AIDS in Hull prison while doing Life for murder, his attempt at a second biography came to me. I edited it and found a publisher.

Made redundant from my job after 14 years, I saw an ad in the Jobcentre for a teacher of Creative Writing in West Country prisons, and thought, “That’s perfect for me”. The employer agreed and took my details, but called a week later to say I could not be employed because I was an ex-offender, even though I hadn’t had a conviction for 29 years. Angry, I found UNLOCK, and it was in their e-newsletter that I later saw an offer from the SYNERGY THEATRE PROJECT offering free writing courses. I was accepted and a year later, my play The Lighthouse was shown at London’s prestigious King’s Head Theatre. I wanted to write about this as a way of expressing thanks to UNLOCK and Synergy. I’ll be thinking of their work when I get my encore!


Article taken from issue 13 of theRecord.

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