The poet Simon Armitage used to work as a probation officer. Even if he hadn’t previously worked with Brian Hill on ‘Drinking for England’, this would have made him the perfect collaborator for ‘Feltham Sings’.
Feltham is a Young Offenders Institute (what used in Britain to be called a Borstal) situated near Heathrow airport. From hereon in I’ll be calling it what it is: prison. The various wings of the prison are named after birds; peacocks parade the ground just outside the wires. “They whine all day,” one of the inmates observes; “wake me up at five o’clock. If I could get outside I’d strangle the fucking peacocks.”
The constant backdrop of jetliners heaving themselves into the sky for all manner of holiday destinations must be just as annoying, particularly for the incarcerated New Zealander – a sensitive, well-spoken lad – who took a few pills to a nightclub for a mate, co-operated with the police when arrested and got lumbered with 13 months for possession with intent to supply. He was about to return to New Zealand to begin his studies with the aim of becoming a pilot. He gets Armitage’s only poem, and it’s a sad, poignant, reflective piece that, through careful repetition, builds up a contrast between planes, peacocks and imprisonment.
Elsewhere, Armitage’s contribution is in the form of song lyrics (given a hip-hop aesthetic by composer Dextrous), and it’s hard to imagine any of the other inmates reciting verse as a preference to yawping their stories back in the face of the establishment in gangsta-stylee. Two participants rejected Armitage’s lyrics (crafted, as with ‘Drinking for England’, after extensive interviews) and wrote their own raps. Both created good work, albeit crackling with a certain amount of macho posturing whereas Armitage goes for the emotional truth of his subjects’ states of mind.
As a result, ‘Feltham Sings’ is a different piece of work to ‘Drinking for England’. Music videos have inured us to gangsta imagery; scenes of some hardcase delivering rap lyrics in a dayroom or a cell aren’t as jarring or culturally out of place as some fat-bellied loser cutting loose like a wannabe Roy Orbison in a spit ‘n’ sawdust pub. Even the short-lived karaoke fad doesn’t contextualise ‘Drinking for England’ in the way that music videos do for ‘Feltham Sings’.
Not, however, that your average East Coast “crew” would include Robin, the young man transferred to suicide watch after the death of his father and the news that an aunt has only months to live. Armitage crafts for him a song that counts down from ten various lists juxtaposing prison routine with edited highlights of the fucking lousy hand that life has dealt him. He’s an inexperienced vocalist and his is the only song that Hill provides subtitles to, but that just serves to emphasise the reality.
Likewise McBride: inside for assault and with a family history of institutionalisation (“a boy born in Holloway” as the key line of his song, ‘Boomerang Boy’, bluntly records); his vocal would see him summarily given the elbow on any talent show, but the bitter life experience that Armitage has distilled into the song, and Hill’s staging of it, transforms him into a wounded icon.
The stories that Hill and Armitage uncover are tellingly similar: drugs, booze, parental failings, a yearning for a lifestyle that crime might provide but the kind of shitty minimum wage job that constitutes their only other option certainly won’t. True, these are kids who have done some pretty vicious and anti-social things, but the degree of self-reflection that they bring to their interviews suggests a correlative degree of victimhood. The guy who talks about the babysitters who routinely sexually abused him between the ages of three and five, for example. Inhumanity begets inhumanity.
Ditto the two jive-talking smartarses who suddenly, and apropos of nothing, have a conversation about karma, speculating as to whether the times they got away with it were because they fucked over someone just as dodgy who had it coming and that fact that they’re now doing time is because of what they did to “a good person” who was “just getting on with their life”. Or the guy who writes letter after letter to his mother; he can’t send them – he doesn’t know where she is – so his testimony to her remains in a bundle in his cell.
The great triumph of ‘Feltham Sings’, in just 48 minutes, is to mine numerous moments like these, revealing the human being beneath the uniform, without ever eliding the reality of life at Feltham and why its “guests” have found themselves behind bars.