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Book Review Uncomfortable view of incarceration

The Life Inside: A Memoir of Prison, Family and Philosophy
by Andy West
Picador £16.99


AUTHOR Andy West’s life has been inextricably linked to prison, with his father, brother and uncle all having served time. Now he himself is in prison, not for any crime, but to teach philosophy to inmates.

This thoughtful debut, like an underworld version of Sophie’s World, tells a deeply personal story — full of struggle, insight and dark humour — through the lens of philosophy and West’s compelling conversations with prisoners. Although at times it becomes apparent who is teaching who.

One student sets West straight on his analysis of Enlightenment philosopher and physician John Locke. “Locke didn’t only care about memory… it was more consciousness,” he corrects him.

West talks with his students about freedom, identity, happiness, art, race, luck and kindness. He brings an immediacy to philosophical ideas and the prisoners respond positively, albeit by putting him in a different bracket to their own hyper-masculine world.

One politely asks him whether he went on his recent holiday with his boyfriend but West holds back from informing them that he has a girlfriend because “I don’t have the heart to tell them I’m not gay.”

In particularly Kafkaesque fashion, a recurring theme is West’s deep-seated feeling of inherited guilt that he is going to be punished like the men in his family were. He talks about his battle with the “executioner” in his head and connects it to The Trial, where Josef K is arrested for committing a crime of who knows what.

Like The Trial, West carries an obscure sense that he has done something wrong. West is teetotal, but in prison he checks his bag to make sure he hasn’t bought drugs in. Even when his bag passes security proving that his anxiety is unfounded, an obscure and nebulous sense of guilt still lingers.

West’s situation as a teacher of philosophy within Her Majesty’s bleak prison estate makes for powerful imagery.

Once he walks past an inmate on a 24-hour watch following an attempted suicide to teach a class about the philosophy of humour. Since visiting his brother in prison over a 25-year period, he observes how the prison population has doubled, far outstripping the space available. As a result, bunk beds have been put into single cells and three beds have been crammed into cells made for two.

The writing evokes the stench of claustrophobic classrooms infested with rodents and cockroaches and “the smell of men living in confinement: the mixture of body odour, old mattresses, weed, floor cleaner, bad breath, and the emulsion that crumbling prisons are continually applying to the walls and steel bar doors.”

West intimately knows how damaging prisons are and also how futile it can feel to protest against their existence. Determined not to fall into either despair or embittered resignation, West says “If I am to stay aloft, I will have to find a way to work in prison whilst also wanting to tear it down.”

Most poignant of all is how beautifully drawn West’s relationship with his brother is. West recounts how when he was a teenager and his brother was inside he used to watch prison films, trying not to look away from the violent scenes. It was “a way to love him in his absence.”  

Today West and his brother are both trying to move away from the tragedy that once defined their relationship towards joy and hope.

The Life Inside is a hugely entertaining, honest and original piece of writing.


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