The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

An Old Friend From The Blanket


Anthony McIntyre • Boxing Day, 2004

When Arthur Hailey died last month, his name brought back fond memories of a certain joy born from adversity. Up until I arrived in Cell 15, C Wing, H Block 4 on the 12th July 1978, the name Arthur Hailey meant nothing to me. The last books I had read in Cage 11 before being 'greeted ' - to my surprise and relief, routinely and in an atmosphere free from any hostility - to the blanket wing by the class officer Tommy Keenan, were two recommended by Gerry Kelly.

Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm with hindsight now seem apt as mental preparation for the Orwellian world I had descended into after an aborted escape attempt. At the stroke of a Northern Ireland Office pen my status had transformed from being a political prisoner to a common criminal. The sole criterion upon which such British logic was based was my escape effort. The brave new world I walked into was one in which Big Bear - the name given to jailhouse governors - had assumed the function of Big Brother; where language was distorted to mean the opposite of what it had originally been designed to express. Prison management violence was termed rehabilitation; being beaten through repeated thumps to the head from a library book over an anal search mirror was heavy reading. Prison staff broke prison rules as frequently as the prisoners ever did and with much more violence. Audaciously, the NIO would inform the public that the screws were protecting society from the violence of the prisoners. My new world was indeed a criminal world, where the screws rather than the prisoners constituted the criminal class of the H-Blocks.

In the midst of this reason-inverted world, life went on and prisoners amused themselves in whatever ways they could. The ingenuity and creativity that developed inside concrete walls and behind sealed up windows left few to doubt that necessity was indeed the mother of invention. The occupants of the wing I had arrived on had about a month or two earlier been moved en masse from H5. There, an orderly had, without the knowledge of the screws, made available a paperback book for the blanket men. It was Hotel by Arthur Hailey. Everybody on the wing had apparently read it. It must have been a secular relief from the numerous books on the lives of saints provided by chaplains, before the administration banned them too. Even filling the heads of prisoners with religious bunkum was considered a step too far by our godly No 1 governor who in true Orwellian fashion, showed his Christian love through his many acts of hate.

The H4 IRA block O/C of the day, Larry Marley, was reputed to have at one time worked as a gravedigger. Qualification enough in our minds to add the touch of the ghoulish to any tales of the crypt he might have. When he decided to share a Halloween story with the others on his wing on the last day of October 1978, he started a trend that proved a powerful weapon against the soul-destroying tedium of being locked up 24/7/365. From that point on men would search their memories for books and films to tell out the doors after lights-out, once the night guard had completed sweeping the wing of urine which the prisoners had lashed out the doors - the product of the bodily fluids for that particular day - as soon as the day screws had gone off duty. The story became a bizarre form of theatre - a nightly trip to the cinema and away from the bowels of a psychological hell.

History has recorded the Leon Uris story, Trinity, being told by Bobby Sands. Arthur Hailey never gets a mention but in the wing I was on he was more a part of our culture than Leon Uris. QB V11 was the only Uris book I recall listening to into the wee small hours. Wheels, Airport and Moneychangers by Hailey were told to us by with immaculate detail. Years later when I revisited the books I was amazed at the memory retention of those blanket men who stood for hours barefoot on a cold cell floor to shout them out the door to the rest of us.

Arthur Hailey died at 84 in the Bahamas. He probably passed on never realising how central a role he played in morale maintenance during the H-Block protest. His alleged 'lack of literary finesse' meant nothing to us; his imagination everything. A former British RAF pilot, his output made it into places he never dreamed of. In 2001 Arthur Hailey said 'I don't think I really invented anybody. I have drawn on real life.' Blocks, the real lives of blanket men, is a story in search of a teller.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

22 January 2005

Other Articles From This Issue:

The End of the Road
Mick Hall

Reiss Pressed on Mark Thatcher Cautioned on Damage of Another Double Standard
Fr. Sean Mc Manus

Follow up on Saor Eire
Liam O Ruairc

Strong Resistance Felt at Bush's Second Inauguration
Christian Roselund, Patsy Crocker

An Old Friend from the Blanket
Anthony McIntyre

17 January 2005

Fed Up With the Lies
Michael Benson

Dolours Price

Brian Mór

Strategically induced crises pay rich electoral dividends for Sinn Fein
Anthony McIntyre

Old Foes Discover New Ideas
David Adams

Celebrate 100 Years by Undoing Betrayals
Dr. John Coulter

Saor Eire
Bob Purdie

‘At No Costs to Prisons': Three Books on Beckett
Seaghán Ó Murchú



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