The novelist, Mark Haysom, is the author of ‘Love, Love Me Do’ and ‘Imagine’. In his Blog, he continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo was ten months old when this was written.
There’s this day that came to mind.
We’d found sticks and cut a fearless swathe through an eye-high forest of stinging nettles. I can hear the scything swish, see the nettles topple and fall. And then, suddenly, we were through – and, just as suddenly, we were off, running and laughing.
Heads back, chests out, knees pumping, we ran as fast as the wind. Faster.
In the long swashbuckling history of marauding boys, no one could ever have run this fast before!
On we went, running and tumbling; tripping and falling; running and rolling; cartwheeling across the up-and-down fields.
The sun was on our backs, the soft breeze in our faces, and our minds were on fire with possibilities.
We still had the sticks and, as we ran, we fenced, lunged, parried, took mortal blows, went down, rose again. Later the sticks became rifles and we marched single-file with them on our shoulders. Later still they were shepherd’s crooks, vaulting poles, pirate’s crutches, wizard’s wands.
Our energy momentarily spent, we dropped to the grass and lay dreamily on our backs under a cloudless sky.
And then, with the sun dipping, we ran back. Slower now, our plimsolled feet slapping on the paved path that led home from beyond the stinging nettles.
Back we ran that day: ten years old, miraculous and free.
But what was it had brought that day to mind?
It was, after all, a day like other childhood days; no more special than many. Nothing so very extraordinary happened. We made no startling discoveries, no startling choices.
So, why this memory?
Unlikely as it might seem, I’d been thinking about my time in prison.
Or rather – taking another run at that sentence, before you get the wrong idea – I’d been thinking about my times visiting prisons.
For a while, in my life before writing, I had cause to visit frequently. The organisation I ran was, amongst other things, responsible for prison education and I needed to see for myself how we were doing.
So, during those years, I saw the inside of prisons of every size, shape and vintage – from cramped decaying Victorian to the equally cramped but higher-tech new.
And, I have to say, that each visit felt like a privilege. It was an opportunity to learn, to gain some insight into a world that few people glimpse. I hope I came away understanding a little more; perhaps a little wiser
But such visits also leave you subdued, deeply thoughtful.
Prisons are not meant to be places that lift the spirits, the heart – and in that they succeed absolutely.
So, every time the door closed behind me and I climbed into my car and drove away, I found myself puzzling about the nature of freedom and what it must be like to have it denied. What it must be to spend day after day in such a place – your life constrained, narrow, restricted, in an unforgiving, impersonal routine.
Every time I came away with a shudder.
Anyway, for some reason I’d been thinking about one of the visits I’d made back then – remembering the slam of a door, the echo of loud, uneasy voices in a windowless corridor – when from nowhere that swashbuckling day of sticks and nettles was suddenly in my mind.
Perhaps it was the contrast that brought it there.
After all, it could hardly have been more stark: the stultifying confinement of a prison against the unrestrained joy of a ten year old boy running, tumbling, laughing. The box-like cells against the open fields. The relentless regime against all that wild adventure.
Freedom denied, withdrawn: against freedom unconstrained.
And it was unconstrained.
The only thing that limited my freedom that day of nettles and sticks was the need to be home in time for tea. Otherwise I could run and play: I could be a pirate, a soldier, a king.
But it doesn’t stay that way, does it? Because there’s a deal, a compromise, we all have to make.
Of course there is.
The older we get, the more responsibilities we inevitably have to take on – and the more we have to trade some of our freedom. We have to go to college, to study; we have to go to work; earn money, pay bills; put a roof over our heads; have children of our own; work harder, earn more if we can.
And at each step, consciously or unconsciously, we have to trade a little more.
There are, of course, the most profound compensations: we can share our lives with people we love; we build friendships; gain satisfaction from our work; improve our circumstances; learn something about the world; see our children grow.
But there’s no denying it. As we grow older, our wings are clipped, little by little.
We may be lucky enough to live in a democracy – and, as a consequence, be surrounded by the idea of freedom; have our rights protected; be at liberty to think and say what we will – but the reality is that our everyday freedom is curtailed.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, as we take on more responsibilities, too many of us lose our balance.
The American author, poet and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau said: ‘The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it’.
That exchange can too easily go wrong.
We can make poor choices, of course, like many of those offenders I met in my prison visits. But we can also work too many hours, driven by ambition or by necessity, and very quickly the only freedom from toil we have left comes down to a few snatched hours, or a few prized weeks of holiday.
Before we know it, we have paid too high a price and too much of the great adventure of life has passed us by.
And that’s not all.
Freedom is a fragile thing – and it’s not just in taking on responsibilities, or making poor choices, or working too long and hard, that you can lose it.
There are other kinds of prison walls.
Disability, incapacity, illness, infirmity, age – they can all reduce our choices, limit or deny altogether our freedom.
A fragile thing, freedom.
A precious thing.
It needs to be cherished, celebrated.
So, I was thinking about all of this one Saturday morning. Thinking about how you are never as free as when you are young.
How it may be fleeting, ephemeral – but how glorious it is.
Thinking about all those possibilities. All that wild adventure.
And then I looked up, Theo.
The bright yellow plastic ball was on the other side of the room, yards away, near the door. And I saw you make a decision, a choice, to crawl towards it.
This crawling business is still brand new to you and it was a stop-start, slightly chaotic expedition across the carpet. But you made it; picked up the ball; instantly discarded it; set off crawling back again.
A week before you couldn’t have made that arduous journey – you didn’t have the ability, hadn’t mastered the skill. To get anywhere you had to be carried. But now you could. And because you could, you chose to do so.
It’s a limited freedom, of course. But it’s a start.
And I thought to myself: ‘That’s it, Theo! That’s how the great adventure begins!’
And very soon there will be sticks and nettles. And you can be a pirate, a soldier, a king.
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