GRAHAM HARTILL: Men Inside (2): Jim – The Equation

In a nutshell, Jim was in for ‘child abuse images’ – what is normally called child porn. There’s a lot of it about – much more than you might think; a click of a button these days and there it is. He didn’t create the images, thank God, he collected them, a lot of them, on his computer at work. It’s surprising how often this is the case. Do such people want to get caught?

He wanted to write a novel about his time in the Balkans – Jim had run help convoys to Europe. But he really needed to write about his own life, following on from the self-revelations he’s experienced in the treatment programme he had recently been through. He’d done very well on the programme, broken down, begun to put himself together again. I remember his confusion: How did this all happen? How did his life fall apart? He had only wanted to do some good in the world. He gestured towards the ceiling of the cell-block, three floors up, the metal railings, the rows of cell-doors, ornamented by the resonance of clanging metal, shouts and laughter; cell-blocks are noisy places in the middle of the day. He directed me towards some Christ he imagined hanging there. “I’ve begun to rediscover my religion.” I remembered as a teenager walking into a Catholic church for the first time – watery light from an unstained window and a pallid giant Christ hanging in the gloom. I got the hell out of there. “The trouble with Christ – to me – is that we let him take on all the good in the world and leave ourselves with all the shit.” Jim looked down at the table.

Startling things began to be revealed in both our conversations and his writing. Brought up in Catholic Dublin, Jim’s mother was alcoholic, his father useless (he didn’t really figure in his stories). Jim was abused by a priest, on many occasions (no surprise there) and when he came to the house, which he did regularly, being the apple of his mother’s eye, he’d sip sherry and looking at little Jim, his genuflecting fingertip would stray to his lips in a subtle gesture of keeping shtum. I can imagine the little smile on his lips.

Another story of fingers came through. Jim was left-handed. We all know that the left hand is the hand with which the devil writes so Jim was forced to use his right. He was ‘beaten every day’. The right hand writes the Word of God. You bless yourself with the right. Which hand, I wondered, did the priests use when they whacked him with their tawse, their strap, their ruler, their bamboo?

When he came to jail, having survived a couple of suicide attempts, a pleasure he discovered was writing with his natural hand – the letter G, and other letters, over and over, swirls of ink across the page. He loved to write to his wife in ballpoint, something he’d avoided for years, preferring computer keyboards, unavailable to him now.

He started on his novel, a war thriller based on his time running aid to the war zone. Forty visits he’s made. It had all become unbearable in the end, he was doing good in desperation. “I tried to get rid of it all with a massive dose of sex.” Had affairs, got into pornography, and slid down a slippery slope to his hell.

But one day I got a message, could I go and see Jim? We got a quiet room. “I want to write about something I’ve never written about: my brother Charlie’s death when I was little.” Jim, it appeared, had always been blamed for his little brother’s death from measles. They shared a room and Jim had got over the disease before his brother caught it. Jim was terrified of that room. There was a dark cupboard. His brother had died in that room, and Jim would be locked in it. His mother beat him of course, but worse than that was the shame.

Jim gave me a list of titles for his piece. “Which one would you choose?” “The Guardian Angel” I replied. It seemed so dramatic a turn-about: his little brother Charlie, who had haunted him all his life, was to be personified as his guardian, and an angel. Jim smiled. “I’m glad you said that.”

The next time I saw him, Jim was elated. “You know the most incredible thing has happened. In the middle of writing this piece it came to me – maybe Charlie didn’t even die of flu! That’s just what I was always told. Maybe he died of cot-death – or whatever – cot-death. It could have been. Maybe it had nothing to do with me!”

“Maybe not Jim.”

“Who’s to say? It’s incredible. All my life I’ve suffered from this guilt. And only know, being here, can I see how it all was, writing this.”

“In free-hand, Jim!”

Graham Hartill 2011

(quotations used with permission)

Poet, workshop facilitator, lecturer. Born in 1952 in the English Midlands, Graham has lived in Wales most of his life since 1971. He studied at the Universities of Wales and Massachusetts, and has since given countless workshops and classes in the UK, USA and China. Co–founder of LAPIDUS, the UK–wide association for the promotion of creative writing in therapeutic context, Graham was also a Scottish Arts Council Writing Fellow 1990-92 and an Arts Council of Wales Writer’s Bursary recipient 1993, 1999 and 2006. Selected Publications: Ruan Ji’s Island and (Tu Fu) in the Cities (The Wellsweep Press, 1992); The Lives of the Saints (RWC Press); Cennau’s Bell (The Collective Press, 2005); A Winged Head (Parthian, 2007)


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