Eight sex offenders in Barlinnie Prison, Glasgow, and me. We’re sitting round a table about to embark on the first session of our new reading group. Their preferences lurch from the very real – true crime, history, footballers’ lives – to the very unreal – fantasy and science fiction. None, it seems, wants much to do with literature. But that’s what I’ve brought them. I’ve got six texts with me – all short stories, chosen because I can bear to read them and the writing is good. Spread out on the table are Daphne du Maurier Don’t Look Now, a James Kelman Selected, Alan Spence The Colours They Are Fine, Ernest Hemingway Men Without Women, Alice Munro’s Runaway and Joyce’s Dubliners. No one’s read any of them, though some have seen the film of Don’t Look Now and others watched a recent documentary about Du Maurier’s Cornwall on TV. That’s all there is to do in prison at the weekend – they’re locked up for 23 hours a day. They don’t much like the look of Alice Munro – the stories seem vast and, well, women, Canada – they’re worlds away. Hemingway – the title makes them laugh. But they decide he reminds them too much of school English classes. Kelman – a couple have heard of him. One read an interview with him in the Glasgow Herald that week. Sex offenders read the broadsheets. I tell them about Alan Spence and his seminal collection of stories about Glasgow and sectarianism. They tell me – and I’m embarrassed I don’t know – that the title is from The Sash, the Ulster loyalist anthem. For some it’s the world they grew up in – the brutality, the bigotry. They hate it. Why would they want to read about it? They flick through the Kelman book, suspicious for the same reasons. They want to get away from all that gritty realism. But then a few of them read a page or two and see that he’s funny. They’ll give him a go. Du Maurier gets their vote too – she’s a proper writer after all. They remember Hitchcock’s The Birds – none of them knew that was her. She likes a bit of suspense and they want that.

So we start with Kelman and to begin with it’s fine – a light-hearted story about workies cleaning out a tank, getting in trouble with the tight gaffer. It’s a world some of them know. Others – the middle class ones – puzzle over whether Kelman’s language is ‘authentic.’ The second story is called ‘The Hitchhiker’ about the same group of men. The story’s eponymous character is a French woman travelling Scotland on her own. She’s out at dusk, looking for a bed for the night. She’s suspicious of the workies – thinks they might attack her. And suddenly we’ve got to a different level of realism. It’s not just the dialect now. Or the swearing. It’s rape.

I don’t know what any of my students are in jail for. Occasionally, a gossipy officer lets slip. But on the whole, they know, and I know, that it’s best not to know. But these are sex offenders – it’s quite possible that there’s a rapist in the group. In the story, the men sense the woman’s fear. They sympathise and one of them gains her trust and finds her a place to stay. My group seem to understand too. We ponder the perennial difficulties between the sexes. How intentions are misconstrued, how communication fails. Except, I can’t help thinking, there may be women out there who didn’t misconstrue the intentions of one of these men. A woman whose fear was justified.

I talk to one of the social workers. Should we be reading this stuff? Should I censor our material – cut out all stories with children in them? Or women? Or sex, relationships? I might be safer with Terry Pratchett after all. I ask if he would read some Kelman stories and advise me but he brushes the book away, saying that I should be normal. Reading material that shows ‘normal’ relationships and attitudes towards women and sex is just what they need, he says. And anyway, they get to watch TV 24 hours a day. Plenty of ‘abnormal’ relationships portrayed there. As long as you’re comfortable, he said.

And in the end, I am. Kelman is just such a damn fine writer, My favourite is a tale called ‘Lassies are Trained that Way’ – a cringe-makingly good example of misunderstanding between men and women. It’s set in a Glasgow pub. A man is drinking, alone, at the bar. A woman comes in on her own. She orders a drink and waits, awkwardly, for her friends to arrive. The man starts to talk to her. She thinks he’s trying to chat her up. ‘Has he stood you up?’ You can feel her discomfort. Eventually, when he won’t shut up, she’s forced to be direct. ‘People should be able to stand at a bar without being pestered.’ You feel for her.

My students know how he feels. The story is from the man’s point of view – it’s the pesterer’s tale. He’s not really trying to chat her up. He’s lonely. His wife’s left him. He misses his long-dead mother. He’s trying to make a connection. ‘We have to live with one another. Come on, if we aren’t even allowed to talk!…We’re drawn to one another. There’s bonds of affection. And solidarity.” I’m moved by this story – how we’re made to feel for them, how they’re both suffering yet unable to ease their own, or each other’s, sadness or isolation. It’s what this group is about. A form of solidarity.

We finish with Kelman and I’m quite relieved. Daphne du Maurier next – taut plots and tense pacing, that’s her thing, isn’t it? I can have a break from empathising. I can stop worrying whether my students are dangerous or damaged. We can just engross ourselves in a good read. That’s what I’m hoping.

We start with ‘The Birds.’ Strange goings on but an oh-so-ordinary family. Traditional roles too – mum at home, dad at work. Everyone in their place. Maybe this is what the social worker meant by normal. The birds are behaving oddly, of course, but the humans are being good and moral. Sort of. They can only afford to take care of themselves. That’s what the story’s about – isolation, the breakdown of community. There’s no reaching out to anyone else here. It’s each for his own. The story ends on a note of claustrophobia. They endure each attack from the birds as best they can. Recover and wait for the next. There’s no means of escape, no sources of sustenance or help. Rather like prison. The threats to my students lives are somewhat less immediate, there are guards there to protect them, but they are surrounded by hundreds of other prisoners who see it as their duty to rid the world of ‘beasts.’ Prison isolates them, like the family in ‘The Birds.’ It sends them back to themselves. Who else can they trust? It destroys community.

They focus on the ending. I wonder if endings have particular significance in jail. That’s all there is to focus on – lib dates – however far away. They don’t like stories that are left hanging in the air, unresolved. Kelman’s good at that. The ending of ‘The Birds’ is gloomily predictable. The family waiting for the next attack. The relentlessness. And Nat, our hero, smoking his last cigarette. ‘He reached for it, switched on the silent wireless. He threw the empty packet on the fire, and watched it burn.’ What despair – and yet endurance too. There’s no surprise but the men find it bleakly satisfying.

We’re all a bit nervy after ‘The Birds’ – it’s so intense – but they want more; du Maurier’s got them gripped. We try the other story they’ve heard of – ‘Don’t Look Now.’ Immediately, someone brings up the sex scene – it’s what everyone remembers – it is what made the film infamous – though fortunately no one recalls the details. I’m hoping du Maurier won’t linger too much. When we get to that bit we have a laugh at how short it is. How very unexplicit:

‘Now’ he thought…’now at last is the moment to make love, and he went back into the bedroom, and she understood, and opened her arms and smiled. Such blessed relief after all those weeks of restraint.’

It’s not about sex at all – it’s about love. About intimacy refound after months of grief and suffering. It’s sex as healing. How normal. How far away from sex as harm.

The story is about what grief can do. The husband has been tending his wife – supporting her though the shattering loss of her child. But it’s his loss too and in Venice his own suffering can no longer be restrained. It is him who sees the ‘child’ in it’s red coat dashing across the canals. It is him who, fatally, follows the child. The group know grief. They’ve caused it. They’ve known it in their own pasts. They know it now – separated from their families in jail. Some will never see their families again.

Du Maurier’s done it once more. The plot, the fantastical story line has drawn them in but quietly she has returned them to their own experiences. And in this group we have the space to live with our losses for a while, to endure, together.

Kate Hendry

Published in The Reader, Issue 34, 2009