We Need to Talk About Our Mothers (and Fathers)

Last night I watched We Need to Talk About KevinApparently the book is much more distressing, but to be honest, I’m not sure I could handle it. The film was chilling enough. It made me think about my mum, who had an awful lot to put up with when her kids were growing up, although mostly that was down to my dad’s behaviour. I never stopped crying till I was 19, and my brother was so badly behaved that on occasion he had to have plates thrown at him – he also spent a year in borstal before he left home to become a full-time alcoholic – but my dad was the real shit of the family. 

Anyway, he’s long dead now and on Saturday, me and my mum are off to Malaga for a week. Malaga! In Spain!

We’ve not been on holiday together since I was 12. And we’ve never been on holiday just the two of us. I know some of you could probably not imagine anything worse than going on holiday with your mum and I’m sorry for that. I feel very fortunate that we get along very well and that I’m really looking forward to it.

I am very fortunate.

And so is Alex Lyngaas, who wants nothing more than his mum to find someone to love. Check out her face at the end. ‘On internet?’


And while we’re on the subject, here’s JK Simmons…


He’s right, you know. If they’re still around, make the most of it. ‘Cause – unless you’re a tragic, borderline sociopathic figure – it’ll hurt like hell when they’re gone.



Friend Makes Friend Feel Loved


This is a nice story – a hella nice story even – about one young man doing something unconventional in order to show his best friend how much he loves him.

Read the full story here if you like, but the picture kind of covers it.

In the Independent’s misleadingly-headlined version of the story, someone a little homophobic-sounding got quite irate in the comments. ‘Firstly,’ they said, ‘it can hardly be classified as news.’


Well, I don’t see why not. It happened. And fairly recently.

I suppose it’s not the usual kind of news, like George Osborne flapping about at HSBC’s teats or Katie Hopkins inciting genocide, but it’s definitely news. Good news, I should say. And I’m all for it.

Come on, human beings! More of this type of thing.


The Emperor’s New Clothes :: The Revolution Is in Progress


‘Everything you’re gonna hear about in this film you already know,’ says Russell Brand at the beginning of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the new documentary he’s made with Michael Winterbottom. ‘You might not know the exact figures, but you know the big issue. The rich are getting richer. Inequality is getting greater. But it doesn’t have to be like this. It can be different … Things can change. Things do change.’

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a great, infuriating and rousing film. One of its main strengths is that it discusses capitalism and more specifically, the 2008 banking crisis and its aftermath, removing all the deliberate obfuscation that exists around the subject and explaining simply and articulately exactly what happened and why. Consequently, it’s a film that has you simmering with righteous indignation and at the same time, desperate to do something about it. Crucially, it leaves you feeling positive.

Here are some of the facts and figures brought to light in the film – stuff you might not have known, or most probably have heard before but have probably forgotten because it’s just too galling to keep in your brain:


+ In the UK, we bailed out the banks to the tune of £133bn, which is more than £4,000 per taxpayer. In the US, they pumped in two and a half trillion dollars.

+ In Britain since the crash, bankers have paid themselves more than a hundred billion pounds in bonuses. Since the crash, that is – when they ripped us off and totally got away with it.

+ In 2010, the average pay of CEOs in big banks was £6.4m. Two years after the crash, that is. Two years after the whole banking system had been bailed out by the British taxpayer, back there in the midst of the so-called credit crunch, the bosses of the banks were still taking home 300 times the average UK wage.

+ A cleaner in your average bank would have to work 300 years to earn the same a CEO in the same building earns in a single year.

+ Last year Goldman Sachs bankers earned an average of £3m each. If the bankers each gave up one day of their pay, they could practically double the wages of all their cleaners.

+ Since the bailout, George Osborne has made £81bn worth of cuts. In the same period, £80bn worth of banker bonuses have been awarded. (These are the very same bankers, don’t forget, to whom we paid £133bn when they fucked everything up with their greed.)

+ In 2013, the Royal Bank of Scotland lost £8.24bn but still paid £588m in staff bonuses.

+ Higher and higher student loans are making further education impossible for many people. One medical student in the film is looking at a post-degree debt of £80,000.

+ The minimum wage was introduced in 1999. If it had increased at the same rate as bosses’ pay, it would now be £20 an hour. Instead it’s £6.70.


+ When Thatcher came to power, bosses of big companies in Britain used to earn ten times the salary of the average worker. Now they earn about 150 times more.

+ At Barclays, in 1979, the boss got £87,000 a year. In 2011, CEO Bob Diamond paid himself £6.3m, even though the company share price had dropped by 30% in the ten preceding years.

+ If the ordinary rate of pay for Lloyds workers had gone up at the same rate as the CEO over the past 35 years, the average worker would now be earning £900,000 a year.

+ For every billion pounds of benefit fraud, there are 9,000 prosecutions. For every billion pounds of income tax fraud, there are five prosecutions.


+ According to Oxfam, a bus with the 80 richest people in the world on it would contain more wealth than the collective assets then half the earth’s population.

+ 80% of the hedge fund industry is based in the Cayman Islands where there is no corporation tax and no income tax.

+ Non-doms – rich people who insist they live abroad and therefore don’t have to pay tax in the UK, such as Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere, who lives in the UK – avoid (or if you prefer, steal) more than £4bn a year.

+ More than half of world trade passes on paper through tax havens. Half of all banking assets are held offshore. There are whole industries set up to avoid paying tax (or if you prefer, stealing).

+ In 2012, research estimated that the amount of personal wealth held offshore in order to avoid paying tax onshore (stealing) is between 21 and 32 trillion dollars. Imagine!

+ Before the free market revolution, the superrich were taxed at 98%. Now Rupert Murdoch has companies registered in tax havens all around the world and it’s estimated he pays 6% in tax. Six per fucking cent.

As Brand says at one point, if this stuff doesn’t make you angry enough to kick a pig into a ditch, then you’ve not understood it properly.

The film tracks the rise of free market fundamentalism, from Thatcher and Reagan adopting Milton Friedman’s neoliberal economic policies, to the wild corporate capital accumulation of the past few years. It manages to do this while maintaining a very light touch. Footage of demonstrations and riots and slithery bankers ignoring journalists is intercut with Brand narrating against a white backdrop, slightly Jesus…

For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?

For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?


…but not overly. If you let Brand’s ego put you off, then frankly, you’re probably not that interested in the issues.

One particularly galling sequence of the film focuses on the riots in 2011, and highlights the differences in how we, as a society, treat corporate criminals and how we, as a society, treat criminals who target property.

The figures speak for themselves. More than 1,200 people were jailed as a consequence of the riots, and their sentences added up to more than 1,800 years in prison. As for the bankers, who stole hundreds of billions of pounds, well, a few of them lost their jobs. But don’t worry. They found new ones.

A clip of David Cameron seemingly seeing the light and describing the bankers as ‘people showing indifference to right and wrong, people with a twisted moral code, people with a complete absence of self-restraint’ turns out to be a speech condemning looters who smashed up some stuff and stole trainers.

But, asks Brand, ‘How many bankers went to jail for ripping off their customers by selling £23bn of PPI which they didn’t need? Or what about Standard Chartered money laundering involving 60,000 legal transactions adding up to $250bn? Or HSBC’s money laundering? How many bankers will go to prison for the illegal rigging of the Libor interest rates, which controlled trillions of dollars of transactions? Or the latest crime of the bankers, the foreign exchange rate scandal? The banks have paid millions in fines, but what do fines matter to people who can print money? When are some bankers going to start going to prison?’

Although attempts to speak to the CEOs of various banks and Lord Rothermere are stymied, Brand does get various ex-bankers and economists on camera. Their conclusions are coldly authoritative. Yes, enormous crimes were committed, deliberately and with contempt aforethought, and yes, if there were any justice in the world, bankers would be punished and the profit motive would be entirely removed from the banking industry.

Although the filmmakers made every attempt to interview bosses from all of the major banks, none agreed to talk. Instead there is footage of bankers simply refusing to comment, and of Brand being rejected from plush foyers or attempting to embarrass bank bosses with megaphones and Michael Moore-style stunts.


Some of the most powerful scenes in the film, however, feature Brand talking to ordinary people who have been adversely affected by recent austerity cuts or by corporate gluttony more generally. People who have to work multiple jobs to scrabble together a living wage, or who can’t afford to send their kids to university, or who have had their healthcare cut, or who are being evicted from their homes by means of 400% rent-hikes.

And it is with this focus on ordinary people under capitalist duress where the film comes into its own and becomes a tool of empowerment. Brand’s message has always been not merely that everything is fucked and unfair, but that we can change it, and that all we really have to do to change it is to come together and demand change.

Crucially, there are plenty of examples in the film of where people have stood up to corporate concerns and have seen them back down, including the Hackney healthcare workers who fought pay cuts and redundancies, the Hovis workers who took on Premier Foods and the New Era Estate tenants who stood up to private landlords Richard Benyon and Westbrook Partners.


One of the New Era Estate women spells it out: ‘What’s really important is that we’re not just standing back and allowing it to happen. I think what’s so exciting about it is that people like us – just normal people – can actually make a stand. We did make a difference: the Benyon estates did pull out of the purchase of the [New Era] estates and now we’re just about doing the same to Westbrook….’

They did. Westbrook eventually backed down and the New Era Estate was sold to a small housing group committed to providing low-cost homes to Londoners.

Now some of the women involved in fighting their eviction are helping other communities who are similarly threatened in other parts of London.

One of the many common criticisms levelled at Brand is that he offers no alternatives. As it happens, this isn’t true. He frequently offers alternatives. It’s just that the people who criticise have not really been paying attention, and are probably not that interested in the first place. At the end of this film, a few basic concrete changes are outlined. ‘How about,’ says Brand,

…we make them bankers pay back that money we gave them? How about a financial transaction tax to stop all them gamblers in the city? How about a 90% income tax for the richest 1% of people? … 90% inheritance tax for anything over £1m … Stop tax avoidance! Everybody equal under the law … How about a living wage for everyone? Could we possibly break up billionaires’ monopolies? … No one should be able to own more than 49% of one newspaper. How about we change company law [to clamp down on tax avoidance]. All companies should have workers, consumers and members of the community represented on the board so they can be part of the conversation. All workers should have shares in the companies they work for. Bosses’ and workers’ pay should be related and decided upon by a cross-section of workers in the company. We need to give people the time and space to come together in communities, in shared enterprises. Change does happen, and it can happen quickly.’

If you don’t agree that the gargantuan canyon between rich and poor in this country is something that should be addressed and changed; if you don’t agree that community is more important than the individual and that people are more important than money, then fine. Go your merry way. Continue to deride Brand and those who support him. Continue to call him naïve, hypocritical, egomaniacal and whatever other profoundly hollow insults impress your short-sighted friends on social media, and have fun with that.

Meanwhile, for the rest of us, who are just utterly fed up with the inequality and the injustice that is part and parcel of free market fundamentalism, it’s time to get involved. Sitting at home voting once every five years is really not enough. It’s time to get organised. It’s time to protest. Fundamentally, it’s time to come together.




The Emperor’s New Clothes is released tonight, in some places. If it’s not near you, but you’d like to see it, you can go here and – if there are enough of you – you can make it so.

Make it so.

If you’re keen to get involved in other stuff that’s already going on, a decent place to start might be with The People’s Assembly.



At One With All That Is :: Jill Bolte Taylor’s Stroke of Insight

Painting by NotKeith

Painting by NotKeith

This TED Talk  has already been viewed almost 17 million times, but the fact that I only saw it for the first time a few days ago means that you might not have seen it either. And it is tremendous. So I’m putting it here.

It is, furthermore, hugely moving and has utterly profound connotations for the way we live our life. It made me realise – not for the first time but in a way which I felt ran deeper than it ever has before – how I spend far too much time in the left hemisphere of my brain and that I need to do a lot more about that.

If you haven’t seen it, please watch it. If you haven’t seen it for a while, please watch it again. It can only do you good.


Jill Bolte Taylor‘s talk ends with these words. I’m putting them here so that whenever I see this page, I can quickly read them again…

So who are we? We are the life-force power of the universe, with manual dexterity and two cognitive minds. And we have the power to choose, moment by moment, who and how we want to be in the world. Right here, right now, I can step into the consciousness of my right hemisphere, where we are. I am the life-force power of the universe. I am the life-force power of the fifty trillion beautiful molecular geniuses that make up my form, at one with all that is. Or, I can choose to step into the consciousness of my left hemisphere, where I become a single individual, a solid. Separate from the flow, separate from you. I am Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor: intellectual, neuroanatomist. These are the “we” inside of me. Which would you choose? Which do you choose? And when? I believe that the more time we spend choosing to run the deep inner-peace circuitry of our right hemispheres, the more peace we will project into the world, and the more peaceful our planet will be.

Moonlight, Magic & Macabre :: Three Reasons to Be Grateful for Dominique Christina

This is for anyone who hasn’t seen it before, and for anyone who has. It’s for anyone with daughters, anyone with sisters, and anyone with a mother. It’s for anyone with a girlfriend and anyone with a wife; it’s for anyone with a boyfriend, a husband, sons, brothers and of course, a father.  It’s for anyone who doesn’t brand him or herself a feminist for any reason he or she has concocted in his or her so-called mind. It’s for anyone blessed with a menstrual cycle and for anyone not so blessed. It’s for anyone who appreciates poetry, for anyone who appreciates performance, and for anyone who appreciates people and all of the passionate, heart-breaking, heart-repairing things that they can do.

It’s also for the 58 people who thumbed it down on YouTube. You really need to switch on your hearts and your minds and to switch off whatever it is that is making you so afraid and so unconnected, and you need to watch it again.

And if this is the first time you are witnessing this miracle of verbal dexterity and mental dexterity and artistic achievement, please share it with the rest of the people in your life. Because they deserve it too.


Work that Stands Out from the Rest


Outstanding. Image by notkeith at notkeith.com


So I’m applying for jobs, and obviously, because I need to find work, I’m applying for all kinds of jobs. Jobs I’ve done before like teaching and sub-editing and proofreading and whatnot, and other jobs that I’ve done very little of or haven’t done for a long time.

And it’s got me thinking a lot about which jobs I’ve really enjoyed and why.

Teaching English is great when it’s fun – when your students want to be there and really want to learn, and when you feel that they actually get a kick out of learning a language and they’re not just doing it to get a raise or because their boss is pressuring them.

Hmmm. I realise I’ve got to be careful what I say here, lest some potential employer happens along…

What I was about to say was that I find office jobs rather oppressive. But then … actually, no. I’ve changed my mind. Obviously, it depends entirely on the job you’re doing in said office. Years ago, I spent 18 months working for Liberty (the civil rights people, not the shop) and that was great for the simple reason that you felt like you were doing something worthwhile, and you were working with a bunch of people who really cared about what they were doing. It was more than just a job. The fact that it took place in an office didn’t really come into it. But then of course, it didn’t always take place in an office. There were also events – festivals, club nights, demos – where you’d go raising money and awareness, selling t-shirts, collecting signatures. I loved that work. And then there was Wine Club every Friday evening, which when weather permitted, took place on the roof.

Thinking about it, that was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. And I wasn’t even paid! Imagine that.

Aside from that, and aside from getting paid to write a novel, which didn’t really feel like work, I think I’d have to plump for the outdoors work I did in France.

Week One :: white skin, clean boots, shiny helmet

Week One :: white skin, clean boots, shiny helmet


Working on my sister’s place in the woods was great, but as it was time spent predominantly alone, I can’t really say I enjoyed it as much as I did the three months I spent working on Le Gite Fantastique last summer.

What was great about that – aside from working with other people – was that it was hard, physical work that yielded satisfying, tangible results. For example, turning a ramshackle knackered old barn into a place with a new roof and floor where people could play music and table tennis and dance like seahorses was a wonderful thing. Even just digging up the land and planting flowers that people can then take pleasure in is extremely satisfying.




Speaking of satisfying, there’s a job I found this morning that I’m in the process of applying for and that I really hope I get. I’m not going to say anything about it here, because that would be foolish, but it would be working with people again, and that’s what I really need now. If I’m going to get a job that I actually enjoy, rather than one that I tolerate because I have to pay rent, then it has to be dealing with people and – even if it’s just in a very small, very basic way – bringing them pleasure. And that’s what this job would be.

Wish me luck.

In the meantime, I beseech thee, tell me: what the best job you’ve ever had? Go on. I really want to know.


Forcing a Smile


Image by notkeith at notkeith.com


So how do you stay up when you’re feeling down?

How do you force yourself to be happy when things all around you are making you feel sad?

Because that’s the real trick. That’s why self-help is such a giant industry, despite being a complete misnomer. If it was really self-help, it wouldn’t be in a book written by somebody else. But of course, when people feel sad, they do need help. We all need help once in a while.

I’m going through a difficult period at the moment – more difficult (much more difficult) than I’d anticipated. Because I’m naïve, unrealistic and wholly impractical, I had just kind of assumed that, once I’d moved into this little house in the country, things would fall into place a lot more easily than they have. I’m talking workwise primarily. Moneywise.

But they haven’t. And now I’m struggling and scraping around looking for morsels of unappealing employment like someone half my age. And it’s at times like this that your whole life comes back to haunt you. You begin to think of everything you’ve ever thought and done as a ghastly mistake. You begin to think of yourself as a colossal fool and a mighty, mighty fuckwit. The old self-loathing creeps back in, surprising you with its intensity. It seems like while it was away, it was working out, sharpening itself, just waiting for an opportunity to march back in and poke you in the guts.

So how do you stay positive when the whole world is screaming misery and failure in your face?

Fortunately, I do know the answer.

Unfortunately, it’s hard work at the best of times, bastard hard work at the worst.

And it’s that same short list of daily activities that you see absolutely everywhere these days:

• Exercise
• Socialise
• Be grateful
• Be generous
• Learn new things
• Look outside of yourself – which is to say, cultivate your awareness of being part of something bigger than yourself – meditate, chant, whatever it takes…

And that’s it. A simple matter of training your brain to be resilient and generally more positive.

Piece of cake.

Except it isn’t a piece of cake. Like any long-term training, it’s damned hard until it becomes a solid habit, and even then it’s damned hard.


Resilience. Determination. Two little mice.

I am now going to cycle to the doctor’s surgery so that ultimately I may learn if this recurring pain in my left testicle is really merely stress or actually something much more serious. However it turns out, I’m hugely grateful to the NHS for not charging me a fortune to find out.

I hope you’re having a good day, whoever you are.

Thanks for popping by.


Making Magic, Creating Change :: The Story of Aaron Swartz


 Aaron Swartz is now an icon, an ideal. He is what we will be fighting for, all of us, for the rest of our lives.

– Lawrence Lessig


I’ve been away. Some of you will know, I’ve spent much of the past four years in France, almost two whole years in a shack in the middle of a forest without electricity, without internet. I read a lot of books, so it was a good, worthwhile time, and I wouldn’t be where I am today (wherever that is) if I hadn’t been there, so I have no regrets. But I’m realising more and more that I missed out on a lot of stuff, important things happening in the world.

Actually, being in France is a feeble excuse. I just wasn’t paying attention, and I missed stuff.

But I’m catching up. And one of the most astonishing, heart-breaking stories I missed was the death of Aaron Swartz. I missed most of his life too, to my shame.

If you missed it too, I urge you to watch the documentary embedded below. It’s important.

In his tragically short life, Aaron Swartz achieved an incredible amount, but at the heart of everything he achieved was the campaign for freedom of information.

He co-authored and put his name to something called the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, reprinted below. For that and for the many acts of civil disobedience he perpetrated in enacting the manifesto, he was persecuted – rather than prosecuted – by the American government. He was persecuted because he was dangerous. This is not a conspiracy theory by the way.

Watch the documentary.

As well as lots and lots of other stuff, Swartz’s story is one of those that makes you think, What on earth have I done with my life?

His legacy makes you want to do more.

Watch the documentary.


Here is the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, authored by Aaron Swartz when he was 22 years old, five years before his death. The fight for free access to scientific research is something that’s particularly close to my own heart at the moment as everywhere I go of late in my desire to read various psychological studies, I’m faced with something like this…


Or this…


So yes, here (bold text is my own)…

Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.


Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Aaron Swartz
July 2008, Eremo, Italy


Will you?

Will I?

I’m trying.

Feel free to help me.

I keep thinking of this line, spoken at the end of the documentary, by Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who found his body after his suicide:

Aaron believed that you literally ought to be asking yourself all the time, “What is the most important thing I could be working on in the world right now?” and if you’re not working on that, why aren’t you?

It’s a damn good question.

Anyway, on we go, grateful, and learning.

Good day to you.


Giving and Receiving Fiercely :: Three Reasons to Be Grateful For Amanda Palmer


Those of you who know Amanda Palmer won’t need reminding of the good work she does just by living her life so passionately and creatively. But what the hell. You can be reminded anyway.

I just came across her TED talk for the first time a couple of days ago, so I thought I’d put it here, along with another two examples of her work that have moved me deeply in the past.

First, the TED talk, entitled The Art of Asking, in which she discusses the relationship between artist and fan and offers alternative models to the traditional ones touted by record companies and publishers and other erstwhile facilitators, agents, bloodsuckers, whatever you want to call them…


Second, her response to a prurient article in the Daily Mail – a review of her performance at Glastonbury that totally failed to mention her performance at Glastonbury. Instead the unnamed journalist focussed solely on the fact that one of her breasts had become visible as she performed…


Third, everything she wrote about bullying on the internet on her website in January 2013. It starts here and if you haven’t already read it, find something to wipe your face on and read it now…



And when you’ve stopped weeping and cheering and weeping again, have a splendid day.

Spring is coming!


Bring Back Borstal :: Daring to Give a Damn About Delinquents


Over the past couple of nights, I watched ITV’s entertaining and very moving ‘social experiment’ Bring Back Borstal online. This morning I read a couple of reviews in the Telegraph and the Guardian with critics sneering at the artifice and lack of originality of the format. This made me feel sad, because to my mind, their objections were irrelevant and entirely missed the point.

The programme, in a nutshell, sees fourteen young offenders volunteering to become ‘borstal boys’, spending four weeks in a 1930s-style institution to see if it helps them change their ways. These boys are aged between 18 and 23 and most of them have a criminal past, having spent time in Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) and/or in some cases, adult prison. Their crimes range from shoplifting and drug use to actual bodily harm and smashing in someone’s eye with a golf putter.

Critics sneered because the boys, having volunteered, were then allowed to leave at any time and could often be seen smirking and treating the whole thing like a joke. This is because borstal was abolished in 1982 and, for better or for worse, you can’t legally incarcerate anyone in the name of televisual entertainment. However, that didn’t stop the programme offering some extremely valuable insights into our current punitive system and ways in which it might be changed for the better.

In four hour-long episodes covering the four weeks of the experiment, these young men, most of whom had been in and out of care homes since they were very young, were forced out of bed at 6am every day and made to do useful stuff. The question was, would this regime of physical exercise, education, hard work and discipline be better for the boys and for society at large than the current system of YOIs and prisons, where inmates are allowed, if they so desire, to do bugger all.

Overseeing this experiment and taking on the role as governor of the borstal was Professor David Wilson, a former prison governor and Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University.


Wilson’s areas of expertise include sex offenders, serial killers and young offenders. He knows his onions. Of the borstal system to which the fourteen volunteers would be subjected, he says:

This is a tough regime. It’s relentless. We are not locking up these young men and allowing them to sit in their cells watching television or playing Playstation. We’re saying that being active on the sports field, or in the classroom, or at work, will ultimately help them have a better stake in the community when they return.

The thing that really gets me about all this is that it’s all so bleeding obvious.

We all know prison doesn’t work.

We all know that without guidance, the only thing most young offenders will learn in jail is how to be old offenders.

We all know that telling people they’re bad will make them act badly, whereas telling people they have the potential to be great will have the opposite effect.

We all know that when we consistently treat people with kindness and respect, eventually they reciprocate.

We all know that there’s no such thing as evil and that every human being has the potential to be good and decent and caring and loving. Don’t we?

Well, we should, because it’s the only way forward.

Bring Back Borstal acted as a reminder that we have a responsibility of care towards every member of our society, especially towards those of us who, for whatever reason, behave badly. And for those people, caring means education, rehabilitation, and absolutely crucially, helping to raise their own opinion of themselves.


Borstal in its heyday was always educational rather than punitive, and it worked. Seven out of ten young people who went through the borstal system never reoffended.

The alternative does not work. Currently, four out of five young offenders reoffend within three years. As Professor Wilson put it in the final episode of Bring Back Borstal:

There was a phrase in young offender institutes and in prison generally, that happiness is door-shaped. In other words, it’s better to put prisoners into their cell, locked up, sleeping on their beds or watching the telly. But frankly, in the long run, it doesn’t do anything to change those young men, and it doesn’t do anything to reduce the levels of crime.

I’m not going to pretend that these boys are some kinds of angels, because they are not. But you know, they weren’t monsters from outer space. They didn’t have dreams and ambitions that you and I don’t have. They had exactly the same dreams and ambitions. What we’ve done here in this borstal is unlock these young men, let them out to do work, to do education, to give them books to read, to keep them active, to tell them they should learn a trade skill.

Of the fourteen original volunteers, only five saw the month out. The rest either couldn’t hack it or were asked to leave because of violence.

However, it’s worth adding to those ostensibly poor statistics some other numbers. This quote is from an excellent interview with Jenny Molloy, an author and care leaver herself, who took the role of the matron in Bring Back Borstal

Change in these lads’ lives came slowly, but the experiment wanted to offer a positive start. Even for the lads who did not complete their stay, the majority report good things. The current facts from the cohort of fourteen are:

  • There has been no reoffending since the boys left the borstal
  • 2 lads are now in college
  • 5 lads have new employment
  • 1 lad is in voluntary employment
  • 1 lad was supported to find stable housing
  • 1 lad is setting up his own charity

In short, it works. Instilling hope in people and giving them a sense of self-worth makes for happier, better adjusted members of society. Who knew?


That interview with Jenny Molloy ends with the question, Should we bring back borstal? Molloy’s answer is as follows:

My views towards youth justice have always been that the sentence is the punishment and any period of incarceration must be a time of opportunity. It sickens me to continue to meet young people who are not able to read, write or perform even the most basic of work tasks.

It equally appals me that young offenders are written off so quickly, with any trauma from their past being seen as ‘excuses’ by adults rather than reasons, which can help understand their offending behaviour and be worked through in time.

The question is, of course, should we bring back borstal? I am not qualified to answer that, but I am qualified to state this: As long as we deny young people vital interventions in their chaotic family lives, and continued aspirations for their futures, we will continue to see YOI’s and adult prisons full of people devoid of hope for the future.

Should we bring back borstal?

I guess I’m not qualified to answer it either, but yes, we absolutely definitely should. Of course we should. We won’t call it borstal this time, and we should make sure the brutality that we saw in Scum doesn’t creep back in, but yes, implementing a penal system based on genuine rehabilitation is something that we should definitely do. Obviously.

In the meantime, if you missed it, Bring Back Borstal is on ITV Player. Watch it.