Hilary Natzler on a birthday celebration behind bars
HMP Brixton — not the obvious choice of venue for lunch to celebrate a birthday but, as it transpired, a good one. The third of The Clink training restaurants had just opened up the road.
I walked hesitantly to meet the others, puzzling over the possible ways of engaging with our waiter. The usual, “where do you come from?”, sometimes triggered by heavily accented English, seemed unlikely. “How did you end up in here?” seemed merely prurient. Besides, what if it involved poisoning? An uncomfortable thought at lunchtime and sure to set the taste buds jangling. Better not to know. Best to stay in the here and now. Husband David teases me that when confronted with a menu I frequently talk through possibilities with a waiter. My natural mode would be to ask for advice. With a more assured tread, I hastened towards our rendezvous.
Security was tight, but the mood kept light by the delightful receptionist who took charge of all the guests and ushered us into the restaurant. A calm space in neutral colours, it offers elegance and simplicity. Sure, there are bars on the windows, but they are painted white and consist of a pattern of rounded oblongs linked together, and are visually attractive. The restaurant itself is divided into a series of interconnecting rooms with half a dozen tables in each, giving a sense of intimacy and privacy.
We were introduced to our waiter, Michael, who settled us into comfortably upholstered chairs and brought a jug of water with the menus. Wow! Masterchef, look lively! It all sounded delicious. So what was Michael’s favourite dish? A moment’s reflection, an open smile, the reply: stone bass — new to me — on a bed of samphire, drizzled with melted butter and dill, with roasted cherry tomatoes and sweet potato fondant. The conversation followed its natural course: and what is stone bass? Similar to sea bass but a different fish. Perfect, I’d have that, as did two of my companions. An order placed from the interesting array of soft drinks and we settled down to catch up with each other’s news.
Before long and after a relaxing interval, Michael presented us with our dishes with quiet pride. The fish did not disappoint: perfectly cooked, the flakes were moist and melted in the mouth, the plateful a colourful contrast of textures and flavours. Debbie had chosen duck breast, Asian style, in ginger, soy and lime dressing complemented with a coriander risotto. It was a perfect blush pink and so tender that the classy black plastic cutlery sliced through it like a meat cleaver. We all polished off everything, relishing each mouthful.
Time for dessert. Like the starters that we had reluctantly eschewed, they were varied and imaginative, but we had to pass on these too. Louise had, you see, pre-ordered a birthday cake from a list of six that were offered. Michael had been well briefed and asked whether he should bring it. Yes, please and, we joshed, we hope you’ll sing Happy Birthday when you do! He laughed, perhaps slightly nervously at being vocally challenged, as he returned with the candle lit cake together with choral reinforcement from the kitchen and restaurant. Lucy beamed with delight, as did the chorus, before she made a wish and blew out the candles.
While being so ably served, we had learned from Michael that prisoners training in The Clink work towards gaining NVQ qualifications in food preparation and front of house service. He preferred waiting to working in the kitchen because he liked being with people. This was clear from his eagerness to take us on a tour of the kitchens. First, slipping into tour guide mode, he explained with almost proprietorial pride how The Clink had been fashioned from the Round House, formerly the Governor’s residence. It was so shaped to give the Governor a 360 deg view of what was going on. Now that Brixton is a category C establishment, the Governor lives out.
As we entered the kitchens we were greeted with an impromptu rendering of Happy Birthday, as chefs downed tools and gathered round, quickly asking for the name of the birthday girl. Had she liked the cake? It was the first one he had ever made. Almost as good as what her mother would have made had she still been alive, she declared. Were we sisters? What had we eaten? Had we enjoyed it? How long did we think the chef had been in cooking? A week and a half. Unbelievable. Congratulations on a great job. Their support of each other and pride in each other were palpable. Their pleasure in our pleasure and appreciation of work well done was almost heartbreaking. We’d be enjoying a drink later on? Sure we would. How they wished they could too. Come and see us again, they would make us something special, they invited, as we took our leave.
We all felt elated by the warmth of reception and the joy created in all and by all involved in the celebration. I remembered my mother’s wise words that children all start out in life wanting to please, to be good, and that it is up to everyone to keep them on that path. Recognition, appreciation, encouragement: all nurturing essentials. What, I wondered, had been the experience of these affable folk that had led them to stray? I bowed my head in quick prayer of gratitude for the good and gracious influences on my early life and for the safekeeping of the folks we’d met who had been less fortunate but were seizing this opportunity for a new start.
In 2011, The Clink charity was presented with the CATEY Award for Best Education and Training Programme. The reoffending rate within the first year of release of Clink graduates in 2011 was 12.5% compared with a national reoffending rate of 46.9%.The official statistics for 2012 have not yet been released, but unverified figures currently show the reoffending rate for Clink graduates to be less than 10%. While on the scheme prisoners receive a salary (minus the statutory 40% deduction from their net pay which goes towards victim support charities) to enable them to support their dependants or save money for their release. Upon release the charity helps graduates find employment within the hospitality industry and mentors them weekly for 6-12 months to help them reintegrate back into society and not reoffend.
For more information and to make a booking go to www.theclinkcharity.org or telephone 020 7147 6724