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JUNE puppets & prison

June 14, 2011

I found myself on top of the Little Angel Theatre on Friday – an old Islington temperance hall that was transformed into a puppet theatre in the 1960s and has been charming audiences ever since. I’m working on an audio project about the theatre at the moment and it was David the technical manager, an adventurous sort, who invited me up a ladder and onto the roof.  It was as if he had read my rooftop loving mind.

It was great to peer down through skylights into the workshop, which is all hung about with puppet parts, and then over and into the tops of the trees that surround the building. Secret aerial gardens balance on top of the ivy woven houses of the theatre’s neighbours.

As we swung our legs over the edge of the rooftop, David explained that Dagmar Passage, which is now a pretty cobbled square, really was an alleyway up until the 1980s. The slum housing that bumped up against one side was condemned and ripped down and incredibly the land has been left undeveloped and open ever since.

The square couldn’t really be described as green, covered as it is in authentically old looking, new cobbles. But David tells me that certain cobbles, the ones directly in front of the theatre building, may look old fashoned but are actually rather high tech. They’re permeable so, when it rains, water can soak into them and back into the ground, rather than running off and into the drains. If London has to be covered in hard surfacing, then let it be hard surfacing as clever as this.

Back on ground level and in the less salubrious surroundings of my home turf, on Sunday I found myself in HM Prison Holloway. This weekend was ‘Open Garden Squares Weekend’ and one of the gardens on offer was the prison grounds – quite a large expanse of space that’s cared for full-time by a team of inmates.

Nosey as hell, I found the prison a fascinating place. It has an understated presence on Camden Road – as a local I’m definitely aware of it being there but it’s also easy to forget.  One thing I always remember is that it’s where the suffragettes were banged up for daring to demand equal rights.

Today it houses women serving sentences of just a few days all the way up to life-long terms. The focus is on resettlement and, while it’s obviously not a place anyone would choose to be, it does offer inmates opportunities to learn new skills and encourages them to see that there are alternative ways of life available to them.  Its atmosphere is not wholly negative.

16 women form the prison garden team – they apply via the labour board and are assessed as to whether they’re suitable. The team are allowed to spend lots of time outside and to use power tools, so the job is seen as a privilege that’s only open to a lucky few. It’s a full-time position, all day every day, and the women are taught to manage the various shrubberies, borders and beds as if they were tending a public park.

Typically it was terrible weather during our visit, but the grounds looked well cared for and some parts were really very lovely. We were shown a scrappy triangle of land that’s soon to be home to several laying chickens, while an old astro turf pitch is slowly being filled with raised beds for vegetable growing. Some prisoners at a male jail are currently constructing greenhouses for the patch.

Constant locking and unlocking of doors and gates punctuated our tour.  We were surrounded on all sides by a towering red brick wall and fences topped with mean tangles of barbed wire. Posters warned against drug smuggling and encouraged people to get themselves educated and qualified.

The jail visit was a unique one that I’ll never forget. Less severe but equally as exciting is the fact the Urban Physic Garden has now opened down in Southwark. It truly is a gorgeous pop-up creation, full of potent plants with medical powers and fragrant herbs that heal. I spent Saturday night there, dressed in purple scrubs, drinking cider and wine. It’s open throughout the summer and all kinds of marvellous things will happen.

ps:  forgive me…  cameras were banned in prison and I sadly didn’t have my camera with me during the impromptu adventure onto the puppet theatre roof, hence the serious lack of relevant snaps!

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