During the first lockdown in March 2020, prisoners at HMP Manchester were offered the opportunity to write down their reflections as part of a creative writing competition – and have their work judged by real authors. The results offer extraordinary insight into the minds of inmates during the onset of COVID-19.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television screens last March staring solemnly down the lens and warning us not to leave our homes, it should have been shocking enough to send cups of tea spilling across living rooms right around the UK.
But as gloomy and demoralising as the broadcast might have been, it was not a surprising one.
By this point, most of us knew it was coming.
That infamous public address on March 23 had – just like COVID’s symptoms and knock-on effects – crept up on us in sinisterly steady fashion.
For weeks, we read headlines about the increasing spread of the virus and watched many of our European neighbours bolting their own gates shut. So, when the decision was made to officially lock down in the UK, many of us had already mentally prepared ourselves for the worst.
For many in Manchester, the preamble to the address had involved messaging loved ones and setting up home working stations. But over in Cheetham Hill, there were 650 people behind bars still struggling to comprehend exactly what was happening.
HMP Manchester’s inmates – concealed from view of the deserted city centre streets – had relied on TV sets as their sole window into the real world. But despite the drama unfolding on the news channels, they still felt once removed from the pictures being shown on the screens inside their cells.
It wasn’t until the morning of March 23 when officers told prisoners to “check their phones” that the seriousness of the situation sunk in.
After punching in their access codes, they realised something. Their call credit had increased.
Prisoners could read between the lines. This was a full-scale lockdown.
For those who have never set foot inside a maximum security facility, HMP Manchester has an otherworldly aura; epitomised by its towering walls and fortress-like architecture.
Portraits of prison life – on camera or in print – can often feel like they belong to another realm. And this is exactly what made the onset of COVID such an unsettling time for its inhabitants.
As one prisoner’s grave confession at the start of the first lockdown testified: “I fear people are going to forget about us and we’re going to die because we’re bottom of the pile.”
But when the pandemic hit, inmates at Manchester were actually presented with a unique chance to share their stories through art. And now this material is set for publication.
The booklet, titled Write Inside At HMP Manchester, is a compendium of astonishing reflections written by those incarcerated during COVID, ranging from real contemplations on an unravelling pandemic to fictitious worlds created out of a desire for a form of escapism.
Put together by MK College and curated by HMP Manchester’s Distance Learning Coordinator Maureen Carnighan, the project began life as a simple writing exercise to keep prisoners preoccupied.
But it quickly snowballed into a creative writing competition, with a panel of published authors – including Jonathan Aitken, David Nolan, Joseph Knox and Erwin James – stepping in to judge the work and offer feedback.
Aitken and James had previously served sentences themselves, whereas Nolan has produced extensive coverage of the Strangeways Riots throughout his career.
The submissions – which include diaries, stories, poems and illustrations – were originally scrawled on scrap paper and the backs of envelopes by prisoners at the height of the pandemic, before being collected and cobbled together to form an anthology.
It’s set to go to print later this year; with all money raised going towards the Prisoners’ Education Trust.
After the writing competition ended, entries were judged and a prize was split between the winners. But a little bump to the prison bank balance was just a bonus. According to organiser Maureen, what was most important to inmates was the fact their stories were actually being read by others.
Nolan, Knox, Aitken and James added comments to every entry, and as Maureen passed on the feedback to inmates, she could hear their self-esteem “growing over the phone”.
“The fact that real authors read their work – they were amazed by it,” Maureen explains.
“All the stories [in the booklet] are so different. Some of the fiction is amazing.
“But there are some surprises, too. There’s even some soppy poetry in there!”
Many of the most affecting pieces within the collection are the ones that pull readers inside Strangeways to share a cell with the authors.
One such article, entitled ‘COVID Diary’, paints an eerie picture of a cell block on the morning of lockdown where you could “hear a pin drop” – before going on to tell the tale of inmates scrambling to check their phone credit.
As the story ebbs on, the author expresses his concern for his fellow inmates.
“I’ve done many, many lockdowns,” he writes, having been in and out of prison for almost three decades.
“[But] this is the first time there has been a lockdown like this.
“Only urgent health care appointments, no dentists, no work, and up to twenty-three hours banged up unless you are a servery worker or cleaner. I honestly feel for all those lads and girls who I think are ‘suffering in silence behind that door.’”
Another prisoner also describes the stress levels in prison as being so high that the wing is “crackling as if it’s charged with static”, with a lack of routine akin to having his “body vigorously rubbed with a cheese grater.”
The collection also features a haunting short story penned by an inmate who was among the first to become infected.
He recalls curling up around the toilet bowl, a big warning sticker being slapped on his cell, and guards dressed head to toe in quarantine suits bellowing at him to “stand back” so they could safely drop off food.
“Shivering in my bed, thoughts ran through my head,” he writes.
“What if I don’t wake up? The thought of dying in prison was so scary.”
But not all prisoners felt compelled to write about COVID. Others seized the opportunity to pen letters to their former selves, whilst one inmate – sentenced for 28 years for gang-related murder – scribbled a painful and emotional apology to his mother for everything he’s done.
According to Maureen, the writing casts the inmates in a whole different light.
“We tend to ‘monster’ everyone that goes to prison,” she says.
“But these people do come out [of jail]. It’s our job to re-educate and support them whilst they’re inside to reduce the chances of them reoffending.
“Here, in this writing, they come across as real human beings who have made very real mistakes.”
All prisons offer a core education curriculum covering English, maths, digital skills and relevant vocational training – which all inmates who would benefit are encouraged to attend.
But enrolling in higher education courses (e.g. university level) involves meeting certain criteria. Permission from the prison itself is required before applying for funding from the Prisoners’ Educational Trust and for individual courses. Proximity to release date is also taken into consideration.
What made Maureen’s writing competition so unique and appealing was that it was open to all inmates immediately, at no cost.
When word got around, the uptake was big.
Even once the initial exercise was over, the Distance Learning Coordinator said she was “overwhelmed” with additional requests from prisoners – many of whom thrived on the experience and expressed a desire to keep learning whilst locked up for long portions of the day.
Educational in-cell packs have also been introduced at HMP Manchester in the absence of face-to-face education – covering subjects such as maths, English, business, art and ESOL (English for speakers of other languages).
Write Inside At HMP Manchester – a time capsule and window into Strangeways during an aberrant moment in history – is set for release at a pertinent point in the pandemic; with the whole penal system once again in lockdown.
Interventional measures have prevented the numbers climbing higher. But this has meant more time in cells, with prisoners spending the past few weeks reliving the experiences they wrote about last spring.
Most in-person social visits have also been banned since the beginning of the second lockdown in November – with inmates instead meeting loved ones via ‘Purple Visits’; the prison equivalent of video calls (at HMP Manchester, a phone has been fitted in every cell so that support staff can speak to prisoners, with the Education Department using them to provide feedback for in-cell study packs).
Conditions have been tough – and in December one retired judge even suggested sentences of inmates should be reduced in order to compensate.
Still, there is cause for optimism across the penal system in the weeks ahead.
Cases of COVID-19 among inmates and staff have been steadily declining since the end of January.
The situation is improving, and there is cautious hope that a tough chapter for UK prisons is slowly coming to a close.
“Prisons are not the holiday camps that the public sometimes believe them to be,” Maureen states.
“They are difficult environments made more severe during lockdown for obvious reasons.
“Some of the men I come across are so keen to get educated and so determined to change their lives around.
“But having the opportunity to write and tell their story? That’s definitely helped them.”
Write Inside At HMP Manchester is being published in the prison print shop and sold in support of the Prisoners’ Education Trust.
Details on how to purchase copies are available online.
We tried Greater Manchester’s first eight-course pie-tasting menu and it was absolutely unreal
Every now and again the opportunity to eat something genuinely new and different and which pushes the envelope when it comes to the kind of food you ever even thought you’d enjoy — sitting down for the inaugural ‘PieSessions’ was one of those such occasions.
This month, we had the privilege of being invited along to one of the most exclusive and highly-anticipated dining events in Greater Manchester: an eight-course pie-tasting event created by pie-pros Ate Days A Week, Scotty’s Pies and a number of other collaborators.
Hosting a true first for the region, Notion Bar over in Stockport was packed out with over 50 guests who were all eagerly awaiting to taste pies from the local favourite, MasterChef contestant turned meat and pastry specialist Scott Eckersley-Bell, as well as Wigan staples Baldy’s Pies and Harwoods Patisserie.
At first glance, the popular SK Deep South-inspired dive bar might not look like the place to offer up a gourmet tasting menu, but what it did have was an accessible charm and a bunch of hungry people not only willing to keep their minds open but who simply love all things pie. Who doesn’t?
At the top of the bill was probably one of the most interesting things we’ve eaten all year: a Japanese-inspired ‘Pie-Scream’ which delivered the exact savoury spin as it promised on the tin. A malt-crust cone stuffed with smoothly pipped mash, katsu curry sauce and crispy Teriyaki bacon in place of a flake.
We believe we call that ‘making a good first impression’. From that moment on, we knew we weren’t just going to be eating any old meal and that it wasn’t just going to be plate after plate of what you normally consider a pie; everything was different and we can honestly say everything was good, if not amazing.
Next up we had probably one of our standouts from the entire night which was a garlic, ginger and soy pork mince tartlet with a perfect piece of honey-glazed pork belly next to it, as well as a light edamame and spring onion purée to balance out the strong flavours.
Following on from the opener, the pair delivered all of the tried and tested Asian flavours in a method most will have never experienced them in before and, in truth, we could have even taken some extra spice with that virtually perfect tartlet but they were careful not to thrash our palettes early doors.
Two down, six to go and when we tell you it was plate after plate of precise pie-based ingenuity, we’re not exaggerating. From the short rib slider, which was almost like an elevated Wigan kebab, to the gentler poached cod pithivier which kind of reminded us of a seafood twist on a Cornish pasty, there was a single thing we didn’t like.
The way the menu was also carefully constructed not to beat you over the head with non-stop meat, pastry and gravy but to fluctuate between smaller bites and more substantial courses was already pretty impressive, as we managed to make it to the end of the meal at the perfect level of full.
We were even pleasantly surprised to see how the team tackled the issue of pudding, with a sweet and just sharp enough take on parfait with fresh orange, stem ginger and brown sugar, as well as a much richer chocolate, salted caramel and hazelnut brownie for a big finish.
To be honest, we loved the tiny little lemon madeleines they surprised us with as an after-dinner treat even more than the desserts (the two of us in attendance are lemon fiends, to be fair) but the best course of the night has to go to the ‘Big Jim Volume 2.0’.
Speaking to Ate Days A Week Founder Andy James on our way out, you could clearly see how his passion for the concept had translated amongst his colleagues, into the excitement of the guests and then back onto him after he saw how well the whole thing went down.
There was a real buzz about the place that was nothing like we’d ever experienced before with other tasting menus and we think it’s because those in attendance had never sat down for a meal that was as experimental as this one whilst also being that accessible.
Yes, it might be a touch posher than pie, mash and gravy but it never stayed too far away from that simple British pleasure and while there were certainly a few thrills to give you that tasting menu feel, nothing felt out of place and neither did the diners.
Pulling off one of the best teas we’ve had in a long time from a tiny kitchen inside a rough-around-the-edges late-night drinking spot, we already know there will be a sequel to PieSessions not only because Andy told us so but because it was such a massive success. Count us in for the next one.
Manchester Christmas Markets 2023 — dates, locations, prices and everything you need to know
Rejoice, Manchester it’s that time again — famously the most wonderful time of year, and you know what that means: we’ll soon be filling our faces with bratwurst, cheersing steins of Bavarian beer and filling our houses with far too many festive trinkets because the Christmas Markets are back.
We’re not even tooting our own horn when we say this, it’s just a fact that the Manchester Christmas Markets are some of the best and most popular on the planet and this year we celebrate 25 years since the seasonal stalls first opened up in 0161 and started a legendary annual tradition.
It doesn’t matter how many years roll by, we still await their arrival like little kids waiting for Christmas morning and set our schedules for what time we’re going to head out on which day to cross off the must-haves on our markets checklist.
With that in mind, we thought we’d help you put together your own plan of attack this holiday season and give you all the info you need to know to make the most of the 2023 Manchester Christmas Markets. You can thank us later.
Manchester Christmas Markets 2023 mug design and price
Every year the Manchester Christmas Markets has a limited-edition mug design, and this year the collectable souvenir has taken inspiration from the Nutcracker.
There are two different sizes and 2023 designs to collect when the markets officially open next week.
When you order a hot drink at the markets you’ll be charged a £3.50 deposit for a mug (that’s up from £3 last year).
You can then return your cup when you’re finished to get your money back, or take it home as a memento.
Last year, the Manchester Christmas Markets mugs were so popular they ran out before the markets had even finished – but they’ve ordered extras this year to be on the safe side.
Travel advice and how to get to the Manchester Christmas Markets 2023
Transport for Greater Manchester has urged people to use public transport wherever possible to travel in and out of the city centre for the Manchester Christmas Markets.
That’s because of all the events running alongside the festivities, from huge football matches to gigs at the AO Arena to Black Friday sales.
The Bee Network app will help you to plan your journey and you can read all the latest travel advice here.
The best hotels to stay in for the Manchester Christmas Markets
Now, for those of you travelling into town to sample our world-famous markets — as literally thousands do every single year — you might be in need of somewhere to lay your head after a few too many steaming mugs of Glühwein.
Fortunately, since this city continues to be such a popular tourist attraction all year round, there are plenty of hotels to suit whatever your budget is.
In fact, you’re so lucky that we already put together a list of the best hotels in Manchester a little while back, so you’re welcome in advance.
And that should do you for now and your guide to the 2023 Manchester Christmas Markets — we’re sure most of you know the score by now: it’ll be a big, cold, a bit busy but utterly wonderful as it always is.
We’ve found the trick is to try out a few days during the week if you want to beat the rush and then come back at the weekend for the full-bellied crowds brimming with festive cheer.
There really is nothing like it in our opinion and we’ll be sure to keep bringing you plenty of updates on all things Christmas Markets-related going on in Manchester over the next couple of months.