M (7) is curious about the whole idea of convicts:
I say: ‘About 200 years ago – if you were a burglar in England you would go to prison but you might never come out.’
This is where I begin. I will try to explain in the simplest possible terms, the difference between our concept of criminality now and what it was in the late 18th Century. Today, I am explaining, we believe that a person commits a criminal act because circumstance are against them. We also believe that we, society, have failed that person.
I follow the work of the Penal Reform Trust. I will always remember the words of a friend of mine who works with offenders. She says: ‘There is not one of whom I do not think: “Well, what would I do? In that situation would I really have done differently?”’ She works with women.
I am trying to explain this to M and I believe it important enough to get it really right. This is his introduction to the horrors of what I like to call the Barbaric Social Experiment that was the establishment of the Penal Colonies.
‘200 years ago the prisons were so full that the English government sent boats full of soldiers and all the prisoners who did not fit in the prisons to Australia, which had only just been discovered, and made a town called Sydney.’
‘Was it a town full of prisons?’
‘No. The town was the prison. They didn’t need prisons because there was only bush and sea around – there was nowhere to escape. So instead of walls there was bush. We only build walls when there’s somewhere we don’t want… when there’s somewhere…’
I lose myself at this point. I make another start. ‘So these convicts were the first white people to live in Australia.’
‘What is white?’
(I am winded. What is white? I’ve no idea. What is white?)
‘White is – ‘ I say
‘White is – ‘ I say again.
I say: ‘In some parts of the world most people have brown skin. Like in Africa (I edit the rest of the world here) and then in other parts of the world people have skin like (I hold up my a hand as an example. Is it pink? It’s not even pink. What is that colour?) this. It’s called white. It’s not really white-white but it’s called white. We’re white.’
‘But we’re the same. We’re all the same.’
M agrees casually. In fact he is disappointed to learn white is what we are.
‘We’re all the same shape or size. There are about 500 people that look about the same as me,’ he says and he looks at me kindly. He is trying to make my answer more interesting than it actually is. ‘Or the same as you. Or 120. Or under.’ He has grown up in London. A difference in skin colour is probably the least interesting distinguishing feature in a person.
For him, random statistics make an answer. My answer was pathetic. A prison and not a prison? White but not white? It’s all a load of pitiable, evasive, adult boringness. What did a convict wear? What did they eat? What powers did they have?
I can spit out The Fatal Shore but beyond that I don’t know a thing. I don’t even know that terribly well. Except that it made me cry. But that might have been the prose.