I felt so alone and rejected – until my prison cellmate taught me about belonging | Race

It was June 1981 and I was 18. I stood within the dock at Camberwell Inexperienced magistrates courtroom in south London. I was simply about to obtain my sentence for my position within the Brixton rebellion of that April, after being arrested for assaulting a police officer. Ignoring the abstract of my case, I stared into the general public gallery. Relations of the opposite six accused sat there in quiet, hopeful silence. I imagined they have been mums, dads, aunts, uncles, siblings and grandparents. However not one belonged to me.

I studied their faces, making an attempt to grasp what it is perhaps wish to have somebody of your individual blood supporting you. I tried to image what my personal dad and mom seemed like and what they could really feel as I was handed down my sentence. If my mom have been current, would she be weeping? I barely heard the 12‑month custodial time period being given to me.

As I glanced at my fellow accused, I instantly grew to become very resentful. I guessed they’d be visited by relations wherever they have been despatched. For me, there was nobody. Not even a second cousin.

There have been quite a few instances I had felt remoted, particularly rising up within the infamous Shirley Oaks kids’s dwelling in Croydon, after being deserted by my father when I was two. However I had by no means felt so alone as within the second I peered into that public gallery on the courtroom. Nobody offers a fuck about you, Alex.


They took me away in a kind of safety vans with the blackened home windows. As I sat in my cubicle, I puzzled if there have been any fast and simple ways in which I may finish my pathetic existence. After being taken to a big holding cell close to Lambeth Stroll, I was pushed to Wormwood Scrubs in west London. For some purpose, the jangling of bunched keys and clanging of steel doorways appeared a lot louder within the prison setting than wherever else.

Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle in the Small Axe episode about his life
Despatched down … Sheyi Cole as Alex Wheatle within the Small Axe episode about his life. {Photograph}: Parisa Taghizadeh/BBC/McQueen Restricted

I was given my stiff prison uniform and escorted to my cell. They opened the door and pushed me inside. I closed my eyes, making an attempt to prepared myself for the suicide to which I had dedicated contained in the prison van. The closing door resounded behind me.

Opening my eyes, I noticed that I can be sharing my cell with a Rastafarian who seemed a minimum of 20 years older than me. He launched himself as Simeon and supplied me a cup of tea. I declined and refused to talk to him. I needed to be left to writhe in my personal self-pity so I may devise a plan to finish my depressing days.

However Simeon persevered in desirous to change into acquainted. In addition to, it’s not possible to search out your individual area inside a tiny shared cell. The stress between us grew to become insufferable, particularly as he had a diarrhoea concern.

Ultimately, we got here to blows. Or slightly, he got here to blows and I obtained them. On the conclusion of our fist-to-fist, I sat in a nook, bawling my lungs out. It was not so a lot due to the ache Simeon had inflicted, however due to the exhausting ache of childhood abuse and trauma. As much as that time, no physician had ever described to me what a breakdown seems like, however I assume I was very shut to at least one.

Fortunately, Simeon took pity on me and insisted that I inform him my story. Throughout that lengthy evening, the stench of excrement climbing into my nostrils, I did.

He didn’t say a lot, however each now and once more he nodded. He understood too nicely that I was disconnected from my roots, tradition and individuals from the second I was taken into care at two and a half. He took it upon himself to reconnect me. He pushed CLR James’s The Black Jacobins into my keen fingers. “This may inform you ah liccle one thing about the place you come from and the place you stand within the wrestle,” he mentioned.

Though my schooling had stalled, with quite a few suspensions and three expulsions, I had all the time had the flexibility to learn nicely. When I was 5, I began to learn the comics and magazines that have been generally discarded on my dormitory ground. Little did I know that it was boosting my aptitude for the written phrase.

Any novel or textual content that Simeon fed me, I wolfed up. I learn Dickens, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck and so many others. By way of studying, I found that I wasn’t alone in having a tough begin in life.

Within the silence of the evening, Simeon and I would focus on African civilisations. He would train me about the continent’s kings and queens. He schooled me on the wrestle for black liberation in South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and different international locations. He launched me to the lifetime of Marcus Garvey and how he not solely impressed the combat for equality for black individuals within the Caribbean, but additionally influenced the delivery of the civil rights motion within the US.


Collectively, we might attempt to decipher Bob Marley songs. We’d sing the Wailers’ Get Up, Stand Up and Dennis Brown’s Three Meals a Day. He would giggle at my impressions of the reggae artists Barrington Levy and Johnny Osbourne.

Simeon grew to become a mentor and a father to me. I didn’t really feel alone any extra. I launched the rope that I had clutched and held on to from the second I gazed into the general public gallery in courtroom.

Simply earlier than I accomplished my sentence, Simeon instructed me: “Alex, your life, and all these of the underclass, is simply as helpful as anybody else’s on this world; always remember that.”

With that mantra repeating in my head, I began to jot down. Initially, reggae lyrics and poems about my lived expertise. My fables are primarily the tales of the underclass or, as we used to say in Brixton, the sufferah.

No matter I obtain on this outdated writing recreation is right down to the conversion I skilled underneath Simeon in Wormwood Scrubs. The tales are already there, generally going unnoticed, ignored or rejected. All I do is attempt to make them essential.

I will probably be for ever grateful to him.

Alex Wheatle’s newest novel, Cane Warriors, is out now (Andersen Press, £7.99). To help the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at Supply costs could apply.

Within the UK and Eire, Samaritans will be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing [email protected] or [email protected]. Within the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the disaster help service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Different worldwide helplines will be discovered at

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