In the latest chapter of our Reading Lists series, the writer and editor introduced a selection of the books that have inspired his writing and aided his reform.
Noel 'Razor' Smith is a published author and holds 58 criminal convictions. Noel has spent the greater portion of his adult life in prison, and used this time to learn to read, write — and then to write very well. Now the editor of Inside Time, the UK's newspaper for prisoners and detainees, Noel has been awarded a number of Koestler awards for his writing, and has contributed articles to the Independent, the Guardian, Punch, the Big Issue, the New Statesman and the New Law Journal. Noel's autobiography — A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun — was published by Penguin in 2004, mapping his life and experiences in jail, and the injustices he has witnessed within the UK prison system. Noel went on to write A Rusty Gun: Facing Up To a Life of Crime in 2010 and now is about to launch his fourth book, The Criminal Alphabet.
We welcomed Noel to the YCN Library on the 9th of September, to present his own Reading List — six books that have shaped his life and education, both inside and outside of the penal system. Noel also shared some stories from his latest publication — and all books are now freely available for Members to borrow.
Born to Irish immigrants in 1960, Noel spent his childhood growing up in London around the areas of Balham and Holloway Road. He was first arrested for stealing apples and, after a series of run-ins, became severely disillusioned with the policing system and in his own words 'threw himself into crime'. At the age of 16 he appeared at the Old Bailey for armed robbery and possession of firearms and was sentenced to three years imprisonment. Making links with other influential prisoners while inside led to Noel becoming a professional criminal. He committed over 200 bank robberies and was given a 26 year sentence, of which he served 11 years, and he spent most of it reading.
A skilled and compelling storyteller with extraordinary stories to tell, Noel learnt to read out of boredom during a nine month stint in solitary confinement, and through the consideration and help of a Catholic priest. He became an avid reader, developing an earnest love of literature that eventually allowed him to leave his criminal life.
He was inspired to write out of frustration for the dire quality of the books available to him. Whilst imprisoned in HMP Dartmoor, Noel tried his hand at writing, and came second in a short story competition. He purchased a manual Oliveira typewriter, on which he later wrote his autobiography.
Writing also allowed Noel to make written complaints, which he found to were more effective than violent actions. He was released from prison in 1997, but was jailed for life shortly after his release on the two-strikes act, following a robbery spree. While free for this short time, he met author Will Self at a dinner party and the two exchanged details. Back inside in 1999, Noel sent a short story to Self and — although the feedback was positive — he was advised that until he changed his criminal ways, there would be no chance of a career in writing.
You Nice Bastard by G.F. Newman
Now a writer and producer for television, G.F. Newman’s novel is the second in a series of crime novels that star a rogue police detective, Terry Sneed. Imprisoned amongst other offenders, all under the age of 21, Noel read the book in prison. It was first time Noel read a novel that was about something that he knew.
Seeing it again for the first time last night, Noel found he didn’t recognise it’s racy cover. He soon realised why. A matron was employed at Borstal to cast her censorious eye across anything the inmates read or wrote, because of their young age. The supposedly unseemly subjects of G.F. Newman’s novel would never have been approved, and so the book — along with other titles including Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Last Exit to Brooklyn — were smuggled in, passed around and traded among the prison's avid readers. Known as 'floaters', their often raunchy covers were ripped off to prevent them from being identified as banned books. Noel got his hands on a copy for the hefty price of four roll ups.
On Broadway by Damon Runyon
Moral tales with great endings, sharp dialogue and characters with names like Nick the Greek and Gareth the Dude, Runyon’s collection of stories brings to life the 1950s world of guys and dolls.
American Tabloid by James Ellroy
Transporting his readers into a world of seedy reporters and celebrity scandal, Noel admires Ellroy as an author who can turn his hand to anything, and be believable.
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
Noel values Steinbeck as a great storyteller and a versatile author, writing books that variously consider life during the Dust Bowl and the American Depression, books about ne’er-do-wells up to no good, and books that are moving morality tales.
Steinbeck was the author that inspired Noel’s left-wing beliefs, shaping the political opinions that now imbue his writings, and drive his work at Inside Time. Steinbeck showed him that the world is not all fair, and taught him that you can be on one side or the other — but you have to take a side.
Noel also went on to share some stories from his upcoming book, A Criminal Alphabet. The unluckiest of his six novels, he lost the book twice — once by leaving his laptop on a train, and once through a memory stick that was wiped by an inopportunely-timed power cut.
Beginning as a 300,000 word dictionary, the project developed into a reference book for prison slang over the course of five years. Noel warns that the book is not for the faint-hearted and, despite its seemingly light-hearted format, the book is uncompromisingly frank in addressing the appalling and violent reality of a criminal life.
It's a point Noel addresses explicitly in his first book, A Few Kind Words and a Loaded Gun — the autobiography he was initially reticent to write. Dismissing the proliferation of criminal memoirs as “bullshit" — with the notable exception of Bruce Reynolds’ Autobiography of a Thief — Noel values authenticity and believability in the stories he writes, as well as the ones he reads. “To read these autobiographies, you’d think each of them had stole a million pounds and never been caught once,” Noel quips, deriding the dangerous glamourisation of crime that many of these stories advance. Noel only acquiesced to the appeals of his agent, author Will Self, to write his own autobiography in order to cover the costs of his son’s funeral. Determined to write a different story, he resolved instead to tell the truth. After all, he said, “there ain’t no glamour in crime.”
Location:72 Rivington St,
London, EC2A 3AY,
Start:9th September, 2015 at 6:30pm
End:9th September, 2015 at 8:00pm