Tunes from another time

Mike Guilfoyle
Saturday, 2 May 2020

I suppose it was almost inevitable when I was reading a recently published and presciently informed book on risk control in criminal justice, that two pertinent terms in particular, risk and existential uncertainty, resonated most uncomfortably with me in the current all enveloping coronavirus pandemic.

Whilst reading, I felt painfully constrained, thinking of whom I might include in this month’s post. To offset this anxiety, I decided to delve wistfully into some easy listening, mainly frothy, pop music hits from the 1980s online. As I was doing so I recognised the melodious voice and gimmicky backdrop of the singer in a particular video, who had subsequently passed through the portals of the probation office and whose supervision on licence I had undertaken.

Exuberance in the probation office

Berry (not his real name) entered the interview room at the probation office for our introductory meeting on his day of release from prison, having served a determinate sentence for offences of dishonesty. He impressed with his brashly exuberant manner, loud dress sense and his offbeat quizzical observations on the 'poor state of the probation office'. His tellingly honest comment, being 'looks like the place I have just spent twelve months trying to get out of'!’

I sensed that his period on licence would not present too many casework challenges. However, I had not fully reckoned with his frantic desire to prioritise his faltering music career after his 'involuntary' stay in one of Her Majesty’s Prisons. ‘Can we agree that you can ring me once in a while?' he uttered as he abruptly left the office, before I could fully familiarise Berry with the statutory expectations of his post-custodial supervision!

A probation officer's 'musical ear'

I deemed it appropriate to arrange a home-visit sooner rather than later in light of what I took to be his breezy indifference to reporting on a regular basis at the office. On arrival at his address, I recall a lengthy wait before Berry opened the door and, as he did so, he dashed into an adjoining room, beckoning me to follow. I was a little staggered at finding myself in his recording studio (but resisted the urge to ask him to play his signature tune!) preferring to listen to him 'mix' his sounds.

We began to discuss the meatier topic of how the licence could enable him to steer clear of some of his poor decisions and financial stressors that had resulted in his incarceration. But I was to be disappointed in this endeavour, as he asked me to proffer 'a critical musical ear' on what he termed his, as he tuned his mixing console, 'next big hit'!

When we next met up at the probation office, I had by then 'won over' his initial scepticism that I was not a 'tone deaf state agent'.  We were able to focus - before he started humming incessantly a chord that just might he declared be needed for a new ballad! - on some of the antecedent factors behind his offending.

'Old lags and after-care'

Mainly it was his loss of a recording contract that pushed him into heavy debt and resulted in a misguided criminal deception with its adverse newspaper headlines. Hence his desperation to ensure he was able to replicate his earlier chart success and keep the 'bank happy’. It was hard to argue that Berry's boundless energy and restored self-belief might reignite his return to pop stardom - albeit at the time, building on the legacy of a much played minor pop hit.

Berry did however startle me during one 'abridged supervision session' with one of his many memorable quips as his music career appeared to stutter along over the timeline of his licence, ‘I read a book when I was inside about what you lot do'! I was curious to know if it matched the reality. He continued, ‘Yes, well I only read the section on “Old lags and after-care” so doesn’t really apply to me'! I later tracked the quote from a very readable account of probation casework from 1961, Probation: the second chance, which is still in print.

Securing a better future

Berry's period on licence expired without further ado, although his attempts to rekindle earlier headline fame in the music industry seemed less than profitable. The criminologist Elliot Currie concludes his stand-out chapter in the edited collection linked above with a heartfelt plea for criminal justice interventions to help shape a better and more secure future.

So when I put down this scholarly tome and brushing aside my current apprehensive mind-set, I listened once again to Berry's 1980s feel good dance floor hit, it was just the kind of melodic after care I needed in these most challenging of times.

Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer