Two Wheels Good

‘Well, this is a first.’

Here I am on the start line of the final race of the day at Round 1 of the Scottish mountain bike cross country champs series  and all I can see in front of me are row upon row of riders.

Because I’m sat right at the back of the grid.

It’s been my first ‘gridding’ experience and it sure wasn’t like this when I last raced a mtb in anger – oh, about 25 years ago. This final race – mine – is made up of 5 categories: 

Elite Men & Women (insanely fast) 

Sport Men (stupidly fast) 

Junior Men & Women (see previous/could do with a square meal or six) 

Veteran Men (old guys the decade below me who are still frisky) 

…and Grand Vet Men (yep – you guessed it).

Riders are called in seeded order to the start area where they are arranged in rows of 3 from the start line backwards. The order is based on previous race results – where they exist – or the whim of the organisers. And clearly being English in Scotland with no form whatsoever means there’s only one place to put me – after the humiliation of having to wait while every other name is called (sigh).

I turn to the bloke next to me after we both catch each other looking behind just to check that we are indeed, the last:

‘You got the same strategy as me huh? Pick ‘em off one at a time…’

Family Mouncey had fled the building site that is our house at the moment and headed north towards Perth on a wet Friday evening before turning sharp left to end up here We’d visited twice previously and fallen a little in love with the Norwegian Kata accommodation – half wood half canvas tepee built around woodburner and sleeping platform – set in the old forest threaded by mountain bike trails.

‘A Mothers’ Day like you’ve never had before!’ I’d said to Mrs Mouncey as I’d handed her a race entry back in December – with one for the rest of us just so she didn’t feel left out.

I’ve seen her more appreciative, I have to say.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said ‘we have time to practice!’

Practice we did – though not really on the biking bit: The last few months have seen us head to crags and climbing walls as the new wholesome family activity of choice this winter. It’s been Joe our youngest who’s been riding most with his biking buddies: The rest of us? 

Not so much.

In my defence I’d had a plan for us all – and you know how that turned out – and for me in particular: Get A Coach.

Now, the regular readers among you will recall that my running had been curtailed at the end of last summer by the minor inconvenience of a broken ankle suffered – somewhat ironically – by fellracing. Autumn had been spent in repair and rehab and that meant lots strength-conditioning work with my toys in my garage. December rolled around and it was perfectly obvious that Mr Grumpy needed a new challenge: The prospect of returning to running silly long stuff still left me cold, and while the prospect of more silly short stuff got me hot my ankle was still not 100%.

Something else then.

I used to love my mtb racing: I was never any great shakes and I recall it being quite painful on lots of levels – but boy was it fun/hard/furious/satisfying. Those were the days when I could happily eat a packet of chocolate hob nobs with one pot of tea in one sitting and still sport ripped abs…

Yeah – some of that then.

I figured a few months biking focus would be good for the ankle and a fine foundation for a refreshed return to running. I set a goal to be on a start line by Easter and to be in shape enough to get round without looking and sounding like an arse. I wanted a test event a few weeks before Easter – Scotland, Mothers’ Day ‘cos we’ll need an escape from The Builders by then – well aware that the only way to really know where you’re actually at is to do as you plan to do before you plan to really do it. 

I also needed to keep it simple and that meant being told when and what to do by someone who knew what they were talking about and who got me too.

My work at the time was a huge mental and emotional ask which meant I just didn’t have the energy beans to figure my own stuff out as well. I just needed to contract that out and be told – so that’s what I did.

The Cunning Plan said a January start would put me in Scotland with 10 weeks training under my wheels. That plan quickly collided with Real Life in the shape of a respiratory infection which meant I couldn’t do any meaningful training till mid-Feb – which put me at my test event with a mighty 4 weeks training (cringe).

Well this should be interesting/humiliating/painful (delete as).

By 2pm that afternoon family precedents had been well and truly set: Mrs Mouncey had finished smiling and intact, and Joe had also handled his biggest competitive challenge in his 13 years with some style. Over to you then, Dad…

AND f**k me if everyone didn’t just shoot off at the (loooong uphill) start!

I mean, I expected most people to shoot off – but surely I could stay with some? Couldn’t I?

Er, no.

It took me 400m (halfway up the climb) to catch the bloke in front. 

400m to do an emergency reframe of some of my goals, lower the bar and be at peace with all that. 

400m to continue to piloting my steed, keep my effort-emotions under control and trying not to translate the shouts of support for this tail-end Charlie into good-natured patronising ribbing for the slow bloke at the back, (bless him).

And my bar was set pretty low to start with ‘cos hey, I’d only gone and chosen a national series event (?!), I’m really rusty and have done a whole 4 weeks training. On the plus side was that I knew there’d be a bunch of people who would not finish for various reasons, whereas I had a good engine and could outlast most people if I were smart in the early stages and managed not to wrap myself round a tree. So:

  1. Get round without breaking anything body or bike.
  2. Hold the lap times with a minute of each other – that means start EASY/at the back and increase effort as race progresses.
  3. Don’t be shit/bring shame on your House.

400m in and I congratulate myself on having already achieved Goal 2 Part 2: I have indeed started at the back!

After that it was, I suppose, a chance to practice the skills of enjoying the new and novel dimensions of a familiar experience:

Being lapped by the top boys and girls / meant I could watch the best at work.

Being passed by the top boys and girls on twisty-gaspy singletrack / meant I got to practice how-when to do that so that we both could keep riding.

Having space to ride in rather than a competitive ding-dong / meant I got to do more of my thing my way.

Having Family Mouncey in support (and time-space to appreciate ‘em).

The last lap rolled around and I still hadn’t had a major spill. All that was left was to empty the tank over the next 20mins, staying upright-ish and think clearly while my legs – and family - did their screaming thing. 

Sometime later Dad did indeed finish intact having held a consistent pace and - according to those that know about these things – distinguished himself and his House with honour.


Why. So. Serious?*

My current in-prison work with elderly and disabled men has been a bumpy ride.

Now in this line of work bumps come with the territory but, y’know, there are bumps – and there are bumps. It’s been successful on many levels with some notable personal and professional firsts – one of which was securing permission to bring a professional photographer inside . 

Now obviously there are rules about photos and prison and one of those is ‘No Faces’ – so the only face captured is mine. This was the first time I’d seen my behind-bars work through someone else’s eyes and I found the images fascinating – but something felt off. 

Then the penny dropped:

I am not smiling in any shot.

Now our photographer assured me that there are shots of me in there looking radiant – just not in the Top 50 he sent me.


This is highly unusual and prompted me to have a word or six with myself.

Something that took way more thinking, sharing and writing than I’d figured.

Inevitably, this is a tale of Compound & Cumulative: Many factors combining to affect me over time in what were/are extraordinary post-pandemic circumstances in our prisons.

So while the experience is mine and is time and place-specific, there may be stuff you recognise from your world too.

Which means if my stuff can help your stuff this is indeed a worthwhile post.

Plan v Reality

Now I have a whole bundle of goodies in my personal and professional toolbox that helps me manage my mood when the universe throws me a curve and then decides to keep throwing.

Sometimes the lid still comes off despite these measures and I go into safety-salvage mode:

Lower the bar to ‘just good enough’

Avoid risk, conflict and generally withdraw

Revert to reactive-rehearsed-safe

Such was the case right at the end of this project.


Extended Solo Working In A Challenging Environment

It took 5 months from the award of funding to starting the work.

That’s 5 months of stop-start meetings, visits, phone calls, prep work as managers and staff blew hot and cold. This meant I was passed around till I found a need I could meet with a team that wanted my help and could make it happen.

I’d also lost my pre-Covid in-house advocate and fixer’: Someone who was alongside me throughout prep and delivery who had the inside knowledge to direct me and to troubleshoot with ease.

This time there was a mental and emotional toll before I even got to the start line – though the bastard was in stealth mode which meant I hadn’t noticed and no-one else close to me had either.

Intimate-Intensive Experience    

I work in a deliberately intimate way the better to establish a human-emotional connection the better to give the people I’m working with a reason to take action. 

I design my programs to be the direct opposite to a normal prison regime for the same reason. This is a challenge to enact in a stable environment – which this certainly wasn’t.

I adopt an inherently hopeful position that the person in front of me can and could move forward to do more/be better – and I was engaged to do just that in this work.

Compartmentalisation was crucial with these men because the following was also true:

They looked like my grandad – but they were inside for a reason. 

They were physically incapacitated which was hard to witness – but could do and be so much more (and many did by the program end). 

They had learned to be reticent, withdrawn – but many were also skilled manipulators.

So I was giving a lot and having to keep stuff in multiple boxes that didn’t seem to stack well together. Neither was I getting much back to reassure me that my program content was landing right – and lacking my fixer-advocate to check-challenge then and there.

Limited Feedback

Much of body language was absent and lingering afterwards to chat rarely happened.

This is unusual with my stuff.

Most men did not speak openly in a group – if any hint of conflict they’d quickly withdraw which could involve actually leaving the room.

I did handshakes, first names and eye contact religiously but all other tactile signals to go with e.g. celebrating success I considered a step too far. By program end I was getting some reciprocation but only in a few.

Many were on medication which affected their capacity to signal engagement, and many struggled with cognitive capacity – manifest in poor level of reading, writing, concentration.

This all meant that I was missing many of the normal signals of engagement and comprehension – even though the men were physically present – and what signals I had I wondered how much was a function of medication and, well…

Was the response I was getting genuine? 

How to know for sure?

Which meant that I was continually accumulating questions and by end of program had more questions about these men than I had answers.

Except I also had connections with many that felt warm and in the outside world would be called blossoming friendships.

WTF?? Ask the audience?

Extra Emotional Impact         

I was moved by the levels of physical, mental and emotional disfunction – many were frail and seemingly without hope, had limited agency and physiological function. 

And I was also acutely aware that there was a ton of other stuff I wasn’t seeing.

Given the ‘limited feedback/way more questions’ situation it was – unexpectedly - the recorded audio interviews at end of program that provided answers. The interviewees spoke - I believe - from the heart about life inside and the impact of this work. 

Capturing feedback this way was a first for me but it was clearly a right way for this group – reticent to speak openly in public – but by joining some of the dots it added to the emotional impact of the work and strengthened human connections right at the end.

The irony that this work has been funded by NHS from a post-Covid mental health pot is not lost on me. And I’m OK – really - richer for the experience, made some changes to my own stuff and will be pitching hard and smart for support to develop this work. 

‘Cos I love my work and I recognise that this is a rare privilege.

It’s also a reminder yet again of Some Fundamental Truths:

The world is messy.

People are complex.

And compartments can leak.

*Blatently borrowed from the late-great Heath Ledger’s demonic Joker in The Dark Knight.

Further Reading

Older people in prison trends prison and probation

The Difficulty With Disruptive

…is that one can be – how shall I put this – Disruptive.

‘Too disruptive’ means folks just walk off taking their balls with them.

‘Too disruptive’ means yours truly is left on the field holding his…


In my defence it hasn’t got quite as bad as that, but on Day 2 with Group 1 from my Vulnerable Prisoner unit I was indeed staring at half the group I started with and there were rumblings of rebellion in the air.

This was somewhat of a surprise as to my mind I’d lowered the bar significantly and appropriately. (FFS!) I’d spent bloomin’ hours on the unit prior to this point getting to know the people, the place and what normal looked like – and bloomin’ hours at home planning and scheming. 

And lowering the bar.

And lowering the bar.

And here we are and they’re telling me – via very polite spokesman – that Day 1 was…

Too long.

Too hard.

Don’t like it that we can’t do this.

Don’t like it that we have to do that.

But we did actually really enjoy it / getting out of cell / doing something different / doing something different together.

But it’s too long.

And too hard.


I feel somewhat conflicted ‘cos on the one hand it’s really not supposed to be a walk in the park or like anything they’re used to – and I know from previous work that people wobble after the first day, grit their teeth through the middle bit but then come around at the end.

So it’s beholden on me to just hold the line – right? 

‘Cos nothing worthwhile comes easy – right?

On the other hand attendance is voluntary, some are choosing to come here over work time that they are paid for and many of them do have a sleep early afternoon.

Yes, really.

(There we were 1pm Day 1 and I can see Bob nodding off in his chair right infront of me. The inspirational speaker part of me was most affronted until everyone reassured me this was all perfectly normal. Three times in the next few minutes we had to give him a wee nudge).

But here’s the clincher for men like these: 

So Bloomin’ What??

Most are in their twilight years with very limited physical and mental capacity, little hope of doing much about that and well, little hope at all really. Whatever I know to be true about neuro-elasticity and ‘Use It Or Lose It’ means very little to men who have only known their capacities and world to be one where shrinkage is normal and inevitable.

Most have spent years and decades perfecting the skills of withdrawing, doing least with less and have rituals and habits to this end that have the strength of blood rites.

My ability to position this gig and sell the benefits in a way they recognise and that is credibly realistic is only part of the battle: The other part is that it - and they - have to be robust enough to withstand the Rock Throwers.

‘Cos there are always people who love to throw rocks from the safety of the side lines.

Just ‘cos they like throwing rocks without those rocks coming back at them.

Social media is rife - but a place like this is arguably even worse because…

There’s no off button.

There’s no escape.

There’s no volume control.

Which means you have to have some serious shields up and deflection strategies running and to put up with that s**t until the benefits are clear even to the naysayers.

And all this in a place where hope and resilience seem out of reach for so many men. 

So while it does feel like I’m in a pretty pickle I also have two things going for me:

Half are still here and at least half-smiling.

The other half are still talking to me albeit from a distance and via a proxy.

If I’m thinking clearly I’ll also remember that this is not about me or my arbitrary Line Of Difficulty. Which means a handful of (yet more) changes to the what-how-when of the programme - assuming they can be made to stick operationally - are not an act of surrender by me but one that could well be enough to persuade my rebels to return.

For positive ‘moving towards’ reasons.

Which is more or less what happens over the next few days.

Another thing that happens over the next few days is that I discover how low the bar really is and what that actually means for my content and delivery.

They start to talk to me about slips and stumbles and falls that dump them on the floor of their 8x 4’ cell and unable to get up again. That may be ‘cos they are trapped under/around furniture, are stranded on their back turtle-style unable to turn and/or are just too big and weak and struggling for breath in a cramped space to do anything except lie there slowly blacking out.

We recreate the layout of a cell in our activity space and the more able ones show me. Look: This is how we get stuck. 

We somehow manage to get our biggest specimen – probably north of 18 stone - safely on the deck so I can really see what Wedged really looks like. We have men on crutches and sticks in this group and in wheelchairs too, and all pitch in with their own versions of what is clearly a nightmare and very real scenario. 

These mainly timid and withdrawn men are by now really animated as we have clearly hit a nerve that I belatedly realise I should have seen coming. I discovered early on that most struggle to stand out of a chair - but more importantly most had never been shown how to do that efficiently either.

So that night I work on my ‘Un-Stuck Scenarios’ pulling together efficient movement patterns from elite sport, safe movement skills from rock climbing and breathing patterns from weightlifting.

And I teach them how to move and breathe to get themselves un-stuck from the floor in a variety of positions. I teach them how to get into the recovery position - because sometimes all else will fail - and I coach them in how to do that for others.

Because the question that reveals how low the bar is for these men is this one: ‘Can you get up from the floor today?’

Beware: Bias 

This is not an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:

Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered (unpaid) at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. Doors open-close/bids 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot delivered HMP Stafford (unpaid) 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship from Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding awarded for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: Three programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation supports the governor work

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working online with deputy governors and governor PAs 

2022 March: Secure NHS funding to re-start in-prison work

2022 Oct: In-prison work finally re-starts HMP Wymott Vulnerable Prisoners

Forgotten Few

This is not an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is what you need to know:

This is what you should know about what I think about crime-punishment:

Forgotten Few

It was supposed to be easier this time around. (see earlier blog Putting The Band Back Together)

But September rolled around and I had still not managed to re-start my work in prison with folks on the other side of the bars.

And I’ve had funding from NHS to do just that since April.

Trust me I’ve tried – oh yes by crikey I’ve tried.

Because it felt like theft I’d checked back at least twice along the lines of:

‘Er, you know that money you gave me back in Easter? Well, I really am trying to find a way to spend it on what we agreed I’d spend it on but so far…

You OK that I’m still sitting on it?’

Bless ‘em they were and are because what I was telling them about my experience of bashing my head against a brick wall this time around chimed with what they were finding too: Usual system chaos ramped up to Number 11 by a post-Covid staff crisis – namely that lots of the recently recruited new young ones are leaving.*

Which means a successful day reduces down to covering just the essential functions.

Which means that people like me – easy to dismiss as ‘non-essential’ – become one ball too many in the great game of keepy-upy.

‘Cos the reality is that I need the presence and support of staff to do what I do in the way that I do it in there. It’s a bit out of the ordinary and requires a touch of operational stretch.

So ‘we’ve not got enough staff’ can be both true and a smokescreen to hide behind – if you’re a disciple of the Church of Learned Helplessness.

I really didn’t expect to have to sell this thing all over again either.

My path to re-start had been further broken by two other changes: New staff in roles that mattered to me and my stuff, and my key staff advocate moved to a new more distant role.

The loss of the latter made me realise how much he’d flown the flag at ground level for us and generally oiled the wheels. Sh** was just way easier with him on board and his loss meant more unexpected hard yards for me.

I was pissed ‘cos it felt like I’d earned my stripes with the pre-Covid work – and here I was being given short thrift in short order.


Before this descends into full rant let’s bring you right up to date:

As I write I am deep into pre-start work with the Elderly & Disabled men – known as the Vulnerable Prisoner group. ‘Vulnerable’ because they are old and frail and need help to look after themselves even at a basic level, and/or Vulnerable because they are at risk from other men in the prison.

Because of the nature of their offences.

This group is also the fastest growing population in our prisons in part because prosecutions have been catching up with crimes committed 10-20-30 years ago and more.

They are housed in a prison within the prison that sounds, looks and feels quite different:

It’s very quiet with very little movement.

Everywhere is clean and neat – ‘one careful owner’ comes to mind.

The pace is slow, staff are measured and operationally it feels very therapeutic.

And yet here be monsters.

There are indeed men here who have been convicted of truly horrific crimes – which means I have a choice to make.

Do I choose to see the monstrosity or the potential for something else/better?

And that’s also a stretch because there are men here with sentences longer than their expected lifespan.

It’s also an illusion because the reality is that this is not a simple binary choice about the perspective I hold: I need to be able to hold both because (a) reality is always more shades of grey than black and white and (b) there are men here who are very good at hiding world class manipulation skills behind a friendly face. So I need my wits alongside my compassion.

By now the support system I run to keep me where I need to be for this work is well developed. By no means bomb-proof but seems to repair well after saturation:

I choose to see a human being with potential

I use first names and make eye contact

I use open questions

I never ask after the offence

If the offence is offered I’ll listen – and that’s all I’ll do

I make sure I exercise before I end my day

I have people I can talk to if I’m really caught in a loop

And remember that the world is messy and people are complex.

*15% of prison officers left the service last year - half had been in post for less than 3 years and a quarter in post for less than a year (Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefing summer 2022)

Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered (unpaid) at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. Doors open-close/bids 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot delivered HMP Stafford (unpaid) 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship from Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding awarded for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: Three programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation supports the governor work

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working online with deputy governors and governor PAs 

2022 March: Secure NHS funding to re-start in-prison work

2022 Oct: In-prison work finally re-starts HMP Wymott Vulnerable Prisoners

More Than A Matter Of Faith

Beware! Bias Below

Just because I do my homework doesn’t mean this is an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is where I’m coming from and where I’m going:

For the sake of clarity this is what you should know about what I think:

Many parts of our justice system need wholesale reform - and yet there are good people doing great work in almost impossible circumstances.

More Than A Matter Of Faith

It’s all too easy to get lost in yer own bull**** and believe that 10 years’ experience of anything will give you a rounded appreciation not only of the black and white bits but all the shades of grey as well.


I’d been aware for a while that my experience of prison and the people in it was a reflection of me – white, English as a first language, brought up in a Christian family. And with some exceptions my first 10 years has indeed been mainly white, mainly English, etc.

Now there are lots of reasons/excuses for that all of which you might let lie if it wasn’t for the fact that this does not reflect the proportionality and the diversity of our prison population:

27% are from a minority ethnic group – the largest being Black or Black British (13%) followed by Asian or Asian British (8%) – and this proportion is way in excess of that found in our society in general.

(And there are reasons/excuses for that too).

There are people identifying right across the range of religious denominations and non-faith practices.

Which makes my experience to date somewhat skewed and with some great gaping holes - and a Chaplaincy service of a prison very busy indeed dealing as they do with both pastoral and faith-based care for people on both sides of the bars.

This means that the Chaplaincy team get to experience pretty much everything from pretty much anyone at pretty much anytime. And THIS meant that if I really was serious about broadening my outlook there really was only one place and one group of people to hang around with.


So here’s me hanging in the heart of a prison at 8am with the Chaplain, Iman and two others from the team debating the similarities and differences between Gypsy and Traveller – and the operational ripple effect if there are both in a prison (which there are here).

At this point dear reader, you need to park any preconceptions you may have of a prison Chaplin as a mild, diminutive older man or woman wafting around in the wings. There are indeed those who appear mild and diminutive but you should not for a second make the mistake of assuming that what you see on the outside is a reflection of what is inside.

Inside is usually steel forged through the challenge of staying true to self and faith through decades of real life and real stuff. 

Many of the team I’m with today cut their teeth in gang-ridden Young Offender Institutions where a good day was one where everyone went to bed with their insides still on the inside.

These people have been around the block and then some – essential when you are in the relationship-building business.

This team – there are nearly a dozen to cover each of the denominations represented in this prison – have created a green oasis at the heart of the compound. Well, the work was actually done by the men but what came from that was deep sense of ownership. 

There is open sky, grass, parkland features and animals: It’s neutral ground with its own rules that are strictly enforced. What animals there are are small and in cages or enclosures – the men here can identify with that, I’m told - it makes them smile. 

I’d have a whole zoo if I could’ the Chaplain tells me, and he doesn’t have to elaborate:

Pets As Therapy

It’s a (positive) distraction

It’s a way of practicing the skills of cause and effect and of caring for others

It’s a responsibility to be earned and cherished

It’s a full sensory experience with no strings and no hidden agenda

Fresh eggs.

And so on.

Respite Care

‘High maintenance’ individuals are to be found in most cases where groups of humans come together and prison is no exception: There are a small number of people who suck up a high level of support and attention – except that in here the cost of getting the play-along v ignore balance wrong could be way worse than the adult equivalent of a bawling toddler tantrum. Sometimes the staff just need a break and when they do it’s the Chaplaincy team that step in. Which is why we have one such individual brought down to us after a cry for help from the staff who look after one of the wings housing around 100 men.

Eyes are collectively rolled because it’s one of the Usual Suspects. The Chaplain leans over trying very hard to project gravitas over a building grin:

‘This’ll be a good one for you Andy – one of our more complex individuals…’

I suspect a set-up but whatcha gonna do?!?

Which is why I come to spend the next hour with the Iman being ranted at almost continuously by a man-mountain transmitting grievance after grievance at maximum force permitted under Chaplaincy Rules.

It’s probably the most intense active listening I’ve ever done to what is actually quite a remarkable diatribe: One outstanding grievance articulated and framed in multiple ways repeated continually and keeping just to the right side of polite.

When the torrent does abate I throw in a few tried and tested re-frame questions to put the responsibility for a solution back to our guest.

And get absolutely nowhere.

I very quickly come to the conclusion that this guy is absolutely fine: It’s just that I am in the presence of a master-manipulator who clearly loves an audience. 

So we give him what he wants and one hour later we all shake hands and he shuffles off to no doubt take up where he left off back on his wing.

The Chaplain can barely keep the grin down and I file that under ‘Taking One For The Team.’

Meet & Greet

The team make it their business to be among the first people a new arrival will encounter. People are sent here either from the courts to start their sentence or they are transferred from another prison. They come in an almost windowless van and step out to be almost always greeted by a collection of the current residents gathered to watch the new faces.

Entertainment: Y’all got to get it how you can.

After that is a very official process-driven welcome to which the team add their own touch of warmth to an experience that to my eyes at least seems very cold.

I sit in on six of these new arrival receptions – after explanations of my status and asking permission – as the Chaplaincy member conducts what seems to me to be an emotional and religious needs analysis from a standard list. 

The young men in question are displaying right across the spectrum from clear signs of stress to seemingly relaxed and comfortable.  

The encounters take as little as what seems like two minutes to perhaps three times that – and I’m struck by the brevity. It’s also impossible not to be moved by what I’m witnessing. That’s also clearly the case for the Chaplaincy team too: Lord know how many times my host has done this duty but it’s clear from her reaction that it still really matters – and who from our six she has already marked as more ‘at risk’ and needing faster follow-up than the others.

There was of course much more to the day that did much to un-block my ears and let some of the scales fall from my eyes.

Professionally, there was much I recognised from the coaching-training-theraputic skill set. Personally, I was moved by what I witnessed from a group of people bringing some much needed humanity to what can look and feel like a very cold process in a very stark environment where the concept and practice of hope remains elusive for many.

You can read more about the work of a Chaplaincy team here


Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

2012 First invitation to a Category C prison. Project pulled pre-start 

2013 First short pilot delivered (unpaid) at a Cat D prison

2014-16 More testing – more pilots – still no ££

2016 RFYL Conception. Doors open–doors close-funding bids/rejected

2017 RFYL Community Interest Company formed. Doors open-close/bids 

2018 Doors open–close/bids etc: Getting boring now. Still no ££

2019 March: Second Proof Of Concept pilot delivered HMP Stafford (unpaid) 

2019 June: First corporate sponsorship from Kebbell Homes

2019 Dec: First paid work secured HMP Wymott, Theraputic Community

2020 March: Covid19 pandemic hits - work stops as prisons enter lockdown

2020 June: Start online coaching supporting prison governors as prisons stay shut

2021 January: First funding awarded for Covid19 response work HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 March: Three programs delivered in semi-lockdown HMP/YOI Brinsford

2021 Sept: Second corporate sponsor PwC Foundation supports the governor work

2021 Dec: Prisons revert to almost full lockdown as Omicron variant hits

2022 Feb: Start working online with deputy governors and governor PAs 

2022 March: Secure NHS funding to re-start prison work

The Numbers

Funding Bids Written & Rejected: 37

Funding Bids Successful: 2

Times I’ve Honestly Thought About Quitting: 4 

Times My Wife Has Given Me Permission To Quit: 2Times My Wife Has Really Meant It: 1


Apologies to those of you who were waiting for the almost annual epistle that is my Lakeland 100 report. After last years’ kicking  and 5 previous outings I’d decided a long time ago that me and L100 need to take time out so we can grow as er, people(?!).

At least until 2026 when I turn 60.

My spring marathon in Manchester had proved an equally joyless affair h so mindful that I’m in this running thing by choice for a cute butt er, the fun and challenge of it, I’d quickly chosen a return to my first love, (the fells) and dedicated a summer to racing *short stuff I’d either never done before or hadn’t done in decades – and given I’d done my first fellrace as a teenager this gave me, oh around 40 years to play with.

*Meaning races where the winners take 10-30mins and us mere mortals somewhat longer – ‘cos the top boys and girls are SCARY FAST.

Fellracing – for the uninitiated - has its origins in the Victorian era and takes place in the mountains of the north of England and in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Traditionally part of a country show – along with wrestling, sprints, track cycling and trail hound racing – many of these still remain and have grown to a day out for the family of national renown.

Or they simply start and finish from a pub.

Skiddaw, Lake District

For the runner it can look like this

For the spectator - this

While over the years technology has inevitably encroached – entries online are here to stay but a GPS watch remains verboten - the key features of the sport remain unchanged: For a few quid on the day you can line up with the best in the sport to see who can run up and down the mountain in the fastest time without getting too lost and/or breaking something important on the descent.

This then, was the world I threw myself back into after I’d finished moping after Manchester with the comforting familiarity akin to pulling on that favourite old sweatshirt. 

It starts on the drive in as you start to clock that the average size of the drivers around you have dropped from the new national average – XXL – to positively slim and glowingly gaunt. Like growing up in the 70’s when the majority had enough food and no more.

Registration is typically a room in a pub or a tent in a field and the paper notices nearby giving various bits of info about the race can all be summarized thus: No Dickheads.

Most people know some people – tis a small niche world, this particular one – and even if you don’t at the start you’ll be chatting to the folks that finished around you at the finish. 

I’d been out of the scene for a bit and while I recognise faces it’s not often I’ll approach cold. Part is because I’m a raging introvert at heart and part is because I find it enough just to be immersed in it all: People are welcoming without throwing high-fives everywhere, we’re in the Big Outside and the buzz is familiar and comforting even when I have pre-race jitters. And I like the fact that a simple low key environment is a showcase for some extraordinary athletic performances.

Warm up rituals are many and varied and range from highly technical-straight out of a coaching manual, to throwing weird shapes a la Saturday Night Fever or plain just nothing at all. Race briefing happens on the start line and is a variation of the registration message: (Please) Don’t Be A Dickhead. Then someone says ‘Go!’ and we go.

Because it’s short and sweet I’m usually gasping by 30seconds and blowing out my arse by 60. Fortunately so are most people around me unless they are cool enough to be playing the pacing game. Most of us most of the time are keeping it simple: Go off as hard as you dare and hold on for as long as you can. Sometimes it’s an uphill start which means you’re straight into arse-blowing phase – sometimes it’s a short run out which means you get to be on your chinstrap before the climbing starts. 

‘Tis the gift that keeps on giving.

Historically my descending has been stronger than my climbing so I went to work on reducing the difference. Over the course of 10 races in a 3 month campaign I got to a point where I could hold my position on the up stuff. Actually passing people was due to come next. Or would have done if not for what happened next.

Running relatively fast – not prettily – down the mountain has always been a strength. I do train for it but for some reason I’ve always been able to do it and can reliably make up time and places. This has been most noticeable when I’ve raced ultras in the mountains as the field is made up of way less fellrunners and way more long distance runners. Yet even on the short stuff I can do a passable impression of a falling stone – which is fine when everything goes right, and awfully wrong when something goes wrong.

Which it did Aug 13th during the fast and furious up-down blast that is the race from Arncliffe village in the Yorkshire Dales: In mid-falling stone mode with probably no more than 90 seconds ‘Just Hold The F**k On!’  left to run to the finish, my left foot hit a hole, stopped, while every other bit of me kept going forwards fast.

I heard the bone pop as the earth exploded up and smacked me in the head.

Helped off the fell and hobbled to the finish by which time my ankle was a balloon.

The drive home was interesting to say the least – as was the rest of the evening.

An x-ray the following morning confirmed a clean break to the fibula - smaller of the two leg bones – just below the ankle joint. 

My first bone break in 40 years of training and racing.

I’d got lucky, apparently: The ligaments stretched but held – I blessed my foot strengthening routines – and the fact that the break was below the ankle bone was a good thing. A break above would be surgery and a long and uncertain rehab, they told me. 

Just to prove this absolutely wasn’t one of those, three days later I hopped on my bike to check.

Fell-Racing: The clue’s in the title.

Putting The Band Back Together 2

It seems that getting together in the flesh remains a novelty.

Notwithstanding the fact that I’m writing this on July 19th as Britain turns to mush in a heatwave - which means a hefty proportion of our esteemed citizens default to the national baseline of wearing (and burning) flesh and not much else – work colleagues have been generally used to Covid-induced remoteness rather than proximity.

This means that whatever the client gives you in a smart, measurable outcomes brief for a corporate away day gig the bottom line, dear Workshop Lead, is this: We just want to enjoy being back together again in one place, OK?


Just make sure you give us the insightful, bespoke learning-by-stealth stuff as well though.


Such was my responsibility with Active Lancashire 

recently who were getting their 50 or so senior folks together for the first time in bloomin’ ages at a rather delightful venue in the Lancashire hills

Managing the attraction of the resident Farmers Llamas proved an unexpected challenge, but hey -you just gotta play with what’s in front of you, right? 

The afternoon was squared away with Ye Ole Skool Sports Day which put me as the extended warm up act in the morning. ‘Emotional Resilience*’ is a pretty broad church but the difference this year is that I’ve found myself being asked to present this in the context of Covid, hybrid working and the so-called new world of work for which the rule books are being frantically written (and re-written). 

*What I Think This Means: How to behave and think in order to feel more in control of more of your sh** for more of the time.

This is because we’ve all been on the receiving end of a forced experience which means the precedents and learned good practice are playing frantic catch up. Right now there are still way more shades of grey here than black and white.

This is great for someone like me who is blissfully happy with shades of grey ‘cos it gives me a licence to go digging and be creative and then present with a floursh the Complex Made Simple solutions.

And I really like being my own boss.

Not so good for folks who like certainty – or leaders who are tasked to choose just what should actually be black, white or grey in this forced new workplace realty AND get their people to buy it.

Given that I make my living positioned as a so-called expert in my chosen fields it has been beholden on me to seriously figure out some stuff on stuff I’ve never had to seriously figure out before in all my decades of hopping in and out of boardrooms, classrooms and team away day er, rooms:

Help – my staff want to stay working from home!

Help – my staff want to come back to work!

Overwhelm: How the f**k did that happen so easily?

Overwhelm: Why the f**k is it so damn difficult to get out of?

Silo remote working and the Collapse Of Workplace Culture

Chain of Command v Chain of Communication

How do I take the temperature if I’m not physically walking the floor?

I know what they’re telling me – but how do I really know (what they feel)?

Sacrificed on the alter of remote working: Innovation & Creativity

We can’t actually re-write our rules – can we?

Trust me, there’s way more!

Safe to say the full answers are all very much a Work In Progress – except the problems are real and pressing right now which means WIP is no good to the people who are tasked to wrestle with this and at least get it in a temporary headlock.

So: Back to basics – and that ‘give us a good time’ brief.

Photo by Steve Wiley, Active Lancashire
Photo by Steve Wiley, Active Lancashire
Photo by Steve Wiley, Active Lancashire
Photo by Steve Wiley, Active Lancashire

Photos of my extended warm up by Steve Wiley, Active Lancashire

Putting The Band Back Together

Beware! Bias Below

Just because I do my homework doesn’t mean this is an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is where I’m coming from and where I’m going:

For the sake of clarity this is what you should know about what I think:

Putting The Band Back Together

Putting The Band Back Together

It’s like we’ve never been away – except I have while the 6 men in front of me have experienced two years of Covid-enforced incarceration the like of which you and I can barely comprehend.

33 men went through my program at HMP Wymott before prisons went into lockdown in March 2020 and here in May 2022 only 8 remain – others have been moved or released - and 7 are with me now for the first time in a room together. 

Handshakes are firm, eye contact is steady, the volume is verging on boisterous – and everyone’s grinning like a loon.

I’ve brought the graduation group photos from the program - in which everyone’s grinning like a loon – that prompts a bout of high-volume reminiscing. 

It’s f**in’ JOYOUS is what it is.

I’m not sure what I expected but I’m fairly certain JOY didn’t feature, and it’s not lost on me that today I’ve had to come to a prison to find it. And to my eyes they all look remarkably good – ripple effect from smiley faces notwithstanding.

The stories tumble out:

The last 2 years? ‘Lost, exhausting, a rollercoaster…’

What’s stuck with you since we were together?

What’s helped?

How are you different now?

Most are exercising regularly – hardly anyone was 2 years ago and PE is the only activity that’s available to all now with all other prison activities still under some Covid-restrictions.

All talk about the bond that now exists between them and how knowing someone else gives a damn has been a lifeline. Someone thanks me for my letter – I wrote to all 33 during the first year and still have no idea if they got through the chaos or how they were received – which prompts a round of agreement and heartfelt thanks.

I swallow hard: Christ, it actually worked then…

And more people are clearly taking more control of their own shit more of the time – and that time has been one when the few choices they did have were drastically reduced.

A few minutes later Number 7 burst in high as a kite after his first family visit in over 2 years. I remember him not saying much when he was with us – his work ethic did the talking – but now he’s gabbing away ten to the dozen.

As I said: JOY.

Eventually we get down to business – and someone somewhere has leaked ‘cos remarkably some of them already know:

We’re putting the band back together!

A few short days after my previous ‘This Is Not A Test’ post I got news of my first ever contract award – this one from NHS to re-start and develop my in-prison work. 

Yes, really.

This milestone has taken me 10 years - that’s a DECADE, people! - while courting the NHS has taken nearly two. 

It gives me a year to have a good run at this and clearly timing has played a part. 

Inspection, reform and campaigning groups continue to sound alarm bells at the situation facing our 80,000 people on the inside. 

Here’s the latest from the Howard League focusing on young people

Easy to read stuff like this and - after the rage has subsided - feel swamped, flap about madly and wonder how on earth more people aren’t killing themselves and each other. (The answer is more women are at risk of trying* while keeping people in-cell for up to 23hrs/day is remarkably effective at keeping the peace**).  

The challenge as ever remains:

How to start simply, to maximum effect in the shortest time for the least effort – and this is why I am here with these blokes today.

‘I can do all that’ I’d said to the senior prison folks as we sketched out the re-start plan, ‘ And I can do it easier and faster if we involve the graduates from my pre-lockdown programs as peer mentors. ‘Anyone left?’

My Magnificent Seven.

Read More



Timeline RFYL CIC

You think it’s hard breaking out of prison? You want to try breaking in: 

The Numbers

Marathon Man

Yours truly did indeed toe the line at the Manchester race earlier this month – my first big city marathon.

Here’s some stuff that stood out:

3-2-1-Go -THROW!

It took about 15mins to walk from the place that looked after your change bag (while you were out doing the business) to the start line. And then you were still shy of the actual Start: That was reserved for the speedy racing snakes – the rest of us mere mortals were stacked behind in our pens that were graded by our (usually optimistic) anticipated finish time. 

If I looked back behind me at the rest of the 20,000 folks who also thought this was a good way to spend a Sunday it was a column of humanity as far as the eye could see.

All freezing our bits off as we endured the long wait from arriving at our allotted place to actually starting this thing.

Because it was right chilly! 

The solution was not a compulsory mass aerobics shouty dance-off led by aging 90’s icon Derek Evans, but to be clad in toasty outerwear that you’d be happy to give away.

The organisers had placed a team of athletic Clothes Catchers either side of the start line whose job it was the receive garments thrown at them by passing runners and bundle the items ready to go to local charities. 

You could spot those runners who’d done this before clad as they were in anything big, fluffy and badly fitting but smiling the smug smile of the righteously toasty. This meant a shower of garments would erupt out of the jostling throng in a hopeful trajectory sidewards as the start pens were released. Genius!

Lost In Translation

The cheer of choice among the metropolitan masses these days appears to be the ubiquitous ‘You Got This!’ - capital letters do indeed apply – or the equally popular ‘You’re Smashing It!’ (see previous). 

Now I’ve never really wet my pants in excitement over either of these but I can tell you that they are somewhat removed from the chorus directed at you if you are racing in the more rural hillier parts of this fair isle. To wit:

‘Gerron wi’ eet’ (Get thee on about thy business, sir - exclamation mark optional)

‘Ahreet’ (You are doing just fine – get thee on about thy business etc etc)

‘Aye.’ (Well met indeed – you are doing just fine – get thee about thy business etc etc).

And as for the volume – well.

‘Gotta hand it to the locals though because there were very few parts of the route that were unsupported and we went through many parts of the city where crowds looked to be 10 deep at least. It was all quite a culture clash.

Clearly I need to get out more.

Who Is That Guy?

It took me 7miles to figure out who the ‘Come On Andy!’ cheers were for.

‘There’s an awful lot of Andy’s around me’, I thought as I passed through yet another chorus.


Written under my race number in big friendly letters pinned to my front was indeed my first name put there by race organisation so that the crowds could get personal with me and my 19,999 companions. Eventually I clocked where the meaningful eye contact was directed and the penny dropped – and I spent the next mile feeling suitably embarrassed.

‘Senior moment…

People Power

Rounding a corner at around mile 20 there is a girl of about eight holding out a big homemade cardboard sign: ‘Touch Here For More Energy’ was etched in big colourful letters around a large gold circle helpfully available at waist height.

Comprehension is operating on time-lapse and realisation comes only when she’s behind me.

Too late.

And my race?

I was never really comfortable and found the last 20miles hard – and while I was pleased to stick with it and not fall apart it was all way too slow for my Competitive Bloke side to be remotely happy about. Forensic self-analysis has so far proved inconclusive though the key benefit remains unequivocal: Having this as a focus kept me sane over the winter and gave me structure, progression and something new to get my teeth into.

I enjoyed the process and gave it my best shot on the day. 

The rest is just my baggage – and clearly I’m still packing.

Not exactly jumping with joy at the finish and for those that are interested that’s elapsed race time not my actual…

This Is Not A Test

Beware! Bias Below

Just because I do my homework doesn’t mean this is an objective piece of writing.

For the sake of transparency this is where I’m coming from and where I’m going:

For the sake of clarity this is what you should know about what I think:

This Is Not A Test

Thus spake the Chief Inspector Prisons Charlie Taylor on Feb 23rd at a launch event of a project to deep dive into 20 years of reports and recommendations from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons - and yours truly was watching live and online.

How much of where your prison is at is down to your leadership?’

Chief Inspector Prisons Charlie Taylor

HMIP is to our prison system what Ofsted* is to our schools – just without the league tables, thank god. (Think about that for a few seconds and tell me if you can come up with any positives from any perspective. I can’t. ‘Hasn’t stopped the idea being mooted at ministerial level in the past though).

Recently I heard about how many of those report recommendations remain unfulfilled – and trust me, you don’t want to know. What the hell’s the point of inspections then? I raged before doing some digging into the point of inspections.

And of course It’s Not That Simple and there are many reasons/excuses - not least of which is the fact that HMIP used to make up to 150 recommendations of per report. That then dropped to nearer 30 and they are (mercifully) about to drop that again to 6-3.

*Every prison also has an Independent Monitoring Board made up of volunteers from all walks of life. Their job is to keep tabs on the implementation of the latest HMIP recommendations for their prison and to ensure that the people inside are treated humanely.

There’s also a question of teeth: HMIP is not a regulator and has no power to close a prison. It will make recommendations to the Secretary of State if pushing for the nuclear option – most recently in the case of a secure centre for children in Kent - but it relies on the cooperation of Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service to work with said prison and the Inspectorate to make good on the recommendations.

So on Feb 23rd Charlie Taylor was pushing at the leadership reason/excuse.

He had my attention given that HMIP had recently added ‘Leadership’ to their inspection criteria and a fair chunk of my last 2 years has indeed been supporting prison leaders.

Context for his remarks were what his team had found over the last 3 months or so as inspection of prisons had resumed with ‘Time Out Of Cell’ arguably the headline KPI.

Remember that during Covid people in prison had been confined to their cell for around 23hrs/day in order to control the spread of infection. That restriction had been relaxed during infection windows and more consistently so towards the back end of last year – until the Omicron variant hit and prisons reverted to near full lockdown.

As I write today, most prisons remain under some operational restriction which means that most of the 80,000 people we have serving sentences will have now spent 2 years in isolation or semi-isolation with family visits, education, training and treatment very sporadic or non-existent during that time.

The price for doing time during a pandemic? From a certain point of view.

Just remember also that as well as keeping the public safe our prison system is also charged with returning people back to society with a software upgrade…