Was it 2010? The years flash by so fast, I cannot be sure.
It was a warm day, I remember, that I drove across my old cycle route to Goldsmiths. Brixton, Camberwell, Peckham, New Cross, and then kept going on, as far as Woolwich, then turning left down towards to the river, down towards Belmarsh Prison, parking and meeting the already quite successful playwright in the Visitor Centre.
This place was already familiar - I had been visiting my former workmate, who became a friend, in this prison quite regularly since his sentencing in 2006. Then he'd been sent away to a prison in Nottinghamshire for a year or so before being returned to this (it seemed to me) exceedingly vicious and soul-corroding place on the jagged south-eastern edge of estuarine London.
Belmarsh! A great name for a prison, with its echoes of Dickens, mixed so well with the late 20th century's love of euphemism - "bel" up against the "marsh" of Marshalsea. Not far from that delightful settlement, Thamesmead - oh, the mead, with its echoes of flowers and honey! Oh ! The lovely marsh!
Each time, visiting, getting off the train, crossing that dual carriageway, getting onto the shining way down a sort of emaciated linear park, past stained concrete crime scenes, past a trading estate, past caravans selling saveloys and so on, past the bike track through the trees too short to look over the great walls of the prison and its attendant Crown Court - more echoes, this time of Venetian fortifications, and of the great fortress cities of 16th century France. Smooth high walls, like a Jarman film set for Ken Russell. Featureless. The gate. The double airlocks and the fingerprint checks. And then another airlock. Crossing an inner courtyard. Waiting with the child-brides and babies of the villains, the sniffling mums and the super-well made-up girlfriends, and the leery mates. Standing in numbered rows, being sniffed by eager doggies.
Then into the visiting hall, like a big school canteen, the table-and-two-chairs set up, the yellow lines which the inmates must never cross. In they come, some swaggering, others stumbling, seeeming dazed by the light, their high-vis sleeveless orange jackets making it all seem like a lunch break at a motorway building site.
Usually he was cheerful and upbeat, eager to get the most out of each visit. I would go and buy coffees, crisps and chocolate from the WI volunteers. He would scoff it all and then start on the latest news. We had about 90 minutes. Sometimes it was too much time.
Sometimes a visitor would sit there and their prisoner would never arrive. Sometimes - more often - you'd see an anguished prisoner waiting, their loved one never appearing.
But this day was different. We were not visiting, we were collecting. Still, we had to wait in the centre, watching the great gate. After an hour there was sudden activity. A small bald man, stooping, with a heavy bag, fell out of the tiny door in the gigantic gate, fell into the arms of one woman - his mum? And then another - his aunt? And then more waiting.
We decided it was time to cross over to wait nearer the gate, and as we did so, out he came. Ridiculously thin and nervy, the formerly plump old friend shot out of the gate, spotted us, looked back into the prison, said something, then asked, where's the car?
"In the car park".
My companion - what shall we call her? had her tape recorder ready and waiting for this crucial scene, this liberation. Of ocurse it was an anti-climax. I can hardly remember now - did we embrace, or did I just pat him on the shoulder? Probably the latter. Well done, old man. You're out.
But not free, became clearer as we traversed that south circular route back through Plumstead, Woolwich, Blackheath, New Cross, Peckham, Camberwell, Brixton, Stockwell. Talking excitedly, congratulating himself on his own writings about these dodgy areas which so often featured in his stories and those "Clapham Omnibus" columns for Prospect magazine.