Tag Archives: Jack Beck

A Window on the World

Jack makes a plea in his weekly guest post –

I’m prompted to write on this particular subject because of a book I’ve just read, a memoir by a prison librarian. But this isn’t the Monday Book post, so that will have to wait for now.

I’m a member of Prison Visitation and Support (PVS), set up to provide a visitation service for all Federal prisoners, including those in both civilian and military prisons.

I joined up four years ago as part of a three person team based around the Quaker group that meets monthly in the bookstore and we all visit prisoners at the local Federal prison. Each of us visits two prisoners on each visit and they are mostly men who are either in for a very long time or forever. They have asked for visits because, for a variety of reasons, they have no-one else.

You’ll not be surprised to learn that there are nowhere near enough of us around the country to visit all the prisoners asking.

I know what you’re thinking – why on earth would you? Why would anyone want to spend sometimes considerable time and expense traveling to an isolated spot maybe hours from home to spend an hour with someone who has committed a terrible crime (often murder, drug dealing or armed robbery?) The answer is frequently hard to take but true, nevertheless. They are human beings and we are the only people with whom they can have contact who are not part of their prison network; the only people who can provide a momentary glimpse of the outside world through a neutral window.

PVS is supported by all the major religious groups as well as many non-religious ones; the board includes representatives of these, plus ex prisoners and ex Wardens. It has an excellent relationship with The Department of Justice and this means we have a great working relationship with our local prison.

That said, we don’t specifically talk about religion and that’s not the organization’s purpose. Actually we are more listeners than talkers.

All this may sound wonderful and uplifting, but there are caveats. If you have any tendency to claustrophobia this isn’t for you. Once the various doors have locked behind you, you are as much a prisoner as the folk you are visiting. It’s also very draining–as Wendy will tell you, because when I come home from visiting she hands me a Scotch and leaves me for a few hours to re-surface. It isn’t physically difficult because you sit across the table from your visitee with absolutely no distractions (no TV or magazines or books or anything) and have an hour to talk. Then all over again with the second one. Yet that can be very hard work! In addition there may be unexpected counts or your prisoners be delayed by internal activities. While you wait for maybe an hour or more you also have nothing to distract you – just an empty table and walls.

If this seems rather intimidating or uninviting, there’s an upside.

Once you have started visiting a particular prisoner, that continues until one of a number of things happen: they are released, they are transferred to another prison, or they ask for no more visits. As a result you might be visiting monthly with the same two guys (and ours is an all male prison) for years. That has been the case for me. My experience has often (though not always) meant meaningful conversations with really interesting characters. One of them had escaped many times from State prisons before ending in the Federal system. He could write a best-seller about digging tunnels.

There are some prisons in remote parts of the country that have no PVS visitors at all and all the others have waiting lists of prisoners who want visits. We have our own waiting list and urgently need some more to join our little group. If you are interested you can contact me through this blog or check out the PVS website – http://prisonervisitation.org/

“I was in prison and you visited me” Now, who was it said that……


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Food for Thought

Jack’s weekly guest post homes in on gastronomic reminders –

It’s sometimes surprising the connections that can be made in our local supermarket, and I don’t mean the people you bump into.

Our Good Chef Kelley, owner of The Second Story Cafe here above the bookstore, often shops for us when she’s getting in her cafe provisions, and sometimes surprises us with something she thought we’d specially like. Imagine our astonishment when she triumphantly ploncked down two packs of Mull of Kintyre mature cheese in front of us a few weeks ago. – Mull of Kintyre, for goodness sake!

The Mull of Kintyre is a hard-to-get-to promontory in the Southwest of Scotland, within sight of the North of Ireland. It’s most famous for two things: it was part of the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada, which composed the SW of Scotland and Antrim in Ireland as well as the sea between; and Paul McCartney (remember him?) who owns a house there and wrote what is probably his worst ever song about the place!

Paul’s song is affectionately known as ‘Mulligan’s Tire’ in Scotland, so the label on the cheese is rather clever and subtle (do you get it?)


And then there’s the San Daniele Prosciutto Wendy came home with from a business trip to Abingdon (a wealthy town about an hour away) last week, which immediately took me back to Friuli in NE Italy where my old group Heritage had such great times playing at FolkEst back in the eighties. We were based in San Daniele and looked after royally by the lovely guy who’s family owned the most respected prosciutto place in town. I love the stuff and was gob smacked when Wendy handed me the packet.

There’s our long-running search for Romanian Pinot Noir, which we fell in love with when we were both working there temporarily, way back in 2002. We were delighted to find when we got back to Scotland that the local Tesco supermarket not only stocked it but it was the very same brand – Prahova Valley. Since moving to Virginia we’ve spent years trying to persuade the local supermarket – – –

I didn’t mention Patak’s hot curry paste, or elderflower presse, or McVittie’s plain chocolate digestives, or, or, – – –

Something about food just transports us back to special places and times, doesn’t it? The good news is, with the exception of the Romanian Pinot, our sweet little local Food City (owned by KVAT) has mostly managed to get in these items. They also try to buy produce from local farmers, regionally specific to each of their stores.

Here’s to supporting the local guys! We really need to send them a bottle of the Prahova Valley next time we find it online…..

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Getting Away from It All…..

Jack’s guest blog covers the dark side of nature…..

Wendy and I have a log cabin about two hours away that is very isolated, with no telephone, TV, internet or cell phone reception. It’s normally very restful and relaxing to hide away there for a few days. Wendy can get writing done there without distractions. The dogs love it because they can go off and wander to their hearts’ delight and there’s a pond for them to swim in.

And me? I can deal with the repairs and maintenance that are always needed there in our holiday dream home…..

But this time it was hot and thundery – VERY hot and thundery! With no breeze and no air conditioning I found myself becoming more and more lethargic. The dogs hardly moved except to dive into the pond and the only one to expend any energy was our ‘special’ kittie Hadley, who we’d taken as well as a treat.

Despite all that languid pressing heat, I still managed to deal with wasps’ nests, wood-boring bees, a ginormous wolf spider clinging to (Wendy says “carrying off”) a Mason jar in the sink, and get some weed-whacking done. Wendy got writing aplenty done and the dogs got so smelly in the pond they needed a bath this morning when we returned home. So all in all it was a success–at least for everyone but the spider.

Sometimes it’s good to get away. And sometimes, it’s better to get back to air conditioning – – –


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Filed under animal rescue, between books, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, bookstore management, crafting, folklore and ethnography, home improvements, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

kings mtnJack’s weekly guest blog


So – Last night was one of “speak to a group about living in Appalachia” talks. It happens often; this time it was to the Appalachian Service Project (ASP), a team of young folks from various ‘airts and pairts’ in the US who have come down here to take part in a variety of practical projects.

I began by explaining where I’m from and how I came to be here. I always start that way to help them tune in to my accent. It’s not just accent, of course, it’s much more than that. Vocabulary, grammar, figures of speech – after 12 years in the country one thing I’ve discovered is that my particular form of English is far removed from the American variety, and I’ll never get it completely covered!

Once their faces began registering they could actually understand me, I explained a bit about Scotland and my earlier life there. Despite the strong awareness around the world about things that are ‘Scottish’ (kilts, whisky, golf etc.) I always find a quick geography lesson helps establish reality in the midst of Nessie stories.

From there I moved on to how I came to be here – which sums up pretty much as “I met this girl….”

Finally to the meat of the evening – Appalachia and my remit to point up the parallels that I’ve encountered between it and Scotland. The culture of course – fiddle tunes, folksongs and ballads – but more than that, the stereotyping I’ve encountered as a Scot and my Appalachian friends equally. As a Scot I’m mean, wear a kilt all the time, am red-haired, fight everyone I meet, hate the English, and on, and on – I’m a ‘Jock’ or a ‘Sweaty’ (Jock = sweaty sock). It’s very hard, I explained, when a stereotype has been long established, to counter it. Here, my Appalachian friends are often considered toothless, wear dungarees, are under-educated, and on, and on – – –

I explained what the Battle of Kings Mountain was really about – something pretty mislabeled in true history, and a real overlap between Appalachian and Scots culture.

Finally, I commended the ASP students for having the enterprise to go out and see for themselves how other folks live and how our folks might not conform to any popular image. I suggested that there are minority cultures all over the world that have their identity thrust upon them, so they shouldn’t believe everything they hear, but go and see for themselves. It was a very nice night.


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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, YA fiction

The Green Green Grass of Home – – –

In Jack’s weekly guest post he continues to complain – whit’s he like?

One of the things I’ve never really got used to living here, is the rate that everything suddenly starts growing once the temperature rises and the summer thunderstorms hit. I mean grass, weeds and things that might or might not be weeds. One of our regular customers paused to admire some mint that’s taking over part of the front yard and asked if she could volunteer her daughters to ‘tidy up’. Please, please I said!

Between running the bookstore, an annual tour of Scotland, an annual Celtic festival, a weekly radio show and trying to keep on top of the upkeep of a 1903 building, there’s little time left for gardening.

The irony, of course, is that even if we had the time and inclination, we are actually completely useless gardeners. We grow tomato plants from seed and then plant them out where they quickly die – same with most other things – potatoes, peas, brussel sprouts, peppers – – -. We rarely even keep house-plants going for any time.

Meanwhile that pesky grass needs mowing, and the weeds need whacking – assuming I don’t expire trying to get the mower and weed-whacker started!

But wait! “What light through yonder window breaks – – – -”

So yes – Sunshine is good and so is the lack of snow, not to mention longer days and tee-shirt temperatures. I’ll fly into Edinburgh this Monday morning and will be reminded of that quite forcibly I suspect! So I can’t complain can I?

“Sumer is icumen in – – – -“


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The Monday Book falls on a Wednesday this Week


We apologize for the irregular blogs of late and are trying to get back on track! Here’s Jack’s review of 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall-Smith


I’m a huge fan of McCall-Smith, ever since I began devouring his No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. But he has a number of others that deserve attention, including Corduroy Gardens and the Scotland Street one.


I should explain right away that I lived most of my life within 30 minutes’ drive of the center of Edinburgh, where this series is set, so I’m very familiar with Scotland Street and the surrounding Georgian part of the city. McCall-Smith captures not only the geography beautifully, but its character through the residents, from the rugby following upper middle class to the quirky academics, the hard working cafe owner and the inimitable and much put-upon child of a demanding liberal-minded mother.


This series started as a serial in one of Scotland’s national newspapers and quickly built a devoted following. So much so that McCall-Smith was persuaded (by them) to turn it into a real book and then to publish two more follow-ups.


The one I’ve just finished re-reading is the second book (although I have read them all), and I was once again captivated by his ability to get right inside the mind of his characters – not just their surface characteristics, what they say and do, but what lies behind them; the professional or cultural world they inhabit. This might seem like a recipe for boredom, but he is such a wonderful observer of human nature and has such a way with words that it never is. Of course he lives in the Edinburgh Georgian ‘new town’ of which he writes and in many ways is just setting down what he lives and experiences every day.


Finally – just like in the Corduroy Gardens series this one has a dog as one of its main characters and I absolutely love how (in both cases) McCall Smith relates to his readers the world from the dog’s point of view. Anyone who has ever been owned by a dog will get it!

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Jack was Up Late Last Night: everything you wanted to know about Scottish politics but were afraid to ask….

In honor of the election held in the United Kingdom yesterday, Jack brings you this historic guest post…..

Scotland-independenceThere was an election yesterday in the UK (The United Kingdom – not the University of Kentucky) and many of our American friends have been asking me about it.

Although some eight parties ran, the UK parliamentary voting system pretty much ensures that elections are a ‘two horse race’. Either the Conservative Party or the Labour Party gets a majority; think Republicans and Democrats. All the seats are up for grabs; it’s as if we vote for all the state governors and the president at the same time, for a term of five years.

Scotland has 59 seats out of about 650 and historically most have gone to the Labour Party. In the early hours of this morning, however, everything changed. The Scottish National Party went from 6 seats to 56, while the Labour and Conservative parties ended up with one each, along with one for the small Liberal Democrat Party. Poor lonely souls; ♪ three is the loneliest number. ♪

Now remember, the United Kingdom is three small countries (Wales, Scotland and N. Ireland) joined at the hip to one big country: England. And England/Wales voted Conservative; if you think Scotland has it bad, Wales is actually counted as part of England even though it’s a separate country. Don’t ask; it’s confusing to those who live there too.

That forces two distinct and diametrically opposed political cultures to try and work together, the right wing Conservatives in England with most of the power plus the ability to always out-vote the Scottish members, while Scotland’s left-leaning SNP have little power at all–except the ability to call for a vote on Scottish Independence.

It’s obvious to everyone where a relationship that fraught that will lead…..


Last September there was a narrowly-defeated vote on Independence for Scotland. Pundits claim, and word of mouth also suggests, that the biggest reason for Scottish voters deciding to stay in the UK was a last minute promise by the party with the most Scottish seats then (Labour) of much more power for the Scottish Parliament. Which they pretty much ignored after Scotland voted to stay.

Yesterday, Scottish voters held Labour accountable for that; one pundit called it an “electoral firing squad.” So the result of yesterday’s election will, in my opinion and that of many political commentators, inevitably lead to another vote on Independence within five years. This makes me happy. And while I’ve never been a gambler, I’d put money on it passing this time!






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