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Exit Theory: An Interview with Paul Buck

Interview by Steve Finbow.

Men jump from windows, from trains, starve themselves to slip through prison bars, they scale walls using ladders made from sheets, dive into helicopters, excavate tunnels with nail files & teaspoons – one even wore his teeth down to nothing chewing through wooden bars. Paul Buck’s The E-List is a thoughtful & entertaining history of the art of escape. From the 18th century exploits of Jack Sheppard to latter-day escapees such as the laxative-using Robert Cole, from Devil’s Island to Dartmoor, Buck charters the means & methods of escape, the meticulous planners & the sheer opportunists, the captured & the still at large, the heroes & the sociopaths.


Paul Buck worked at Better Books in the 1960s, his memories of this period can be found in Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances. His work derives from text, from language, & through various performance approaches often resulting in other textual realizations. He has written somewhere in the region of 50 books, including the novel The Honeymoon Killers. In the 1970s he edited the literary/arts magazine Curtains, which published writing by Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Iain Sinclair, Allen Fisher, Eric Mottram, & Paul Auster. He has performed at the ICA as part of an Artaud/Genet weekend along with artists including Peter Sellars, Patti Smith, & Pierre Guyotat. He has translated works by Bernard Noël, Pierre Klossowski, Maurice Blanchot, Catherine Breillat, & Raul Ruiz. He has worked with Marc Almond, Melinda Miel, & 48 Cameras. Spread Wide (2004) is a work generated from correspondence with Kathy Acker. His current projects include works on Paris & the cinema & a new novel.

3:AM: Foucault wrote that “(t)he carceral texture of society assumes both the real capture of the body & its perpetual observation; it is, by its very nature, the apparatus of punishment that conforms most completely to the new economy of power & the instrument for the formation of knowledge that this very economy needs.” How were you drawn to these stories? Is it because you see a connection between the ‘outsider’ status of the prisoner/escapee & the writer/artist?

PB: Notions of the outsider go way back for me, not only because I read Colin Wilson’s book (The Outsider) at a tender age (Wilson has probably been more influential than many imagine) & followed up his references, but because my mother was Italian & I was reared as a Catholic & had to jump ship as soon as I could, mentally & physically. Not exactly the black sheep, more the wolf in sheep’s clothing. One could extend that.

Early on I fell into the right hands – by instrumentally taking those steps. Connecting to Indica, UFO, Better Books… & going from there. London of the mid-to-late ‘60s. & yet as I plunged in there, I also gravitated to the criminal mind (courtesy of Wilson again), setting off to explore murderers initially. The Honeymoon Killers is not about detection & capture, but about their exploits & falling apart. & so it went for all the criminals & murderers I studied & wrote about. & the novelists I pursued, preferring the ‘50s & ‘60s pulp novelists who didn’t involve detection of public or private nature. Thus, Goodis & Thompson… but more particularly Day Keene, Harry Whittington, Horace McCoy… That said I’m writing a novel at the moment that talks against solving by detection whilst at the same time going about the business of seeking to solve something. It’s always about standing astride the crevice with me.

The E-List is not compiled chronologically but rather gathers together escapes of similar ethos & method: by tunnelling, by scaling walls, while in transportation, by disguise & impersonation. The E-List is not an A-Z of men & women absconding from incarceration but a thesaurus of people responding to the catharsis of freedom; the book is a classification of liberation, & an important part of our human-behavioural domain knowledge.

3:AM: Under the current financial situation, I would argue that an appropriate addition to the carceral society – school, hospital, & prison – would be the banking system; mostly, the characters (with notable exceptions) in your book are not escaping for any reason other than to be free – money doesn’t seem to play much of a part (besides planning). Do you think freedom, in whatever form, is one of the overriding instincts of humanity?

PB: That would seem so, whether it turns out to be true or not. Specifically with escapees from prison, they all say, or are quoted as saying, that freedom is their object. But of course for some the cell is replaced with an equally restricting incarceration. James Moody spent much of his freedom holed up in a small room in South London. Frank ‘the Mad Axeman’ Mitchell was ‘rescued’ from Dartmoor (where he spent his days roaming the Moors, riding ponies, drinking in pubs, even having an affair with a local woman) only to be incarcerated by the Krays in a backroom in East London for a limited number of days before he was killed in cold blood.

What I discovered in the research (& with more time I might have gone further) was that once free the escapee often has little idea on what to do, or how to maintain freedom. Directly, or within a short span of time, they return to family, friends, familiar neighbourhoods… always watching their back for betrayal & recapture. Also they need to acquire money, which often means committing further crimes… or if money is stashed (& still there) then they need to get abroad & preserve their freedom at extreme costs. Many are captured no sooner they are clear of the walls. It’s as if the challenge is the meticulous detail & planning of the escape, the outwitting of the system by another method, having failed in the judicial cat & mouse process. (Note my lack of faith in the judicial system being an honest affair.)

Much like the writer who dreams not to be incarcerated in a room writing, & yet who spends his days there willingly in order to attempt to create exceptional work.

Whenever one looks at different facets of society, we seem to come up regularly against our inability to handle freedom. We actually like measures of constriction, whether we perceive those restrictions, or acknowledge them. Bondage in one form or another seems to be here to stay! It probably can be seen by anyone who has children. Parents & adults try to give children as much freedom as possible, only to see it misfire when the child cannot handle it…& fails, disappoints or goes off the rails in one way or another. The child wants to know the boundaries, the conditions, either so they can stay within them, challenge them or transgress them. It seems to be a perennial problem in parenting that we are conscious of today. There are shelves of books offering solutions; TV entertains us with a string of these programmes.

Reading The E-List is a cathartic exercise, one finds oneself rooting for the escapee, be they guilty or not of the crime for which they were incarcerated. The moment of release being orgasmic in its impact, while the reality of freedom is anticlimactic. Alain Badiou argues that “(f)reedom is a category of intellectual novelty, not within, but beyond ordinary life.” True freedom is conceptual, a construct of democracy, an evolution of consciousness in the disciplinarian society.

3:AM: Through your involvement in the radical movements of the ‘60s, do you think that that period was a failed experiment in social/sexual freedom? & how has that era influenced your views on freedom, crime, & art?

PB: I do not dispute that I had the escapee’s viewpoint in mind when I wrote the book, because I realized it was aspects of the escape itself that were worthy of attention. The downside of course is that some like Billy Hughes, John Straffen, Brian McCulloch, Robert Mone, Brian Nichols & others killed in their escape bids or after their escapes. Nothing is straightforward, nothing can be unanimously condoned, or condemned. & I guess I feel much the same about the 60s, or any other of the periods I’m lived & worked through. My projects have always made me an active & hands-on participant in various movements… & I’ve accepted that good things come from it, as bad, & all these are not always apparent at the time. What I do stand for though is the necessity for change & transformation, never to maintain the status quo, even if it means personally running one’s life as a never-ending string of risks. I’ve always lived on my toes, though in a different sense than the subjects of The E-List.

I guess you could say that I don’t see life as an ‘experiment’ or anything as a series of ‘experiments’ but rather life as a continual ‘research’. & that doesn’t just mean an artistic life, but life on the everyday level of experiences.

& thus since the 60s I have never had a full-time job, or anything that resembles a career. All my activities whether art ones or financial ones (which often come together) are all further steps that are pulled through to generate the next step. One way or another everything conspires to weave & drive me forward. Any notion of ‘rest’ does not exist… indeed is anathema to me.

The E-List embodies David Henry Thoreau’s famous quote “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” & seems to confirm the not-so-well-known appendage that “what is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” Writers such as Giacomo Casanova & the Marquis de Sade escaped their physical confinements & in their life & writing the sexual & social constrictions of their age. The E-List makes little moral distinction between the desire for liberty of an artist & the urge to freedom of a criminal.

3:AM: If I change the Thoreau quote to read, “The mass of artists lead lives of quiet rebellion. What is called creativity is confirmed rebellion.” – does that approach the way you have lived your life & is it analogous to the lives of people within the carceral system? Or, to again quote Thoreau, is it humankind’s lot to be “a parcel of vain strivings tied”?

PB: I purposely avoided bogging down the book with numerous distinctions, plotting instead the ‘escapes’ themselves, sometimes giving a bit of background, or consequences where necessary. It really was the mode of escape that I felt needed notating. It would have been easy to leave aside Casanova, de Sade, Baader… & indeed the IRA… but they all added breadth for us to ponder.

I wonder if it’s as easy as that to align the mass of artists, by which ones means many, the majority, with acts of rebellion. I don’t necessarily feel that many do rebel in any way, well, not that is noticeable to the rest of us. They might seek other interests within their creative pursuits. We like to think of artists as rebels, outsiders, outcasts, etc, but perhaps few are in any real terms. What I notice, & it cropped up again the other day, is that a person like myself who has lived on the edge throughout his adult life, with almost no money, no pension, no fall back… tend to take in my stride the daily questions & decisions of risk as naturally as breathing (& indeed subject my family to that position too, for good or bad) & thus tend to be bolder in my actions, whether in life or art, than others might be. As I said, in the last few days, I’ve encountered those who are generally regarded as risk-takers, but, in fact, at the crunch, were hesitating, desperate to make sure the risk factors were considerably reduced before they committed themselves to what was being proposed.

That analogy might be found among prisoners. Many will not escape, or try to escape. They might just talk about it, not really wish to do it. I think I quoted Harry Roberts as an example. According to Walter Probyn, the only way Roberts survived incarceration was by thinking of escaping, never really taking his fantasies through to fruition.

So what you are suggesting is that I align myself to a degree with the escapees… or that is what intrigues me about the subject of this book. You are probably heading me in the right direction. Perhaps though, unlike many an escapee, I’ve been on the lam for too many years now, & that despite what the system has done to trap or force me into submitting to their whims & caprices. I’ve managed to be strong enough in myself to maintain my ‘freedom’ or at least a sense of purpose or direction that appeals to me. If I was asked to chose between Alfie Hinds & his great escapes, or Wally Probyn’s, then I would chose Wally’s exploits… though I don’t think I’d pursue discussing or seeking to unearth his life since prison. Nothing shapes up neatly for comparison, does it?

One could note that I’ve done this interview in much the same way. Not that the reader is to know. But I responded directly. Fast & decisive. It’s the only way I know. I’ve learnt to live that way. If I make mistakes, or what others perceive as faults, it’s not a big deal. I adapt, I transform, & continue. Different things evolve that way than from the approach of slow consideration. Though again one can’t assume that I don’t meditate or ruminate at other times in the day. I was a jazz aficionado way before my teens, & improvisation is at the heart of my existence… & improvisation is based on preparation & self-discipline.


Steve Finbow‘s new novel Balzac of the Badlands is out October 2009.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 9th, 2008.