Invisible Tree Shelters British Lifer

"Thank you for being there, for hearing my bleets, my invisible crying tree," wrote Tom Shannon, a prisoner serving a life sentence in British jails for murder, to Christopher Morgan, a 65-year-old farmer who had volunteered to correspond with him. And, taking its title from this letter, Invisible Crying Tree is the record of the inspirational correspondence between these two men.

In fact, there are remarkably few "bleets" in this book. The picture of prison life that Shannon paints in his letters is vivid, shocking and funny. He has a talent for writing that transcends his erratic spelling. Indeed, the misspellings are often creative, such as his sketch of prison bullies, who abuse their fellows with "a repetitive turn of phrase, like fowl mouthed parrots".

In describing to his correspondent what life is really like "inside," Shannon covers everything from race relations, violence and drug use to the details of prison routine. Shannon's letters chart his Odyssey from prison to prison as the England of cricket and cream-teas takes on the geography of the gulag.

In Maidstone jail, Shannon fights three youths who stole the blade of his Stanley knife, earning an apology and the return of his blade as well as a spell in solitary confinement. In an episode that resounds with echoes of the "dirty protests" of Irish Republican Army political prisoners in British jails, Shannon goes on hunger strike when he is moved to a cell with excrement on the walls in a prison in Suffolk.

Morgan functions in the correspondence like the chorus in an Ancient Greek tragedy; he encourages, questions and comments on the activities of the protagonist, and occasionally jollies him along with stories about life on the farm. The tone is that of a concerned but out-of-touch parent, though their age difference is just 10 years. On the outside, life is seasonal, as hay-making gives way to salmon fishing in Scotland. But time is less predictable on the inside where a stab in the guts with a home-made knife leads to two months in solitary.

Although he is a hardened convict, there is a moral authority in Shannon's writing that is powerfully authentic:

"I always seem to find someone to look after in every prison Iv been in. I had a 24 year old in Wormwood Scrubs, blond, blue-eyed, looking about 19-18. You could see his fear and aprehension. He was in a recess one time. A jock bully had him by the nuts and was slapping his face.

"I picked up a mop bucket and brought it down on the jock's head. The kid hung around with me like a limpet mine after that. By the time I left the scrubs he had a mate of his own age. Three years later I met him again at Long Lartin. He was H.I.V. positive. If there is a god, I'd love to spit in his eye."

All proceeds from the sale of this surprising book will go to the charitable Shannon Trust to help "lifers" cope after their release.

"Invisible Crying Tree" by Tom Shannon and Christopher Morgan. Black Swan, 200 pages. This book is available at Zwemmer and Rubicon book shops for approximately $14.