Echoes by Nick Bullock - Exclusive Excerpt

© Nick Bullock Collection
Echoes front cover. Nick Bullock downclimbing the North Face of Quitaraju, Peru, after making the first ascent of the Central B  © Assorted photographers/Vertebrate Publishing 2012
Nick Bullock was a prison officer working in a maximum-security jail with some of Britain's most notorious criminals. Trapped in a world of aggression and fear, he felt frustrated and alone. Then he discovered the mountains.

Making up for lost time, Bullock soon became one of Britain's best climbers, learning his trade in the mountains of Scotland and Wales, and travelling from Pakistan to Peru in his search for new routes and a new way of seeing the world – and ultimately an escape route from his life inside.

Told that no one ever leaves the service – the security, the stability, the 'job for life' – Bullock focused his existence on a single goal: to walk free, with no shackles, into a mountain life.

Bullock's debut book Echoes is a powerful and compelling exploration of freedom – and what it means to live life on your own terms.

Here we have a exclusive excerpt from 'Echoes'.


The Punishment Block performed another function apart from keeping a prisoner confined and separated. It served as a courtroom. Anyone who broke the laws of the prison, offences ranging from swearing at an officer, stealing, fighting and causing disruption, to intimidating behaviour or being somewhere they shouldn't, was placed on report, or, as it was more commonly known by officers and inmates alike, nicked.

Mid-epic, lost, soloing in the Alps. "I took this self portrait to remind myself never to do this sort of thing again&quot
© NIck Bullock

After a nicking, a brief report detailing the charge was written and handed to the inmate at seven-thirty the following morning, and an hour later they were escorted to the Block for adjudication. The hour allowed the inmate time to prepare his defence. Adjudications were like court proceedings. The Governor was the judge and the Block's senior officer acted as court bailiff, reading out the charges.

The officer who had reported the incident stood facing the inmate on the left of the Governor at the head of a table. The inmate would stand at the opposite end of the table facing the Governor. Two officers would stand either side of the inmate with their backs to the Governor but facing the inmate. Sometimes a witness was called but this didn't happen often.

Adjudications were a catalyst for trouble, especially if the hearing went against the inmate and almost always when the Governor doled out his 'award'. The most usual punishment was a loss of privileges or private cash allowance for a period of time, or a fine. He might also dole out a period of solitary confinement in the Block, anything from a few days to a week or even longer.

Burleigh, a six foot three black guy with dreadlocks, muscles and an attitude, stood facing the Governor shouting the odds. Charlie Bushell, the Governor, was also a big man, although more around the waist, and wore a large beard. He also had attitude and shouted back in his booming voice.

Standing inches from an agitated Burleigh, I began to get light on my toes.

"Get him out of here!"

"I'm not fucking leaving until you change your decision."

"Officers, take him away."

Nick Bullock, aged 22, Gartree Prison  © Nick Bullock Collection
Nick Bullock, aged 22, Gartree Prison
© Nick Bullock Collection
At once, I grabbed an arm and Tim, the second officer, a feisty, terrier-like ex-military man, took the other. Burleigh shoved us both away. I rebounded immediately and grabbed handfuls of dreadlocks in an attempt to get him on the floor. At that time I weighed thirteen stone. I could bench-press one hundred and twenty five kilos and run a mile in six and a half minutes. But Burleigh also worked out and must have weighed at least a stone more.

He stood up with me still hanging onto his dreadlocked head and charged. We crashed through the adjudication room door with me hanging on like a hyena, but Burleigh drove me into the opposite wall. Tim followed us out of the room and grabbed an arm. Attempting to bring him to the floor, I wrapped my arm around Burleigh's head and lifted my legs but once again Burleigh just picked me up and sprinted before slamming me into another wall. Mark, the third Block officer, eventually caught up and together we overpowered Burleigh and took him to the Box.

Price was a cat 'A', and infamous throughout the whole prison service. He strutted and swaggered, wearing the cat 'A' uniform of blue jeans and long grey duffle coat with arrogant pride. Price might have postured and talked big, but he was the real deal when it came to being bad. He liked to make people think he was some kind of London gangster, which he probably would have been if he had been out of prison long enough. In truth, he was just a dangerous thug brought up in a rough area of London. Price had been in and out of prison all of his young life until at the age of twenty one he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years and taken to an adult prison.

When I first met Price he was thirty two, fit and healthy and still in prison from the original three-and-a-half years stretch. He was now serving several different sentences, all handed down from outside courts for offences in prison, which came to a total of twenty eight years.

Price had been nicked and was walking to the Block, swaggering and posturing in his usual style. The three of us, Rob, Tim and myself, waited in a cell. Strip-searches were a part of prison life and a full strip was a part of the normal procedure for entering the Block, but it was not popular with either inmates or staff. On many searches, the inmate was allowed to keep his underpants on.

This failure in the system arose from staff being lazy or intimidated. Inmates would call you gay or ask if you enjoyed looking at men's genitals, to put pressure on the officer not to make an inmate strip properly. It may not appear a serious flaw in security but inmates were masters of concealing items and one of the usual places to hide bank notes, drugs and weapons was inside a tube, often an empty underarm deodorant container, up their back passage. One inmate was known to cut a pouch into the fleshy skin on the inside of his cheek or into his gums where he could hide a razor blade. Another was known to hide blades in a pouch of skin cut into his heel.

Strip-searching was done only on certain occasions: after a visit, on entering the Block, before being transferred to another prison, or before a routine cell search. It was inevitably an issue of control. An inmate refusing to strip could be nicked and forcing them into fully stripping left the officer in a position of superiority. But an officer who could be intimidated into not forcing the inmate to strip completely was marked out as someone to be intimidated and manipulated.

Rob, a large ex-policeman who enjoyed trouble and didn't give an inch to anyone, told Price to strip, which he did – down to his boxer shorts.

"Take down your boxers."

"I'm not taking my boxers off. If you want them off, you take them off."

Rob moved toward Price and told him if he wanted trouble, he could have it in the Box.

"You think that bothers me? You think I care? Let's go."

Price walked from the cell, strutting like Vinny Jones in a Guy Ritchie movie. The long corridor was quiet. The usual Block senior officer was off duty and his replacement was in the office doing paperwork. Price swaggered the length of the Block's long leg, before turning into the short corridor leading to the Box. Rob, with Tim and I following, turned after him.

The corridor was dark and narrow, requiring us to walk in single file. Ahead of me, Rob's broad shoulders filled the tight space but as soon as Price reached the cell area, he spun round and punched Rob in the face. He fell to the floor like a bag of cement, his face split and bleeding. A single punch was all it took. The two of us jumped over Rob and pounced on Price before he could draw back his arm for a second shot.

Price was strong and fit and he didn't go down. I grabbed an arm as it swung towards me and held on like it was the ends of an abseil rope being blown out of reach. Tim hung off his other arm, but was driven repeatedly into the wall. We had to get him on the floor, where our combined weight would pin him down.

Price had other ideas. Thrashing wildly, he drove us repeatedly into the walls in turn, trying to head-butt us and spitting in our faces. Eventually, he slipped and we all crashed onto the painted concrete floor, but the fight continued. We became a writhing bundle of limbs. While wrestling with an arm, I saw Rob, who was now conscious, crawling along the corridor away from the Box. I was sweating, breathing hard, fighting for my life, and still there was only two of us, separated completely from the rest of the prison.

Tim was fastened to an arm and being waved around like a flag by a gale. I attempted to twist the other arm but Price was too strong. The senior officer, alerted by Rob, stumbled into the Box to be confronted with a bloody tangle. We screamed at him together.

"Hit the fucking bell!"

The officer ran out, hit the bell and returned.

"Grab his fucking head. Grab it, for fuck's sake."

Three of us had a better chance, and within seconds of the bell sounding a bunch of bodies poured into the cell.

Nick Bullock approaching the crux of what was to become 'Fear and Loathing' on the South East Face of Jirishanca, Peru.
© Al Powell

A year later Price was in court charged with grievous bodily harm. The solicitor acting for Price argued that Rob had propositioned Price and as we walked into the Box Rob had touched him up. Rob was married with two children, and had no record of any sexual offence. Price had been convicted for all kinds of things, but none of that could be mentioned.

Price also had a good solicitor, whereas Rob had a junior brief provided by the prison service. Price was acquitted. He stood in the defendant's box laughing out loud as the verdict was read out. I couldn't believe how gullible the jury had been, but most of all I couldn't believe how the solicitor, a well-educated person, could manipulate what had happened to create such doubt in the jury's mind, to treat something as serious as this as a game.

The solicitor knew Price's background and must have known he was guilty, but he stood and argued the case anyway. Everyone deserves the right to a legal defence, and I'm very aware of miscarriages of justice, having known some victims. But for an intelligent and privileged person to be paid to argue a lie, with the consequence that a violent criminal was free to bully, assault and maim, disgusted me. I know it's naive, but I could never prostitute myself to defend the guilty.

Copyright Nick Bullock/Vertebrate Publishing 2012.

No reproduction without the express permission of the publisher.

Echoes will be published in hardback on 3 September 2012 by Vertebrate Publishing – order signed copies direct from Vertebrate: VERTEBRATE WEBSITE

Echoes front cover. Nick Bullock downclimbing the North Face of Quitaraju, Peru, after making the first ascent of the Central B  © Assorted photographers/Vertebrate Publishing 2012
Echoes front cover. Nick Bullock downclimbing the North Face of Quitaraju, Peru, after making the first ascent of the Central B
© Assorted photographers/Vertebrate Publishing 2012

28 Aug, 2012
Really interesting read thanks although I won't say it was enjoyable. I'm studying philosophy of punishment at the moment. We have to hope we can learn from countries doing things different and reform our penal system for the better. Enough to make anyone head for the hills
29 Aug, 2012
Sounds really good! I'll be buying it. I hope it continues in this vein. As with so many climbing biographies, it's the background and build up that interests me most, much more than the climbing writing!
29 Aug, 2012
I received my signed copy in the post this morning. Iv'e only had time to flick through it after a busy day, but i had a smile and a moment of contemplation when i read the dedication at the front and saw the pictures of Jules and Jamie (i can hear the echoes of laughter in that picture). It seems like another life, another country; the past. And now here i and many others are, putting the children to bed, making packed lunches for the morrow and looking out of the window and worrying that the grass is getting longer. I think that i will enjoy this book very much. James
31 Aug, 2012
In reply to psychomansam Hi, not wanting to sound like I'm giving it the big sell, this piece of writing is a very small part in a book which has a strong narrative arc covering the topic you talk. It has been nine years since I left the Prison Service and twenty-one years since I worked in the punishment block. I would like to think things have moved on, but without a massive cash injection and training and a more enlightened, liberal and sympathetic outlook not only from people managing and working within the Prison Service but more from the 'normal' people on the street I'm not sure they will have. To Andi, Hi Andi, if this is your criteria for a good read I don't think you'll be disappointed. **** Personally I would not have chosen this chapter, which by the way is shortened, for an excerpt; this is a chapter that comes after an argument for reform and a different way of thinking which balances what is going on in this piece of writing, and later I say that I am not proud to have been involved in this type of thing. Like I say, not the big sell, but I'm afraid to have the full story and a proper opinion people will need to read the whole book ;-) Cheers Nick, PS, thanks James and Tom
31 Aug, 2012
Hi Nick, how does it feel to be referred to as 'insane' by crazy mentalist Paul Pritchard?! (In the foreword) Quite an honour, I expect! Read a good few chapters the last couple of nights - not got to the climbing yet, but since I know stuff all about the prison service I'm finding it really enlightening. Looking forward to the rest.....
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