How Many Keys Does it Take to Escape Prison?? (My Prison Journey – Part 7)

The answer funnily enough is 88! To find out why it takes 88 keys to escape prison read the article below.


“Escaping from Prison takes 88 Keys” by The Jailhouse Moose

As a Life sentenced prisoner I had never really thought about escaping, well never seriously thought about it. Sure I might have fantasised a little bit about what I might do if I escaped – who I might see. But I can honestly say that when it came to the prospect of actually devoting time and energy to planning or scheming – I really had no interest whatsoever.

But on 19th March 2019 I escaped without even realising it. I had not expected it, nor did I realise that my escape would require 88 keys, specifically the 88 piano keys so expertly wielded by Clare Hammond.

I was not ignorant of the classics, I know my ‘Air on a G-string’ from my ‘O Fortuna’. Though I can tell the difference between Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, I have never been what you might call an aficionado in any capacity. But on this Tuesday in Spring I embraced the opportunity to do something outside of my usual routine. As part of the Penned Up Arts & Literature festival at HMP Erlestoke I joined around 40 prisoners and staff in the prison’s chapel.

Claire Hammond


We were introduced to Clare Hammond, a former BBC Young Musician of the Year and concert pianist with a list of achievements and accolades that would put any self-promoting dictator to shame. Clare outlined the programme she had prepared for us. She would play seven pieces from a variety of composers that spanned a few centuries. She would introduce each piece by describing the work, the composer and the era in which it was conceived.

Claire Hammond 3

Serving time in a British prison is so often dominated by clanking chains, alarms, slammings and shouting – but as the chapel was filled with the melodies that Clare coaxed from her keys I found my eyelids closing. Whether the music was exerting its dominance or the usual cacophonous chorus paid respectful deference is immaterial. At that moment it seemed like I was elsewhere. As soon as Clare unleashed the first notes from Chopin’s ‘Harp Study’ I realised what a rare and privileged treat that we two-score were in for. We were part of an intimate event, a guided tour, a rendition that else-wise would have commanded a princely admission fee.

In the surreal moment between pieces I couldn’t help but smile as it seemed Mother Nature was determined to play her part. Right on cue the clouds parted and the spring sunshine shone through the chapel’s floor to ceiling windows. The Disney effect was complete when I heard birdsong from outside.

Our Odyssey continued with Chopin’s ‘Butterfly Study’ and a piece called ‘Winter Wind’. Clare’s introductions gave a depth of understanding and anticipation that enabled me to appreciate some of the finer nuances of the pieces. I was privy to elements that I would otherwise have dismissed or missed out altogether.

While introducing Debussy’s ‘Joyous Island’, Clare played a small section in advance and described its significance in the story of the music. Christ but she was spot on! As she reached the sign-posted section I could almost see the tourists Clare had described busily disembarking for the next stop on their Grand Tour.

We checked in with Schubert, then dropped back to Debussy before being set abuzz by a trilogy of bees – Mendelssohn’s ‘Bees’ Wedding’, Rimsky Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ and Ewan Campbell’s ‘Flight of the Killer Bee’. I determined to keep my eyes wide open in order to witness Clare’s frenetic playing of these pieces. Even had I been guided by keys that had been illuminated to guide the way I would still have been playing the myriad notes through most of April. In contrast, Clare’s digital dance was graceful and effortless.

Claire Hammond 2

I was both saddened and delighted when Clare announced the final piece of the programme. Saddened because it would be the final piece, yet greatly consoled because she had chosen Rachmaninoff. My anticipation was heightened as I remembered the autobiographical movie ‘Shine’. According to the movie, Rachmaninoff struck fear in the hearts of pianists and had led the movie’s protagonist, David Helfgott, to suffer a nervous breakdown.

I need not have been concerned as the diminutive Clare wrestled and wrung the music to her will. In the Q & A session afterwards Clare confessed that she had to cheat on occasion when she played Rachmaninoff’s works. By all accounts the Russian composer had giant hands that spanned the keys with ease. Clare simply could not spread her hands as wide but had learned to ‘roll the notes’, playing the notes consecutively rather than concurrently – who would have thought it – it turns out that Clare is human after all.

Claire Hammond 4

After the performance Clare was presented with a portrait that had been produced for the occasion by my good friend Jott. We left the chapel and returned to our sentences – our efforts to repay our debt to society. Clare’s 88 Keys had helped me escape, but rather than being traumatised by my return to captivity I found myself above it. Like the men listening to the Italian ladies singing in the Shawshank Redemption the music gave me armour against the world – a means of escape without fear of pursuit. Thank you Clare.

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