London’s Old Prisons

London used to be full of prisons. Most of them were extremely well known and some names are still familiar – more so if you read nineteenth century novels. Yet apart from Wormwood Scrubs, Pentonville, Holloway and Wandsworth, the overwhelming majority of prisons simply aren’t there any more. Having read Oliver Twist and Affinity (by Sarah Waters), I thought it might be interesting to have a look at some of the better known of London’s lost prisons.

Dickens mentions many of London’s prisons in his novels; in Oliver Twist it is Newgate, which at that time was the central criminal prison in London. The inmates were famous, and their exploits were regularly published in The Newgate Calendar, which also gave details of executions and sentences as well as the crimes. Some of the old cells now form part of the Old Bailey – I think they are holding cells for defendants on trial – but they can be viewed by appointment I believe.

Dickens also used the Marshalsea Prison as a setting in his novel Little Dorrit. Unlike Newgate, the Marshalsea was a debtors prison and it was demolished in 1852 with the inmates being moved. Dickens’ father was a debtor in the Marshalsea and all that remains of the building is a part of the original wall. It was situated in Southwark, just overlooking the river, and also housed men convicted of crimes at sea. However, given that nearly half London’s population were inmates of debtors’ prisons, you can guess what the majority of the inmates were there for.

Sarah Waters sets her second novel, Affinity, in Millbank Prison, a beautifully designed prison in Pimlico. It was both a men’s and women’s criminal prison and a holding facility for convicts awaiting transportation. It was loosely based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, his vision of an ideal prison, being built in a “flower” shape. Unfortunately, the site was redeveloped, and Tate Britain now occupies most of the land, with the remainder forming part of Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Another ancient prison in London is The Fleet Prison in Farringdon, which started as a criminal facility and ended as a debtors’ prison. It went on to form part of Ludgate Station which, in turn, was redeveloped to be part of City Thameslink. However, if you want to find out what these old prisons were really like, it is possible to visit The Clink Prison Museum in Bankside, on the site of the original Clink Prison (“clink” is also a London slang term for a prison). They have put a great deal of effort in recreating some original cells and it would be a really interesting insight into (for example) Little Dorrit, if you happen to be reading that.

I must admit that given the number of Victorian prisons still operational – I live quite close to one – I’m surprised that so many have been mothballed. It is fair to say that the conditions weren’t wonderful, but given the current crisis of overcrowding, perhaps bringing some back online on a short term basis might not be a bad idea.

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A Modern Oliver Twist

Now here’s a scary thought. Take a classic of Victorian literature and without changing the plot substantially, rewrite it in a modern setting. Can’t be done? Unfortunately, the only thing missing from a revamp of Oliver Twist would be the workhouse, and I’m not convinced we’re far away from its return. Pretty much everything else, including the criminal gangs and the magistrates’ courts, haven’t substantially changed. For a book that’s almost 190 years old, I think that’s pretty shocking.

Anyway, following this thought, here’s how it would go. A young pregnant woman, living on the streets, gives birth in hospital but dies in childbirth. The child is placed into foster care initially, and then into a children’s home where he runs away after being abused by the carers. He falls in with a gang of young boys who all share a squat with an older “mentor”, who fences what they steal. Their near neighbours are a prostitute and her partner, a violent burglar. Oliver is arrested for a petty theft he did not commit and is about to be convicted when the prosecution allows that new evidence has come to light indicating that he is innocent. Oliver briefly escapes the gang and lives with philanthropic Mr Brownlow, only to be kidnapped and returned to his former life of crime. However Nancy feels sorry for the boy, who is treated more cruelly than before, and arranges with Mr Brownlow to have Oliver legally returned to live with him., but Sikes discovers the ploy and murders her. Oliver flees, returns to Mr Brownlow only to discover that Brownlow is, in fact, his maternal grandfather and who arranges to adopt him.

That took me slightly less than ten minutes (it only took me that long because I forgot Mr Brownlow’s name and I had to look it up) and, as you can see, I’ve barely tweaked the plot at all. Isn’t it appalling that in two hundred years, such a story could still be told – and be believable? I don’t have solutions to such deep-seated problems, but it strikes me that in all that time, very little has been done to alleviate them. Indeed, the only real difference between the London of Oliver Twist and the London of now is the lack of a workhouse – but instead, we have food banks and charity shops. It’s not really good enough, is it?

What Oliver Twist Tells Us About Funerals

It’s only a short episode near the beginning of the novel – indeed, I think Dickens ever so slightly skims over it to get on with the delivery to Fagin and the fun bits of the book – but for a while, Oliver Twist was a funeral mute. These were very common at Victorian funerals – the middle classes wouldn’t be seen buried without them – but they’re no longer used as burial itself has gone out of fashion. So what was their role in the funeral?

According to that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, the main purpose of a funeral mute was to stand around looking sad, initially at the door of the deceased’s home before leading the funeral cortege to the churchyard, and then at the door of the church. They were almost all employed by the undertakers rather than the bereaved, and formed part of the funeral package alongside the coffin and the service. They were considered symbolic protectors of the dead until their committal into the ground.

This practice died out with the onset of the First World War, partly due to the sheer number of deaths in that period but also because of the increased popularity of cremations, partly as a result of increased secularisation but also (especially in the UK) due to lack of space. As funerals became more expensive, people realised that they couldn’t afford a horse-drawn hearse with plumes, half a dozen mutes, two professional mourners and a three hour requiem mass (or CofE equivalent). So non-essential elements simply dropped away – virtually nobody has professional mourners and mutes anymore, although you do still see the occasional horse-drawn hearse, especially in the East End of London.

The Victorians had a very definite way of doing death and it’s possible that they went over the top – I certainly don’t fancy spending five years in mourning when my husband dies or three years for my daughter – but they had some lovely traditions which, if you can afford them, you really should think about bringing back.

A Dark Side to Oliver Twist

As if a story about organised gangs of child pickpockets, thievery and murder wasn’t dark enough… but I’m still reading the beginning of the novel, before the reader is introduced to Fagin, Artful Dodger and Bill Sikes – before, even, we move to the workhouse. You see, little Oliver starts his life at what was known as a baby farm, which were incredibly common in the Victorian era – and at least one provided an infamous serial murderer.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Baby farms were set up by women who essentially adopted unwanted children for money. Such children were often born of unmarried mothers, who would then return to their former lives without apparently suffering the stigma of giving birth out of wedlock. The care in these baby farms varied from the basic but healthy to the barest minimum; Mrs Mann, who cares for Oliver in the novel, falls somewhere between the two, but I would wager towards the lower end of the scale.

Unsurprisingly, such an easy means of making money led to some unscrupulous behaviour, and none more so than Amelia Dyer, a notorious baby farmer in Reading who, over the period of twenty years, murdered an unknown number of infants whom she had “adopted”, usually by strangulation but sometimes also by neglect and starvation although I suspect an over-generous dose of laudanum may well have helped them along. Because of the social stigma attaching to the natural mothers, many children went unchecked and so the neglect of the adoptive parent frequently went unreported. Amelia Dyer was hanged in 1896 at Newgate, although the exact number of her victims remains unknown. There is a possibility that her daughter, Polly, was also complicit in some of the murders, but this was never proven and the charges against her were dropped.

The scandal and public outcry created by the murders did lead to substantial changes in the law surrounding adoption, and effectively rendered baby farming illegal. Perhaps this is just as well. In this respect, one must assume that Oliver was fortunate to have reached his eighth birthday and return to the workhouse, although the treatment there probably wasn’t much better than what he had already endured.

My Life In Books

Okay, I admit it – I nicked this idea from The Guardian because I think that actually it’s quite fun and really makes me think about what kind of books I like (and loathe). It was, if I’m honest, also surprisingly difficult to do and there’s every possibility that the answers could change if I were to do it again in a year or two. So here we have it – my life in books.

1. Book That Changed My Life – Very probably My Year of Meat by Ruth Ozeki, which I read years and years ago but not since, even though I have a copy. What I learned about factory farming put me off eating meat for life. I think that’s a fairly significant life decision, don’t you?

2. Book I Wish I’d Written – There are two contenders for this, but I’m going to opt for the obvious one and say The Children’s Book by AS Byatt. I fell in love with it within pages of borrowing it from the library so immediately picked up my own copy so I never had to part with it again – and I don’t regret that decision one jot. I really, really wish I’d written it.

3. Book I Would Give as a Present – That depends on the potential recipient, but I do wish more people have read Lust for Life by Irving Stone. It’s a fictionalised account of the last decade or so of Vincent Van Gogh’s life and used his letters to his brother as the basis for the novel. It’s wonderfully moving and I really feel I understand his paintings a little better. This is the other book I wish I’d written – that’s how much I love it.

4. Book I Think is Overrated – Anything by Dan Brown. Now I appreciate that he can write books that sell by the truckload, but the stories are badly written and in a couple of cases, not very original. I don’t see what all the fuss over Fifty Shades of Grey was about either, and that’s another example of “poor writing that sells a lot”. I’d love to know how they do it. Is there a form I have to fill in?

5. Book I Think is Underrated – Albert Camus’ The Rebel. It’s not the easiest read, and I am the first to admit that, but it’s well worth the effort. The breadth of his learning is astonishing and he makes some fascinating points which I hadn’t really considered before.

6. Book That Changed My Mind – Moby Dick, although I had to wait until my mid-forties to tackle it, but it was worth it. I hadn’t realised how cleverly written it was and – despite some of the subject matter – I really enjoyed it, but it’s not for everyone.

7. Book I Couldn’t Finish – Finnegan’s Wake, and I have tried. Honestly, three times I’ve started it and the furthest I got was page 23. I just can’t do it. The bloody thing’s impossible and I’m convinced that anyone who claims to have read it is lying through their teeth.

8. Book I’m Ashamed Not to Have Read – I’m not ashamed, but I don’t like admitting that I dislike Jane Eyre. So many of my friends love it but I’ve never really got on with the Bronte’s and I find Jane Eyre really irritating.

9. Book That Made Me Cry – Lust for Life (see above) gets me every time. I just can’t help getting emotionally involved. Mind you, I also cry at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, so that just proves I’m a sentimental old bat.

10. Book That Influenced Me – Too many to mention, as I have stolen something from pretty much everything I’ve read, including how not to do it. Perhaps my biggest influence is a friend of mine, Suzie Grogan, who has written a number of books now. She’s clear evidence that there’s nothing quite as effective as getting on with it when you want to write a book. And her books are brilliant to boot.

The Problem With Hotel Sized Diamonds

There seems to me to be an inverse relationship between the amount of money and the amount of taste someone has; that is, the richer they are, the less stylish they are. This seems to be more apparent in those who have come into money later in life, rather than having been born wealthy (although the late Marquess of Bath was always the exception to that particular rule). A prime example of this is Trump Towers. The décor does nothing more than remind me of the good old days when gold plated taps and black satin sheets were must-haves for any third rate lothario worth his medallion.

Which brings me on to one of my favourite F Scott Fitzgerald short stories, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. It’s basically a mountain sized diamond, in the vicinity of which people live and, as one would expect, the surroundings are on the luxurious side. Why wouldn’t they be, if you could basically pay for everything with lumps chipped off the old block, for want of a better expression? In 2016, an 83 carat rough diamond sold for roughly $63 million, so a decent sized chip could probably buy you most of Real Madrid; and probably also Barcelona if you wanted. I am, of course, assuming that the diamond is gem quality; if it isn’t, it’s probably still worth a fair sum if the chips are sold for industrial usage but perhaps not $63 million.

So there you are, sitting on a fortune and wondering how to decorate your living accommodation – conveniently built as much into the house as possible, to stop people nicking your treasure – without looking like you’d just covered everything in rhinestones and gold plate. As Dolly Parton is often quoted as saying, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap”. I simply can’t understand how people can live with so much bling, although I’d be tempted to have a cut diamond chandelier in each room, rather than a crystal one. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I had that amount of money at my disposal – die of shock most likely. What about you?

A Crooked Man

Does anyone actually remember that Jay Gatsby actually made his money by being a criminal? At the time of the novel’s setting (1922), the insurance bond market was still in its infancy and I think it’s fair to say that it was poorly understood by most people, even those within the financial industry. As a result, it was a ripe market for manipulation and fraud, and this was how Jay Gatsby made his fortune.

Interestingly, though, it’s possible to argue that the fraudulent bonds were only one aspect of Gatsby’s criminal career. It has to be borne in mind that the novel is set in 1922, in the middle of the Prohibition era; yet all the way through Gatsby are references to alcohol, cocktails and getting drunk. Where are they getting the booze from? Nowhere legit, that’s for certain. If Jay Gatsby has criminal contacts through his fraudulent bond dealings, there is every possibility that he knows a bootlegger or two.

In fact, everything about Jay Gatsby is fraudulent. Nick Carraway notes how Gatsby is careful with his words, as if he has to think about everything – because he is. If he were really what he said he was, he would be much easier going and probably more articulate. It’s his wardrobe that really gives him away – Tom Buchanan immediately spots that he’s not an “Oxford man” by dint of Gatsby’s pink suit. Old money, the officer class from the First World War who were given scholarships at Oxford, would never wear a pink suit.

When comparing his lifestyle with that of Tom and Daisy Buchanan – who are “old money”, if you like – it’s easy to see why Tom is unimpressed with Gatsby’s flamboyance. He can tell that something’s not quite right, even though Tom is still able to get hold of whisky at the apartment he uses for his liaisons with Myrtle. Tom clearly sees through the illusion that Gatsby has so carefully constructed; he’s a fraud and that’s all there is to it. However, I may just be reading something into the story that isn’t there. The whole point, after all, is to set Gatsby up against Buchanan with Daisy as the fulcrum; we can read all sorts of “old money/new money” battles into it that we like. I think, though, that remembering how Jay Gatsby got his money gives the reader a whole new insight into the rivalry between the two men.

The Murder That Inspired the Great Gatsby

Most people remember The Great Gatsby as being a novel about parties and adultery; few remember that there are two deaths in the novel, one an accident and one a murder. Although it is likely that F Scott Fitzgerald took inspiration from a variety of sources, the 1922 Hall-Mills murder case was certainly something that he would have followed and does appear to have left its mark on the story. So what’s it all about?

By modern standards, the murders of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall were not really out of the ordinary; but in 1922, they created a media circus which was not repeated until the death of the Lindbergh baby in 1930. Edward Hall was an episcopal priest and Eleanor Mills a member of his choir – both were married to other people and conducting an illicit relationship. However, their deaths appeared to have an element of ritual; the bodies were laid out on their backs, with both sets of feet pointing towards a crab-apple tree; Mr Hall’s face was covered by a hat; torn love letters between the pair were scattered around the corpses and Mr Hall’s calling card was at his feet. Both had been shot and Mrs Mills’ throat had also been cut and her tongue cut out. Clearly, this was not a random murder.

The only witness was Jane Gibson, a pig farmer on whose land the bodies were found. Unfortunately, Ms Gibson had severe mental health issues and it appears that her testimony varied, depending on whom she was telling; this led the Court to doubt her credibility and the media even went so far as to call her “crazy”. There were three main suspects: Mr Hall’s wife and her two brothers, Henry and William Stevens; William would today have been placed on the autistic spectrum and Henry was a former exhibition marksman. However, he had an alibi. Nobody was ever convicted of the killings and officially the case remains unsolved, although modern historians who have looked at what evidence remains do suggest that the Stevens brothers were the guilty parties.

So, what does this have to do with the Great Gatsby? Well, there is a suggestion that the Hall-Mills murders inspired Fitzgerald in writing Jay Gatsby’s ultimate demise, especially when reading through the final chapters. Mr Gatz, Jay’s father, explains how he heard of the murder in the papers, which was what happened to Mr Hall’s brother in law. Of course, this cannot be conclusively proven, but given the amount of press and publicity covering the murders at the time, it’s possible that there’s something in the story.

The Third Horseman Rides Again

I’ve just finished The Plague by Albert Camus which, I have to admit, has surprised me. I had always thought that Camus wrote difficult existentialist books, bleak and dismal – but this is actually incredibly readable and really very enjoyable. It’s also quite realistic, depicting a town in Algeria where a virulent strain of bubonic and pneumonic plague has taken hold.

If you’ve ever seen the series Containment (either the original Belgian version, called Cordon, or the US remake) you will immediately understand the plot of the novel. Here it starts with rats, dying in their thousands, and then the first people die of a strange looking viral illness. It takes the doctor, Rieux, some time to persuade his colleagues and public health officials that it is, in fact, bubonic plague, but once the disease is formally identified – and the body count starts to rise – the town is placed under a cordon sanitaire to prevent the disease from spreading. The bulk of the novel is how the occupants of the town survive in the face of virulent disease and what, to all intents and purposes, are siege conditions.

It’s this human element that makes the book interesting. While there are some quite graphic descriptions of the disease in the early parts of the book – do we really need to know about lancing buboes? – by the time we are halfway through, we have a central collection of characters who are all trying to survive as best they can. We can feel their exhaustion and sympathise with their despair or desire to find a way to escape, no matter what. At times, I found myself asking how I would cope in that situation and the simple answer is that I don’t know. A lot would depend on whether I was alone or with members of my family, and if anyone I knew were sick. It’s something nobody can predict unless they were in that situation and it’s not a situation you would wish anyone to be in.

That said, I was very impressed with how easy the book was to read. There is a little existentialist philosophy and a fair bit of grimness, but given the plot, that’s hardly surprising. I’d definitely read it again.

Social Media As A Means To Inadequacy

I’ve been unfriended on Facebook again. It happens periodically and often for reasons I never find out, but given that I don’t have a great many friends to start with, I notice. I don’t let it bother me though; there are always reasons and frankly, I don’t let social media govern my life anymore.

I think I read somewhere that the average person has 300 friends on Facebook and roughly 200 followers on Twitter. I believe figures are similar for Instagram and Tumblr, but as I’ve never used those, I can’t comment. I recently deleted my Twitter account (and don’t miss it) but at its maximum I had 50 followers. On Facebook, I have 45 friends and at least two thirds of those are people I’m related to. Followers come, followers go; some block, some just never follow back; some keep turning up like bad pennies no matter how many times you hit the “ignore” button. And if you don’t have many followers, like me, it’s very easy to read things into this that simply aren’t there.

For example, I was recently unfollowed by someone I’d always considered quite a good friend. We’d met in real life, and knew each other really well. I’ve no idea why she’s chosen to unfriend me, but I’m certain there are reasons behind it which will become clear in the fullness of time. It would be very easy to view this as a personal slight, but I don’t. It may just be that I don’t view social media as that important any more. It’s a method I use to keep in touch with people on a regular basis that is cheaper than the phone, quicker than a letter and often more entertaining when animal photos are involved.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of measuring one’s popularity by the number of “likes” or “retweets” one gets on social media; but that’s not a true measure of popularity at all. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into myself, and it’s been a cause of great pain and upset in the past. It’s really important to remember that there is more to life than social media. In fact, there’s an entire world that doesn’t involve a computer screen. Revolutionary I know, but I’ll share one nugget of wisdom with you – since I’ve stopped measuring my life by social media, I feel a whole lot less inadequate.