Monday, 2 November 2009

Hi, I'm Back from the IOW

So!...'Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends '... or so the great wise Emerson, Lake and Palmer once sung...'we're so glad you could attend, step inside, step inside' (or something like that – I'm working from memory here). As you may by now have realised; I am back trudging the rain-soggy sludge-gray streets and alleys of 'The Smoke (London), gone are the thatched roofs, chalk white and rainbow sanded cliffs and verdant downland of the Isle of Wight – of which more next time. As I write this I am sitting in a North London pub called 'The Occasional Half' in turn located in an area known locally as 'Greek City' due largely to Greek being by far the predominant tongue and as widely spoken as on Crete – the gorgeous Aegean Isle I was fortunate enough to have visited earlier in the year. I am knocking back a pint of Hobgoblin by Wychwood Brewery as I type, incidentally, in case you were wondering.

The latter sojourn got me to wondering as to the number of islands and islets that go to make up the British Isles and the natural isolation sometimes afforded, especially when one considers those scattered situated around the north and north-west of Scotland. I know the premise might be somewhat hard-worn and stereotyped but it is hard not to see the possibilities inherent in a privately-owned (which could equally infer ownership by the church, a charity or other institution), discrete and isolated island tucked away up there somewhere. I guess it's that Celtic / Catholic tradition and atmosphere such imagery seems to conjure but I for one can't help my thoughts turning to high-walled priories, nunneries, asylums and privately-funded and discrete reform schools - the latter, while an anachronism otherwise firmly routed in Victorian history elsewhere, somehow still extant here.

In my mind's eye I can see a gray-stone edifice, its sturdy walls semi-camouflaged against the rugged wind-carved bedrock, unstable, unassailable cliffs and sentinel mountains and escarpments of an island only reachable in the most clement of weathers. A charitable church-run retreat, perhaps, set up in a much earlier, less enlightened era to house young ladies deemed worthy of saving yet equally deemed in danger of drifting into 'moral peril'. Think 'runaways' perhaps fleeing a tumultuous home-life or an uncaring or even abusive background or perhaps some simply 'headstrong' yet privileged and seeking the excitement, glamor and bright-lights of the big city yet finding only grief and despair having been robbed of all she carried within the first week – once the apple of her father's eye, now cast adrift and obliged to sleep rough in shop doorways.

Maybe our heroine has set out to pave her own way in the way in the world only to fall foul of the economic vagaries of the time (all too plausible, there's a silver lining to every cloud – even in the present banking storm, perhaps more so!). Rendered jobless, her rent in arrears and her deposit she has paid on the modest single-roomed apartment therefore forfeit - and along with it the large majority of her savings – still she is to proud, or too stubborn to ask for help from 'Daddy'.

Yet, is she not one of the lucky ones? In one of the harshest winters in living memory her only surfeit to date has been but a single solitary night spent curled on cardboard in a Park Lane pedestrian subway. Tonight is different, things have taken a turn for the worse, not even that, the most basic of shelter, is available to her. Then trudging through the snow comes salvation in heavy woolen overcoats and sensible thick-soled boots. The Sisters of Mercy proffer hot soup, words of redemption, compassion and spiritual comfort – but, perhaps more importantly, they carry news, they make tell of an offer of warmth, sustenance and shelter for the physical self.

A few weeks of respite from this frigid hell and a promise of hospitality and all merely in return for a little work in and around the convent – no less than a bona fide miracle, surely? But then, in the icy stark light of day, the question hanging around her lips is just why her own clothing should have been deemed so unsuitable? Another, had she have given herself pause to reflect, should have been why her personal belongings, as meager as they be, had to be left behind, to be stored 'elsewhere' - and why there should have been such an urgency to their actions that no delay could be brooked to allow for her to pass on news of her passage to others of her acquaintance.

Later, given the likely brevity of her stay, the disproportionate effort expended in measuring her up and fitting her for the uniform they now insist she wear seems nonsensical to her, but finding herself at a disadvantage psychologically she can do little. Several full days taken up with fitting and re-fitting, alterations and re-sewing; seams are taken in, others are let out, pins are inserted and removed, hems are tacked, measured and then – with a nod of approval – stitched. Overly-careful attention is paid to pin-tucking, pleating of skirts and darting of bodices – and for why? A few weeks stay? Why should she be required to wear a uniform in the first place? And even if there were certain issues beyond her ken, perhaps of practicality, perhaps of tradition, why should such attention, not to mention expense, be lavished when surely something suitably analogous must be available commercially 'off-the-peg'. That concern of expense is not a trivial one, considering she has been told at her 'induction' that she will be expected to undertake sufficient work so as to recoup that cost even, before she might begin to make any inroad into her accommodation bills and any other outstanding debts the convent may have had to underwrite on her behalf.

But our wayward young lady is soon learn of other conditions; despite her plans, she won't be discharged from the care of the church authorities until such a time as she has repaid that dept in full, they intend to have their 'pound of flesh' – and therein lies the catch of course.

Then comes the workroom; standards are kept high in the workroom. This is a basic dressmaking 'sweatshop', yet not one situated in some downtrodden third-world state but rather one closer to home- and one legitimised by faith, ideology and well-entrenched institutionalised tradition to boot. Quality control is everything - it is what gives them the edge, commercially - much work is rejected, often more so than is accepted. And all that ruined work must be paid for, in one way or another – monetary fines are levied. Within six weeks she has come to owe more than twelve weeks in what she can earn through work, by way of debts, expenses and rejected work. But there is an alternative on offer for repeatedly rejected work – a few strokes of the work-room mistress's brine-soaked Malacca cane across naked drum-tight peach-skinned buttocks.

Then comes the transfer to that place - sited on an isolated isle off the rugged northern Scottish coastline, it is an establishment far more secure and one far more suited for one undergoing longer-term care; an interment, the once-flighty young thing comes to realise, likely to be measured in years rather than days, weeks and months.

Here, though she doesn't not know yet it, she will be joining a group of girls some of whom have already been in residence for some five years or so. Here, though she doesn't know it, she is to be worked to breaking point and beyond - urged ever onwards by the ever-present threat of cane -cut buttocks and the tanning of the traditional two-tongued leather Scottish tawes, martinet and strap. In the day dressed in the industrial working uniform of the place, the evening finds her dressed head to foot and from the skin outwards in the institution's childish school uniform, as befits the schoolroom educational environment that is pressed into use for the continuing and ongoing indoctrination of the inmates.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very good text, thank you!