Don Tomson




book review


Don Tomson

VICTIMS AND Victors is a kind of thief's journal recounting the author's life spent "tilting" at authority, from his early (formative?) days at borstal to years in prison until finally going straight (save for a short spell as a journalist) and becoming politically active.

The bulk is taken up with that time behind bars. The text combines laconic humour with matter-of-fact horror in equal, strangely complimentary, amounts as it seeks to illuminate a portion of British life in the '40s and '50s that has seldom been analysed.

While in borstal the author dodges conscription (he feigned blindness!) and is witness to the ritual defilement of sweet-faced newcomers. Those who were passively compliant in such acts are noticeable by their "extra portions of plum duff at dinner time".

Rewards – trivial by outside standards yet coveted inside – are the cornerstone of institutional existence. Striking is the similarity between such houses of correction, run by a regime based on oppression and fear and the great British public school.

The author later remarks: "There's long been a rapport between the criminal and the privileged upper classes ... the thinking criminal deeply respects the initiative of those who send little boys up chimneys and little girls down coal mines."

In prison Don Tomson survived by immersing himself in books, edifying the mind rather than crawling bodily for the walls. He dwells over Milton and Spenser – perhaps they inspired some of his fabulous lines like "I fouled my trousers fore and aft".

It's a grim memoir. I'm certain that porky pies abound (or at least the fancifications of an ageing memory) but in detailing a system built on brutality and terror, the question posed between the lines is poignant and simple. What has changed?

In the answer to that lies the deepest horror.


mick sinclair

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