Category:
social comment

A People-Centred life

by Colin Ferguson

Mari HowardMay 3, 2021
social comment

I’ve recently read a short book, Behind the Crime by Colin Ferguson, who has worked in the Probation Service and after retirement as a Family Mediator.  The author’s intention is to set before his readers what lies behind their criminal behaviour which led to prison sentences, and the part probation can and may play in improving and stabilising the lives of those who have ‘done time’. He does this by styling the book in short chapters, each telling a short ‘case history’ type story concerning one character, their crime, their previous life, and their interaction as a probationer. All are based on real situations, with of course names and other details  changed.

He himself experienced a complete change of environment as a small child, moving from Perth, Scotland, to Richmond, Surrey, which involved all the disruption of unfamiliar places, accents, a new school, and leaving the past behind. His career as a Probation Officer began after 9 years at the Bank of England, and his degree in Criminal Justice was taken as a mature student. All these, as well as becoming a Lay Preacher, shows Ferguson took with him to the job some real-life knowledge of overcoming difficulties, and is certainly a ‘people person’. His life has included many and varied experiences, as he has worked with and guided, where possible, many people encountering a chance and a challenge to change their previous life around.

The stories reveal what a patchwork of humanity is found ‘on probation’. In Holloway Prison, for example, he worked exclusively of course with female prisoners, whose crimes were mainly drug or alcohol-related. Holloway also had a large population of prostitutes or sex workers, some whom were in that business following into their mum’s career, or pushed into it by boyfriends. In another story, we Readers encounter  a woman who had never actually done any real ‘shopping’ until her husband suddenly died. Apparently he had always walked around the supermarket instructing her in what to pick up, then, in his role of “bread-winner” moved the check-out, totally in charge of paying. The woman was  compelled by his loss to at last run her own life, including handling money. In despair at how paying worked, she shoplifted groceries, and ended up with a short sentence.  On release, she returned to the prison, begging to be allowed back into what had become ‘home’.

Many other crimes reveal themselves to be committed by people who are finding it hard to cope with the complexities of life, for a variety of reasons. Some are from desperately difficult backgrounds, families where criminality was the norm, or where they were subject to violent behaviour and cruel abuse. In most cases, probably all, it is very possible to feel compassion for these people, and indeed to admire the faithful work of the probation service in attempting to put ‘criminals’ who have suffered dehumanising and depressing lives into better place, a possible home and suitable work.

Ferguson writes with compassion and projects a practical, common sense attitude towards his clients, with eyes open to their lifestyles and problems, along with a positive regard. The very concept of ‘probation’ (officially begun in 1907, and developed from the ‘Church of England Temperance Society’ and other voluntary bodies which had begun to attempt to give offenders the chance of release under a system of supervision) and gave many prisoners a ‘second chance’.  However, in 2007, after various negotiations and discussions, it was privatised. And has since become less effective.

It isn’t the job of a book review charting one Probation Officer’s career and experiences to comment further or go into details, but an article in The Guardian(cited by Wikipedia, and, additionally, the witness of a family member of mine who was at that time working  in Probation) suggest that “privatisation of the probation service was done in haste, underfunded and is failing.[3] Probation is being used less because judges and magistrates have lost confidence in the privatised probation system.[4]

The probation service in London is understaffed and many probation officers are inexperienced. Probationers are seen too infrequently and some are overlooked.”*

To conclude my review, Behind the Crime is a not only an interesting read, taking us literally ‘behind’ what we read in the newspapers or in crime novels, to look into how and what motivates criminals, but an eye-opener into lives often already blighted by poverty, insecurity, neglect, addiction, poor education, or violence, adding up to what could be called ‘suffering’, although it is unlikely they might use that word of themselves. It is very much worth a read. And contains no ‘lay preaching’ of a ‘religious’ kind, but plenty of wisdom and compassion, laced with a realistic appraisal of humanity.


New Book Review: ‘Behind the Crime’ (non-fiction)

Read author Colin Ferguson’s experience of working in the Probation Service in the 1970s-1990s, and learn a little about the lives, motivations, and hopes of some prisoners and ex-prisoners, the real vulnerable, confused, unhappy, or angry, people ‘Behind the Crime’. How do they see themselves, what motivated them to commit the crime, what hopes do they have for the future? Has probation helped? Read full review at Mari’s Book Club – click Read more


The Art Fiasco

by Fiona Veitch Smith

Mari HowardOctober 29, 2020
art & culture, historical, social comment

“Poppy didn’t like being on the receiving end of a journalist’s questions…” No, she certainly wouldn’t! Our protagonist in The Art Fiasco is a journalist herself…  a lady journalist, and the year is 1924.

The Art Fiasco is the fifth in the Poppy Denby series of mysteries, and having read all four preceding books I was already looking forward to re-meeting the characters. Even more so since although not a native North Easterner, I studied at Newcastle University, took some Art History as a second subject, and had friends in their excellent Fine Art department, which features in the book. From living in various parts the City (including Jesmond, though not in an elegant  house like Aunt Dot’s) I knew, or knew of, many of the locations – Heaton, Gosforth, the Laing and Hatton galleries – mentioned. I also looked forward to learning about Newcastle in the Victorian and Edwardian era, and of course it all made sense: well before my time there (when shipbuilding on the Tyne was the big employer) Newcastle was the centre of a thriving coal producing area. Coal, also used in British manufacturing, was shipped all over the world. The city was home to a well-off middle class who enjoyed the theatre, cinema, and elegant Armstrong Park (with tea room), and surrounded by mining villages.  Including the showcase Ashington, where this tale begins delightfully with authentic dialect dialogue, and then shockingly by revealing a sinister exploration.

At that time, evening and weekend classes run from a local University had become the way for workers to ‘get educated’: teachers would travel out to villages with boxes of books or necessary equipment, to set up and teach in the village hall or equivalent. Somehow the location of children’s Saturday art classes “held in the Church of England Hall” rang very true: it would be the C of E, somehow! 

But what secrets might be running beneath this particular apparently innocent outreach to the mining families of Ashington?  Do the beneficent employers of the tutor know enough about who they’ve entrusted to teach the miner’s children? Typical of Fiona Veitch Smith’s work, much of this historical plot will point up problems familiar to our own society today.  Here they lead first to Poppy’s 1924 investigation of a ‘cold case’ and then on to a murder. And it all takes place as she is enjoying a few days’ holiday visiting her parents in their home town of Morpeth, nearby, and planning to attend her fashionable friend Delilah’s performance in The Importance of being Ernest at the Theatre Royal (an impressive building on Grey Street, opened in 1837, still in use and Grade 1 listed).

Alongside, Veitch Smith as always includes, when setting Newcastle in its golden days, lovely descriptions of contemporary fashion, and much awareness of the nuances of social class. And as we wait with the crowd in the foyer of an art deco cinema, into Poppy’s mind we go, as she admires the decor and the fashion through the filter of her Methodist upbringing. Her friend Delilah’s evening clothes are wonderful, but when buying her own Poppy considers whether these are “clothes which last” as well as fashionable. I liked the writer’s apposite use of “sporting” in describing an outfit worn by one of the characters as they meet at the Park: he appears “wearing tennis whites and sporting a straw boater.” (To sport a bowler, or a rose in the buttonhole, is overkill, to sport on your way to play tennis is certainly allowed!)

And so we proceed, peacefully, through the first few chapters, enjoying the time Poppy is away from her Fleet Street lifestyle as a London journalist – then (on p.98) lulled by enjoying a bit of culture, we’re confronted by the unexpected: Poppy witnesses a murder!  Suddenly, in a formal setting, crowded with the well-heeled and well-educated, a crime has been committed.  As the appalling news spreads (p.102) “…the air was charged with ghoulish curiosity and abject sorrow, depending on how close in life the onlooker had been to the deceased.” Of course, we readers anticipate that Poppy will become involved with the case.  It must connect to that previous mystery, back in 1897-8.  And here, (p.153), examining the last place of residence of the deceased, she finds a touching detail (the mark of a skilful writer): “Poppy came across the catalogue for the … exhibition… under a discarded silk stocking. She matched the stocking with its mate… then paged through the catalogue.” Another nice use of language I enjoyed (p.172) was a character wearing “a vivacious silk scarf”.

At this stage of the story, mystery begins to build, and we might (but don’t) lose these nice touches of thoughtful description. Though there are also odd behaviours and other clues to think about. Already plenty of suspects exist to speculate around, but interleaved are some almost cosy domestic scenes. We meet Poppy’s Methodist minister father, and her mother, and learn more about the years leading up to the present in a well painted picture of their earlier family life. In typical style for this writer, there is plenty of social comment woven carefully into the plot, much of it concerning disturbing facts about women’s lives in a hierarchical, patriarchal society. Some still present… The solution to the mystery, when it comes, is satisfying and believable, and although this could be seen as a “closed ending” there is also an opening for more adventures to anticipate, as Poppy moves further along the path of an independent young women In the early 20th century.

I can thoroughly recommend this book, which I loved. The writer tells a good story, keeping the reader involved by her attention to historical detail and her almost conversational, friendly style. We feel positive towards Poppy, who behaves as our best selves might in various situations and is committed to seeking the truth in her career as a journalist. As a central character, she is appealing and attractive with her openness towards the people she meets, and her awareness and thoughtful attitude towards this period of rapid social change.

You can read some of the author’s research in Who’s left holding the baby? – class & contraception in the 1920s by going to the Mari Howard blog where we’re hosting her guest post:: https://marihowardauthor.wordpress.com/

I was offered an e-book of this novel, in exchange for an honest review, and was happy to accept. I’m glad to say this is indeed an honest review of a book I’ve enjoyed very much.


New! Guest blog by author Fiona Veitch Smith & my review of her new book The Art Fiasco – both here Thursday 29 October…

The Art Fiasco is 5th in Fiona’s Poppy Denby Investigates series, and I was given the chance to read a copy for review. I thoroughly enjoyed this new mystery, set in Newcastle on Tyne and in the mining village of Ashington, in 1924 (with backstory in 1897-8). The book has a cast of lively and varied characters, social comment on the contrasting lives of the middle class and working class families (especially the women), and a host of possible suspects to be considered as the possible perpetrator of the crime…

Author Fiona Veitch Smith was born in the North East then spent much of her childhood in South Africa, where she graduated fromRhodes University in the Eastern Cape, and worked as a journalist. On return to Britain and her native county, she’s lectured in journalism and other writing areas, at Newcastle and Northumbria Universities, and written a number of books for both adults and children…She has a certain relation to her heroine, Poppy Denby, who also works for a newspaper…