Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Reading Gaol – my visit to Oscar Wilde’s cell

Reading Gaol – best known for Prisoner C3.3, or Oscar Wilde, is now a young offenders’ institute housing hundreds of criminals. 

I’ve often passed it and, having a long-standing love of all things Oscar, wondered what it was like on the other side of the wall – not only in his day, but now as well. So when I got the opportunity to visit Reading Prison, as it is now known, on an Oscar Wilde Society trip, I jumped at the chance.

While I was a reporter many of the court cases I covered at nearby Reading Crown Court involved boys who’d been imprisoned there. And they are boys, really – aged between 18 and 24. ‘Children’ was how the principal officer, Tony Stokes, referred to them once during our visit, though he reiterated some have committed evil crimes.

When Wilde was serving his two year sentence for gross indecency in 1895, he was shocked by the amount of children serving sentences at Reading Prison. One 11-year-old just three years earlier had been sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour and 12 strokes of the birch for stealing a rabbit, to use just one example.
Wilde was so sickened by watching the preparations for the execution of Charles Thomas Wooldridge from his window that he began to form the ideas for what would become The Ballad of Reading Gaol. 

When we actually got inside and the iron gates swung shut behind us, my chest suddenly tightened. The sense of rising panic lasted for about the first half-hour of the trip, as door after door was firmly locked. The sense of claustrophobia to know you cannot escape was hard to overcome.

We visited the chapel, which is now a recreation room, and one member of the group asked and was allowed to read out the ballad.  
The imagery of hanging: ‘It is not sweet with nimble feet to dance upon the air’ in the poem chillingly resonated around the room. Tony Stokes confirmed although scholars have disputed Wilde’s claims he could see from his cell the unconsecrated ground where bodies were thrown, he knew Wilde was right because the outhouse now blocking the view was more recent than the rest of the prison.

Inside, the cell blocks were exactly like every in film and prison TV show – noisy, dark, metallic stairs, nets everywhere. Cell 3.3. was being used so we could not go in, but there was a plaque outside in memory of its most famous resident. We went into one empty cell and it was tiny, particularly given prisoners are located two to a cell to reduce the suicide risk.

One of my favourite stories as a reporter involved this rescue of a parrot by a 21-year-old on day release. It shows how if young people are given another chance once inside they can turn their lives around and gain new opportunities. The prison’s Kennet Unit does fantastic work getting the inmates trained, with a focus on how their life will be when they are released.

Looking out of the window in the new chapel, it was strange to see The Blade and Reading’s other landmarks from such a different angle. Outside, alongside the wall housing a 5-a-side pitch and exercise area is a plaque to each of the people executed in Reading Gaol. The razorwire above the thick walls is truly imposing and although the staff and activities deserve praise, it is a million miles away from the type of luxury living the tabloids would encourage belief in.

I think, in some ways, the improvements from Wilde’s day to the present only emphasise what a terrible time he truly had while inside.     

Friday, 8 October 2010

Death Knocks - A Reporter's Loneliest Hour

8.30am arrive at work chirpy, enjoying sunshine, full of story ideas for the week.
8.31am find out someone died overnight and a death knock is in the offing. Mellow well and truly harshed.
Doing a deathknock is one of the most difficult parts of the job. For the uninitiated, it’s where you have to approach the family of someone who has died and find out what happened and get them to agree to a tribute. 
It’s tough because the responses range from tears, to hostility, to being escorted off the premises with an earful. Death knocks for children or people who have died unexpectedly are always extremely hard because the family is always in shock. As always, the balance between what is expected of you to get the story and how mindful to be of a grieving family is tricky. 
Sitting outside someone’s home in your car trying to muster the confidence to knock on their front door can be really lonely so if you prepare yourself, you’ll make it easier.
For all new journalists, I would give the following tips:
1) Leave your car unlocked. Just in case you have to leg it back in a hurry.
2) Write out a little script if you need to be clear about exactly what to say.
3) If you’re unsure whether or not you are knocking on the door of the right family, glance in the window – are there bereavement cards? Otherwise, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea from their face as soon as they open the door.
4) Don’t forget to ask for a photo – take a picture of an existing photo if you can, or take a picture away to scan and return.
5) Dress smartly – it really will get you through the door if you can be sympathetic and polite.
6) Saying something positive like ‘We’re looking to put together a tribute’ is best as it puts the ball back in the family’s court.
7) If you have to ask to go to the funeral, you can say it’s so people who can’t go can get an account and you’ll stay away from talking to anyone.  If the family says they’re not interested, ask if you can call back again – sometimes they change their mind once they’ve thought about it. Be mindful, however, of the PCC's Code of Conduct - don't harrass.
 8) If you’re stuck trying to find the right person’s house but have a name, go through the residential addresses on BT and just call each one saying, ‘I’m looking for the family of ………’ – you don’t have to go into details because they’ll know why you’re ringing if they’re the right family.
9) Try to put yourself in their position – is it a posh house? Are they old? If someone you loved had just died, what kind of approach would you like?
Sometimes people seem to find it therapeutic to put together a tribute and you'll sit having tea with the family, so try not to have a sense of dread about it. 

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Eat Pray Love: Watch, Dislike, Blog

Having been lucky enough to have travelled in Bali, India and Italy, and with a shaming love of self-help books (The Life Audit by Caroline Righton is a fave!), I was really interested to see Eat Pray Love.
I trotted off to the cinema on Saturday afternoon and sat amid of sea of hot flushes to watch the film, which stars Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem and Billy Crudup.
Now, having never read the book, I don’t know how accurate it is but the default setting of the film was ‘patronising’.
It begins in New York, where Julia Roberts’ character Liz appears to ditch her husband on a whim after a celestial being tells her to go back to bed when she gets up at night.
Like a therapy vampire, her new man tells her about an Indian ashram and, rather than inviting him, she ditches him and swans off there.
Not before a stay in Italy, where she scoffs pizza and mocks the locals for their expressive hand-gestures in a particularly cringe-worthy montage of her and her new BFFs wandering the streets of Roma.  
Next stop India, where she falls out with an American on an ashram and grumpily pushes a dishcloth around the floor.
The film even appears to confuse arranged and forced marriage in one conversation about a young ashram volunteer’s wedding day.
Next stop, it’s off to Bali for a bit of edgy chat and high flirting. Liz asks her friends to fund a woman’s home, instead of buying Liz birthday presents she doesn’t need. Unfortunately, my inner cynic was asking why she didn’t just fund the house herself, given that she was clearly given a hefty enough advance to write the book in the first place.
At this point I actually debated sneaking out but Javier Bardem’s sexy bearishness kept me in my seat.
Anywho, before I knew it Liz had gone mental at poor Javier and stomped off.
In all, the film passed an afternoon but it was painted in such broad strokes that the characters were really just caricatures and it had all the cultural realism of the Lion King.
And that even features a singing warthog. 

(My photo is my sister Helena and I in India) (I was going to put one each up of Italy, India and Indonesia but thought that might be a bit too navel-gazing).   

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Desperately Romantic Reading

I finished reading Desperate Romantics last night after being glued to it for days.
It’s not so much that it's fantastically written – and the proofreaders should surely take the rap for some absolute howlers – but it's an entertaining romp through the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti is an 1850s rock star painter: sexy, stomping around and swooning after every ‘stunner’ who waggles her hips at him as she wanders past.
He is joined by John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, who together form the 'secret' society PRB – publicly unveiled in the 1850s as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – alongside Thomas Woolner, Frederick George Stephens, James Collinson and ‘wait for me!’ tagalong little brother William Michael Rossetti.
As the book progresses and the second wave of Pre-Raphaelites including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones arrive, sexually incontinent Rossetti gets bored with his first muse, shopgirl Lizzie Siddal, and beds by turns Morris’ wife Jane, Pre-Raphaelite favourite Annie and anyone else with a swanlike neck, bee-sting lips and gingery hair.
Morris seeks solace following his wife’s affair in Mrs Burne-Jones;  then Pre-Raphaelite patron Ruskin’s wife annuls their marriage and runs off with Millais, causing the scandal of the century, and they all descend into a cloud of magenta and cyan-spattered frenzy.
Oh, and they all do a bit of painting too. 
Ophelia, Proserpine, Venus Astarte – the painters cast their muses in provocative, historical settings and spark furious outrage among Victorians with their sexually charged paintings.
Meanwhile, they set the scene for a new type of Bohemian lifestyle completely at odds with society’s veneration of the family.
As well as rattling through the story, Desperate Romantics also goes some way to disprove some of the most oft-repeated legends of the Victorian era.
The myth about John Ruskin’s disgust at his bride Effie’s pubic hair (a story even Bill Bryson recounted in At Home) being the reason he failed to consummate the marriage is dismissed. No one really knows what happened when poor Effie shrugged off her nightie on her wedding night but Ruskin must have studied Life Drawing classes so whatever turned him off, it wasn’t Effie’s womanly state. 
The mistakes in it are undeniably distracting – chloral once becomes ‘choral’, Lizzie Siddall meets a ‘grizzly’ end (was one of Rossetti’s exotic animals on the loose?) and ‘had’ and ‘has’ are confused, to name just a couple of mistakes.
It does not detract too far from the overall story but it is irritating and made me wonder – probably without base – whether a finer toothcomb should have been used on the research as well as the final story.
The attraction for modern readers with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lies in the circle of friendship. I’m absolutely certain that if I was around in those times I’d have been swotting around with Christina Rossetti polishing the lyrics of In The Bleak Midwinter instead (“‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow?’ Bingo!”) but you can’t help imagine that if you had been sitting in the cheap seats of some hell-hole theatre, a clever artist might have walked past and decided you too had the face of Helen of Troy.
I didn’t actually watch the BBC TV series last year but having finished the book, I’m going to get myself the box set and settle down to tune in.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Welcome to my Blog!

Well, hello and welcome to my humble blog!

I decided to start it as I'm going through some big changes in my life and thought it'd be brilliant to document them. Since January I've become an auntie, run a half marathon, learnt how to sub-edit, become a godmother, quit my job and started the apparently long process of getting a job in publishing.

I've done work experience at Quercus and Random House, become part of the Society of Young Publishers Mentoring Scheme, fired off my CV in all directions and networked all round.

I'm hoping I'll be able to pass on a bit of what I know about what it's like to be a cub reporter and eventually - I hope - explain how I got my first full-time role in publishing.

I also like otters and reading so there might be a bit of that, too.

So join me! Bookmark me! Go on... you know it makes sense!