Prisoners’ stories are told in poems not sentences

Voices of inmates and staff in book that offers an intimate window into the lives of those connected to Holloway jail

Friday, 3rd July 2020 — By Calum Fraser

Natalie Scott

Natalie Scott: ‘Each of us in our individual way is trying to survive’. Credit: Kev Howard 

FROM a fascist who had Hitler as an honorary guest at her wedding to a notorious night-club host who shot and killed her violent lover as he lay in the street, a book about Holloway Prison’s inmates could easily stray into the “sensational” if in the hands of a mischievous hack.

But Natalie Scott was determined not to fall into such a trap after she received funding from the Arts Council to write Rare Birds: Voices of Holloway Prison.

Instead, her book provides an intimate window into the lives of women whose crimes often overshadow their humanity.

Ms Scott said: “I didn’t want it to be too sensational because that tends to be the picture that we see of prisons and prisoners. Every­body wants to know the gory stories, I didn’t want to do that.”

Rare Birds is a collection of poems written in the voices of the inmates, staff and others connected to the Camden Road prison during the first 100 years of its existence, from roughly 1850 to 1950.

Ruth Ellis

Diana Mitford, one-third of the famed Mitford sisters set, was imprisoned in Holloway in 1940 for three years for her connections to the German Nazi Party.

She had married Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, in Joseph Goebbels’ house in Germany in 1936 with Adolf Hitler in attendance.

Ms Scott focuses three poems on Ms Mitford’s stint. One explores what it would have been like for Ms Mitford to be separated from her son Max Mosley, who she had given birth to 11-weeks before she was arrested.

“My baby mourns his mother’s milk,” she writes. “It permeates my clothes like shame./ The ache is worse after lights out./ All that blackness and nothing to/ focus an agile mind upon, except/ the arid sound of women sobbing.”

Later in the book, Ms Scott takes on the trial of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Ms Ellis was a West-End club host who shot her abusive boyfriend David Blakely on Easter Day 1955. She had tracked him down to the Magdala pub in Hampstead.

Diana Mitford

Rare Birds tells Ms Ellis’s story through a series of poems following her trial and concluding with her hanging which she depicts as a marriage with the hangman.

Ms Scott added: “This has tested me. We can all be quick to judge can’t we? That’s not to say people don’t do terrible things and are incredibly foolish in their associations. But at the same time, when you strip it all back, each of us in our individual ways is trying to survive, aren’t we?”

Holloway was closed in 2016 and the site has since been sold off.

Former inmates and local activists are campaigning for the council and housing association Peabody to make sure there is an “iconic” women’s building on the site focused on rehabili­tation.

Ms Scott said: “I feel strongly about it really. I spoke to a number of people about rehabili­tation and visited a rehabilitation prison.

“A women’s centre is vital. It can be like a memorial to the past as well as looking to the future. What so many prisoners need is connection and that is what can be facilitated here.”

Asked what she would like justice secretary Robert Buckland to get from the book, she said: “If he was reading this I would want it to be a reminder of history, and in revisiting the history and listening to the voices of the past we may be able to hear the voices of the present a little clearer.”

Rare Birds: Voices of Holloway Prison is published by Valley Press, £12

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