Border Lines

From London to Berwick: Culture shock? Oh, yes!

Bring Back Borstal: nostalgia and a liberal blast of the airbrush

I am mourning the loss of the Co-op here in Berwick. It was our shop. We lived so close, I could leave a pan on the stove and run over for the missing ingredient. Now it’s gone, it feels as if a magic season has passed.  The other evening the Husband and I sat in front of the TV with a bowl of crisps and a glass of wine (we know how to live!). I whispered, ‘That’s the last bag of Co-op crisps’. Sad days indeed! And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Seven am and the 13-year-old fancied a fresh-baked croissant before heading to school? Over to the Co-op. Eight-thirty pm, no milk? Co-op it is. Bag of cut-price greens for the guinea pigs? You guessed it. I’m already nostalgic for the Co-op. I’ve air-brushed out anything that irritated me about it, I just long for the sign to go back up and for things to be returned to the good old days.

Vegetarian supper for one (perhaps with a glass of wine?)

The last bowl of Co-op crisps. Sad times.

Has anybody else been watching ITV’s “Bring Back Borstal”? A self-styled “social experiment” that certainly has its roots in nostalgia (apparently seven out of 10 lads sent to Borstal in the 30s did not reoffend, today nearly three quarters of young offenders end up back in prison), and our appetite for fly-on-the-wall shows. Served with a hearty helping of moral high ground, a dollop of character building by proxy, and period costumes, the series ignores the fact that, I suspect, for many boys, Borstal was neither formative nor transformative. The bad boys’ institution of the 30s was recreated in Ford Castle – so there are plenty of familiar places and local faces (scenes between Matthew Rawlings of Great Northumberland Bread and cheeky wide-boy Burniston are particularly touching) to spot alongside the nice-guy/nasty-guy act of Governor (criminologist Prof. David Williams) and Chief (ex-soldier Darren Dugan).

Borstal at Ford Castle last summer – Bring Back Borstal was screened by ITV in January 2015.

It makes compelling – and slightly depressing viewing – the 14 are like toddlers trapped in the strapping bodies of young men. They are entertaining but they are also scary. They have short fuses and lash out instinctively and without control at the slightest perceived injustice or snub. Their collective string of offences is sobering. They are, of course, a product of their childhood experiences. And it isn’t fair and it isn’t right and we as a society should be doing more to ensure young men such as these are not simply recycled by the system into ever more extreme criminals. Perhaps the lads’ most appealing custodian is Matron Jenny Molloy. Now a social worker, she talks about being taken into care at the age of nine as an opportunity “to rebuild my fractured self”. There was  an extraordinary attrition rate – three lads departed in the first week – but I hope the experience, albeit a quasi-experimental one, will help them towards making positive choices. It won’t be easy.

Institutions are always a bit prone to hypocrisy and our 13-year-old was horrified that the Chief in “Borstal” broke both the no-swearing and no-shouting rules. She commented that “it’s just like adults expecting you to say please and thank you and then not doing it themselves”. Since then I’ve kept my ears open. She has a point. This turned my mind to other things I’d “bring back” for adults. In no particular order, here are my top-five:

Bring back plate-licking. Way more polite than belching.

1. Gloves on strings. This would save so much heartache – and money.

2. Early nights and a good bedtime routine. You know how tired you are? Well then.

3. Asking “Why?” and “How?” this should never ever stop.

4. Plate-licking – way better sign of meal-appreciation than belching.

5. Tidying up one thing before starting another. Hiding mess under a sheet or in a cupboard/garage doesn’t count.

And now I’m thinking about the Co-op again. Sniff.

“Why, oh why?”

(a version of this article was published in the Berwick Advertiser on 5th February 2015)

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