Behind bars, Roger Robinson

The Prison Diary of A C Barrington: Dissent and Conformity in Wartime New Zealand
John Pratt (with an introduction by John Barrington)
Otago University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9781927322314

When did you last think about being in prison? Not the theory of prisons  –  punitive or corrective, state-run or privatised, moral issue or law and order policy plank  –  but the day-to-day reality? How you eat, sleep, wash, read? Your cell, your bedding, the clothes, food, sanitation, smell, noise, rules, guards, boredom, indignity, the weird conjunction of enforced loneliness and enforced single-gender communality? That’s the disturbing essence of this remarkable book, which is also, as its subtitle announces, an informative analysis of the wider significance of a unique document. It brings to attention something that society prefers to keep out of sight and out of mind. It also makes us reassess New Zealand’s WWII history and ongoing moral consciousness.

How the book came about is a story in its own right. John Barrington, now a retired professor of education, is pictured as a little five-year-old boy surrounded by adult men in 1940, clutching the trouser-leg of his father, who is speaking against New Zealand’s involvement in the war at a public gathering at the Basin Reserve, Wellington. It was never easy being the son of the fearless Christian pacifist activist Archibald Barrington, who was imprisoned for sedition, and later founded and led the idealistic Riverside Community near Motueka. John played rugby with special forcefulness, partly to overcome the suspicions of his classmates, he tells us in his quietly revealing introduction.

About 10 years ago, John was going through the books that survived from his father’s personal library, now in the Turnbull, and by chance picked up Pennsylvania 1681-1756: The State Without an Army.  Filling the margins around the printed text, page after page, he found his father’s handwriting, in ink. He realised that he was reading a diary, meticulously detailed, written surreptitiously while A C Barrington was a prisoner in Mount Crawford for seven months from May 1941.

John found the diary continued around the margins of Jesus of Galilee, another title unlikely to lure your average prison guard into browsing. That second sequence ends in August. Although A C was not released until December 1941, John could find no more. The survival of so much, he rightly says in his introduction, “seemed miraculous”, though the miracle happened through a typically homely kiwi agency, a friendly butcher:

My sister [Janet] recalled our father showing the diary to her and explaining how he had smuggled it out of the prison with Frank Flipp, the family butcher in Kilbirnie who also supplied the prison with meat, who then passed it on to our mother.

John and Janet transcribed the diary, no small task. John decided against publishing it in full because of the inevitable repetitiousness of any account of prison life, even one as intelligently observant as this. So he passed it to criminologist John Pratt, who called it a “treasure trove”. By mixing generous selections with contextual commentary, Pratt has made an outstanding job of showing how revealing the diary is for penalogical history, and how important for understanding New Zealand’s harsh WWII policies towards conscientious objectors – far harsher, Pratt shows, than Britain or Australia. That’s the biggest of many important things I learned. It is authentic grass-roots evidence for the argument of Out in the Cold and other works by David Grant, who has also been advisor to this publication.

Barrington and Pratt between them are fascinating on day-to-day prison life, if fascinating is the word for an accurate account of an existence so utterly tedious and pointless. Miseries that can seem trivial from a comfortable chair 75 years later must have been soul-destroying. Porridge, tea, and stew all tasted “foul”, for the simple reason that “the kitchen has only two boilers”, which did multiple duty, so “various fragments and odours combine.” Clothing was ill-fitting and inadequate to the long hours of outdoor work on a Wellington winter hilltop.  Prisoners were confined to cells for 16 hours overnight, with only a chamber pot, leaky in Barrington’s case, which had to be emptied into buckets in the yard in a daily rush when the cells were unlocked after breakfast.

All this authentic detail is rare, because, historically, many prisoners have been illiterate, because diary keeping has almost always been forbidden, and because many prisoners make unreliable reporters. The few comparable sources cited by Pratt include, for instance, the 2002 Prison Diary of the scandal-plagued British celebrity novelist Jeffrey Archer, who, with his flexible attitude to truth, was unsurprisingly found guilty of perjury, and whose account of prison life was calculated to appeal to his market.

Barrington’s is so special because it is a private journal written at the time by a man of unmistakeable honesty and apparently impregnable goodwill.  He grinds no axes. He maintains an astonishing equanimity about the indignities inflicted on him, with an assured but never self-righteous belief in his God’s approval of his principles and conduct. In the face of petty authoritarianism, he never shows resentment or bitterness. With most of us who need to read and write, the mindless regime of early lights-out would drive us crazy. But Barrington mildly writes, after applying formally for an extension of light:

I have been hopefully sitting up to find the peephole used 8 or thereabouts & the light inexorably switched off no matter what I am doing with books on knee & pen poised hopefully. I mutter “blighters” but don’t really cherish hard thoughts.

You wonder if any other convict has had “blighters” as his most angry oath.

He seems to have written the diary simply because that was his habit, not as an act of protest or vengeance or with any mission to expose iniquities, like the Victorian era’s literary campaigners against abuses of the prison system – Carlyle, Reade, and much of Australia’s substantial body of convict literature. At most, Barrington sometimes seems aware of the diary’s possible value for his pacifist cause.

Pratt does the campaigning for him, exposing huge gaps between the glossy delusional optimism of official reports and the futile actuality of the institutional experience. Prison authorities habitually imagine a different reality, Pratt says. These days it’s in terms of “visions”, “goals”, “programmes” and “key performance indicators”.

“We saw in Barrington’s diary that little was done to enable a realisation of the rehabilitative aspirations of the period – no resources were supplied, and no strong central authority ensured changes were implemented,” Pratt writes, and shows that in important ways, things have only got worse. There was, for instance, remarkably little violence or nighttime noise in Barrington’s Mount Crawford.

Barrington’s unemotional keeping of an honest personal record sets this apart from most writings about incarceration, at least those I know. This book was published when I had recently by chance reread three novels that are in part fictional masterpieces of imprisonment, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, and Henry Fielding’s dark last novel, Amelia. For Dickens and Fielding, as for Victor Hugo, prison makes a compelling metaphor for inescapable inhumanity in the already claustrophobic society of a modern city. Their accounts carry conviction from being derived from some personal experience (Fielding’s as magistrate), though none matches Barrington’s close-up detail.

The comparison opens a layer of meaning not immediately apparent. Though Barrington doesn’t think metaphorically, he is more interesting than just a blandly truthful witness. His comments on the prisoners and guards are astute, vivid and non-judgmental. There’s a nice episode when a Māori prisoner secretly asks him to write a prayer for him. A novel-reader like me, looking for an inner life, perhaps for signs of traumatic damage like Dr Manette’s or William Dorrit’s, has to search below the chirpily sensible surface. There you find glimpses. In the last entry, Barrington has been reading Irving Stone’s Van Gogh novel, Lust for Life, and comments unexpectedly:

The book is raw but mightily moving. The fine frenzy of the artist writing to create burning himself up, possessed by his craft – there is something sublime and terrible in it. My own Dad had something of that same “lust for life” (though that expression is faulty) and its disappointments.

Christian pacifist activism as something sublime and creative – it’s a good way to read the life of a good man. And in Mount Crawford he paid a price that could have seemed “terrible”, if his unwavering patient benevolence had allowed him to admit it.

Roger Robinson is emeritus professor of English at Victoria University of Wellington. 

Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Review, War
Search the archive
Search by category