I lived a year in London,
But never saw St. Paul’s;
All famous stunts left undone,
Nor visited the “Halls.”
I lodged in Royal Quarters,
At Majesty’s expense:
All round, the walls of Wormwood Scrubs
Were reared for my defence.
O, The Palace at Wormwood Scrubs!
The snarling, the sneers and the snubs,
And the long dreary days spent in learning the ways
Of the Palace at Wormwood Scrubs.
That is a verse from a poem by Allan M. Laing, which I first came across in Voices of Silence, Vivien Noakes’s excellent “Alternative Book of First World War Poetry”.
The biographical note in that anthology says only that Laing was imprisoned for a year in Wormwood Scrubs as a conscientious objector, but his was a name that I already knew in a quite different context – as the champion contributor to literary competitions in the thirties and forties.
In this blog I have before now been characteristically grumpy about some types of poetry competition – the sort that asks amateur poets to submit verses about “The Pity of War”, and charges them several pounds for doing so. But there is another kind of competition – the sort found in weeklies such as the New Statesman and Spectator. These mostly ask for parodies, light verse and literary wit in general, and on occasion I have a go at them myself. In fact, it was after scoring a modest triumph in last week’s Spectator competition that I decided to invest my winnings in a copy of Laing’s booklet, Carols of a Convict (London: Headley Bros, 1918).
Laing’s foreword reads:
These few specimens of rhymed doggerel may be of some interest to those numerous and hitherto respectable families whose skeleton in the cupboard will henceforth be a convict on the hearth. Their perpetration is the result of a shortage of reading matter during the last few weeks of a year’s stretch in Wormwood Scrubs. Nothing can quite justify their publication. I shall not attempt to do so.
Some poems express a pride in his incarceration:
Men wha hae called Allen head,
Men wham Russell sometimes led,
Welcome to your three-plank bed,
With a conscience free!
Every day and every hour,
Shameful insults on you shower,
Truth and right are all your power,
They shall set you free.
The more characteristic poems, however, describe conditions and the prison routine wryly, in cheerful metres that communicate a determination not to be done down by adversity:
Crumpled Roseleaves: Speculations on the eve of discharge
So long from morning couch have I
Rolled out upon the floor,
That when I go where beds are high,
Say, two-feet-six or more,
I wonder if I still shall try
To roll out on the floor.
I’ve grown so used to talk in winks
With wary sidelong glance,
That when the watchful warder-lynx
No more’s a circumstance,
I fear my friends will say: “He drinks,”
Met by that sidelong glance.
And when the constitutional mile
With comrades I shall walk,
I wonder if in single file,
All solemnly we’ll stalk,
As is the weary Wormwood style,
The Scrubsian morning walk.
Shall I insist on scrubbing floors,
And hanging bedding out,
Freed from the stimulating roars
That used to fly about?
Such doubts defeat the pleasure sweet
I feel in going out.
The poems are sharp and clever comments on the fact of incarceration – and much much better than almost all of the pacifist verse that was printed in, for example, The Herald during the War.
I own another book of Laing’s, his Bank Holiday on Parnassus: A Litter of Competitions (1941), which contains the pick of his entries for literary competitions. V.S.Pritchett in his introduction tells us: “He has won more first prizes in literary competitions than any other man in England. Never has a man enclosed stamped addressed envelope for reply with greater effect.” (Today’s equivalent would be the phenomenal Bill Greenwell, with the erudite Basil Ransome-Davies a close second.) Inevitably some of the jokes in this have dated, but there is a Shaw parody that is first-rate, and other good stuff, too.
A last selection from Carols of a Convict. I’m always interested to know what people were reading during wartime, and here is Laing’s description of the prison library:
Fiction Hash from the Prison Catalogue
Of stories of wooing
And billing an cooing
Comes first on a dull dreary list
The straight-paying copy,
From Garvice’s powerful — wrist.
From a shelf looming darkly
That dear Mrs. Barclay
Sings sentiment sugary-sweet,
While in hosts of Miss Braddon’s,
By no means all bad ‘uns,
Thrills, murders and mysteries meet.
There’s a few by Grant Allen,
Pett Ridge and Tom Gallon,
Of William de Morgan but one:
There’s a lot by J. Hocking
Whose chronicles shocking
All good Roman Catholics shun.
The works of Lord Lytton
(Of whom it is written
He padded himself and wore stays)
Are handed out daily
With those of Disraeli,
—An Early-Victorian craze.
Then with Thackeray, Dickens,
Come many fine pickin’s
From days when to write was to please.
There’s Lever and Marryat,
(Famous old tarry hat)
And piffle of A.L.O.E.’s.
Sea yarns by Clark Russell,
Which died of a tussle
With Conrad the polyglot Pole,
Are served up with sweeter
Romances by “Rita,”
Or Henry James Essence-of-soul.
With Caines and Corellis
We curdle our bellies,
And sometimes our slumbers we spoil,
With the smoke and the slaughter
Of Merriman, Weyman and Doyle.
But enough of these verses,
The metre too terse is,
The rate of progression too slow,
And if you’re still needing
To know what we’re reading,
Pray call on the nearest C.O.
But first go and bury
The thought that we’re merry,
Because there are books for all views,
Tho’ many and various,
Our pleasure’s precarious,
For seldom we get what we choose.
Note: Most of Laing’s poems should be formatted with alternate lines indented. The WordPress system doesn’t let me do that very easily, unfortunately – but I don’t think it makes too much of a difference.