Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Veronica’s Bird, a gritty memoir about a remarkable woman who rose from poverty to unprecedented success in the prison service
About the Book
Title: Veronica’s Bird
Author: Veronica Bird & Richard Newman
Format: Paperback ARC
Publication Details: January 22nd 2018 by Clink Street Publishing
Disclosure? Yep! I received a free copy in exchange for an HONEST review.
Veronica Bird was one of nine children living in a tiny house in Barnsley with a brutal coal miner for a father. Life was a despairing time in the Fifties as Veronica sought desperately to keep away from his cruelty. However, a glimmer of hope revealed itself as she, astonishingly to her and her mother, won a scholarship to Ackworth Boarding School where she began to shine above her class-mates.
A champion in all sports, Veronica at last found some happiness. That was until her brother-in-law came into her life. It was as if she had stepped from the frying pan into the fire.
He soon began to take control over her life removing her from the school she adored, two terms before she was due to take her GCEs, so he could put her to work as cheap labour on his market stall. Abused for many years by these two men, Veronica eventually ran away from him and applied to the Prison Service, intuiting that it was the only safe place she could trust.
Accepted into the Prison Service at a time when there were few women working in the industry, Veronica applied herself every day to learning her new craft even training in Holloway Prison where Myra Hindley was an inmate. With no wish to go outside the prison, Veronica remained inside on-duty. While her colleagues went out to the pub, the theatre or to dine she didn’t feel able to join them.
Her dedication was recognised and she rose rapidly in the Service moving from looking after dangerous women prisoners on long-term sentences to violent men and coming up against such infamous names as The Price sisters, Mary Bell and Charles Bronson. The threat of riots was always very close and escapes had to be dealt with quickly.
After becoming a Governor, Veronica was tasked with what was known within the Service as a ‘basket case’ of a prison. However, with her diligence and enthusiasm Veronica managed to turn it around whereupon it became a model example to the country and she was recognised with an honour from the Queen. With this recognition the EU invited her to lead a team to Russia and her time in Ivanovo Prison, north east of Moscow, provides an illuminating and humorous insight into a different prison culture.
Through a series of interviews with Richard Newman —author of the bestselling A Nun’s Story— Veronica’s Bird reveals a deeply poignant story of eventual triumph, is filled with humour and compassion for those inside and will fascinate anyone interested in unique true life stories, social affairs and the prison system.
Veronica’s time training in the old Holloway prison was an eye opener for her, particularly when she came face to face with Myra Hindley but there were others, just as evil inside…
Myra’s (Hindley) reputation was powerful as all truly evil people impress, in a sick, sad way. Outside the prison, following the escape plot, children had to be reassured it was safe to go outside, and mothers would glance across the street as they waited for their children to come out of school. There was no way they were going to allow them to walk home alone despite being told she was safe inside her cell. Such was the status she ‘enjoyed’ but remember, she was not a celebrity, manipulative, yes, evil very, but don’t let us fall into the trap of giving her a cult status.
I write in some detail about Myra Hindley’s time in Holloway. Although she was carefully moved about the country from prison to prison, a fellow prisoner was able to get to her in an unguarded moment. The prisoner’s name was Judith, a dangerous psychotic. She was apt to flip from eating out of your hand at one moment to a sudden and unsafe rage. This day, for whatever reason, Judith launched herself at the Moors murderer and managed to throw her over a high balustrade where Myra landed on the security nets strung across the light wells to prevent suicides. Such was the force used, Myra’s head was smashed in and she had to have plastic surgery to repair the damage. These incidents occur in the flash of an eye and those eyes need to be in the back of one’s head.
Let me stay with Judith for a moment. When she was at Styal prison she climbed one night out of her cell window which had no bars, urged on by the knowledge it was New Year’s Eve. She shinned down a drainpipe (yes, really), into a workman’s yard where there was a conveniently stacked set of ladders. (You cannot make this stuff up). Selecting one of the long ladders, Judith climbed out before walking off holding out her thumb as she went. Who should be the first to stop and help her but an off-duty policeman. (I told you it could not be made into a film – no-one would believe it). He said goodbye to Judith, a dangerous psychotic, at the start of a motorway and drove off secure in the knowledge he had helped a lady in distress. Having enjoyed a night’s celebration through into the New Year, she finally turned up at a friend’s house in Swansea at three in the morning. She had managed to remain unchallenged for over twelve hours as a friendly inmate had signed the register at seven in the morning for her. This meant she remained unnoticed until lunchtime when the duty officer saw her name was not in the book. The alarm was raised; the hunt was on but Judith was well gone. The police finally apprehended her in her friend’s cellar and took her back. Red and faces were two words which probably came to mind several times that day with the prison officers, and no doubt, those ladders were securely locked up. And, as for that milkman…
This checking was all part of the eternal need to know how many prisoners there were at any one time in any part of the prison. To do so, numbers were checked four times a day, at seven in the morning, when Judith’s friend stood in for her, at lunch, in the afternoon and when the night duty staff arrived. When prisoners were moved around the prison or had to leave to go to a trial for example, chalk boards were constantly updated. As one prisoner left, the number was rubbed out and a revised figure inserted. When they came back the number was altered again. The boards were divided into sections, such as Remand, Trials and Section the last was where a prisoner had to be transferred to the hospital section. Pretty low- tech in those days but it worked, usually.
As I came to the end of my eight weeks I was skilled in controlling fighting prisoners, night patrolling, interpersonal skills, gate duty, the switchboard and…. counting.
I was ready for Wakefield.
I work in a prison library and I’m constantly surprised and interested in prison life, so I was thrilled to be offered a spot on the blog tour for this memoir.
I’m ashamed to say that I’d not heard of Veronica Bird despite all of her achievements in the prison service. I was eager to learn about her life, why she joined the prison service at a time when very few women did, and how it affected her.
Veronica’s Bird is a compelling read. I was gripped by her difficult childhood, which was a surprise as I thought I would have been more interested once she entered HMPS, but this was not the case. It’s a wonderful story of bravery and triumph from the very beginning.
I enjoyed following Veronica as she embarked on a career in the service with a driving ambition for promotion after promotion. I’m not sure I could ever be that driven, but work was Veronica’s whole life – she had little else – so it made sense that she wanted to be the best.
Many of Veronica’s anecdotes are interesting and insightful, and the pages flew by, but I did feel like there was something missing, and that was emotion. Veronica’s time in the various prisons she worked are told in almost a clinical fashion. I wanted to know how she felt about her first day, about the prisoners she met. How she felt about Myra Hindley, her colleagues, etc. But I felt like most of her memories were devoid of emotion and intimacy. She was doing a job and that was that. This is the only thing that let the book down for me.
There’s no question that Veronica is an astounding woman, who has achieved more than most us ever will, and her story is one that deserves to be read. I only wish that by the end of the book I felt like I knew her, but I didn’t.
She remains an enigma!
About the authors: After thirty-five years working for the Prison Service, Veronica Bird is now retired and living in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. She is still an active proponent of the justice system and continues to lecture across the country and is a supporter of Butler Trust, which acknowledges excellence within the prison system.
A qualified architect and Swiss-trained hotelier, Richard Newman enjoyed a forty-year career designing and managing hotels worldwide before retiring in 2001. Since then he has gone on to publish a number of novels: The Crown of Martyrdom, The Horse that Screamed, The Potato Eaters, The Green Hill, Brief Encounters and most recently The Sunday Times bestseller, A Nun’s Story. He is currently working on a new novel about retirement and an autobiography of his time in the Middle East. He lives happily with his wife in Wetherby, West Yorkshire where he enjoys being close to his family.
Thanks to Rachel @ Authoright for arranging this tour
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