It's a strange little story how I came to read Borstal Girl, it not being the sort of book I'd usually pick up as I'm not keen on biographical books as a rule. Mark was looking to buy a van and contacted a lady through our local selling pages who was selling one; this lady turned out to be the granddaughter of the author, and when Eileen came out and started telling me about the book I decided to buy a copy if nothing else for the novelty value of having met the author and already heard (I was sure) excepts of the book from her own mouth. Boy, can Eileen talk! Eileen is a cockney, a one-time villain and knew all the bad boys of her time - she's about seven feet tall and was wearing the most gorgeous fur coat on the grotty streets of Birmingham; Mark came away without a van, but I had a business card in my pocket which I used to find Borstal Girl as a Kindle download.
The book starts on 15th April 1931 when Eileen Killick (now MacKenney) was born under the shadow of Bow Bells. She came from a typical pre-war inner city family; poverty was the norm and hard drinking was the biggest pastime for young men, so with four older brothers she grew up around fights and violent arguments. This toughened her up from a very early age and although her parents were decent, hard working folks Eileen eventually drifted into a life of crime. Crime was different in those days though, Eileen and her associates didn't go around robbing pensioners at knife point then beating them up for good measure like today's scumbag criminals - it all seemed very gentle by the (low) standards of today, until you get caught that is and experience jail before all the mod cons and human rights came in!
Eileen's talent was shoplifting and she was good at it! I giggled at the section about her nicking a load of fur coats from a department store, thinking of the one she wore when I met her! There are lots of little comedy moments in Borstal Girl, but these are really only short asides and I found the book to be overall gritty and thought provoking. It's done in a well produced chronological order so you can follow the personal life of Eileen as well as read of her exploits; I found the first part of the book hard to read as she talked of the absolute squalor her family lived in, these were the slums of London and rife with Tuberculosis as well as the more straightforward abject poverty. This wasn't written for the sympathy vote at all, Eileen discusses it in a matter of fact way which is tinged with anger at the horribleness of her early years through no fault of her family - her family were workers and Eileen was no different, holding down a variety of legit jobs while at the same time thieving to supplement this income to give herself and her children a better life in terms of both necessities and luxuries.
The war years portion of the book was really interesting as it's so apparent that this huge event shaped the character of Eileen during her formative years; her local area was bombed time and again, eventually leading to Eileen being evacuated and joining the Land Army with her older sister. She's a London girl though and wasn't happy in the countryside, fighting and general chaos-causing became a way of life for her with her eventually running back home. Eileen's hatred of her situation really came through there and I thought the emotions she presented in the book were raw and genuine - but nothing prepared me for the venom with which she spoke about her time in Borstal and Holloway! To find yourself in Holloway (the old one, not the modern day prison) at eighteen years old must have been horrendous - in fact I know it was as I believe Eileen's account completely! I could picture the conditions while reading her words, Eileen isn't a 'professional' author so the descriptiveness is described rather than being embellished in a flowery way as often happens in this style of book - and her in-a-nutshell 'it was a fucking shit-hole' is only made more believable after reading her more detailed accounts of daily life in Holloway.
Oh yes, this book is full of 'language'. From memory every swear word known to man is in there, I don't find it offensive in the slightest and felt it added realism to Borstal Girl - people like Eileen (and myself!) swear, they use the C-word and I personally thought it helped me to understand her life better through the fact that she's comfortable enough in her own skin to not put on any airs and graces as she writes. My mum recently borrowed my Kindle to read Borstal Girl and she loved the gritty language used, agreeing with me about it seeming realistic but also commenting that a real-life book by a cockney of Eileen's age would not have read as comfortably if all the swear words had been cut - praise indeed from my non-swearing mother!
Towards the end of Borstal Girl the tone changes and as Eileen discusses her failed marriage to 'Big H' I felt a sadness start to come through, she really loved this man and the love comes through even now forty years later in her writing. Harry was notorious in the early 80s for being framed for the murders of four people including a child, eventually being released on appeal twenty three years later - my mum actually remembers this case as she was working in a solicitors office in London at the time of one of Harry's many appeals and it was apparently quite the big story each and every time his case appeared before the court, I wonder if she ever saw or spoke to Eileen herself all those years ago. All of this can be looked up online, and a good job too as the older Eileen dealt with so much 'stuff' that it begins to sound a little fantastical at times and it was refreshing to actually check some of these seemingly far fetched events out - amazingly, as I knew they would, these checked out to the letter and I felt I got even more from the book then as I read the personal account behind these headlines.
I think Borstal Girl is more than just one woman's account of her life and speaks volumes about this period of time as a whole. While Eileen may have lived her life in London (aside from this brief foray Brummie-sides) the poverty and feeling of despair were nationwide, I know from older members of my own family how easy it was to commit crime in those days and I honestly can't say I blame a lot of these people for their actions. It was great to have met Eileen prior to reading the book as I had her voice in my head as I was scouring through her written words, and believe me she honestly does write EXACTLY how she talks so I could literally picture this lady as I read of her exploits. I found the latter section extremely interesting as it turned things around and led to Eileen and her family being the victims of the police; that they were doing their jobs and clamping down on crime didn't come into it, they didn't like the MacKenney family and went out to get them by fair means or foul. I smiled (although I don't know if I should have done) when Eileen recounted the story of her son being hounded to the point of a whole army of police (including a helicopter buzzing over the house!) arriving at her front door simply to hand him a summons - no wonder she has nothing but contempt for the police of the time!
I absolutely loved this book and couldn't stop reading once I started. The down to earth telling of Eileen's story is refreshing and believable, unlike other true crime books I read which seem embellished to the point of making the reader wonder just how big a liar the author is in real life - I never felt Borstal Girl to be anything less than honest and so well written that it was like hearing a friend chatting about the old times. I'm still in contact with Eileen and hear there's a sequel being worked on at the moment, although how she could have done much more than is documented in Borstal Girl is beyond me!