Borstal Boy

Brendan Behan at the age of sixteen came from Dublin to Liverpool with an I.R.A. “do it yourself Kit” for the purpose of blowing up Cammell Lairds. He was arrested, and after a stay in Walton Detention Prison, Liverpool, was sent for three years to a Borstal Institution in East Anglia. The book (published by Hutchinson) tells of his experiences in these places.

He speaks of the filth and brutality which existed at Walton Prison, and there is no reason to disbelieve it. Life in Borstal, however, was much different. In fact, it smacks of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the Gem and Magnet. Chaps played the game – the Borstal game – apart from the occasional cad, house masters and house captains were sports. There were escapades, larkies and some horseplay. In fact, Behan and Co. at Borstal looks rather like Harry Wharton and Co., at Greyfriars.

The youthful I.R.A. terrorist even assumed a Borstal school tie attitude, and he said his chinas came to regard the college boys they met via the Rugby field as being something of bounders. Behan also considered that he had a more cultivated and educated mind than the college products.

One of the defects of the book is that the conversation is so loaded or over-loaded with barrack room lingo that it fails to trigger off effectively. In fact, the constant repetition of stereotyped swear words takes on the chant of a litany. If one wants to substitute the soporific effect of counting imaginary sheep-jumping over a stile, then counting the swear-words which appear at such regular and monotonous intervals in the book will prove just effective. One feels that the author exploits the swearing gimmick in an attempt to impart a vitality and excitement to the conversation which it often lacks. In any case, bad language is not necessarily a criterion of bad boys, even “good boys” often indulge in it.

Behan himself outswears the wide boys, the screws, toughies and ponces. But surely if one is describing a drug addict one does not have to take dope for the purpose of so doing. He seems naive enough to believe that “wicked words” are the hall mark of masculinity, especially his masculinity, when more often than not they are a bawdy blanket to cover a paucity of effective expression.

In spite of all the tumult and violence of the book, it has a monastic quality in that nothing of any significance from the outside world ever seeps in. Not even the war which was going on at the time is mentioned, in fact, the author never seems to have really noticed it. There is no serious discussion, not even about Ireland. Behan indulges in rodomontade about Irish politics, religion and history, but never indicates that he has any grasp of the underlying economic and political factors of Irish history.

Behan might say that he takes the world as he finds it. But what he finds in it is precious little, although he is often a little precious about it. His characters might be incorrigible and by certain standards a little impossible, but it seems vide the author that they live in the best of all possible worlds. He sees nothing wrong with the world and his only “revolutionary” aim, it seems, to use his own words, is to become a rich red.

Behan at least went to Borstal wearing a slightly glamourised would-be Martyr’s crown. He came out none the worse, perhaps even a little better for it. But what of the mal-adjusted, the misfits and the unfortunates; what happened to them? That, perhaps, is the most disquieting thing of all, but Behan never mentions it.

He has nothing to say against patriotism or nationalism either of the English, Irish or any other variety. He seems to regard many Englishmen as stiff-necked and arrogant, but sees no reason why they should not be either in their native country or to people who come from other countries. But in a world of conflicting national interests, being pro Irish, English or American, means even at the best of times being negatively anti-something else. In the worse times such feelings take on an active and hostile form.

Behan’s book is of a piece with Behan himself, bumptious, bouncing and bawdy, with a hint of hindsight and flashes of poetry. It is genuinely funny in places, but suffers from repetition. Behan at least has a sense of bubbling humour which pops and fizzes in all sorts of unexpected places and is a refreshing contrast to the “look back in anger,” chip on the shoulder, the world owes me a living, writers who have set a literary fashion.

He has himself become rather fashionable, but literary fashions, like women’s fashions, change quickly, and unless his future output is more significant than his past and present ones, Behan might easily become an has Behan.

Leave a Reply