Today I am really excited to be on the blog tour for Veronica Bird and Richard Newman’s new novel, Veronica’s Bird, with my thoughts and a guest post from Veronica about what life was like growing up as one of NINE children!
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 Bird is a really interesting read, set against the tough and often bleak world of the prison service, where Veronica’s career reached great heights – against all odds, you might say, considering what a tough start to life she had. Despite this, the novel has some real rays of light shining through the sadder/ tougher parts, which are quite uplifting and help you see why she loved doing what she did.
As a general rule I don’t read a huge amount of non-fiction books; I definitely enjoy them but just don’t often find books in that genre that really jump out at me like a fiction novel does! However, Veronica’s Bird really appealed when I read the synopsis – anything about prisons always intrigues me – always has done – and I couldn’t’ resist learning more about a strong female like Veronica, who is so full of drive and ambition.
The story itself is, in some ways, full of drama with the high tension and ever-increasing stress of prison life (for both the prisoners and the staff), but in other ways it’s just about life itself, and the often tricky decisions we have to make to juggle one aspect with another. Veronica’s family certainly weren’t always supportive, but she didn’t let it get her down and ultimately it only spurred her on.
Veronica’s Bird is an inspiring story and I loved finding out more about how the day-to-day running of a prison worked back then, and how things have changed since! Plus there some great moments and famous people which Veronica includes, all of which makes for very interesting reading!
Many thanks to Clink Street Publishing and Rachel Gilbey for providing a copy of this book on which I chose to write an honest and unbiased review, and for inviting me onto the blog tour!
Guest Post: What was it like to grow up as one of nine children?
There were two ways in 1950’s Barnsley, a family could go when it is made up of nine children, a mother who was to die very young, a drunkard coal-mining father and no money. The first was to try and hold the family together despite the appalling conditions wrought by real poverty, with love and tenderness wrapping each child in a foil against the awfulness of life. The other was to ensure you did not make eye-contact as your father returned from his shift, red eyes staring through his blackened face, like a vision from hell. If the potatoes were not ready he would, as likely as not, sweep them off the table along with anything else that might be there. Mind you, Father owned the only cutlery and plate, so we had nothing to hold on to during his rages; we ate with
our hands and drank from the tap.
Without my mother’s protective shield, we could have been marginally worse off than we were, but it never stopped him with his ready belt, his fury directed towards me and my younger brother. We were sat in tin baths filled with Izal to ‘clean out our insides’; we were provided with so few clothes that when I was chosen to run in Sports Day at school I could not attend as there were no shoes left. My elder sisters had left for the day with the only pairs available. The house was always chaotic, everything flung about and mixed up. One took whatever one could see which might, conceivably fit, and to hell with the rest, especially when you wanted to show your Dad…desperately, you
could run faster than anyone else.
Life for the very poor in Barnsley post-war was one of unremitting filth. The many pits which surrounded the town dumped fine coal dust on us and everything else, making our bleak lives drabber still, a miserable prospect from the moment we got out of a bed with three other children. We froze in those bitter winters despite having a coal miner as a father, dressed in threadbare clothes and ‘hand-me- downs’ –(third or fourth hand for me), for Dad had sold off his coal ration leaving us with only the slack.
The fury and the explosions tore the family into a dysfunctional mess. Alone, despite my siblings in the house, I was always frightened, wondering when the black shadow at the front door would arrive. As a result, I began to go to church across the road just to seek sanctuary.
To add to this misery, I had to attach exhaustion. Removed from my Boarding School where I had won a bursary and begun to excel in sports, two terms before I was due to sit my ‘O’ level exams, and never being given a reason, I was put to work, loading lorries with sacks of potatoes at three in the morning before going on to market. I was paid a pound a week.
It was only, one day that a friend stopped me in the street and said: ‘You are nothing but a little slave, Veronica,’ that I realised it was time to go. I knew it was now or never to get away from what was laughingly called ‘my family.’ As I left the house, I never looked back. I always looked forward…and upward.
Veronica’s Bird. Copyright © Richard Newman 2018. Authors Veronica Bird and
Richard Newman. Publisher Clink Street Publications 23 rd January 2018.
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.
Veronica’s Bird is out to buy now.