I spent a large part of my wedding anniversary in jail last Monday – Inveraray Jail. The rain was bucketing down so a stretch inside seemed a pleasant prospect.
It was grimmer than we’d imagined. The prison cells still smelled damp and unpleasant and from three floors above we could hear manic laughter and screams – that was where the criminally insane were housed and a lifelike sound loop gave the impression that their spirits still haunted the building.
I was studying a message scraped in the plaster by one poor unfortunate when I heard my wife yelp like a scalded cat. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Some of the cells had effigies of prisoners in them but the cell she’d stumbled into had a real inmate. He stayed in character however much we questioned him until we left. At which point he whipped out a little harmonica and started to blow some Delta blues riffs that echoed round the cells, mingling with the screams of the prisoners on the top floor where the straitjacketed ones lived out their dreary days.
The very last cell we went into brought us up short. Inside was a table with two holes in it for an offender’s arms, leather straps for his legs and a 2ft long bundle of birch twigs.
“The birch” was introduced to the jail in 1852 as an alternative to sending boys to prison. Whipping was carried out on the bare buttocks in the presence of the prison governor. If you were under 14 you got 12 “stripes”. Three times as many were the rule if you were over 14. The whipper got half a crown for whipping one offender and a shilling for every one whipped thereafter on the same day. The birch twigs were soaked in salty brine to make the cuts sting but also for the antiseptic effect this would have.
My wife was appalled by this cold inhumanity until I reminded her that I spent much of my schooldays, primary and secondary, under threat of the tawse, a two or three-tongued leather strap used to administer corporal punishment to naughty boys and girls until its use was finally outlawed by the European Court of Human Rights in 1987. It came in four different sizes. The “light” one was used on primary schoolchildren but there was an “XL”, almost a centimetre thick, made from a buffalo’s neck skin that could cut through the soft skin of your wrist if the teacher was feeling particularly sadistic. In a cheerful newspaper testimonial by Mrs Dick, the wife of the Lochgelly factory owner who manufactured all of Scotland’s belts, she is pictured holding an armful of the product and saying: “We sell about 1000 a year. Glasgow is the best area for customers and the heavy tawse seems to be the favourite.”
Mr Dick hated the publicity that came his way from time to time. He said that every time the papers wrote about his leather straps he was deluged with mail from adults who wanted to buy them “for other purposes”.
I had mixed experiences of being belted. On the one hand, there was a certain amount of kudos attached to being top of the “Lash League”. I only managed this once when I was belted by my German teacher, a young woman with thin arms. She hit me so feebly the first time that I started to laugh so hard I couldn’t stop. In the end, she had to belt me seven times. My worst experience was on a winter’s morning when someone whistled in class but wouldn’t own up. Our form teacher proceeded to belt the whole class. Waiting in line with freezing hands was even worse than the stinging strap itself. But it was the teacher who lost the respect of his pupils that day and he never won it back.
The art of having fun
I had a lovely day at the Tate Modern three weeks ago but the highlight wasn’t a piece of art, it was a four-year-old on a scooter. The gallery has a 200ft concrete slope at the entrance. This wee lad painstakingly dragged his scooter to the top, jumped on and whooshed all the way down. He did it three times while I watched and I have never seen a child have so
much fun. I was jealous!
A picture can tell a thousand words.. but how many are true?
They say a lie can go halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on. One of the downsides of the internet is that lies travel even faster now and people seem to have fewer scruples about spreading unsubstantiated nonsense masquerading as citizen journalism.
No doubt you’ve heard that lemon juice cures cancer? No? Just Google it. It must be true because it’s on a website hosted by a nice-looking chap in a shirt and tie called Doctor Murray. On the other hand, when I first saw a video of somebody 3D printing a toy, I was convinced it was a hoax. And now there are credible stories online about the advent of 4D printing, whereby flatpack furniture will be able to assemble itself, saving hundreds of perfectly good marriages. I’ve been assured by a few reliable friends that this is indeed the future.
But the lies that are unforgiveable are the heartbreaking stories people attach to photographs in the wake of national tragedies like the recent earthquake in Nepal. You may well have seen the photo of a wee Nepalese boy sitting on the stony ground comforting his little sister after they’d lost both their parents in the quake. At least that was the tale told by the person who posted the picture. Since the photo had no copyright watermark and there was no photographer credited, it already felt suspicious. Sure enough, there was no “heartbreaking story” despite the fact this version of reality had already been shared many hundreds of thousands of times. In fact, the brother and sister weren’t grieving orphans in Nepal, they were simply two children playing in Vietnam in 2007. The photographer Na Son Nyguyen felt obliged to debunk the fake story in case it was being used to solicit donations that would go straight into somebody’s back pocket.
If this story plucked at your heart-strings, you may also have been moved by the sequence of close-up shots of a bluebird standing guard over its dying mate in the middle of the road. In the first photos, it appears to try and feed its companion. Later, you can see it spreading its wings protectively over the pathetic little corpse. Millions of people circulated this tale of woe until a couple of scientists stepped up, rather reluctantly, to explain that the live cock bluebird was doing something rather unsavoury to the dead hen bird.
If you’re feeling a little gullible after reading this, don’t fret. There’s a website called www.snopes.com that specialises in debunking the rumours people invent to explain emotionally-loaded photographs. The one on their front page today shows a frightened panda hugging a policeman’s leg for comfort in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake in Japan. It’s actually hugging its keeper’s
leg in a Chinese zoo. But if you’d rather believe the Disneyfied version, don’t let me stop you.