Peter Brock, 'The Black Flower: One Man's Memory of Prison Sixty Years After'

IssueJune - August 2002
Review by Simon Dixon

Peter Brocks copious writings on the history of pacifism are well known. However, this book marks a slight departure from his previous output in that its subject is Brock himself, and the six months he spent in British jails as a conscientious objector during World War II.

At the time of his imprisonment Brock was a diffident young pacifist in his early twenties, educated first at an English Public School, and then at Oxford University. His mother was a generals daughter, and his brother a professional army officer who served at the front. However, young Peters early influences included Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley and Peace News, then a weekly newspaper. He became committed to pacifism at an early age, and while he describes himself as a “reluctant activist” he has remained a pacifist ever since.

Brock openly admits that he is writing entirely from memory, of events which took place some sixty years ago. Despite this, he presents a pretty detailed account of his short spell behind bars. He succeeds in covering virtually every aspect of his day-to-day prison existence, from the clothing, food arrangements and work routine through to such unpalatable aspects of prison life as “slopping out” and the overwhelming stench that permeated Wormwood Scrubs prison, where he served most of his sentence. We also meet some of the characters who Brock came to know during his incarceration, including fellow COs, criminals and prison officers (or screws). His attitude to the criminals he met, mainly first time offenders, is sympathetic throughout, while he found the screws a mixed bag of nice chaps and utter bastards.

Compared to the treatment received by British COs during World War I, their WWII counterparts were treated relatively humanely. Not long after Brock was released, the authorities began to empty the prisons of COs, as they found they were running out of space for those convicted of criminal offences. The main theme that emerges throughout the book is the utter monotony of prison existence, along with the pointlessness of imprisoning people for their beliefs.

This is an engaging and very well written memoir. Brock's self-effacing style only adds to the appeal, and when he asks in the final chapter whether his story is of interest to anyone other than himself and his close family, the answer is a definite yes. Add to this the books admirably low cost, and it is certainly worth a look.

Topics: War resisters
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