Saturday, 4 July 2009
Someone asked me where the title of this blog came from. It was not derived from that famous book Beauty IN the Birch, but from an old Janus article by Richard Manton that described Victorian reformatory punishments.
Here is a part of it:
Picture a long stone-flagged room, gaslight glaring harshly on whitewashed walls. The windows are high up and barred. At the centre of the floor stands the fixed square block over which each culprit kneels. Several feet to the rear are leather chairs for the witnesses. They take their places, Mr Miles removes his jacket and rolls up his sleeves. He tests a slender three-foot bamboo. It has a rapier's spring. Like a golfer practising his swing, he cuts the air a few times with a trial swish.
The first delinquent is led in. She is just the rebellious tomboy to make a disciplinarian's fingers itch. Elaine is best described as a shouting, striding youngster. Lank fair hair combed from a central parting lies loose upon her shoulders. Narrow eyes and thin mouth give the broad oval of her face a look of snub-nosed insolence. This sturdy young rebel boasts robust young hips and thighs.
The witnesses catch her defiant gaze with quiet smiles of anticipation, their eyes taking in her strong young legs, grey pleated skirt and white blouse. In modern terms it would be the kind of grey pleated uniform skirt worn short enough to bare Elaine's sturdy young thighs.
Her crime, it seems, was breaking the finger of one of your matrons. Just the offence for which the Tory proposal of 1976 advocates birching or caning girls 'guilty of inflicting bodily harm'. Yet Elaine returns the gaze of the portly middle-aged justices with a look of contempt.
It seems she cares nothing for the impending punishment. Hardly waiting for the order, she sheds her skirt and kneels on all fours over the block. The tight white cotton web of Elaine's knickers show her to be `quite a big-bottomed girl in this posture'.
Despite more lurid suggestions of Mr Miles's involvement, it will probably be a matron who stoops over the block. Elaine's knickers are pushed down, and then she is positioned with meticulous exactitude. The pro-flogging brigade of our own day — MPs and public — would surely approve of such exhaustive precautions. It is, of course, left to you as James Miles to tuck up the tail of her blouse, well clear of the full pale cheeks of Elaine's bottom. Are you startled as she tosses back her fair hair, cranes round, and treats you to a burst of snub-nosed defiance?
Such girls as this were a puzzle to men like the author of Etudes sur la Flagellation — Jean de Villot. Elaine was facing - or perhaps about facing - a full judicial thrashing with all the trimmings. Yet by her continued defiance and insolence she seemed determined to do everything in her power to make it worse. Later on we shall have to consider why — but put out of your head any mischievous old-wives' tales about the youngster 'enjoying it'. Next day she would scarcely walk without some discomfort or sit without a wince and a sharp intake of breath. What is so enjoyable about that? A blister on the foot could be more fun.
As James Miles, however, you introduce one more refinement. Elaine must call out the number of each stroke before receiving it. Would our present-day advocates of the birch approve the idea? If the girl fails or refuses to do so, she will get the stroke anyway. But it will not count towards the total of her punishment. By defiance she will merely earn herself more lashes of the cane.
So, as James Miles, you must now take the bamboo in your hand. You announce her sentence formally to the girl and the justices, assuring her in the manner of a bawdy sergeant- major that it will be with the bamboo across bare hum-cheeks. Then you order her to call out the number of the first stroke.
Now comes the biggest shock of all. The rebellious youngster, in a burst of foul-mouthed, four-lettered defiance, refuses to call out the numbers of the strokes. In case you have not got the message, she yells to the world that you are a bastard, and an effing bastard at that.
Tossing back her fair hair, Elaine cranes round at the witnesses. The broad oval of her snub-nosed face is still suffused with defiance in her narrow eyes and thin mouth. How she curses the well-fed justices. In the privacy of the punishment-room they smile back at her knowingly, showing her their amusement and delight in her predicament. They let her see them sitting forward in their chairs for a close-up of the subject. Mouths pursed and eyes bright, they survey the sturdily broadened cheeks of Elaine's backside in its present posture. Whatever the explanation of her vulgar impudence, she must have known better than to hope for a reprieve later on. When the justices have such a hare-bottomed tomboy over the block, all leniency is forbidden.
So Mr Miles gently and almost teasingly measures the bamboo across the full pale cheeks of Elaine's young bottom. For all her defiance, the youngster is gnawing at her lower lip apprehensively. Her hands are clenched desperately and her sixth-former's buttocks are tensing and shifting under the menace of the bamboo touch.
With all the time in the world, Mr Miles takes aim. Then, raising the cane, he brings it down with 'an ear-splitting smack' across the full pale cheeks of Elaine's bottom: She gasps at the smart and her bum-cheeks begin to arch and squirm. Mr Miles knows from long experience that the initial smarting impact of the bamboo across Elaine's adolescent behind will swell in intensity to a savage climax several seconds later. Expert that he is, he aims each stroke to coincide with that climax of its predecessor.
Naturally there is an electric tension in the room as the smack! .. . whip-smack! of two more uncounted strokes rings out across Elaine's rear cheeks. This is accompanied by a gasping, a wrestling, and the strained creaking of the punishment bench. Surely the rebellious youngster must know as well as the witnesses that she will yell at the top of her voice for the first counted stroke, sooner or later. Only then will the official discipline begin. Incredible though it seems, she is actually trying to add to her punishment while she can still bear to.
To he fair to those who now advocate the return of the birch, they do not suggest flagellations on the Victorian scale. The Tory proposal favours 12 strokes, though the figure 18 has also been mentioned. The danger, of course, is where the punishment routine provides for an increase in the number as a reprisal for misconduct while the tanning itself is actually being given. Elaine's five years in the reformatory, under the old-fashioned law, would probably extend from adolescence to 18. One can well imagine the sort of discipline which the present law-and order brigade might well want to administer to the hare cheeks of Elaine's strapping young tomboy bottom during such a period of detention.
Back to Mr Miles in the reformatory punishment-room hack to the details which the pro-birchers would prefer you not to know ... .
After a number of uncounted strokes, the inevitable happens. A sizzling lash of the bamboo causes Elaine's sturdy young buttocks to clench frantically. As the impact swells, she tosses back her fair hair, cranes round at the witnesses in consternation, and yells out, 'One!'
The well-fed justices smile knowingly at this triumph of their power over her adolescent rebellion. The eventual submission of the victim is inevitable, but they prefer it when they have to wait. Mr Miles's mouth is set tight. The bamboo thrashes down with a pistol-crack report across the red cane-prints already branching across Elaine's backside. The sequel is predictable and easily imagined.
`Two! . . . Three! . . . Fo-o-o-ur! . . . . SIX! . . . . Please, not across there again! No! . . . . My
BOTTOM! Oh, please count that one! Ple-e-e-e-ase' . . . . O-O-W-HOO-HOO-HOOO' . . . . SEVEN! . . . . E-E-E-Y-OW' . . . . OH, NO! NOT THERE AGAIN' . . . . AHH! . . . . EIGHT' . . . . NINE! . . . . No-o! Not there again! It isn't fair! . . . . Y-O-O-W! . . . . TEN!'
Does this sound-track show the unacceptable face of law-and-order? Remember, if the present proposal becomes law, much worse than this will be heard many times a day throughout the land. One can well believe that by this stage of the discipline, the fiery spread of Elaine's bottom-cheeks 'resembled a girl made to sit all day on a cruel thorn- bush infested by angry wasps!' However, those in parliament and the courts who support such proposals have considered all this and have decided that the type of punishment inflicted on Elaine and her kind is OK by them.
The rest of us, however, may wonder about the so-called 'healthy' effect of such reformatory discipline. By this stage of the tanning, Mr Miles is finding the front of his trousers uncomfortably tight. Small wonder that the French suggested he was having 'punishment fun' with Elaine. One can well believe that the lads from the adjoining boys' department would have risked their necks to reach the high barred windows on the outside. The master and justices were perhaps too busy to notice. Yet Elaine, as she craned round with eyes brimming and mouth howling, may have glimpsed the faces at the windows wide-eyed and open mouthed, the lads' legs squirming to hold themselves high up as they peeped in on the scene. Healthy? Well, it beats jogging on the hard-shoulder.
So before we all go out and vote for the return of the good old system, let us consider some of the things it actually involves. Those who advocate it — without ever having seen it - give the impression that a reformatory tanning would he a clean, decent, thoroughly British occupation. Rather like a game of cricket with birch and rump six strokes to the over. Stiff upper lip? If anything was stiff in the punishment-room it is not an upper lip.
Victorian hooks and magazines thrived on whippings, sport and imperialism. For instance, Miles was quite entitled to cane a girl like Elaine or Ange after breakfast, and then call her hack for a second bambooing across her bare bottom after lunch. Were our ancestors shocked by this? Not a bit, it seems. The Captain, 'A Magazine for Boys and Old Boys', assured its readers that a second tanning an hour or two after the first was merely 'a second innings on a sticky wicket'. How England's upper crust chortled over the joke. One imagines the humour may have been lost on Elaine or Ange or Sal.
To begin with, the language in such chastisements as Elaine's is not at all the sort approved by the Viewers and Listeners Association for family entertainment. A vulgar young tomboy like Elaine, when stung beyond endurance, is apt to use terms you would not find in Jane Austen. After more than a dozen counted swipes of the cane across her bare bottom, even a sturdy youngster like Elaine is frantic from the lingering smart. Then there comes a wickedly-aimed stroke across the tender willow-pattern of bamboo already striping her backside. In a fury of anguish, Elaine twists her face round again, yelling, `My arse! Oh, you bastards! You bastards!'
We can look forward to a good deal of this, if the new proposals become law. The supporters of official corporal punishment, like those supporting the capital variety, are apt to assure us that their method is quick and clean. That's great, as long as you're not the one who has to clean up afterwards.
The last phases of such a punishment are likely to be extremely undignified. A sturdy impudent adolescent girl, kneeling so tightly forward over the block, is not particularly well-placed to exercise psychological self-control under the cane. After a stroke wicked enough to raise goose- pimples, Elaine's tomboy bottom thrashes in a paroxysm of wild agony, and her lips scream profanities. The snub-nosed rebel turns the broad oval of her face to the witnesses, her mouth forming an `Ooo!' of dismay at what she has so pitiably shrieked. She knows that such impudence qualifies for extra chastisement. Worse still, as her expression indicates to the judicial amusement of the witnesses, Elaine knows that in her present state the next smarting stroke may very well cause a repetition of her 'insolence', for which vengeance will be duly executed.
Supporters of the rod, of course, are quick to suggest that it would be `different' nowadays. It's hard to see how. Certainly as one correspondent in the Daily Telegraph (`Caning of girls', 26 January 1976) pointed out, the female bottom would continue to be the target zone. 'After all, decorum has nothing to do with it, since the punishment is to be dished out by mistresses.'
So much for the soothing assurance that reformatory canings would be 'all right now' because girls like Elaine would be tanned by female officers. Just imagine two or three ladies of this ilk standing over the culprit as James Miles did, eager to let off some disciplinary steam. It will all be behind closed doors and no questions asked afterwards. Even if the questions are asked, the Home Office will be able to tell us that the allegations are bizarre and untrue. Picture the scene, the culprit over the block and a good selection of canes in the rack. Can you imagine what would happen to the strapping young cheeks of Elaine's sixth-form bottom in the next half hour?
For the moment, though, you are still James Miles hack in the last century. To Elaine's shrill and frantic protests that she can hear no more, you need only reply that she will be made to hear it away. No need to concern herself over that.
During the rest of the evening you ply the cane with the virtuoso skill of a concert pianist before your guests। Every 20 minutes or so, the door of the Red Room opens. One pretty miscreant leaves, rubbing her behind cheeks tearfully, and another is summoned. Sarah Barnes and Charlotte Burton may have praised your virtues at your trial, but that only makes you the more keen to instill a little virtue into them now. Perhaps you progress all the way up the age-range in your disciplinary zeal, all the way to flighty young women of 27 and 28.
You can find the full story of Elaine Cox in Richard Mantons's book of the same name.