In a straitjacket at Wakefield Prison - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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In a straitjacket at Wakefield Prison

Some of the very first BBC Radio plays I remember listening to were those featuring Paul Temple, his wife Steve, his manservant Charlie, and Sir Graham Forbes who was a 'high-up' in Scotland Yard. It used to bother me that a wife could be called Steve which was, obviously, a man's name. It has taken the 21st Century Internet to point out that Steve Trent was Mrs Temple's nom-de-plume which she used as a journalist. Sir Graham used to consult Temple on the difficult cases that the police couldn't solve - something that, presumably, today's Metropolitan Police Commissioner would not do. Sir Graham was always shepherded into the Temple's drawing room by Charlie and announced formally; he always accepted a whisky and soda whatever the time of day. Because he had a drawing room in his house, I thought Paul Temple was an artist as well as an author.

Charlie's main jobs, in addition to serving drinks and answering the telephone, seemed to be to open and close doors, and "Fetch the car, Charlie" or "Put the car away, Charlie". The Temples were very obviously upper class, or as we Yorkshire folk used to call them "posh". I didn't worry about that at the time because even the Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome stories, which I enjoyed so much, were about middle class children. There were no stories about working class kids like me - at least, if there were any my parents never drew my attention to them.

Paul Temple was the invention of Francis Durbridge in 1938. Durbridge was yet another Yorkshireman, born in Hull in 1912 and educated in Bradford. A new Paul Temple serial was broadcast every year throughout the 1940s and they were eagerly awaited. The Paul Temple stories were what we used to call whodunnits and usually comprised six or eight 30-minute episodes. The first Paul Temple serial I listened to with any great understanding was probably about 1944. Initially I was attracted by the very striking introductory music; for years I had no idea what that music was, but I eventually learned that it was an extract from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. From about 1948 Scheherazade was replaced by Coronation Scot composed by Vivian Ellis. The real Coronation Scot was an LMS locomotive on the West Coast Main Line, which had run from 1937 in honour of the Coronation of King George VI.
In typical BBC fashion for milking their favourites to the ultimate extent, there was one truly appalling single play in 1949. The convoluted plot involved the fictional characters from all the favourite BBC series then currently on air: Paul Temple and Steve; Dick Barton, Special Agent; Mr and Mrs Dale; Valentine Dyall - The Man in Black; Philip Odell - private eye; and PC 49. That play was called The Night of The Twenty Seventh and was broadcast on 27 December 1949. It was written by Edward J. Mason, an excellent author who should have known better than to get involved - but perhaps he needed the money.

In my penultimate year at junior school, I became a dedicated fan of Lord Peter Wimsey, the hero of many of Dorothy L Sayers' detective stories. The first one I read, soon after it had been serialised on the BBC Home Service, was The Nine Tailors. I ploughed through the book, made easier than it otherwise would have been because I remembered much of the plot from the BBC serial. I then borrowed more Wimsey books from the adult library until I'd read all the ones they had. Because of their convoluted plots, they were not an easy read and the settings were worlds different from my home life. I was so fascinated by the wealth of detail in the stories that I used to re-read some paragraphs slowly, over and over again, savouring the facts and admiring the writer's skill. Even today, when I come across a really good chapter in a novel, I will often turn back several pages to re-read particular passages, not because I didn't understand them first time around but because I found the English so appealing.

From the age of 10 or 11, I become keen on writing my own stories. During my Wimsey period, when tasked to write a story on a fictional subject of our own choice for school homework, I filled an entire school exercise book with a story set in Wakefield called Murder in the Cathedral. (I am quite certain that I had no knowledge of TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral when I chose the title for my epic.) When I asked someone in Wakefield Cathedral if I go up the spire to help me with a story I was writing, I was told, "Of course you can't: there is a war on you know!!" I wrote my story straight off at one sitting without any planning whatsoever. I remember deciding, even before I put pen to paper, that I would fill all 64 pages of a new school exercise book with my story. My use of phrases such as "rigor mortis had not yet set in" and "powder burns on the body suggest that he was shot at point-blank range", clearly startled the teachers at school.
Below: My 2008 pic of Wakefield Cathedral.

The plot of my story was influenced by many things including the Wimsey books, the exciting Sexton Blake stories that came out in paperback every few weeks and which consumed quite a lot of my pocket money, and a climb I had made, on my own, a week earlier up to the base of the spire of Christ Church. I knew the way up to the base of the church spire because one Sunday, after Matins, the organist had taken me behind the organ to show me some of the organ's workings. He had also shown me the tiny door which led, he said, via a very cramped spiral staircase, through the belfry level and finally up to the platform at the base of the spire. He couldn't take me himself because he had a bad leg. I knew then that sooner or later I would have to go up on my own; I didn't plan to ask permission because, after the curt refusal I had got at the Cathedral, I assumed it would be refused. Christ Church, like most churches, were routinely left unlocked in the 1940s so I went the following Saturday morning when the church was empty. There was a grand view of Wakefield and district from up there and no-one ever knew I had been there all on my own.

My first magnum opus also benefitted from knowledge I had picked up during a visit to Wakefield Prison with Dad. During that visit, while Dad was busy doing a bit of official business in the administration office, I asked the officer delegated to look after me at the gatehouse if he would show me a straitjacket and a padded cell to help me with a composition I was writing for school. The officer possibly assumed that Dad knew what I wanted to do so he took me along to the padded cell (there was only one it seems) and with the help of a colleague he strapped me tightly into a straitjacket. To my horror, they then left me alone in the windowless and sound-proofed cell and shut the door. I panicked, being unable to move either of my arms, and I fell to the padded floor and rolled about. I remember screaming and shouting for Dad. It seemed an age before the door opened and I was released. As soon as the padded cell door was opened, my screams must have been audible to the entire prison. Dad returned quickly to the scene and asked what all the noise was about, so I told him what the officers had done and why. He was very angry and told me not to tell anyone else about the incident because it would get the officers into trouble. It probably did anyway.

My fictitious murderer had thrown his victim from the platform half way up Wakefield Cathedral at the base of what is the tallest spire in Yorkshire. He had been caught, sentenced to death by hanging, and confined in a straitjacket in a padded cell to await his fate. I suppose I should have been grateful that the helpful officers in Wakefield Prison had not decided to show me the gallows. I can now confess for the very first time, that before I had started writing my story I had overheard Dad telling Mum how awful he felt because he had been one of the officers detailed to escort a condemned prisoner to his execution on the Leeds prison gallows that very morning.

My parents were summoned to explain to the Head Master at St James' why I apparently had a morbid interest in murders, executions and post mortems. By this time Mr Moore had been replaced by nice, portly, Mr Ronnie Paterson who walked with a limp. Perhaps, he wondered, Dad had been telling me lurid stories about goings-on in Wakefield prison? Not so. "I've had to sign the Official Secrets Act," Dad used to tell me, mysteriously, whenever I asked him what he did at work. My parents were able to convince Mr Paterson that I was just a normal child who read a lot and had a vivid imagination. The Head Master then turned to me and sternly told me that the exercise book had been intended to last the whole term. "There is a paper shortage you know, Tony", said Mr Paterson. He gave me a new exercise book but retained the one containing my story. I do wish I had been allowed to keep it.

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