London! What strange treasure will it throw up today, I wondered, as I drifted out of the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square and sauntered off towards Charing Cross. A few bright lights, bistros and a Pret a Manger later, I came upon this oddity called Foyles – a massive white block book store sitting in the heart of what essentially seemed like a bright lights and shadows entertainment district. I had a while to while and so I entered the hallowed hall that led into this wondrous book-land.
New releases screamed out for attention as I stared at the glazy hard-bound editions and thought it prudent to wait for the much cheaper ‘India and Bangladesh only’ paperback versions. No sir, I was in search of rarer jewels, the kind of books that don’t find their way into Indian bookstores. No, no, no it’s not what you’re thinking, because what you’re thinking about abounds in our Midlands and Crosswords (pssst…you just have to know where to look and how to ask!) What I’m looking for are genres which don’t have takers back home and so publishers just don’t bother to ship them across – martial arts, please-ban-me-so-I-could-be-famous-rants, seditious lampoonery, underground cult classics and so on. And yes I know I could go browse on Amazon and pick up whichever book or review catches my fancy, but there’s something about walking into a bookstore, the tactile pleasures of running one’s fingers along a newly bound spine, the woody smell of crisp new paper waft ing about as eager thumbs ruffle the pages, and that unspoken unshared deep delight of suddenly coming across a book that seemed to have been written just for you sitting all alone in a corner, waiting for you to come along and pick it up.
It’s the same magical difference that separates bumping into your soul-mate at a rock-climbing meet as against meeting her/him on a grooms and brooms website. And so the adventure continued, as my index figure ran along plastic jacketed tomes in the art and architecture section and Gaudi’s gargoyles in stone, and on to autobiographies (not in the mood for pompous wind-baggy tales of self promotion today, I thought), before I moved into home country – travelogues, and a little more of Bill Bryson (and few things can brighten a gray rainy London afternoon more than good ol’ Bill). I had made it past Hitler, Gandhi, Napoleon and their horses and I could see Theroux and Younghusband winking at me from their racks when my finger got stuck on a little red and black book with a naked man on the spine. B-R-O-N-S-O-N it said, by Charles Bronson. Yeah, so what, I thought, and moved ahead but my index finger refused to budge. I stopped and commanded the impudent digit to withdraw and it came off like velcro. They must’ve removed an old price sticker and my finger found it. The book stumbled out and gave in to gravity. I picked it up from the carpet and who should I see staring at me from the cover but hard as nails Hardy – Tom Hardy! Looking beefier than he did as Bane, without a stitch on and with a bristly handlebar moustache that spanned the page and rested on a star that said “now a major motion picture…”, I wondered who this bloke might be who needed Tom Hardy to tell his story.
Leaving Bill and the other travel writers a little dumbfounded, Tom, this bloke Charlie Bronson and I shuffled off into the corner where the folks at Foyles had been so kind as to provide a settee where three hard men could relax and get acquainted. As I rifled through the book, I wondered if this book was about Charles Bronson, that macho Mongol in Hollywood who starred in The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen. Fortunately, it wasn’t anything as predictable as that. As the pages turned, a picture began to appear…
About 150 miles north from Foyles, stands a forbidding structure. There, where the cold biting north wind wears down both man and stone, this monument to misery stands tall and gaunt. In its stony folds it holds monsters in the skin of man – pedophiles and serial killers… one had punched a 10-month-old who choked on a broken tooth and died. Another had raped and murdered a pre-teen. There are cannibals, brain eaters, serial killers and other such depraved beasts walking in chains in that ‘Monster Mansion’ called Wakefield prison. If you made your way past these demons marked by the devil, and went into the furthest darkest corner of this dungeon, past the barbed and bladed wires, the thick concrete walls and row upon row of men in uniform, their cold stares and thick truncheons, and came upon a steel door with a tiny hatch, open it at your own peril, for beyond the door, in the clammy quiet of the prison walls, you can hear the tread of heavy feet dragging thick chains along the concrete floor.
Push the hatch open and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. The shadows fade into the walls, empty and gray, and to the floor, more gray concrete and then you see it, in the center of the cell, a cage, just big enough for a large man to stand straight, lie down or walk a few paces. And then you see him, a dark naked silhouette, massive shoulders and chest, a thick bull-neck merging into a broad barn-door of a back you could break a good sized tree on, sweeping thighs that reminded one of the coiled springiness of a thoroughbred and ankles shackled in chains and clamps. The giant falls to his hands and starts doing push-ups, one…, two…, three…, thirteen…, he carries on quicker than you can count, like a giant piston pumping away. He must have done a hundred odd while you tried to keep up, and then he rises, bringing his face closer to the bars of his cage and it catches a solitary sun-beam as it squeezes through the skylight. His skin is pale, his pate bald. Beads of sweat sprout all over his skin, moistening the traces of dried blood that streak his head and neck… your eyes meet his wild eyes. There’s an uncontained fury in those eyes. His thick calloused hands grip the bar as he pulls himself closer to the bars… and you, as if he wants to get to you. He can’t, and in frustration he tries to shake and pull the bars apart. The cage and the chain rattle. The foundations and rivets driven into the concrete shake and shudder and you feel the floor beneath your feet quake as the man pulls at the bars with all his terrible might. Will the cage hold, you wonder… And if it doesn’t, will the steel door stand up to this beast’s bludgeoning? You don’t think it will, and nor does he and so he bashes his head against the bars like a battering ram. The skin splits open and blood gushes forth from wounds old and new. Slick with blood and gore, the bars begin to give. The beast bellows like a crazed behemoth, spewing blood, sweat and spit, and you recoil in horror and fear… and then you hear him roar, not in anger or pain but mirth, laughing at you, your tiny mousy heart and the fact that he scared the living daylights out of you. For a man doomed to solitary confinement for more than three decades, the bleeding noggin is a small price to pay for this priceless entertainment. Meet the real Charles Bronson – Britain’s most violent man.
Prisons, and especially solitary confinement breaks down the toughest of men. It’s a dangerous dog eat dog world. Violence, rape and substance abuse is rampant in all correctional facilities. But this politics of intimidation, this constant looking over one’s shoulder wears every one out. A decade in the slammer wastes the best of them.
But Charles Bronson is an oddity. He has grown stronger and tougher with each passing year in jail. On a frugal diet and with little equipment, he has developed phenomenal strength and endurance, the kind that would put world beating athletes to shame. He has set standards of fitness that have found their way into record books. He does not drink or do drugs and is a near vegetarian but when he loses it, a dozen hardened prison officers in riot gear and their dogs find it difficult to contain him.
Incidentally, when he did spend a little time, about two months, in the outside world, he got involved with bare knuckle fighting. He beat all comers – gypsies, boxers, giant guard dogs and the like. And that’s where he got his name. (Michael Gordon Peterson was the name he went by until he started fighting professionally. Th at’s where they gave him the name Charles Bronson, and the name stuck) But I digress. The question is how does a man not only survive three decades but thrive in an institution that was designed to break the body and the spirit of all who enter? The answer roams further and digs deeper than one could have imagined. It is an answer that has implications for our lives too. I would love to tell you more, but before that, I need to go to jail… no, not as a guest of the state, but merely to test out a few theories. So watch this space, for Charlie and I shall soon reveal all…