Book Review : The Lives of Frank Norman

Now you see this is what happens when you’re meant to be cataloging a book. You just take a quick squizz through a few pages to get the gist of the thing in order to be able to describe it properly. Occasionally this extends to a few more pages, than a chapter or this case….the entirety.

I’d never heard of this geezer Frank Norman who just 2 months outside of his 5th stint in the nick starts to write his memoirs. As he lived the majority of his adult life within the sound of bow bells it has its own glossary ; a unique blend of cockney  and prison slang.

The cover artwork of photo portrait chopped into 4 segments cleverly mirrors the 4 distinct mini biographies which make up the contents. “Banana Boy” documents his time spent in Dr Barnado’s Homes from the ages of ? very young to 14; Stand On Me is his time spent as a destitute in and around London in continuous trouble with the police until his eventual arrest and imprisonment which is “Bang to Rights”. The final twist in the tale is his overnight rise to fame with the publication of his memoirs and the highly successful production of his play “Fings Aint Wot They Used T’B which became a play with music by Lionel Bart.

It is at times poignant and harrowing. He describes the moment he is taken away screaming in a taxi to the Bedford orphanage (from his wealthy and elderly guardian Lady W of Onslow Square) and from then to Kingston and Goldings in Hertford where he condemns his classification as “backward”..” Barnado’s worst crime was their blatant underestimation of the intelligence of just about every boy and girl in their care”. At the age of 14 he was not deemed suitable for carpentry or other “trades”so was put to work cleaning the toilets and kitchens, very often one immediately following the other.

At 16 he is semi released into the big wide world whilst still under Baranados’ Guardianship. He is put to work on a tomato farm where most of the day he is “arse deep in horse manure” then leaves to try factory work as a Perforator of Talcom Powder Tops Head Press Operator, expected to produce 25 tops a minute. After a short time he decides to escape this Dickensian existence and finds a few seasons work with a travelling fairground.

After a barney with the boss’ misses he winds up in London and spends the next few years as a “Soho Bum”, dossing wherever he can and beginning to become involved with minor crimes of “nicking a tool” (car theft) , gets his face slashed by a rival protection gang, ends up being caught for “Kite Flying” (forging stolen cheques).

One of the most heart wrenching scenes is when, just after he has been convicted for a three 3 year sentence he has to say goodbye to his girlfriend and is given just 10 minutes. “I felt the tears welling up inside me. God please don’t let me cry”.. Did she know then that this was to be the last time that I would hold her in my arms like this?”

Finally he is released, gets a job as a van driver and starts writing. After Bang to Rights is written he is befriended by Raymond Chandler who asks to write a foreward, in what was to be the last year of his life. He describes Evans as having ” a clear eye and swift observation and the power to put these qualities on paper and make you feel and see with him. There is no dammed literary nonsense” And Chandler recognizes his resilience in referring to his many prison stretches “a five times looser……we would say he is badly handicapped. Frank Norman has the courage to overcome this handicap”

What impresses me most is how he easily he befriends people throughout his life and however temporary, his friendships see him through the bleakest of situations, from his friends from Barnado’s Pedro and Ginger, to Bill, Betty, Velma and finally Billie to name but a few. He doesn’t appear to want any pity from the reader, but doesn’t invite judgement either.

If you like period fiction from the likes of Graham Greene, H E Bates, Nellas’ War etc then this period biography (from 1936-1960) is one of the best I have read and contains a large dosage of social history. Its power is in its ability to bring you up short, reflect on your own existence and be humbled by his.

 

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