Monday, 28 May 2018

From Hard Labour to London Transport

Bureaucratic records are dry to the point of dullness.

Record of a condemnation
Some poor fellow, 27 years old, appeared before a court martial on 13 April 1917. He was resisting mobilisation on the grounds of conscientious objection (in other words, pacifism); he was condemned to two years gaol with hard labour.

From 16 April to 14 July he served at Wormwood Scrubs, still a high-security prison in West London. My work involves hospital visits and I’ve frequently been to Hammersmith Hospital. It’s right next door to ‘the Scrubs’ and seeing that huge wall would make me think of Oscar Wilde, “all that we know who lie in gaol is that the wall is strong”.

But this prisoner didn’t stay long at the Scrubs. In July 1917 he was transferred to an even grimmer destination, Dartmoor prison in England’s South West. I was at school near Dartmoor and one of my best memories of my time there was walking on the moor, which occasionally led us to Princetown where the prison stands.

This story all sounds a little dire, doesn’t it? What makes it more powerfully personal is that it happened to one Norman Bannister – also known as Nathaniel Bernstein – who was my grandfather.

Nor does the record wholly reflect his experience, as he would tell it, about the transfer to Dartmoor. They went by train and with him were an officer and a private soldier, both armed, with a uniform laid out on the bench beside him. All the way down, and the train trip took some four hours then, they threatened him with their weapons and demanded he put on the uniform.

He refused. It’s a decision for which my admiration only grows each time I think of it. And it all came back to me again the other day.
No need to ask a policeman
Poster promoting the classic Underground map
The object that reminded me of the story may seem wholly unrelated to it. It came from a book we rescued from clearing out our former flat in Germany. It was a collection of London Transport posters put together by an architecture historian, Harold Hutchison, in the 1960s. Not, in itself, a particularly significant book, you may feel, but it includes a dedication from its author:

To N. Bannister who has served London Transport so well and so long

My grandfather left school at the earliest moment after the end of the obligatory (and free) period of schooling – at 13. He was apprenticed to a lithographer and, by the time he was 24, when the First World War broke out, he was a fully qualified master of his trade. But war interrupted all that, taking him eventually to prison.
Striking view of Charing Cross station
However, with peace he was released and returned to his career. The skill he had developed was an ability to look at a painting and determine, by eye alone, how many colours it would take to print a good copy of it. He spent the majority of his career as a salesman for a lithography company one of whose major customers was London Transport.
The Underground to greenery
I don’t imagine my grandfather contributed much to society with his hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs or Dartmoor. But he did defend a principle that matters as much today as it did then. On the other hand, in peacetime he contributed to the production of art – popular art but art nonetheless – that brightened the lives of millions of commuters and produced some iconic images.
Glorious sketch of Chiswick to the west of London
Which I was delighted to leaf through when I came across the book.

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