My mother, always my greatest critic, believed when I was 15 that by the age of 18 I would be hung. Not by some ruffians but by the state, by the men in dark, dark blue uniforms who would crowd round me before my swinging, and make sure that I was made bereft of breath. Fortunately her prophesy was found to be wide of the mark, and here I am at the foothills of my 78th birthday proving that she was wrong, her reasoning based exclusively on the fact that most of those who got hung for murder started off as petty thieves and insignificant wrongdoers. And I was certainly of this calibre.
Attaining this late-70s age, which so far has not reduced me to pain or immobility, is no compensation for the fact that that woman I loved more than anything, in spite of the slaps in the face, the bowls of hot porridge poured over me, the knives thrown at me, died so young. What a welter of contradictions was Eileen Mary Bird, née Dunne, who crossed the Irish Sea aged 18 to suffer not a moment’s peace until she died aged 52, halfway between my 27th and 28th birthday.
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But survive the hangman I did, with her at the time adding the insult that she would not even visit one of the hanging prisons of London – Brixton, Wandsworth or Pentonville – on the morning of my execution to look at the great big oaken prison door that would have a little note pinned to it announcing that John Anthony Joseph Bird had expired a short time before.
So here I am, 60 years on from that loving mother’s prediction that tried to scare 10 colours of shite out of me. But I was saved by nothing more than the fact there had been a Russian Revolution in 1917 and the effects echoed all the way through to 1967 when I, through sexual opportunism, joined the cause and jettisoned my criminal underclass life, becoming a middle-class, sanctimonious defender of the international peasantry and its attendant working class.
Seventy-eight puts you in a strange relationship with the world because if you are conscious, you will remember in all those distant decades the racism of the people around you, including yourself; the antisemitism, including yourself; the hatred of homosexuals, including yourself; and disdain for animals, including your own. And if you are of the working classes, the sense that you are little more than social rubbish. And if you are of the offending type, then the ample supply of blue-uniformed civil servants who loathed you enough to hit you indiscriminately.