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BOOK REVIEW: Pinchbeck man's description of life in Borstal

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It’s not often a book can be described as both an easy and a challenging read at once but, in the case of Borstal 80, it seems apt.

It’s an easy read, inasmuch as the book is written in a casual, conversational tone which draws you into the narrative and makes you want to keep reading (I finished the book in two sittings because I was so compelled).

It is also a challenge when confronted with some of the realities of author Alan Figg’s experience of being a ‘trainee’ at Portland Borstal in 1980-81.

Borstal by Alan Figg (46167163)
Borstal by Alan Figg (46167163)

The account is unflinching, at times harsh and often shocking, especially to a readership some forty years on, many of whom would not be aware of the entire Borstal system (it was abolished in 1982, not long after the end of the author’s sentence).

I have to confess that I was only vaguely aware of the Borstal method of incarceration and correction myself, and had no idea of the levels of trial, degradation and arguably futility of the experience (the author notes that at his time the reoffending rate for Borstal trainees was 66%).

The book is successful on a variety of levels.

As a piece of living history, the author has created a vivid and evocative first-hand
account of his own experiences, full of detail and depth; a student of the British penal system would find it a valuable addition to their library.

It is also a deeply personal account. I do not know the author, but I understand the writing process has given him the desire to continue to tell his story (look out for a sequel detailing the struggle to go through life with a criminal record).

The book is also surprisingly funny in places, the author showing a wry and self-deprecating humour throughout (one account of a phoney fiancée is particularly laugh-inducing).

What the book is not, which I think is particularly praiseworthy, is a pleading confessional.

Figg is frank and candid about the circumstances that led him to Borstal (which I won’t spoil here) and some of his exploits during his incarceration, but is in no way seeking forgiveness or atonement from his readers.

It also raises open ended questions about the validity of the system as a whole.

It is this frankness, amongst its many other qualities, that makes Borstal 80 such a compelling read.

Karl Gernert

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