The Midsomer work camp

You might realise by now that I enjoy a bit of crime fiction, and that includes a taste for Midsomer Murders, even though it is way past its peak as a more or less gentle mockery of middle class manners. Midsomer doesn’t exist, of course, but its county capital, Cawston, is largely filmed in the Thames Valley market town of Wallingford. And Wallingford, as well as being the fictional home of many a murderous snob with status anxieties, has a history.

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In 1911, the Christian Social Union, effectively the social service arm of the Congregationalist and Presbyterian Churches, purchased a farm near Wallingford for use as a labour colony. The Congregationalists viewed social service as a form of missionary work, a view articulated particularly by the Nottingham minister John Brown Paton, who helped popularise in Britain the ideas of the Lutheran Pastor von Bodelschwingh, who had launched an elaborate system of social service agencies, including Arbeiterkolonien, in Bielefeld.

Interestingly, Brown Paton described himself as a socialist. He was alluding here to the idea of socialised support for the weaker members of society, but it is worth noting that more radical Christian socialists like George Lansbury were equally enthusiastic advocates of labour colonies as a way of both tackling unemployment and helping train urban Britons for a life on the land.

The Christian Union for Social Service ran its Wallingford Colony as a training farm. As in the German Lutheran colonies, the staff were described as Brothers, and subsequently when women started to work in the residential colonies they were known as Sisters.  The main recruits were young men, including those they took from the Foundling Hospital.

It housed conscientious objectors during the First World War, who worked the land as an alterntive to military service, before returning to its original purpose of retraining unemployed young men, with most of the costs paid by local boards of guardians, but by the 1920s – by which time the colony could take 270 trainees – the noble aim of repopulating rural Britain had been replaced by the more practicable goal of shipping the trainees off to the Dominions. It changed again during the Second World War, when it housed child emigrants who had fled the Nazis, and was subsequently used as a therapeutic reform community for young offenders.

Throughout these shifts several factors did not change. First and foremost, the colony was a residential community. Second, with few exceptions, its inmates were male. Third, it reformed character and body alike through exposure to hard work on the land. I’ve eplored the interplay between these features in a wider study of work camp movements in Britain and Ireland, and there’s also a very good short account of Turner’s Court, apparently still available, for those who would like more detail.

The reformatory closed in 1991, and of the earlier buildings only the clock tower remains. The site now houses upmarket homes for commuters and the affluent retired, so it’s clearly only a matter of time before Inspector Barnaby receives a call…

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Murderous learning – more reflections on adult education in crime fiction

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Recently I’ve been enjoying a crime novel by an Irish writer, Tana French. The Trespasser is set in Dublin, and its central character is Antoinette Conway, a hard-boiled murder squad detective of mixed race. The novel is interesting on belonging, family, gender, low-level racism, and internal hierarchies in the police. And it also touches upon adult education.

Aislinn, the murder victim, is described as a serial attender of evening classes. The detectives draw up a list of all the classes she took with a view to checking out ‘all the other students or whatever they call them’, a lead they pursue by looking though her financial records for fee payments.

I’d wondered whether this meant that the murder turned on an evening class, which would have been mightily entertaining. But no; Antoinette describes the list of evening classes as ‘depressing as hell’:

Aislinn genuinely paid actual money for a class called Restyle You!, with the exclamation mark, also one for wine appreciation, and something called Busy Babes Boot Camp.

So the evening classes turn out to be a side-alley, something the reader wonders about but which provide nothing by way of leads. Definitely not a plot device, then.

But the evening classes are nevertheless important: they tell the reader something about Aislinn’s character. Her serial pursuit of adult learning reflects Aislinn’s underlying uncertainty about who she is; and they signal her interest in adopting a new social role, restyling herself in order to explore the mystery of her own father’s disappearance.

Needless to say, hard-boiled Antoinette doesn’t think much of this, and indeed she tends to despise Aislinn more generally for being so unsure of herself, and for allowing her vanished father to dominate her life.  From this the reader concludes that Antoinette has dealt with her own childhood losses differently, so that perhaps the role of hard-boiled detective is itself a defensive performance of some kind.

As I say, an interesting novel, not only because of how it deploys adult learning. And  Antoinette’s rather cynical and dismissive view of adult learning, of course, is consistent with her seemingly hard-boiled character. So here is another fine example to add to my accounts of adult education and crime fiction in Germany, neither of which involve detectives who are ‘hard-boiled’.

As for the Busy Babes Boot Camp, no way would I let that pass by without investigating further. It turns out there is a clutch of similarly named fitness classes for Busy Moms, Busy Women, Busy Ladies, and Busy Girls. Busy Babes, though, is French’s invention