Were volume of words and volume of remembrance to be the same, then Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903-1979) would be one of the best-known writers of the twentieth century. They aren’t, and his forgotten-ness is in almost eldritch contradiction to his staggeringly vast output: a 27-volume autobiography, novels, detective fiction written under another name, Leo Bruce. It is sobering to come across a writer so unread.
I can claim to have looked at only a single book of his, one of the autobiographical series that covers 9 months of his life over the years 1953-1954. It was the time when this mild-mannered man, seemingly incapable of rancour, found himself imprisoned first at Wormwood Scrubs and then at Brixton. The book he wrote about this was The Verdict of You All.
Scooped up as part of Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe’s purge of the period (this article about the time is worth a read), Croft-Cooke was convicted of homosexual offences. As was the norm during this death-rattle surge of such prosecutions, he was sent to jail. On his way to Wormwood Scrubs, a jailer remarked, ‘You're a writer. You'll find us a very interesting place.’
The Verdict of You All is not great literature. It is a steady, sad tale, though, that captures a man and a moment, a gentle castigation of what Croft-Cooke calls ‘The cruel machinery of accusation, defence, punishment – the whole invented by society to quell those insufficiently inconspicuous.’ It is concerned much less with process than with people and takes as its central theme one basic perception:
My first sight of my fellow prisoners in numbers was a little daunting not because I looked on a collection of sinister criminals... but rather because they were, on the contrary, exactly such a crowd as might alight from the 9.15 train.
The Scrubs was really not too bad. 'A prison hall realises the highest hope of its original architect,' he writes, 'for it is probably the ugliest structure ever conceived by man. Nothing relieves its hideous solidity.' But Croft-Cooke survived. He met people he came to like. They were like him, unthreatening and mildly courageous. The last virtue might seem strange in the context of prison. This is how Croft-Cooke himself defines it:
We like to think that courage is a national characteristic. ...We should be proud, then, of our criminals. Whatever they have done... their behaviour when subjected to the cold-blooded inhumanity of a long sentence is beyond praise.
The inhumanity to which he refers is the metre of the book, a steady beat of unintended cruelties. Even that description is probably too strong – Croft-Cooke encountered only those experiences familiar to those required to waste their years for no purpose. There was nothing to do and what there was had to be made difficult. He describes the arcana of accessing the prison library, of pointless work and worse efforts at rehabilitation.
He was of course an unusual prisoner – he was articulate, crimeless and found a way to fill the time. ‘I had never known more favourable conditions for writing,’ he says, ‘no telephones, no interruption, no distraction, and along with clear hours in which there was literally nothing else to do.’ But he could see beyond his own absorption with recording what he saw:
Time is the god; prison life is time’s religion. ...All are waiting in the morning for evening to come, in the evening for the night, in the night for morning... waiting and doing mad tricks of arithmetic.
Croft-Cooke offers no great conclusions to his time inside. Perhaps he couldn’t. Three days after his release, a Home Office official was at his door in London. ‘You’re going to write a book about all this?’ he asked. When Croft-Cooke confirmed that he would do so, the official offered a warning: ‘If mistakes were made by anyone, if anyone went too far, it’s best forgotten.’ Best for whom? It was not hard to imagine. Croft-Cooke disagreed, but the official had not finished. ‘A second conviction is very much more easily obtained than a first...’
So The Verdict of You All is sparse in its verdict. Croft-Cooke survived. Of prison he wrote:
What is to be done about it, I leave others to decide – my task has been to tell the story as dispassionately as I could. I realise that I have not always succeeded in that, had been at times angry and at others distressed at the sight of suffering, but there the gruesome thing is.
As to the man, he remained after prison all that he had been before. This is Croft-Cooke’s wonderful statement of what a writer is for:
All my life, I realise now, I have had two single aims which become one when I write. I have wanted to love people... of strange callings, of other countries and languages, people antithetical to my family and natural associates. Then to identify with them, to try to be mistaken for one of them, to learn their languages, share their points of view and, where they have been outcast, to be an outcast with them.
He was an outcast with them. He wrote of them. Sometimes that is all the change that it is possible to effect, remembrance, to undo the curse of being forgotten.