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A Proper Person to be Detained review: A difficult family story

Catherine Czerkawska follows the fall-out of the murder of her great-great uncle in 1881

A Proper Person to Be Detained
A Proper Person to Be Detained
Author: Catherine Czerkawska
ISBN-13: 978-1912235537
Publisher: Saraband
Guideline Price: £9.99

Catherine Czerkawska’s new book differs considerably from her earlier writing (which includes poetry, novels, and TV, radio and stage productions), but it will not disappoint her admirers, rather attract more. A Proper Person to be Detained turns difficult family subject matter into a fascinating book, full of resonance for these islands.

The core narrative is brutally simple: Czerkawska’s great-great uncle John Manley was killed by his friend John Ross in a drunken brawl in Leeds on Christmas night, 1881.

The crime’s terrible consequences are written about in detail, particularly for the victim’s sister Elizabeth, which lead to her eventual institutionalisation for insanity. Manley’s figure, “cheerful John, fond of a joke, with his fine head of curly red hair and his smart, light-coloured clothes in honour of the Christmas season”, is brightly sketched, while Elizabeth is more painfully drawn; the crushing environment of their lives is realised in its full wretchedness, and this is crucial to Czerkawska’s account.

Her depiction of the Irish slum, the Bank, in Leeds in 1881, where it was said the police patrolled in threes, reads like something from Asbury’s The Gangs of New York. This territory is associated with Leeds novelist Chris Nickson, but Czerkawska seeks to help us understand the migrant experience and its legacy. She talks about a school hymn containing the line “On Erin’s green valley look down in Thy love”, and movingly describes how she took bus trips with her Polish father, so the Yorkshire countryside could stand in for his homeland as well as for Ireland, a place entirely foreign to her.


‘Uniquely challenging’

Czerkawska describes A Proper Person to be Detained as “a uniquely challenging project”, partially because of the traumatic material, but also because it is difficult to categorise. This needn’t discourage readers: brilliant experiments such as WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn inspired greater enthusiasm for wandering tales with digressions which illuminate histories and fictions. Sebald permitted himself inventions in his design, such as the unlikely discovery of Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi’s railway carriage on his East Anglian rambles.

Czerkawska chooses to be more scrupulous, lending her book interest and coherence through what she admits are “elements of speculation, questionable connections”. However, although she is concerned with levels of society normally ignored by rulers – like pioneering microhistorian Carlo Ginzberg – she makes good use of official records when her subjects come up against the state in the form of the law and the lunatic asylum.

The author is very much present in A Proper Person to be Detained, through her emotions at least as much as her intellect. She posts the whole of Padraic Pearse’s The Rebel as an epigraph, quoting it again on the last page, “I am flesh of the flesh of these lowly, I am bone of their bone”, writing elsewhere, “My Irish forebears, living on the northern bank of the River Aire, were certainly judged to be the undeserving poor”.

Nigerian novelist and poet Chinua Achebe liked to quote the proverb “Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. However, Czerkawska’s close involvement with her material does have its drawbacks: she seems personally infuriated by philosopher Friederich Engels’s anti-Irish racism, but is it true to say Engels “hated” the Irish language? Perhaps he took the sort of accelerationist view of their loss reflected in Daniel O’Connell’s remark that “Irish never sold the cow”.

Irish immigrants and their children would quickly find a home in British socialist movements, such as Leeds’s activist-poet Tom Maguire, who was heavily involved in the successful gas strike Engels called The Battle of Leeds. Facing prejudice, then relieving bigots of their tools of oppression, including their language, has been a successful Irish migrant strategy in the UK as in the USA.

Czerkawska knows the importance of music to the Irish community in Leeds, a tradition continuing to the present day with the local Comhaltas branch celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. She notes that the criminal record of Manley’s hapless killer Ross included a conviction for stealing five ballads, then observes plausibly that he probably couldn’t even read – their music silent to him on the page, their stories as incomprehensible as his own, even as it might be turned into the subject of a future ballad itself. His initial death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, reasonably for an unpremeditated act, serving his time as a model prisoner, another wasted life in this chronicle of pointless tragedies. His incarceration at least had some meaning, some justice, which was not the case with his victim’s sister, Elizabeth.

‘They call me Sarah Floss’

Diagnosed with “mania”, Elizabeth was transferred from Glasgow to Wadsley Asylum, where on being asked her name she replied, “They call me Sarah Floss”, Czerkawska takes this as an allusion to floss silk braid and, more speculatively, to her possible involvement in prostitution during her time in Glasgow after she left Leeds. The trapped, unravelling creatures that produced such finery are certainly suggestive metonyms. Nearing Christmas and the 10th anniversary of her brother’s death, it is recorded that Elizabeth is “much depressed, does not know where she is, does not know if it is a large institution or a small cabbage”. Czerkawska considers this a grim joke but Elizabeth’s misery is unimaginable, unvisited in an asylum only 30 miles from Leeds, subject to a regime with its own kind of enlightened brutality, where the Irish were considered particularly troublesome, as members of other ethnic minorities would be after her, to this day. Learning here needs to continue and this book is a contribution to that debate.

Poor women in Elizabeth’s times endured fragile, desperate lives occasionally shot through with horror and tragedy; it is to Czerkawska’s immense credit and our benefit that A Proper Person to be Detained appropriately mourns Manley, unmasks his killer as the pathetic figure he was, and such men so often are, but then moves on to honour the true stars of her story, the women – weavers of peace who will make all struggles for a new life in a new country work on the ground. If lions need their own historians, lionesses need theirs even more.