Sometimes you start a book which defies your expectations to such an extent that the only thing to do is recalibrate and start again. That’s what happened with Catherine Czerkawska’s A Proper Person To Be Detained (Contraband, Saraband Books). I knew the story was centred around a real-life crime, one which had a direct relationship to Czerkawska and her family, and think I was expecting a whodunnit with the author acting as detective through the ages. I should have known better – Catherine Czerkawska would never be so obvious.
There seems to be a real appetite for true crime which is always with us, and which is often accompanied by a sense of voyeurism – a desire to get a vicarious thrill from discovering the worst that men can do. This is an accusation which cannot be pointed at A Proper Person To Be Detained despite the premise. What unfolds is more of a social and cultural commentary on the Britain of the day, but one which forces you to make parallels with the present.
Regular readers of Czerkawska’s will know that she takes her research seriously. A prolific poet and playwrite as well as a celebrated novelist, her previous books include The Curiosity Cabinet, The Physic Garden, The Posy Ring, and 2016’s The Jewel (the story of Jean Armour whose life has always been overshadowed by that of her husband, Robert Burns). A champion of the under-represented, overlooked, and persecuted Czerkawska is rightly known as one of the most interesting and individual historical novelists we have, able to find a relatable way to tell a story which may have been overlooked otherwise.
With A Proper Person To Be Detained the author’s familial relationship to events lend it an extra dimension which is almost palpable. This time it’s personal and it shows. Murdered in a drunken quarrel, her great-great-uncle John Manley was the son of Irish immigrants, and the way he, and his kith and kin, were treated shows that many lessons are taking a long time to learn. The tragic incident is used as a ground zero from which a family tree evolves and then runs throughout the book, allowing the writer to examine the multiple strands which lead to her own.
But this is not simply a literary Who Do You Think You Are?. Czerkawska uses the plight and experience of her family, and the documents and details resulting from her research, to examine so much more, particularly the plight of immigrants. She discovers plenty of evidence to suggest that myths and stereotypes were widespread and had influence. Well into the 20th century signs could be found on hostelry doors which read “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” (the title of John Lydon’s 1994 autobiography) and Czerkawska looks in great detail as to why such victimization prevailed, and what it meant for those who suffered it.
Perhaps the most shocking commentary on how the Irish were viewed at the time comes from the pen of Frederich Engels, who famously co-authored The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx, but who appears to have believed that although all working men are equal, some are more equal than others. His thoughts and attacks on the ‘Irishman’ have to be read to be believed, and have parallels with the treatment of, and the reporting on, immigrants and their families today, often persisting through generations. Such prejudice can be as stubborn as it is damaging.
In some ways A Proper Person To Be Detained makes an interesting companion to Jemma Neville’s Constitution Street and the call made in that book for a written bill of rights which should include, among others, the ‘Right to Housing’, the ‘Right to Education’, the ‘Right to Food’, ‘Health’, ‘Work’, and even ‘Life’. An aspect of Czerkawska’s book which is shocking yet unavoidable is the thought that we may be moving backwards rather than forwards when it comes to respecting those rights, particularly when she looks at the social structure of the various places that her family found themselves, including Glasgow’s Calton/Trongate. The detail of the poverty and hardship that had to be endured resonates all too clearly with some areas in cities today.
A Proper Person To Be Detained examines poverty, immigration, mental health, racism, and misogyny, all of which were inherent in everyday life in the late 19th/early 20th century, and unarguably still are today. As you read on you can sense your own anger growing with that of the writer as ever more hardships, tragedies, and injustices are visited upon her ancestors and those like them. Starting with the personal Catherine Czerkawska has written a powerful historical novel, arguably her most memorable to date. By looking at the past with an eye to the present she makes you realise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
You can still hear the podcast we recorded with Catherine Czerkawska back in 2017.