Monday, 10th December 2001
Frankie Goes To Magdalen
Hollywood Next Stop
It is remarkable that when you visit certain places that have an ancient history you become engulfed in the atmosphere, and somehow you are able to feel the vibrations of the friendly or not so friendly soul that centuries ago dwelt in such establishments, and sometimes still dwell.
Over past decades I have had the very dubious pleasure of being a companion to the ghosts of past victims of profane acts. They menacingly hang like a dark dusk of ages over prisons like Wandsworth, Durham, Dartmoor, Pentonville (this place of punishment had one 'l' too many), and all other decaying penal servitude establishments.
Each time I visited these haunted buildings the evil vibrations echoed, and became threatening. Please believe me this was not imagination; it was starkly real.
How very different was the atmosphere when I recently visited Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin) College, which is part of Oxford University by way of a second invitation to address students at this famous seat of learning.
As with the first invite I was honoured to accept the kind invitation.
Upon entering the precincts of this remarkable bastion of academia that was founded in 1448 by William of Waynflete, the then Bishop of Winchester, I was able to sense its great historical values. A powerful feeling of reverence embraced me, and I felt a warm glow of respect for knowledge. The wonderful cloistered ambiance is a protective shield from the debilitating problems of the outside world.
The tranquil setting was for me a one-day holiday away from the stresses and strains of the outside world that plague the majority of us.
It is quite remarkable that this wonderful college of learning should have been built upon land that was once an ancient and decaying hospital dedicated to John The Baptist.
From a hospital treating the sick it was transformed into developing and feeding great minds of learning.
A DISNEYLAND OF KNOWLEDGE
Magdalen has some of the most beautiful buildings of Oxford, and stands proud within a hundred acres of woodlands, riverside walks, and lawns, of which the most famous is the Deer Park which houses the three hundred year old deer herd.
57 species of birds live within the grounds. Magdalen has its own squash and tennis courts, cricket, hockey, soccer and rugby pitches.
The college recently added a new Auditorium for lectures, music, theatre, cinema, a small art gallery and video projection. There are over 500 rooms within the College Complex.
It really is a Disneyland of education for anyone intent upon acquiring knowledge.
At sunrise on May morning the Magdalen Choir, whose foundation goes back to the very early years of the College, welcomes in the season of spring from the Great Tower, described by James Ist as 'the most absolute tower in England', in a ceremony, that was featured in the movie 'Shadowlands' based on C.S. Lewis who was for thirty-six years a Fellow at the College.
The social centre of Magdalen is its Old Kitchen bar that is housed in what was from the 15th century until 1980 an active kitchen, complete with ancient spits and vast fireplaces.
In the course of the 20th century Magdalen has celebrated the granting of a Nobel Prize to five of its scientist Fellows, and, in 1995, the glasses were raised to Seamus Heaney, now an Honorary Fellow, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In October this year the champagne corks popped once again when Professor A. Michael Spencer, who read Mathematics at Madgalen was named a co-winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics.
Amongst all this academic splendour stood the late Mrs and Mrs James Fraser's son Francis, better known as 'Mad' Frankie Fraser the scourge of sadistic prison governors, and 'screws', amongst other things.
Whoever would have thought this would be possible; certainly not a number of retired Judges of whom I made an acquaintance, and most past prison governors?
THE REAL COST IN HUMAN TERMS
I would not be telling the truth if I said that visiting this truly civilised enclosure did not affect me, and cause me to reflect on the years that I have misspent.
I have always been in sympathy with the philosophy of the late, and great, Edith Piaf when she sang, and I believe meant it, 'Je Ne Rien Regrette' (I have no regrets).
Visiting Magdalen College caused me to take a rain check on that philosophy.
I am not one for dictating to others how they should live their lives, but I have to say to young, and old, knowledge is real power.
To the youngsters please allow me to strongly advise you to study and gain the qualifications for a career. When I was growing-up it is truthful to say that for those of us who were born into abject poverty opportunities were virtually non-existent.
As I looked around and see poor people, with no money to buy the barest essentials, and dying of neglect, I resolved not to be one of them.
When I saw a wonderful caring woman, my mother, sitting at the kitchen table crying because she wanted more food for her children, not for herself or my father, but for us kids, I became determined not to become a victim of poverty.
Survival totally occupied the mind. Therefore the promised benefits of crime beckoned, and like a person dying of thirst to which water is lifesaving and a luxury, I decided I would quench my thirst for survival on the proceeds of crime committed against those that could afford the loss.
This was not a decision based on the intelligence of an Einstein, but the conclusion of a desperate person without choice.
Nevertheless, it did not come cheap. I paid a heavy price. To rise above the drowning tide of penury I had to sacrifice 42 years of my life caged in unbelievable purgatory because that is what prisons were.
LIFE AND DEATH STRUGGLE
When I look back on the disgusting conditions of prisons just 25 years ago - and before that they were even more vicious and vile - it is amazing that people, including myself, survived such dreadful regimes. Many did not.
I remember one occasion when I watched through a broken Judas spy hole a prisoner who could take no more, and had committed suicide being pulled out of his cell with each foot held by two callous 'screw' and dragged along the corridor with his head hitting the floor at each uneven piece of the poorly maintained landing.
The infamous 'heavy mob' of 'screws', that were in every prison, would use any excuse to give out terrible beatings to prisoners.
Violence on prisoners by prisoners, often connived at by 'screws', including face slashing with a razor, stabbings with DIY tools, along with murders and suicides were regular occurrences.
Is it any wonder that I developed into a very violent person?
The only answer to violence of this nature in such hellholes was violence. Had I turned the other cheek I would have died a violent death when a young man.
Prison governor William Lawton tried to murder me, and it was only his parting words as he left me to die: "it won't be long now" that stirred in me a determination not to let him achieve his murderous intention.
It was not only a majority of prison staff that wanted me dead or crippled, but there were some prisoners with reputations for their extreme violence that also tried to destruct me. The fact that I am still alive indicates that they failed, but I assure you it was not for the want of trying.
MODERN DAY BENEFITS
Today everything is very different. There is no doubt that a person of today that is determined to succeed has no need to turn to crime to keep body and soul together.
Youngsters have good opportunities albeit some better than others. There is guidance available from a number of agencies to help them choose a profession. The method of teaching is interesting.
In my day it was, repetitive, boring and laborious. There were no incentives to learn, and time had to be spent desperately trying to help your family, and yourself, cling to life. This is not melodrama but a wholly real description of life for so many people at that time.
To have a life of crime today is an option.
Computers, and its software, are absolutely marvels of technology. IT is essential for the working population, and for recreation seekers, of today, and tomorrow. In the very near future those without IT knowledge will be like people lost in the desert with only the waiting vultures for company.
As I said earlier I don't propose to lecture on that which is right or wrong, but please think very carefully about your future. Did I waste 42 years of my life - you tell me the answer.
THANK YOU MADGDALEN COLLEGE
The people at Magdalen College were charming, and made us very welcome. Before entering the galleried Debating Chamber, which has a capacity of 290 people, where there was a packed audience, with people standing at the back, for an 'Evening With 'Mad' Frankie Fraser', we were kindly shown the Old Library. This was an experience that I will cherish. The stunning painting by Dante Rossetti the famous painter and poet, covered the domed ceiling, and stirred within me a dormant appreciation of artistic beauty.
In the Chamber a friendly and earnest audience of students were awaiting. The attendance of several lecturers added additional dignity.
The interest of the students was refreshing, and very much appreciated. The questions they asked were direct and sensible, and their sense of understanding did not go unnoticed. The fact that we overran the scheduled time, and could have gone on for a longer period only pleased me, as it served to indicate the interest of those present.
May I wish each student success in his/her chosen career, and I sincerely hope that each one of them is able to find happiness. The effort they each put in now will be the foundation for their future career. The stronger the foundation will mean that the structure will be stronger, and longer lasting.
Should at any time the pressures threaten to overwhelm you take time-out, press the pause button and just 'chill out'.
I only attended the University of Life so I won't offer to help-out with your homework, but if at any time anyone of you may consider that my experience could be of help to you please contact me. I will be only too pleased to make it available, and my door is always open. As always the strictest confidentiality is guaranteed. I have to thank Magdalen College for having me. I am humbled, and truly very grateful.