December 18, 2016 by Matt Hill : Quiet Loner
One major theme of the Battle for the Ballot is the arrest of any key figures who call for the right to vote. Thomas Paine got a death sentence for his work on The Rights of Man, Jeremiah Brandreth was hung, drawn and quartered for his part in the reform inspired Pentrich Rising, Samuel Bamford and others at Peterloo were imprisoned, Chartist leaders like John Frost suffered transportation to the colonies and many Suffragettes were put into prison. Prison songs are a mainstay of some of my favourite country singers like Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard so I knew from the start I wanted to write a prison song.
I read several Suffragette Prison Diaries before writing this song, including Hannah Mitchell’s account of her time in Strangeways or this account of force feeding from Sylvia Pankhurst. Then I came across this website which features the prison diaries of an unknown suffragette – Prisoner DX322. The theory is that this was Gladys Roberts. If that is true then at the time of writing this she would’ve been just 18 years old.
I heard the bell at a quarter to six and got up after a very good night. The wardress came just after I was dressed. I washed in my pail as best I could and she said “Will you empty your slops please?” which I did. Then I rolled up my bed and made the cell tidy all the time having conversations with Miss Spring in the adjoining cell. I can’t make Kathleen Brown hear. My No. is DX322.
Breakfast just arrived which consists of another lump of that horrible brown bread which latter of course I refused. I read Votes. To my joy, I found scratched on the bit of tin curved at one end called a knife, ”Glorious Christabel” “Courage! Brave heart. Victory is sure”.
A lot of my songs are very wordy. Not just in this project but generally, I’m a songwriter who puts lyrics to the fore. This is something I want to try and move away from, so for this song I deliberately tried to write as few words as possible. I wanted to create plenty of melodic space around the words. I also allowed myself to get away with not rhyming everything. I tried to go for chords that I would not normally use and in doing so ended up with this slightly catchy pop song. For me this was a real push outside my songwriting comfort zone. For that reason I’m really proud of this one and I think Tracey Browne has done an amazing job with the vocals. I especially love the harmonies she has layered on in the chorus.
I started the song with some of that mundane sense of routine that you always find in prison accounts. So ‘each day the same’ became my lyrical hook for the first verse.
“6am. I hear a bell and I empty out my slops. Each day the same”
Tuesday 13-7-09 : Just looked out of the window and saw three painters below. They saw me and smiled. I pushed my purple, white and green tie through the hole in the window and waved it to them. A wardress appeared below so I disappeared.
The other lyrical hook which comes in the final verse is “little victories everyday”. This is actually a reference to a line in ‘Porridge’ (in my opinion the second greatest TV sitcom of all time*) one of Fletch’s philosophies to help get through his stretch inside.
“I push a chair up against the pipes, if I climb up here I can see the sky. Little victories everyday”
Despite the level of personal sacrifice what comes over in all these accounts is a strong sense of purpose and how the camaraderie of the other Suffragette prisoners spurs them on.
Tuesday 13-7-09 : I hear Mrs Garnett in the distance singing. On her way back from the lavatory she knocked at each door and yelled, “Votes for Women.”
This was expressed in this line –
“I hear voices singing, from every cell comes a chorus of ‘Votes for Women!’
Little victories everyday”
Purple Green and White
The central chorus of the song has this notion that the prisoner looks to the future when history has proved them right and as an act of celebration or defiance they have the prison redecorated in the suffragette colours of purple, green and white. The colours were very important as can be seen on this medal which was awarded to any prisoner who completed a hunger strike.
The early drafts of the song were about the journey from court to cell. In researching the song, I read an account of the journey by police van from the courts up to Holloway prison. It was a route I knew fairly well from when I lived in London so I used that as my starting point for the song. I used google street view to retrace the steps and was amused to realise that the prison now stands on ‘Pankhurst Way’.
Although the song changed direction, I was struck by the idea of what if they could see the future. I imagined if those women inside could have seen just a glimpse from their cell window to a future street sign, that read Pankhurst Way, they would’ve known that victory was theirs.
“In my sleep I dream the history books have proved us right and we paint this prison purple, green and white”
*Sitcom Early Doors gets my vote as the best.
This song is featured on the album ‘ Battle for the Ballot ‘ available here
Paint this prison (lyrics)
6am. I hear a bell and I empty out my slops. Each day the same
Stale brown bread, pushed through the slot so I push it back again. Each day the same
When the walls close in, through these long and lonely nights
In my sleep I dream, the history books have proved us right
and we paint this prison, we paint this prison, paint it purple, green and white
Arrested for my deeds, I broke a window and I argued with the police,
they said a woman should know her place
But I will not be denied, we want the vote and we know our cause is right
I’m a woman who knows her mind
I push a chair up against the pipes, if I climb up here I can see the sky
Little victories everyday
I hear voices singing, from every cell comes a chorus of ‘Votes for Women!’
Little victories everyday