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BILL MEILEN
The Division


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Panther, London, 1967
(price: 3/6; 176 pages)

dedication: to my wife Rhuanedd and our daughter Lisa Angharad


The blurb on the back:

The door crashed open and Dando stood in the arch, eyes staring, jaw-bone flexed with rage. 'You, Mundy.' Mundy grimaced in terror. Without warning Dando's knee slammed into Mundy's groin. He screamed and fell. 'There are going to be big changes round here, Mundy.' But the lads standing silently around knew that Petty Officers don't change. Only the faces change...

A driving power-house of a novel set in an approved school where the staff have the tough hard habits of the sea, and the pupils are hundreds of youths 'beyond parental control - an explosive world where violence is the main subject on the syllabus.


opening lines:
The hut squatted like a stone wart on a sea of drizzle-shiny cobbles, shunned by the grey dock warehouses around it. From the far estuary came the asthmatic mourn of a tramp making her way to the open sea, and from bowsed derricks and cranes, gentries and silos, rusting the weekend away, came the occasional thirsty squeal of neglected metal.


Well, if you read the sleeve notes and look at the cover photo, you might come to the conclusion that you're in for a pretty tough, uncompromising book. And you'd be dead right. This is an account of the hardcore, old school approach to juvenile correction, the long, sharp shock of military discipline. No room here for the modern liberal sensibilities of realizing one's potential or learning to value the worth of each individual. In this institution, the boys hang out in 'a room which was euphemistically known as "The Library", and which contained four books: a Gideon bible, two copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin and a coverless copy of Jane's Fighting Ships'. (p.108)

It's a book that doesn't pull its punches, the kind of novel that the New English Library would have given their eye-teeth to get hold of. You won't be surprised, for example, if I tell you that it doesn't exactly swarm with female characters. In fact, the first woman to turn up is an elderly Matron performing an emergency tracheotomy on a boy who's tried to hang himself with a lavatory chain.

And, if you've read the book, you won't be surprised to hear that it's the product of direct experience: the writing is so vivid, the world it evokes so immediate, that it could only have come from someone who'd been in such an institution, either as a member of staff or an inmate. As it happens, Bill Meilen (b.1932) was an inmate, spending eighteen months to the age of sixteen on the training ship Akbar, which he says was known as 'the toughest school in the British Empire'.

Prefiguring both the hard-boiled market that coalesced around Richard Allen's Skinhead series, and - more significantly - the movies Scum (1979) and Scrubbers (1982), The Division was adapted by Mr Meilen for a Granada TV play in 1967, that was produced by Derek Bennett and starred Roddy McMillan and Alan McNaughton. This second edition follows that production.

Bill Meilen's other work includes novels such as Eyes of Grass (Sphere, London, 1969), KKK (Paperback Library, New York, 1969, originally titled The Bullpen) and Delta Two (Sphere, London, 1970); the latter is said to bear a striking resemblance to the later Day of the Jackal. Another late-'60s novel Moving On was screened in the Wednesday Play slot on the BBC. As an actor, he turned up in TV series like Z-Cars and The Troubleshooters, and - more recently - in films including Scooby Doo 2, but his best-remembered role was probably as Froyn in the celebrated Dr Who series 'The Daleks' Master Plan'.


ARTISTIC MERIT: 3/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
3/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
3/5


from the maker of:
moving on
Moving On
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