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Interview with Frank Portinari

Frank Portinari is a complex person and I think he’d agree it fair that I describe him, from the content of his book, as a multifaceted being. To me he is a son, Mrs P’s husband, a father and grandfather but there are layers to Frank—to his past—that ran alongside family life. He ran havoc in the football terraces, supporting his beloved Spurs (he still supports them) and he ran guns during the troubles out in Ireland before the Peace Process. These aspects are not separate parts external to him, but they make up the whole person.

This isn’t Frank’s first time on my Soul2Ink blog, so welcome back, Frank. Let’s begin by sharing that we got to know each other through our writing and by reading each other’s work and that his story is incredibly interesting and a little different to what most would imagine.

For those of you who don’t know Frank or have not, as yet, read his book he became a member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) at a young age and rose through the ranks quickly. Based in London, where Frank was born and still lives, he’d become frustrated with the IRA  bombings. Wanting to make a difference, he formed an alliance with the UDA and this was something he was willing to take to the extreme. Frank takes all he does in life to the extreme, so let’s get to know him.

One of things I respect Frank for the most is for the love of his family. This is certainly conveyed through the more private side of Frank’s social media where you are privy to evenings out, birthday celebrations and much more.

Frank, what do your family mean to you and how have they supported you?

I met my Wife in August 1972. We were 15 years old. Due to mental health issues, my parents spent time in various mental health institutions. When I was 10, I was placed in a home with my younger Sister. She was only 3. Mental health issues became a normal part of family life. When Lisa became part of my life, she was like my Guardian Angel. That has been a constant for over 50 years. My Daughters have always loved and respected me. Not once have they castigated me for leaving them alone and vulnerable. If they did I think it would destroy me. I'm also fortunate enough to have 3 beautiful Granddaughters. In short, I'm a very lucky man.

Frank, you have lived a life many of us wouldn’t be able to comprehend. How do you transform your life into the motivational messages you convey today?

My life has been full of many varied experiences. Some good, some not so good. Either way I take ownership and accept full responsibility for my actions. At this stage of my life, I feel a responsibility to share some of those experiences. Particularly with educators and people with access to young people. I'm a firm advocate for social forums in educational establishments. Youngsters need to learn the skills of debate and peaceful resolution. Not having confrontation and violence as their first and final option. Ex offenders can, and do, play a vital role in that process.

Evidence shows me, through interactions on social media, that past conflict between opposing team’s football fans is indeed a thing of the past. Do you miss the thrill of a good bust up on the terraces? Or look forward to just enjoying watching your team, Spurs, win (or lose) each match without that extra adrenaline promise?

As a young working class kid football was my first love. I genuinely enjoyed both playing it and watching it. It was certainly the first identifiable culture I became part of. Eventually alongside that I actively embraced the adrenalin rush of football hooliganism. I would attribute it to my understanding and sense of camaraderie and loyalty. It was adventurous, dangerous and character building. And for long periods of my life it became my identity. An identity that was difficult to shrug off. Despite my long-term commitment to it, I do now question my actions. If my previous input has prevented other football supporters from attending matches because of the violence. That doesn't sit particularly well with me.

How important do you believe your story is as a contribution to social history, and why?

I strongly believe that my experiences and subsequent reflection on them, can serve as a helpful conduit to assist young, impressionable and vulnerable people. I currently share some of those experiences with sectors of the security industry. I have various scripts that can be delivered to a variety of audiences. Radicalisation, extremism and rehabilitation come in various guises. I provide an insight into how they can develop and rapidly escalate over time. Scenarios and behaviour patterns that get dangerously overlooked.

Please share with my readers why you are known as Frank the Baptist.  (I know that began with a cup of tea many years before and that is still my favourite part of your book).

During my time in HMP Swaleside, I became an integral part of the supply and demand chain that my fellow inmates relied on. Basically I became the man to go to for a wide variety of goods. Tobacco, bird cages, jewellery (mainly watches), phone cards, trainers and music systems. I also had a decent amount of cash wrapped 'round me. The brewing and distribution of Hooch was also something I invested in. The only commodity I wouldn't deal in was drugs. One night 2 fellas tried to force their way into my cell and rob me. It was a big mistake on their part. I had just been to the hot water urn and filled up my jug. I assumed both of them were tooled up. My gut instinct was to launch the water at them. It wasn't premeditated. Either way it did the trick. The screws just about believed my explanation of events. Basically what I learned was this. Possession of hot water isn't against the rules. Being the aggressor and throwing it over someone is. A situation I exploited whenever I deemed it necessary. I was on the way to church one Sunday morning when an old Black boy turned to me and said. "Frankie, you carry on like this and people will start calling you 'Frank the Baptist'. The name eventually stuck.

I know people from every side of the past troubles in Ireland who can share stories of loss and grief, who blame each side but their own for those emotions. The peace process, on the surface, appears to have successfully halted the bulk of these troubles. In your opinion, and as someone who visits Ireland frequently, do you share this sentiment or feel there is still tensions? I cannot believe a few signatures could possibly solve such a huge, ongoing rage.

Though not ideal for everyone. The peace process was the only thing that had a chance of putting an end to the majority of the bloodshed. People needed time out to reassess the situation. What actions were they prepared to continually accept as being a true reflection of their wishes. How much longer could one community sanction the terrorising of the other community. The younger generation now have the opportunity to discuss the things they have in common. Not the age old things that have previously divided them. Yes it will take time, but the future looks far more cohesive and positive than the past.

On talking with you, there is obvious loyalty remaining that runs through your veins. With age comes other priorities in life. Frank, please share with us how you’ve changed between ‘then’ and ‘now’.

I'm not entirely convinced that I've changed. Circumstances have changed and I'm sincerely glad that they've changed. When you are placed in a position of power and influence over others, it becomes a massive responsibility. Loyalty to those you represent is paramount. Understandably it's a challenge when those dynamics drastically change. However I do acknowledge that I have spent so much time assisting others that I have overlooked my own creativity and productiveness. I know appear to have found an ideal balance.

We’ve had this conversation a couple of times and I seriously respect your answer. Frank, did you consider yourself a soldier? (Anyone who has read Frank’s book should know the answer to this).

No, I would never regard myself as a soldier. Certainly not in the traditional sense. I have the utmost respect for those who serve their country. I viewed myself as a volunteer and combatant who was prepared to defend those I regarded as fellow British citizens. The British Army were sometimes described as fighting an enemy with their hands tied behind their backs. I and many others were not restricted by such measures.

You served time in prison for what you did on behalf of the UDA. How did you spend the bulk of your time and how did you cope?

Initially imprisonment was a major shock to the system. Particularly the time spent as a Category A prisoner and the draconian regime that was implemented. Of course the separation from my family was by far the biggest shock. I had clearly taken my comfortable family life for granted. Throughout my sentence I was determined to leave prison physically unscathed. If it was me or the other bloke who was going to get hurt. I was determined it wasn't going to be me. When given the opportunity, I did enrol in education classes. Eventually I attained NVQs, proficiency certificates and qualified as an Assessor and full member of the British Institute of Cleaning Science. This enabled me to teach fellow inmates. Something I thoroughly enjoyed doing. I also became a 'Listener' and did my best to help others who were going through difficult times. None of this guaranteed me receiving my parole, but it certainly provided me with a favourable chance of it. I did eventually receive it. Ironically there was no attempt to address my offence, or any form of rehabilitation.

I’d like to fast forward several years. What made you write you story?

Personally I had no desire to share my story. It was the insistence of others that made me consider doing it. Basically it was put to me that if I was knocked down by a bus tomorrow, 30 odd years of political and social history would be lost. On that basis I decided to document our experiences. If nothing else it would be an honest and accurate account. Unlike what most of what the media has cynically managed to do.


Frank's book, LEFT RIGHT LOYALIST is available on Amazon by following this link

Amazon Link 

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Frank, you now operate a walking tour. A new venture for you. It has been lovely watching you explore and expand this new company through networking and public speaking opportunities. You don’t have to sell it to me, I’ve been along but please take this opportunity to say a few words to my readers who might like to share the experience with you.

Via my company 'Turnkey Tours', I conduct 'The Dark Side Of Camden Walking Tour'. Primarily designed for the tourist market, it has become very popular with corporate audiences. Ideal for team building and entertaining clients. It's probably best described by the following promo.


Frank's poem about Camden and his walking tour - to book follow the link below
https://www.thedarksideofcamden.uk/

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Frank, thank you for taking time out to take part in this interview and for your candidness in the answers you've provided. It is always good to chat with you. Love to your family. Hope to see you and Mrs P very soon.


Donna Siggers

Mutiny at St Mary's Convict Prison, Chatham

Walking has always prompted a stream of thinking, but this week was different. We took a walk around St Mary’s Island, Chatham and paused to read an information board which prompted some research. Both of us are interested in Britain’s criminal past, and so we’ve stepped back to the 1860s and to a time St Mary’s Prison held one thousand convicts, but our research took us back a little further in order to understand the full impact of what we were reading.

Prison hulks had been present on the River Medway since the early nineteenth century, when Chatham became a permanent hulk station.  By the end of the French wars in 1815, in excess of 70,000 prisoners of war were being held in these hulks moored at Chatham Reaches, Gillingham and Sheerness. Disease was rife and punishment harsh. 


 Prison Hulk

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When, in 1818, the announcement that Chatham Dockyard would be expanded it was the convicts from the hulks who provided the labour for the work—this included the reclamation of St Mary’s creek.  Over time the hulks deteriorated but the authorities, wanting to keep the labour, begun the construction of a brick convict prison on St Mary’s Island, which opened to receive hulk convicts from Chatham and Woolwich in 1856.


St Mary's Convict Prison, St Mary's Island, Chatham

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According to The Times, (January 1861) “A considerable degree of uneasiness, almost amounting to alarm, has been occasioned to the officials of the convict prison of St Mary’s Island… in consequence of the disaffection and mutinous conduct of the convicts confined in that establishment.” So, what might this be about? Continuing the article, we learnt that convict Peters had acquired a skeleton key and during a mass gathering in the hall where he and fellow convicts were awaiting a medical examination, he took the opportunity to escape. Making his way across the parade grounds he attempted to release a man named Bennett, incarcerated for burglaries in London, but was recaptured by a warder.

Revolt followed. Although, in comparison with today’s standards of retaliation against authority their response might be considered somewhat mild. The prisoners protested by disturbing the minister during his chapel service. No violence was displayed, instead marks of disapproval such as hooting, yelling and cheering were used. Considered a prelude to something that might manifest into a larger event, the ringleaders were rounded up by order of the governor and his deputy—Captain Powell and Mr Measor respectively. Now safely confined to the punishment cells they assumed it would be easy to contain the remaining convicts. The following days would see 150 warders on duty, all heavily armed, but they made no difference. Mutiny continued within the cells. Windows were smashed and furniture broken, alongside the vocal disturbances that continued.

Official action was deemed necessary and upon request of the Home Secretary--Sir George Cornewall Lewis—the inspector-general, Captain Gambier, of the convict establishments commenced an investigation but this wouldn’t be the end of the matter. Despite prison food being far superior to that of any union workhouse dinners, a dockyard work party begun a protest regarding the quality of their food. At a pre-arranged signal fifty convicts threatened to massacre their keepers, stole their cell keys and begun to release fellow convicts. Pandemonium ensued and damages amounting to £1,500 (approx. £35.5K in today’s money) was caused.

Military intervention was deemed necessary. Four-hundred Royal Marines, stationed nearby, charged the rioters with muskets—the Warders following in close quarters with their truncheons. Order was resumed. Warders lost their jobs—staff at the prison had been made up from two hulk ships and it had been reported there was jealousy between the two sets of staff that resulted in bad management of the convicts. A number of Warders were transferred from Pentonville prison to replace them.

It seems the ‘blame culture’ has been around some time!


The River Medway today, from St Mary's Island

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by Donna Siggers and Dave Last