[Paul Collins is founder and editor of The Collins Library, a project dedicated to the reprinting of unusual, out-of-print literary works. The most recent title, To Ruhleben — And Back, follows the adventures of Geoffrey Pyke, who, as a teenager in 1914, convinced a London newspaper editor to let him travel to Germany as a war correspondent. Captured by German troops, Pyke was imprisoned at Ruhleben, a German internment camp, from which he eventually escaped, making his way home to write this travelogue at the age of twenty.]
[Paul Collins is currently on tour in support of his memoir, Sixpence House, which recounts his time spent living in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, known as the “Town of Books.”]
The place I was in was about the size of a billiard table, though probably not so long. It was high, with an arched roof; the window was six feet from the ground. The walls were painted a light green, and were shiny. About seven feet from the ground a narrow, dark green band ran round the walls. I used to hate that band. Almost the whole cell was occupied by the bed — about two-thirds of its length and breadth. There was a four-legged wooden stool, and a latrine, which suddenly, by some mysterious force, began flushing as I looked at it. There were a couple of shelves at one point on the wall, and on them, arranged with meticulous neatness, were an enamel basin, a battered and dulled enamel spoon, eating bowl, salt, and soap. At the side hung a comb, and a white strip of paper, the list of things, down to the last speck of dust, that had been taken from me, and which, as the list remarked, was to be returned to me, on leaving. The whole thing was really wonderful.
I got down the large enamel basin and washed. The soap was a unique and sorry specimen. It had the appearance of a piece of Gorgonzola cheese nicely rounded off at the corners and carefully smoothed down at the sides; after copious rubbing an occasional bubble would be born, and a smell abominable would be generated. I used it, faute de mieux. When dressed, I made my bed. It is a regrettable fact, oh reader mine, that you have not yet been sent to jail. I don’t say that you ever will be, but nevertheless, while for the course of a couple of hundred pages, you and I are bound together by this odd sort of companionship, I must say I regret this fact extremely. You could understand so much better, on reading my attempts at description, what it all looked like, and above all, what it felt like to be looking at it.
Imagine now, if it interest you at all to know what the consciousness of one of those creatures whom you, as a citizen and a voter of an English constituency, send to dreary months and even years of penal servitude, hard labour, and the rest of the bag of tricks, punishments that future generations will throw overboard as worthy only of the century that tolerated them; what you yourself would feel like if you were to go into your most resplendent and most luxurious lavatory, and to lock the door. For the cell in which I was placed was nothing more than a lavatory with a bed in it, and I understand they are not peculiar to Prussia. In fact, I have heard the opinion expressed that the Prussian ones are a trifle better than most. After a couple of hours you would feel rather bored. What would you feel like after a couple of months? Imagine walking up and down two and a half steps — five paces — and then back again. Imagine doing this two dozen times, and then try to imagine doing it two thousand dozen times. It is not the months that count in solitary confinement, but the quarters of an hour. Every ten minutes is eternity, and the weeks go past like days.