I listened to the last of Mary Anne Sieghart’s excellent trio of One to One interviews recently on BBC Radio 4. This short, intense programme displayed Sieghart’s mastery of the art. A great interviewer guides the interviewee with a firm but gentle hand. Coaxing not bullying, so that ultimately the subject of the session moves up to a different plane, bypasses the interviewer, and seems to open up directly to the listener. The questioner shrinks and the subject grows. Watch or listen to any great interviewer and you will see what I mean. It is the classic example of less is more. Parkinson, Desert Island Discs, and the great black and white TV interviews of the 50’s and 60’s. Dimblebys, Frost, Burgess to name but a few. Sieghart’s subject was Charles Hanson, a lifelong criminal whose darkest moment was when he killed his third wife with a knife following her affair with his own son who subsequently committed suicide. I highly recommend you listen to it here
What makes the Hanson interview so remarkable is the way in which he recounts his journey from ignorant brute to repentant sinner. These words I use are so trite, but so apposite. This journey could be interpreted as a triumph for the prison system. Hanson seems to have been redeemed through his fifteen years of incarceration. Improved by kindness, matured by structure and enlightened by education. It is brilliant, extraordinary, a totally neat solution and rounded story.
In fact the story is anything but complete, because Hanson will suffer for ever, his dead ex-wife and son doomed to their sad fates. Like so many ways in which we live our lives in the wrong order, the listener realises that had Hanson been granted the benefits of structure and education which were afforded him in prison, earlier in his life, he might not have sinned, and most dramatically, almost certainly would not have murdered.
The interview encapsulated the lunacy of a world which shies away from the cost of giving people what they need most, when they need it. An education feeds the ability to tell right from wrong. An education gives perspective. An education does not guarantee any of these things, but it gives its recipient a chance of a balanced life.
I met a murderer once. In one of my previous lives I worked for a firm of solicitors based in South London who specialised in criminal defence law. In those days the system demanded that there should always be a representative of the solicitor’s office present in all meetings between the accused and his barrister. Legal aid payments were generous for these meetings, but did not specify any level of qualification on the part of the representative who might be an aged toothless pensioner who fell asleep in meetings and in court. Equally that person might be a young, keen law student such as me.
The case involved an alleged racist murder. A young man of non-native English origin went into a fish and chip shop one evening. Shortly after ordering, a group of white youths followed him in and started taunting and verbally abusing him. The white boys started to push and shove the young man while continuing the spoken insults. At one stage the victim made a break for the shop door. He very nearly made it out of the door. At the door stood a lad who moved to block the doorway, and pushed the victim back into the shop. The victim slipped on the floor and the gang kicked and beat him to death.
My client was the door-blocking youth.
The barrister collected me early on a Saturday morning and we drove down to the prison. Just like in the films we went through security checks, loudly banging steel gates and crashing locks.
I have never forgotten the face of our client. Look up a photograph of young Tony Curtis. That was his face. Not literally, of course, but he possessed that same movie star quality, beauty almost. What remains with me still though, more than thirty years on, are his eyes, his dark dead eyes. The more we talked, the more clear it became that he had no education, no real understanding of what he had done. He was totally lost, in every sense of the word. He was an animal in the basest sense.
The One to One interview makes me wonder what the prison system might have achieved for him.