Radio 4's documentary about Britain's ageing prison population made for sobering listening
Dying Inside (R4) | iPlayer
But They Are Only Russians (R4) | iPlayer
London Soundscape (R2) | iPlayer
New Year, new you! How depressing. So let's sod the yoga and stretch the carb-slugged brain instead. Give it a gentle workout with a couple of did-you-know documentaries.
First, Dying Inside, about elderly prisoners. As our sentences get ever harsher and people are put away for longer, and as DNA techniques improve, meaning old crimes can be solved, our prison population is getting older. But Britain has no national strategy for older prisoners. Rex Bloomstein visited three prisons that contain inmates of 50 years or older. Such as Daniel, 65, who'd committed rape in 1982. More than 40% of older prisoners are people convicted of sex offences. "You do think about your crime," said Daniel. "For 24 years I lived in a nightmare." You wondered about his victim, whether their nightmare ever ended.
We heard, too, from Gerry, 69, who talked about his retirement. "I did my sport, I did my antiques, I did places I wanted to go that I couldn't when I was at work. There was only one thing missing," he said evenly, "and that was sex." Your heart stilled, just for a second.
This documentary pulled you all over the place. It made me cry, and I'm still not sure who for. How to feel about Tommy, who was on his 24th year of a life sentence for murder? "It's always there at the back of your mind. You'll be eating and it puts you off your food. I knew the victim. He was a good friend of mine." Tommy was in the UK's only specialist unit for old (and very ill) prisoners, in Norwich. God's waiting room, he called it. He'd seen 22 inmates die in the past four years. "I'm waiting on the wind to blow me one way or the other," he said. Where will it blow you? asked Bloomstein. "To hell, I suppose," said Tommy.
Another hell in But They Are Only Russians, about the great famine during Stalin's dictatorship that killed up to 10 million peasants (we still don't know the exact figures). John Sweeney, a great journalist and greatly mad presenter, attempted to tell the story of two journalists, one ? an Englishman working for the New York Times, Walter Duranty ? who covered up the famine and one, Welshman Gareth Jones, who exposed it. At least, I think that was what the documentary was about. We kept hopping about, hearing about George Bernard Shaw, who was a Stalin supporter; or how Duranty knew Aleister Crowley. Sweeney also spoke to two famine survivors, one of whom told a terribly upsetting story about a neighbour eating her own children. (We heard this story twice, for some reason.) Sweeney made some excellent jokes and gave a vivid commentary, but this was a scatty programme about a serious subject. Jones died in mysterious circumstances, by the way. Duranty won a Pulitzer prize.
Hmm. This workout is becoming depressing. So howsabaht some oom-pah-pah and a pint of cockney chirrup? Mick Jones, from the Clash, and Charles Hazlewood, from Radio 2, have concocted a London Soundscape (to introduce 2's listeners to the Olympics ? how nice), and the first part was aired on Monday night. We heard Lionel Bart and Barbara Windsor, listened to music from Elvis Costello and Lord Kitchener, laughed at stiff-upper-lipped interviewers talking to pop fans: "I don't buy that symphonical stuff. All that piano playin' and that, messing abaht." It was like tuning into Damon Albarn's brain, circa 1994.