Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. TV & Radio
29 August 2018updated 03 Aug 2021 6:13am

The Art of Now and The Reunion voice powerful memories from two kinds of prisoners

The moving Radio 4 programmes tell of the theatrically “gladiatorial” designs of British prisons, and the heart-wrenching stories of Auschwitz survivors.

By Antonia Quirke

Two programmes this week contained strikingly clear images echoing those used by people I know, to describe the same experiences. Both are details gathered in extremis. “You walk on the wing,” said Karl, a former inmate at Brixton prison, talking about the architecture of the old penal institutions in The Art of Now (11.30am, 23 August), “and people are right there looking down on you from the balconies.” He spoke of the warring threat immediately encouraged by the 200-year-old prison design; the long brick galleries with their lines of tiny windows, each inmate observing, watching. The theatre of it. Everybody assessing “who’s a fake, who will steal, who will help them do things”. I thought of a friend telling me about the first time he walked into the remand wing at the century-old Greenock Prison in Inverclyde, aged 20 and with a trial and possible five-year stretch ahead. He also immediately comprehended that the design was “gladiatorial”. Infinitely performative.

Then, in The Reunion (11.15am, 19 August), four survivors of Auschwitz talked about their unlikely survival. There was anger, guilt, rippling tenacity – as though wind-bent thorn bushes had found a voice. Describing the day the camp was liberated, Jewish Hungarian Susan Pollock, then a teenage prisoner, said she had assumed herself dead – until one part of her body twitched. “I was outside. I had no conception of life, or desire for living any more.” A Soviet ambulance man touched her. “The miracle of his gentleness.”

Again this sounded powerfully familiar. My grandfather only spoke once to me about his experience at the death camp Bergen-Belsen. He’d been in the royal engineers, sent to liberate the camp, and was among the British soldiers walking through its gates in April 1945. The sentence he repeated: “I didn’t know if they were alive, or if they were dead.” Looking for what could be deemed signs of life among the piled and slung bodies, he worried he might miss someone breathing. With his hands as he talked, he suddenly made a kind of scrabbling, animal gesture – but desperately gentle, as though sorting endlessly through bones and sores. The sense memory was immediate. As though he had never left. 

The Art of Now; The Reunion
BBC Radio 4

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Content from our partners
The cost-of-living crisis is hitting small businesses – Liz Truss must act
How industry is key for net zero
How to ensure net zero brings good growth and green jobs

This article appears in the 29 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic