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.

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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

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How politics turned toxic