When you look into it, it's amazing how many famous quotes were never said, or at least not those words, not by that person. Einstein particularly. A vice of the Internet.
This one annoys me so regularly that I'm correcting it here. Douglas Hurd when Home Secretary famously said, 'prison is merely an expensive way of making bad people worse'. No, he didn't.
The 1990 White Paper, '"Crime, Justice and Protecting the Public' - actually published under his successor, 3 months after he left office - said: "Nobody now regards imprisonment, in itself, as an effective means of reform for most prisoners….. For most offenders, imprisonment has to be justified in terms of public protection, denunciation and retribution. Otherwise it can be an expensive way of making bad people worse."
The misquote is often associated with the semi-fact, that 'community punishments are more effective than prison at reducing reoffending'. I'll return to that.
On 15 and 16 March, the House of Commons debated the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The Bill will increase time served for ‘serious’ crimes and contribute to Government policies which are forecast to increase the prison population, already proportionately the highest of any major European country, to nearly 100,000. This will necessitate a huge prison building programme. Each cell costs a quarter of a million pounds to build, enough to build a family home.
These sentencing policies are built on a series of untruths. What is so extraordinary is that each of these untruths is refuted by statistics which Government itself produces and, in one case, by the Minister responsible for sentencing policy himself.
We are faced with rising crime
Crime has fallen stupendously, almost unbelievably, since the mid-1990s (as it has done in other countries also). Regular surveys of victims show that violent crime, as experienced by the public, is down nearly 75% over the past quarter of a century.
Crime estimates by the CSEW 1981 to 2020
Violent crime is no exception. It too has fallen dramatically.
Some particular types of violent crime, like knife crime, have risen - but are now falling again, to around the level of a decade ago; and the numbers are small, and the crime highly localised.
Sexual assault is decreasing.
Conclusion: our streets are safer than they have been for several generations. This huge fall in crime is unprecedented for hundreds of years. But we apparently cannot bear to recognise it. We prefer to be afraid.
Longer sentences will cut crime
“Harsher sentencing tends to be associated with limited or no general deterrent effect. Increases in the certainty of apprehension and punishment have consistently been found to have a deterrent effect.” Typical left criminologist, eh? No. Actually, it’s Chris Philp, the minister responsible for sentencing police, answering a recent Question. Correctly summarising decades of criminological research. Days before his own policies for harsher sentencing were introduced in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. What better illustration of our strange post-truth, post-reason, post-shame politics.
See also here.
Longer sentences are needed to restore public confidence
The public have lost confidence in the courts to punish crime effectively, says the Government. Except, no. they haven’t. The contrary, in fact: for a decade, now, the public have steadily become more confident that the courts are fitting punishment to the crime.
Prison can be an effective way of rehabilitating offenders
Well, it isn’t and never has been, despite the avowed intent of every Home Secretary or Justice Secretary for the past quarter century that it should be, and the investment of hundreds of millions in programmes to do so, based on the best what works evidence, and this when the system was under far less pressure than today. More here, and here. In fact there is recent research that the more unsafe prisons are, the less good they are at cutting reoffending. And they have become far less safe since 2010 (1).
So, to summarise: the case against longer sentences is solid, well founded in easily available evidence. Almost no one mentioned any of this in the debate on 15/16 March. Instead, MPs queued up to say what a brilliant idea it is to increase sentences still further.
No surprise on the Tory benches, now purged of the great tradition of Liberal Toryism. Bob Neil, who as chair of the Justice Committee certainly knows better, went along with this orgy of punitiveness. He is not one to raise his head aboe the parapet. No Ken Clarke, he!
Labour continued its long and shameful (or rather, shameless) history of aping the Tories on sentencing. No surprise, really: the steepest rise in prisoner numbers occurred under the last Labour Government, as did the fastest ever prison building programme. Indeed, Labour specifically criticised the Government for not increasing sentences enough, for example for rape. Labour is the party of mass incarceration. ‘Tough on crime’, soft on thinking about crime.
Instead, Labour focused on identity politics – women, Roma. A historic mistake, in my view, and not just on crime. Yes, minorities are often ill served and need protection. But if that becomes your only selling point, you will never get the nation as a whole behind you and you will never tackle the great radical changes that are needed. Labour has become a party of sectional interests.
A word of special shame for Yvette Cooper. She chooses to highlight a rise in police recorded crime since 2015, although she must know that the very bulletin which she took the figure from said that the rise was an apparent one, reflecting improved recording practice; she knows that the same bulletin says that crime survey data is the acknowledged best measure of actual crime, not police statistics; she knows that violent crime is far less frequent today than in the mid-1990s. Yet she chooses to join the Tories in talking up an imaginary crime panic. I used to esteem her, among a lacklustre Labour gallery. Not so much now.
It was left to Liz Savile Roberts for Plaid Cymru and Anne McLaughlin for the SNP to oppose further growth in incarceration.. The fine English tradition of opposing mass imprisonment now survives only in the Celtic world. All honour to them. Not that anyone listened. No one listens, nowadays, do they?
(1) Katherine M. Auty & Alison Liebling. Justice Quarterly Volume 37, 2020 - Issue 2 6)
Parliament’s most powerful watchdog yesterday published a comprehensive account of the failure of the MoJ to get a grip on ‘unprecedented’ pressures and failures of the justice system.
So great is the backlog of cases in the criminal courts (most of which predates COVID), that cases are now being listed for 2 years’ time. But, says the PAC, MoJ’ s court ‘transformation’ programme, which is failing to deliver promised savings, lacks any clear end point and isn’t supported by adequate information. Barristers and others at the sharp end report on a system now heavily dependent on virtual hearings, which often breaks down, and is disadvantaging the most vulnerable.
The MoJ has chosen to vastly increase prisoner numbers, in any already badly overcrowded system, made more oppressive and unsafe by COVID. But are hugely ambitious prisons building programme (something at which MoJ has repeatedly failed in the last decade) isn’t funded and the growing backlog of essential maintenance may derail it.
MoJ is managing 15 major change programmes over every aspect of its work yet cannot explain how it is managing the extraordinary risks this poses, given its past record of failure on nearly every major programme in the past decade.
There is no realistic basis for funding MoJ beyond April 2022, if that, even though the costs of increasing police numbers, and tackling court backlogs, and increasing sentence lengths are enormous, and the probation and prison service are under enormous stress already.
(The PAC might have added that the criminal legal aid system is falling apart, cut by a third since 2010 and many firms ceasing to take the business.)
The PAC goes on to express concern about the pressures on probation and prison staff: ‘Unacceptable’ Buckland is content to call them ‘heroes’, and then hide behind their heroism, while cynically allowing those pressures to increase.
None of this however is new. Sadly, it has all been obvious for years. What is new is the dawning realisation that for a Government that is sufficiently shameless – and Johnson is a man born deformed, without the capacity for shame – it is perfectly possible just to ignore these things. To the denunciation of Commons Committees or the NAO or well informed reform groups or professional bodies or court findings of unlawful or improper behaviour or exposure by the one or two bits of the press not rabidly tory, just maintain a studied indifference. Because, in our elective dictatorship, none of these critics have any power. If you have a majority in the Commons and those of your MPs who want you out arent ready yet, tthere are no consequences for failure, however gross. One might call it the Grayling Conundrum.
‘Unacceptable’ Buckland doesn’t even need to reply, any more than his Cabinet colleagues do. Our democratic system is toothless, between elections (and the Government has plans to fix those).
I received my council tax bill today. As always, it is impenetrable. In terms of transparency, clarity and accountability, it rivals the political and legal structure of the late medieval Holy Roman Empire.
It’s headed ‘Oxford City Council’ and says I must them pay £2599.99. Except hardly any of it is for them. Most of it is for the County Council; for some reason, this as shown as 2 separate amounts. The larger amount is footnoted ‘The council tax attributed to Oxfordshire County Council includes a precept to fund adult social care, visit www.oxford.gov.uk/counciltax. No, Won’t. Shan’t. Just explain right here and now, in English (how many people know what a ‘precept’ is – sounds like something out of Trollope.) Likewise, there are two amounts for the City Council, one marked ‘special expenses. Councillors’ sauna? I think we should be told. But we aren’t. And some is for ‘PCC for Thames Valley’. Probably most people can guess the missing word here is ‘Police’. But why not just say so? (Or what a PCC is. My wife, not unreasonably, thought it must be the parish council.)
Inside is a note explaining that the amount I’m required to pay is based on the value of my house. Using values dating from 1991. That might as well be contemporary with the Holy Roman Empire.
Inside also are leaflets from the County Council and PCC explaining how they spend the money: The City doesn’t think I need bother myself with that, though there is a nice leaflet about waste disposal, a subject that interests me hugely. I too would like to see less waste.
The County Council explain that they spend £828.9m ‘excluding schools (£663.7m)”. It does not explain why schools are excluded, and later on tells me that, despite having excluded schools, they do actually spend £192.4m on ‘maintained schools’, leaving the average reader in the dark about where money comes from whom schools and who spends what on which schools. (They also tell me that they too spend money on waste, as well as the City. Isn’t that duplication…wasteful?)
As to Business Rates – how they are set, how they are divvied up, locally and nationally…a mystery within a mystery, for advanced students only (and anyway it changes every year or so). Yet it is something that has a powerful influence on councils’ thinking about development.
The most opaque leaflet is by the Police and Crime Commissioner who cover two counties besides Oxfordshire. It’s entirely unclear who takes what decisions. He says the Government have set ‘the police grant’ and told him what he should raise locally which he then did. So, who actually decided the budget? Income is shown as coming from, amongst other things ‘CLG Formula Grant’. One day, maybe, we’ll welcome out the shadows the group known only as ‘CLG’. One of the oddest things in the leaflet is that it’s unclear whether it’s the CPP or TVP talking. ” The police funding settlement enables us to invest to expand our capabilities…” One has the sense that the PCC and TVP are really one outfit. Well, that wasn’t the idea.
But don’t worry, it’s all democratic. The PCC asked …well, he asked some people and 2,814 of them, said yes, increase the precept. As the Government told you to do. Of course, that leaves just a million citizens not having any say. Democracy, the Tory way.
hope that’s all clear. Because that believe it or not is the bit that’s above the water. Below are the murky depths. To an extent that is staggering, in recent years we have seen huge amounts of power and public money and decision making channelled into unelected, sometimes highly secretive bodies, some with councillors on them, some not, some packed with vested interests such as developers and landowners (I am endebted to an excellent analysis by a group of former council staff who campaign for great transparency and clarity in local government finance, here)
Some of these bodies ‘consult’ in random and often obviously inadequate ways, some never do. They don’t publish their papers or their minutes. You can’t meet them and talk to them, other than through councillors who may not themselves have any access. Yet (or maybe ‘therefore’) Government increasingly prefers to work through them. And increasingly huge planning decisions and huge amounts of money are the province of these groups, not the elected local authorities. And decisions made by these bodies tightly shape and constrain decisions taken by Councils on their own spending.
Then we have the current vogue for bidding funds, where Government hands out money for certain specific purposes, Council’s bid for them, and most of the money goes to Tory-run councils. Another American institution imported by our mini-Trump: ‘pork barrel politics’.
A true and uptodate picture of what public money is being spent by whom in Oxfordshire would be fascinating. But it doesn’t exist.
What is so odd about the complete lack of interest by these councils in explaining anything of this to those who pay them and who consume their services, is that they have a tremendously important story to tell, and one which won’t be told by anyone else. Such as. Since 2010, central Government has cut funding for local authorities far more deeply than its own spending. Central Government has handed responsibilities to local government but without adequate funding for them. Central Government can spend whatever it likes and just borrow, local government cannot borrow and is very tightly restricted in its ability to increase taxation. Due to COVID, local government revenues have slumped, yet demand for services has soared.
You might think that local authorities would be desperate to convey this story to residents. Not a bit of it. I’ve never seen any effort to do so from either County or City Council. It is an extraordinary own goal.
Does any of this matter? Don’t normal people just open their tax bill, grumble a bit and then pay up? Who cares what it’s for, and who spends it?
I passionately believe it does matter. In fact, it matters today more than ever. Because confidence and trust in authority is lower than ever. Because we are at the start of an economic and fiscal crisis unprecedented in many generations. Because the gap between what people would like to see in terms of local services and what can be afforded is enormous, and growing.
If we don’t give ordinary people basic information about how the financing of local government works, the pressures on it, what is being funded and what has to be left out, we open the way to disinformation, alienation, rumour, misunderstanding – which I see every time I look at the comments on the Oxford Mail website. We are creating the conditions for a breakdown in civic society.
Now I suspect that if I took councillors or council officers to task for their quite extraordinary failure to explain their finances publicly, they’d say: oh, it’s so complicated, you can’t expect the average citizen to understand.
I utterly disagree - on the basis of a career in public finance myself. Failure to explain, to someone who’d like to understand, is ALWAYS, ALWAYS the failure of the explainer, a failure of their understanding of their duty ss officials, a failure of their understanding of communication, of language itself. It IS possible. It’s just in the self-absorption way of authority, everywhere, that it just can’t be bothered.
As proof of that I offer two observations, one about councillors, the other about myself:
This budget does not really look far ahead and indeed, given COVID and Brexit, it is hard to do so. But the figures suggest a lot pain ahead for public services.
Certainly for MoJ, remarkably given only a single sentence in the Red Book, and no increase in underlying funding at all in 2021-22 (ie excluding temporary COVID-related funding for Nightingale Courts etc). Given the parlous state of legal aid, the enormous backlog of court cases (now being listed for hearing in 2023!), the continuing crisis in prisons (rates of self harm and assaults on harm still around twice what they were pre austerity, and a surge in numbers inevitable as the backlog of cases is tackled, never mind Johnson's plans for increasing the prison population), there seems little scope for repairing the damage done to every part of the justice system since 2010. Meanwhile MoJ makes the most of doling out penny packets for this or that specialised need.
For a Department which for years has been quite unable to live within its means, it's a poor outlook.
And yet, with different policies, this is the one department which could do more with less, if we were prepared to acknowledge the pointlessness of our addiction to ever-increasing incarceration.
Every prison reformer knows Bastoy. It’s a model prison in Norway, a short way from Oslo. It has just over 100 prisoners. It’s on an island in a lake. The prisoners live in cottages without locked doors and work on the farm. In their free time, they ride horses, cross country ski, play tennis, enjoy a sauna. They have a chef to cook for them. The staff: prisoner ratio is 1:2. And the reoffending rate is just 16%, compared to the European average of 76%. Or so we are told by an unending series of pilgrims to Bastoy (1). For it is the Holy Grail, the Promised Land, the Mecca of every prison reformer.
Really? No. Of course not. Once you stop to think. And consider that:
So, statements about how much better Bastoy is at reducing reoffending than prisons in this country, or across Europe, are quite simply, meaningless. No-one who knows anything about the subject should even think of making such a comparison.
Wouldn't you like to live here?
But there are other reasons, too, why we should stop wittering on about Bastoy.
We know perfectly well, thank you, what is so wrong with our prisons and what to do about it, on the basis of real, grown up, research.
We know that prisoners are less likely to reoffending if when released they have somewhere to live and employment or training when they leave prisons and money to sustain them through their first days at liberty. And we know that many don’t (4).
We know that prisons are likely to have lower reoffending rates if the prisoners in them feel safe (5). We know that they often don’t feel safe, because violence and self-harm in our prisons have doubled since 2010 (6).
We know that the in 2010, our prisons were in the best state they’d been in for generations. And we know – or all of us who aren’t Tory Ministers, or their PR people, know – what was he main cause of its descent into violent chaos by the mid-2010s. It was because Tory Ministers made swinging cuts – removing one third of front-line prison officers while not reducing prisoner numbers at all, in the process losing a lot of older, more experienced staff and middle managers (see analysis and graph here). We know that by cutting prison officer pay, the Tories made the very challenging job of a prison officer much less attractive than other jobs paying the same which are much less challenging, leading to dangerously high staff turnover and difficulty in recruitment. We also know that reducing reoffending became at the make time more diffiuclt because the Tories botched a sell off of the probation service so badly that the whole lot had eventually to be renationalised.
We know what we need to do now to try to improve matters. And it’s not about model farms on lakes. Nope.
It would require us to:
Still, on balance it is no more difficult than finding 800 model farms on 800 islands in 800 lakes, with horses, saunas, tennis courts, ski runs and a constant procession of gullible, ill informed, self-indulgent journalists.
Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research: “Reducing reoffending: review of selected countries” 2012: “comparison of reoffending rates are not possible…such comparison would require thorough investigation to control for the many differences in defintions, reportinrg practices, enforcement cultures and pltical systems”
“A Systematic Review of Criminal Recidivism Rates Worldwide: Current Difficulties and Recommendations for Best Practice” S Fazel A Wolf. Plos One, 15.6.18 see https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0130390. “Sample selection and definitions of recidivism varied widely, and few countries were comparable. Conclusions. Recidivism data are currently not valid for international comparisons.”
4) 1 in 7 prisoners is homeless on release. Only 1 in 5 got a job on release which they held for 6 months or more. Prison Reform Trust Bromley Briefings Summer 2019
5) ”Exploring the Relationship between Prison Social Climate and Reoffending”
Katherine M. Auty & Alison Liebling. Justice Quarterly Volume 37, 2020 - Issue 2
"All I know is we got 5,000 niggers in this county who ain't registered to vote. And so far as I'm concerned, they never will be."
Thus the sherrif, in Alan Parker's great 1988 film, Mississppi Burning, about the FBI investigation into the murder of 3 civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississppi, in 1964.
The United States, as we have recently been reminded, is at heart a lawless, brutal, deeply racist country, where voter suppression is a hallowed tradition and has taken many forms, from gerrymandering, intimidation, removal of voting stations from poor areas, appointment of a Republican to head the US Mail to slow the postal votes before elections, Republican ID laws designed to make it near impossible for poor blacks to register or to vote, and of course, lynching and most recently, a Republican President who phoned election officials and ask them to fake the numbers his way, Republicans who gathered armed round the homes of election officials and sent deaths and rape threats to them and their wives and children, and Republicans egged on by their Republican President who attacked the nation's legislature, kill policemen and hunted down Deomcracts and even dissident Republicans to lynch right there and then, in the centre of the nation's capital, live on TV. Better no democracy than one that occasionally elects the other party.
Of course, we don't do that here. True, every party supports or opposes changes in electoral processes and law that will advantage or disadvantage it. But neither party has ever gone in for voter suppression. Neither party attempt to make registration or voting more difficult. In fact now it's easier to register to vote than it ever has been, in the EU Referendum we signed up people on an IPhone in the street in 2 minutes. In this country, all parties accept that the voters' decision is paramount and if you lose, so be it. We dont try to stop people voting.
Johnson has announced legislation which will stop you voting if you dont have the right ID. Is this because voter fraud is a growing problem in the UK? No: it isn't. And that's official. The Electoral Commmission whose job is it to monitor voter fraud, has this to say:
They add that in 2019, there were 592 complaints of fraud to the police, mostly about local elections. Just 3 resulted in a conviction. Three. In a year.
Clearly, Johnson's legislation is not about fraud. It is about voter suppression. It is intended to make it harder for the most deprived, rootless, vulnerable in our society to have a say in how that society is run, on the assumption that they would tend to favour other parties than the Tories.
It is utterly wrong and disgraceful. But entirely typical of Johnson and what one must call his Post Tory Party, because there isn't anything about it that connects to the great Tory tradition, not least of electoral reform, including the 2nd Refform Act and extension of franchise to women.
The tradition Johnson choses to follow is that of Donald Trump's Republicans. A tradition more alien to this country and to our values and history than anything that ever came out of Brussels.
We love learning from failure, but for some reason, aren't quite as interested in the lessons of success.
Success in offering at least the first part of the COVID vaccination to everyone in the top 4 risk groups, some 15 million people, by mid February is a major step forward and way ahead of any other country of similar size, or larger. It owes it's success to a mix of political leadership, intelligent (for a change) government procurement, excellent scientific advice, a venture capitalist parachuted in to head the programme, wicked old for-profit Big Pharma and that old fashioned public sector public service, the NHS. A big disappointment therefore to ideologues of both Left or Right.
What was NOT involved was private sector delivery of heathcare, which has so often turned into disaster - SERCO's failed contracts for primary care in Cornwall and for Braintree Hospital, Circle's failed contract for Hinchinbrook Hospital, so many hospital PFIs that turned out to rip off the taxpayer and hamstring the NHS, and SERCO track and trace, though to be sure, that is a complex story, with the public's non compliance a major factor. All the more incomprehensible that the Govt want to press on with privatisation of healthcare services, the triumph of blind ideology over experience.
So much liberal 'thinking on prisons is self indulgent slop. Like this piece here.
Asks ‘what if we got rid of prisons?’ But then says, oh, we’re not really talking about getting rid of prisons. So why ask the question? A question you’re not actually posing at all? Because the writer wants to feel all daring and woke and radical. Without actually being any of that. It’s a fraud, in other words.
Massively ignorant: “The prison population has risen by 70 per cent in the last 30 years. Few would claim society has got much safer.” Yes, it has, dickhead. Did you never hear of the BCS?
Writer plainly does not know reconviction rate for prisoners has fallen steadily since late 2000s!
Sloppy beyond belief: ignores all the purposes of imprisonment other than reducing reoffending. As though that is the only reason anyone would ever be sent to prison! Otherwise, he implies, a rapist, a murderer, we’d just give a fine, or maybe not bother at all.
Appears to rely on poll by a marketing organisation that is not a member of the British Polling Council and appears not to publish its data, and whose ‘findings’ are inconsistent with many proper polls and academic studies.
Talks up Bastoy but fails to note there is no published research demonstrating Bastoy’s effectiveness and that since Norway generally has low offending rates, it’s inevitable that it also has low reoffending rate, not an effect of its prison but different culture. And so on.
I actually am against building more prisons. I actually am in favour of a smaller prison system. I actually think our prisons are in a terrible state.
But precisely because I hold those views, and hold them strongly, I am dead against this kind of slop. Because it impedes serious thinking.
Three pairs of films, from Japanese, French and Swedish cinema, that I sent to a friend recuperating from a major operation recently.
Tokyo Story was made in 1953 by the Japanese director Ozu. It figures on many lists of the greatest fims ever made. At first sight that's odd, because it's made in a very static style, completely at odds with western film making. Ozu uses his distinctiive tatami shot named for the reed mats used in traditional Japanese houses. The camera just sits there, at floor height, looking at the room people are in: seldom any close ups or reaction shots. He also used distinctive 'pillow shots' to punctuate the story when you see 2 or 3 minutes of a landscape completely unrelated, such as a steamer on a river, and when you come back to the story, often it becomes clear that something very important has happened meanwhile. Funny thing is, you quickly get used to the rules of his style.
Ozu was much preocuppied with family relationship, in this case, the weakening sense of duty of children to ageing parents. The exception here is the dutiful daughter in law played by Setsuko Hari. She had a sort of daughterly relationship with Ozu and retired completely when he died in 1963, living in total seclusion til 2015! Her role as the submissive and self sacrificing daughter is at odds with our thinking today, but so central to Japanese culture. My wife and I both fell slightly in love with her. She somehow makes every other actress you've ever seen seem slightly....tawdry.
The other film is Shoplifters, 2018, by Kore-eda. It's also about the idea of the family but in a completely different way! In fact the failure of traditional families is rather an obsession with him - another film is about the changes when two couples find their 6 year old sons were swapped at birth, another about a child abandonment case.
The two French films are both about a boy who is an outsider, whose family ties have failed, and who embraces a life of crime and transgression. Both have somewhat inconclusive, and in a conventional way, unsatisfactory endings. And both feature a boy actor who had acted little or not at all, before, and who gave the single compelling performance of his life, before he really knew anything of acting.
Truffaut’s Les Quatres cents coups (literally, ‘the 400 blows’ but untranslatable – in French, ‘faire les quatre cents coups’ means ‘to raise hell’), 1959, is about a young boy’s descent into a life outside the law. He was played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, aged 14, who’d appeared in one film already. His performance is extraordinary. The film launched the French New Wave. Truffaut became a father figure to Leaud and had him as lead actor in several later films in which he played the same character grown up, but as so often with child actors, the magic only worked once.
For me an insight of this film is the terrible material poverty of France in the late 50s. Compared to now, it’s third world. It’s not just that they lacked washing machines etc, it’s that life itself seemed thin, bare, primitive.
Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, 1974, is about a rootless peasant lad in SW France in 1944, seeking some sort of role in the war as played out in a small town. One could say it is about a boy with no insight, almost pathologically indifferent to what is going on - yet capable of some sort of tenderness towards the Jewish father and daughter he encounters. The dinner at with the Jewish father, already half looking forward to death, his beautiful daughter, the silent sick grandmother, reluctantly entertain the boy, by then a fascist gangster, is one of the most ambiguous in all cinema. I feel sure that none of the actors, nor Malle himself, really understood or controlled the strange currents of fear, desire, respect, contempt and tenderness that were criss crossing that scene.
The boy actor had never acted before: he’d been a forester before. Yet he made such an intuitive success of a very diffiuclt role, a character who lacks character, who is in some way, empty. A non-actor acting a non-character. It’s remarkable. Sadly, success did not last, after a couple more films he bought a big car with his new earnings, crashed and died in it.
The third and last pair of films is Swedish, by the great man of Swedish cinema, Ingmar Bergman and by his son Daniel.
Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1956) is about an old man coming to terms with a life not well lived, in which his status and accomplishments count for little weighed against his missed opportunities for love. He does so in the course of a long road trip from Stockholm to Lund across beautiful coast and countryside of Sweden (even though it’s in black and white). Along the way, reveries and the people he meets help him understand himself a little better. Maybe even begin to forgive himself. It’s in a superbly clean new print, for years we only had a scratch old version. Peace comes at last, as he revisits his childhood.
It’s one of my very favourite films.
At the end of his life his son Daniel directed Sunday’s Children (1992), which was written by his father Ingmar. It references the same kind of childhood in the Swedish countryside – clearly this is Ingmar’s own story – but It’s the reverse of Strawberries. Here, the moment of reconciliation existed in the past, in childhood, but is forgotten by father and son in old age. (Irony here, since Ingmar himself was a notoriously bad parent). What’s the opposite of ‘coming to terms’?
Here, in short, are two ideas of the meaning of life – as something one progresses slowly towards via experience and age; and as something that exists, if at all, in the moment lived, which is not somehow stored up or accumulated for the future.
The performance of Henrik Linnros, then aged 9, as the child is remarkable. I’ve often wondered how an earth you direct a child of that age. Or do you just left them be themselves? Like so many child actors, his career did not live up to its beginning.
Daniel Bergman eventual gave up directing – in which he was accused, inevitably, of benefiting from his father’s name – to become a paramedic, saying that he would do more good that way. It’s even possible that his medical work saved more lives than those driven to suicide by his father’s existentially tortured films.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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