TOUCH OF EVIL

When it comes to the senses, they all have their merits; but taking one away – if they’re all in working order to begin with, of course – can damage in ways it’s easy to underestimate. Most of us have had one particular sense removed against our will during the current scenario, and though it does have something of a problematic reputation if misused, it nevertheless provides us with some of the most electrifying sensory stimulations available if applied correctly. I’m talking, naturally, about touch. Enforced social distancing from fellow pedestrians can’t necessarily be blamed for putting touch out of action in that it shouldn’t necessarily have been utilised when it comes to complete strangers on the street or in the supermarket, anyway – indeed, abusing this particular sense in such a situation is where its problematic reputation stems from. At the same time, the suspicion that now surrounds each individual we keep a two metre distance from in our rationed outings has intensified the perception of touch as a poisonous sense that needs to be curbed – which is a shame.

After all, though Proust rightly cited the power of taste when describing his Madeleine Moment, touch can provide us with equally evocative sensations that take us back in personal time. Inanimate objects from childhood are invested with remarkably potent sensory powers if we make contact with them again as adults, though the effect of touch can be just as effective when it comes to articles that have no such associations and simply feel good when our fingers grace them. It’s no wonder that the blind place such prominence on the impact of touch, let alone relying on it to read. When it comes to instant internal responses, touch is pretty much in a league of its own. Think of bubble-wrap, or the especially luxuriant fur of a dog or cat, or Plasticine, or silk, or – yes – a lady’s knee; all provide a hit to the pleasure domes of the brain like few other senses can deliver with such speed.

When Alex is conditioned to respond negatively to his aggressive tendencies following Ludovico treatment in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, the humiliating demonstration before dignitaries he is forced to endure as evidence the technique works includes one scene where a topless girl approaches him; his instinct is to reach out and grab her breasts; then the sickness hits and he recoils in agony. But the fact that the overwhelming urge to grope her was the first thought to enter his head when he laid eyes upon her was an indication of how pleasurable the reward of touch is for the individual concerned – even though it simultaneously provokes the opposite feeling in the person for whom touch is unwelcome and uninvited. But the pattern of Alex’s life as a teenage hoodlum has been the wholesale embrace of pleasure, so it’s only natural touch forms a central element of that. His crime is to take what he wants when he wants, and that includes any stray devotchka he happens to stumble upon.

It goes without saying that few would advocate using touch with such carefree abandon as that wicked little droog, though that hasn’t prevented those who wouldn’t from being accused of doing so in the compensation climate the western world has descended into over the last couple of decades. The institutionalised fear of touch has been drilled into at least one generation by powerful lobbyists for certain causes, and has transformed the abuses of touch from the exclusive province of dirty old men to anyone – i.e. male – coming into contact with children or the opposite sex, placing them under instant suspicion as potential paedos or rapists in a refashioned brand of Original Sin. The implementation of CRB checks and the ‘#BelieveAllWomen’ mantra have been the sad outcomes of submission to this corrosive mindset, leading to the toxic atmosphere of mistrust and conviction of ulterior motives so prevalent on campus today. Students are taught to fear physical attraction at a time when their hormones crave it, and the insidious innovation of consent forms that reduce perfectly natural instincts to prospective criminal acts on behalf of one participant is a sorry development that has nevertheless prepared the ground for where we are now.

With the mixed-sex workplace similarly infected with anticipation of the predatory groper, the imposition of social distancing wasn’t such an impossible task to persuade the populace to adhere to as it might have been, say, thirty or forty years ago; yet we conversely live in an age where the hug has become as commonplace a greeting as the traditional handshake – two expressions of touch between people that have now been socially outlawed. All the locations where touch has an outlet to indulge – pubs, cafés, restaurants, concert venues, football grounds – have been closed down to avoid individuals physically connecting with other individuals through touch. The general consensus of touch being a thing of evil is thus cemented.

The hospitality industry is one that has seriously suffered during the lockdown, and even when restrictions are tentatively lifted, the problems of how to accommodate ongoing fears of touch mean returning to normal will probably take longer than mere months in comparison to other businesses. Tables in restaurants being reduced and stationed further apart than usual will minimise the amount of customers that can be admitted on any given evening, which will obviously lead to a drop in profits and no doubt many eating houses going to the wall even if they make it to a re-opening night. I myself can’t say I’m either a regular restaurant or pub-goer, but it’s nice to know both are there if the need arises. I feel sorrier for those with social lives that these places form a crucial backdrop to.

Indeed, imagine if today was your birthday and you were the kind to celebrate such an occasion by making the most of the myriad venues that cater for those kind of events; okay, so a night-in alone might be the best some of us can expect when happy returns are allegedly many; but for social animals restricted to quarters, the prospect of not only being deprived of eating out but of not being able to receive the visitors one would naturally anticipate if housebound must be a bit of a bummer, to say the least. What you’re being deprived of more than anything else is touch, and extended periods being deprived of touching another human being can have the habit of not necessarily associating the sensation with fear, but of a gradual drop in one’s emotional temperature; one can become something of a ghost.

Considering it took until several years after the end of the Second World War for so many of the privations the conflict imposed on the home-front to be returned to pre-war normality, any expectations of a swift resumption of where we were before the lockdown once it ends is naive. And with Matt Hancock getting all Lord Kitchener by insisting it’s our ‘duty’ to sign up for Smartphone apps tracking our movements, state control of individuals is in danger of becoming an entrenched given. But it is the perception of touch as something imbued with inherent evil – a belief already gathering pace even before Covid-19 entered the fray – that is one of the most poignant casualties of this calamity.

© The Editor

WITHIN THESE WALLS

orangeConsidering the law of averages, I would imagine that most reading this (like me) have known at least one person to have been detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, though I’ve mercifully evaded the honour myself; and let’s face it, few issues spark such incandescent fury as the subject of prison conditions. On one side, there is the ‘short, sharp shock’ mindset that will routinely declare with mortification – ‘They have television sets in their cells!’ – something that strikes me as an empty argument; imagine being stuck in a cell for the first half of the day and having nothing to do but watch ‘Jeremy Kyle’, ‘Loose Women’ and ‘Cash in the Attic’; that sounds a pretty severe punishment regime to me. The other side is more about humane treatment and actual rehabilitation so that reoffending is minimised; but this, of course, stinks of lily-livered liberalism a long way from ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.

The Minister of the Interior in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ who utilises the technological brutality of Ludovico’s Technique as a fast-track means of rehabilitation, rides a wave of electoral populism that ignores the loss of free will in the process; though penned in the early 60s, Anthony Burgess’s novel anticipates a desperate government solution to rising crime that rings truer now it did at the time of its writing, let alone Kubrick’s movie adaptation of the book a decade later. Reducing the prison population whilst simultaneously satisfying the public clamour for lowering the crime rates makes the likelihood of a similar system to that devised by Burgess an ever-present possibility, though it hasn’t happened yet.

A pause for statistics, I think. Okay – the UK prison population is around 86,000; less than 4,000 are women, as men are 22 times as likely to be imprisoned as women. In 2009 it was said 8,500 former servicemen were behind bars – 10% of the prison population; prisoners over the age of 60 rose a staggering 130% between 2002 and 2013 – four out of ten of more than 4,000 over-60s in UK gaols have been imprisoned for historic sex offences, now the fastest growing age group in the prison estate; only a couple of days ago, a 101-year-old man (Ralph Clarke) was sentenced for historic sex offences, lest we forget.

14 prisons have closed their doors for good in the last 20 years, yet David Cameron’s solution whilst cutting prison staff by almost a third as PM was to propose reviving the antiquated tradition of ‘prison ships’, those decommissioned hulks that figured highly in nineteenth century literature’s landscape, perhaps most famously with the character of Magwitch in Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’; what should have been more of a concern to Cameron’s law & order policy was the fact that during the first four years of the Coalition, there was a 29% drop in the numbers of prison staff.

At the same time as the above statistics were collated, 239 men and women died in prison, a 6% increase from the year before and 29% higher than five years before that; in the four years from 2010 to 2014 there was also a 28% increase in assaults on prison staff, whilst just this year the prison population shot up by more than a thousand between September and November; the increasing use of indeterminate sentences and long determinable sentences have served to double the prison population in the last 20 years.

Statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice a couple of years ago reported the average week in an average prison constitutes 70 assaults on staff, four to five prisoner deaths (of which one or two are suicides), and 500 self-harm incidents – and these statistics are restricted to prisons in England and Wales alone. That hackneyed old phrase ‘powder keg’ has never seemed more relevant, and events in HMP Birmingham over the last 48 hours seem to back this up.

Toss in claustrophobic confinement, contraband legal highs, and the increasing sectarian tensions resulting from the upsurge in sentences relating to Islamic terrorist offences, and you have a soufflé of simmering discontent with a system on its last legs that inevitably leads to riot. It happened 26 years ago at Strangeways and it would seem little has changed in the intervening two and-a-half decades other than a continuing conversation between public and politicians to equate punishment with a pseudo-medieval notion of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.

The institutionalisation effects of prison life on recently-released inmates – the sudden removal from day-to-day life of a rigid routine that is easy to submit to whilst simultaneously yearning for liberation from it – and the failure of the parole system to steer them away from returning to the environment that put them behind bars to begin with, is a conundrum of crime and punishment that has yet to be resolved. Neither hardline prison reform nor concerted attempts to elevate the imprisoned above the level of cattle has produced the desired effect. But it’s not just those coming out; those going in are also part of the problem – largely because there are too many of them. The endless number of laws added to the statue book from the Blair era onwards, not to mention the twin tabloid scourges of home-grown Jihadists and pensionable Paedos, has served to cram this country’s gaols to breaking point.

What happened in Birmingham, as what happened at HMP Ashwell in Rutland seven years ago (albeit without accompanying hysterical publicity), is something that shouldn’t be seen as an isolated incident or an aberration; in many respects, it’s a miracle it doesn’t occur more often – though I’ve a strong suspicion it will become a greater recurrence over the next few years. Sure, we’ve had the expected strong words from the Justice Secretary, but at least the Minister for the Interior who selected Alex de Large for special treatment had a crowd-pleasing solution up his sleeve; all Liz Truss has to fall back on is archaic Victorian Values rhetoric that promises to crack down on the unruly rabble who should be grateful to be spared the retribution of the hangman. And that won’t make our streets any safer for Us than it will for Them once we’re all sharing them again.

© The Editor

PS Allow me an indulgence – here’s a link to my appearance on Radio 4’s ‘iPM’ on 17.12.16…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0850blp