RADIO / Off the straight and narrow: Robert Hanks reviews a week of Living Dangerously and Against the Grain

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE HEARTENING thing about Living Dangerously (Radio 4, Sunday) has been the discovery of how easy it is to prevent crime: it's that old-fashioned recipe, settle down with a nice girl and have kids. After that, the message is less encouraging.

The premise of the series is that 'the vast majority of recorded crimes are committed by a small number of persistent offenders' - most of them teenage males. Roger Graef met several of these young male delinquents in the summer of 1991, on a course run by the probation service that 'encouraged them to take responsibility for their crimes'. A year on from that, he talked to five of them to find out how they are coping, in a series of skilfully intimate, almost paternal interviews. So far we've heard from Bobby, burglar and car thief; Joel, thief and drug addict; and this week, Jason, also a thief. The good news is that Bobby is married with a baby, Jason is unmarried with a baby, and they've both gone straight.

After that, the comfort stops: neither of them has a job at the moment; Joel has one (and says it gives him a sense of direction), but he still does drugs. More depressing is the realisation that the title isn't necessarily as over-dramatic as it looks. It seems especially fitting for Jason, the mildest of the three, who moves in a young black sub-culture of territorial disputes and vicious rivalries, where you can't go out with a girl from Walthamstow or Leytonstone because they don't like Hackney boys up there. On his account, the inner city is getting more frightening and vicious all the time: where rival gangs used to scare you off, now they'll try to kill you; and once blacks wouldn't steal from blacks - now nobody cares who they steal from. Even given that Jason was hamming it up (as when he said 'There's more coke than cigarettes on the street'), this sounded like a disturbed society.

But it wasn't a society where the rules had broken down, for him or the other two: it was just that everybody obeys his own, local rules. So Bobby was indignant that the police had tried to fit him up for crimes he hadn't done - if he could get away with a crime that was fine, part of the game, but this was cheating. Joel lived by a weird kind of etiquette: 'I'm a thief with morals. I've never thieved out of anyone's house I've been invited into.' Jason, too, lived in a society of codes, even they were primitive laws of territory and keeping face: Graef called it a 'code of honour that has ancient echoes of male pride in tribal warfare'.

Which takes us to Against the Grain (Thursday), a new phone-in programme in which a guest argues some 'unconventional' position. In the first programme, three weeks ago, the presenter, Ann Marie Hourihane, announced it as 'the show that can't pass a sacred cow in the street without giving it a swift kick'. It's not a good analogy, partly because it puts you on the side of the cows, and partly because it suggests a savagery and a co-ordination that the programme so far lacks.

This week's proposition was that 'Women are as violent as men', put forward by David Thomas. As the last editor of Punch, he must be used to fighting for lost causes: but this seemed foolhardy. As Living Dangerously made clear, violent crime is overwhelmingly a young male shtick; and as Thomas conceded, even if you accept that the vast majority of cases of wives beating husbands go unreported, it's still a fleabite to the gaping wound of male violence against women.

In fact, Thomas didn't mean that women actually committed as many violent acts as men: rather, that the potential was there; they feel violent about things - a less extreme, but also more nebulous position. Some of his arguments seemed specious, too: such as, to say that women are not violent demeans them, because it suggests that they're not part of the full range of human experience. And he implied an irritating distinction between people as they 'really' are (women are 'really' violent), and people as they are constructed socially - as though any of us is constructed any other way.

The calls that came through were pretty even-handed: on a subject that was guaranteed to inspire some strong views and dig out a lot of unpleasant prejudices, this was surprising, and says much for the selection procedure at work on the switchboard.

Against the quality of callers, though, you have to balance the stilted 'reports' that punctuated the programme, supposedly adding fuel to the fire, and the abysmal connections made between the different elements. A report on sporting aggression from a women's rugby club concluded: 'If I was Terry Wogan I'd say they were a fine body of men, but I'm Ann Marie Hourihane, and this is Against the Grain.' That's not so much against the grain as rubbing you up the wrong way.