Night Visions, Radio 4, Friday World Have Your Say, World Service, Monday

If a police helicopter can be romantic maybe Russia can be reborn

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The Independent Culture

As a city-dweller it's difficult to think of police helicopters as romantic – not when you're all too used to the nocturnal din of rattling windows. That's from down here, though; up there it's a different story, and in the beguiling Night Visions, the poet Paul Farley took an after-dark trip in a police chopper. It conveyed beautifully his sense of wonder, and his out-of-placeness.

The programme consisted of two elements: sounds of the trip and his on-the-spot reflections, and a poem, "The Asset", lines from which were scattered throughout (the title comes from how one of the pilots referred to the helicopter). Prosaically, the helicopter is "an information-gathering machine, an airborne panopticon," but poetically it's also "perched like a dragonfly" before take-off, and then, in the air, "the devil's hairdryer" or "a harpie to the burglar on the roof of a Kwik-Fit at Wembley".

"Panopticon" is certainly the right word. Trying to spot a woman on a railway track, the pilots switch on their 20 million candlepower lights – "enough to jump-start the dawn chorus in a corridor of brambles through Enfield, where a night train sits stalled on the tracks". They're not allowed to shine them within 50ft of the ground – they burn the grass. Farley was with them as they observed a scene from more than a mile away, a couple on a balcony thought to have guns. They directed the police on the ground to the right flat, then listened in.

"We've got an IC1 male an IC1 female and a dog, talking to us at the front door," said a voice from below. "What, the dog's talking to you?" the pilot replied. "Sausages!"

The election of Vladimir Putin to the Russian presidency has not been without controversy, and passions were running high on World Have Your Say, the World Service's global phone-in. Elena, a retired professor from Moscow University, was scathing about Putin: "I personally know people who say, 'you see, he neither drinks nor smokes – I just like his personality'. I know such people among my relatives – not my friends, because I would never make a friend with a person who votes for Putin."

As well as listeners calling in, there was a panel of "experts" too, one of whom, John Laughland of the thinktank The Institute of Democracy and Co-operation, had no time for Elena and her ilk. "There's no point in coming on a show with your crazy theories," he chided in his somnolent voice. "This is the lunatic fringe of politics."

Laughland turns out to be quite an interesting character: his Institute seems to be little more than a PR firm for the Kremlin, and his views were, to say the least, basic: Putin's a great leader because he's won three elections – QED. And all the opinion polls are in his favour, so he must be popular. Elections and polls don't lie ....

Other callers stressed that Putin had pulled Russia around, turned the sick man of Europe back into the Great Bear, a country to be proud of again. Elena was splendidly dismissive. "This is pagan pride," she said, "a pride in how others are scared of us – we should be proud of how humane we are. I can be proud of Russia when old people get enough money to survive." I know whose side I was on.