LAST NIGHT

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Martin Amis recently explained that he wouldn't want to write about the suburbs because, to do so well, would mean you had to go and live there. He made it sound like voluntarily consigning yourself to a Soviet forced labour camp in the slender hope of becoming Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Fortunately for the suburbs, some writers have less choice about where they live, or at least absorb enough of the ambience in childhood before they are able to flee to a metropolitan oasis. VS Pritchett was one - his early life in a series of "tenth-rate suburbs" (his phrase) supplying him with the raw material for the short stories that made his reputation.

Amis's remark is another version of a conventional critical assumption - that literature is personal experience passed through the transforming aperture of the writer's imagination. I'm not really sure that Amis believes this - after all, he wrote wonderfully about the experience of being implicated in the Holocaust without first troubling to take part in an act of genocide - but it is an assumption that remains at the heart of many television profiles of writers, with their particular need for something to go and look at while they talk about books.

Last night's Bookmark (BBC2) about Pritchett - a memorial encore for a film first broadcast in 1985 - was a classic instance; the writer toured the sites of his youth with Ian Hamilton, obligingly connecting past memories to present texts. Indeed, Hamilton was prepared to take the idea of the biographical template even further, as a clue to formal style. "Do you think the episodic nature of your own early life led you to the short form?" he asked, and Pritchett accepted the association without a fuss. He seems to have had some difficulty in shaking off the suburbs when he first embarked on a career as a writer. Although he took off for Paris from a dull job in the leather trade, he remained comically unaware that he was in the eye of a cultural storm - he recalled being puzzled to see large numbers of people clutching what he took to be a large blue phone book in a state of apparent aesthetic excitement. After he had asked one of them what was going on, he found it was Ulysses, which had been published that day after long anticipation. He gave up after one page, convinced it was rubbish. We have Pritchett himself to thank for this Pooterish account of missing the point. "I had no idea there was a movement going on there," he said with a smile, which was probably the film's best demonstration of the virtues of candour and clear sight which inform the work, wry and undeceived even when the subject is his own youthful self.

War Crimes on Trial (BBC2) was an intriguing counterpart to the forensic entertainments currently available from Murder One, a court process in which procedure was itself under examination. The trial of Dusko Tadic, accused of appalling acts of cruelty and murder in the Omarska internment camp, has exposed the paradox afflicting all attempts to impose international justice - that the crimes are such that justice may have to be compromised in order to secure justice. Not everyone accepts that slippery and hazardous formulation, not least the lawyers hired to represent the accused, who point out that many of the protections offered to frightened witnesses involve a comparable withdrawal of protection from the person in the dock. Tadic's defence, for example, discovered that the damaging testimony of Witness L might not be what it seemed only after accidentally breaching the court's orders protecting the man's identity. They discovered that he had been set up as a hostile witness by the Bosnian Government, forcing the prosecution to withdraw him. There are other difficulties too. The panel of judges who hear the case have to listen to hearsay evidence to judge whether it is admissible, and, if it is not, they have to instruct themselves - as the final arbiters - to forget what they have just heard. But these anxieties would have weighed on you far more if the final verdicts hadn't cleared Tadic of all the charges of murder.

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