Philip Hensher: Sorry need not be the hardest word

Click to follow
The Independent Online

To apologise is to divide yourself, momentarily, in two. There is the person who has offended; and there is the person with a moral attitude, who recognises the wrong of the statement or act committed. It is not an easy act to perform, and has to be taught. Small children have to be trained to understand not just that hitting their smaller sibling was wrong, but that it is important to acknowledge that wrongness, and to state it. A person who never learns to divide themselves in this way has some fundamental incapacity.

That incapacity may land them in jail, and keep them there. A report just issued by two charities, Victim Support and the Restorative Justice Consortium, has examined in hard cash terms the possibilities inherent in asking criminals to apologise, face to face, to their victims. Such meetings offer victims the chance to explain to criminals how the crime has affected their lives and to ask further questions, and often result in apologies from the criminals.

In Northern Ireland, where "restorative justice" has been introduced, three-quarters of young offenders take the opportunity to meet their victims, who in nine out of 10 cases say they are satisfied with the outcome. Recidivism is, the charities claim, reduced by about 27 per cent - it might mean a cut in costs of £185m, although of course this figure is highly speculative.

Whether the Prisons minister, Crispin Blunt, will be able to accept or to sell a proposal with so many of the marks of wishy-washy-dom to his Conservative colleagues remains to be seen. Surely, educated and secure people would think, it is not really so very difficult to choose to bring out an apology between gritted teeth – to choose a couple of hours of embarrassment over an extra year or more in a vile jail? The toddler soon learns, after all, to say "I'm-sorry-I-hit-Chloe-and-I-won't-do-it-again", while waiting for another quiet opportunity. But, of course, these are not educated or secure people, but ones steeped in a savage culture of respect and status. The act of apology strikes directly at the sense of self of many career criminals. The sort of abasement and renunciation which an apology requires is normally extracted from people within these cultures only by the threat of violence. Compare a culture of "respect" to a culture of apology, like Japan: which has the higher crime rate? Could there be a connection?

The charities' proposal is a relatively cheap one, and the work of other restorative justice bodies, such as the Forgiveness Project, seems to show that apology is not an easy option for many criminals and brings about a painful but beneficial evaluation of past actions. The results, at the very least, seem preferable to maintaining thousands of glowering miscreants in prison cells, all insisting that they were done down, that they don't deserve to end up like this.

The worst kind of shaggy dog story

Joy was unconfined round our house on reading, this week, the magnificent headline "Transvestite Had Sex With Dog At English Heritage Castle" (it was in a dry moat, the story went on to explain). It goes straight into a delirious file of surreal summaries, which – I hasten to add – were no doubt unpleasant for those personally involved.

Previous entries include the legendary 2005 incident in South Woodham Ferrers, when a motorist had his nose broken by a frozen sausage thrown through the open window of his moving car, and the unforgettable Brighton Argus headline from March this year: "Man Killed By Giant Pencil". Freddie Starr eating someone's hamster is now disqualified from inclusion since, I believe, the story was substantially invented.

The story of the transvestite who had sex with a dog fulfils all the requirements by being studiously vague about the circumstances which led up to the event – did they meet by chance in the moat, or did the chap in the frock lead a dog there for the beastly purpose? Why in the moat? Why did he dress up for the purpose – I mean, I don't suppose the dog would have cared either way?

A crucial part of these stories, I feel, is the comment by an official who has been entirely unprepared for this particular event by his training. In the case of the flying frozen sausage, a spokesman said: "I have never seen or heard of anything like this before." In the present case, the man from English Heritage observed, possibly unnecessarily, that "this was a very rare incident". The dog's comments were unrecorded.

Allegorical film whose inception is confusing

"No, you see, when he's skiing, he's really going deeper into the dream."

"Uh-huh." "And you see, I think the thing is, Cobb is really performing inception on himself, only you have to work that one out for yourself."

"And the totem, what that means, I reckon, is ..."

Yes, Christopher Nolan's dream-world thriller Inception has certainly got filmgoers talking, and the conversation goes something like that: baffled people explaining their conclusions to each other.

Leave me out of this one. In youth, I adored this sort of film. I could have spent hours insufferably explaining to others what was really happening at the end of Tarkovsky's Stalker or Mirror. The allusions and reversals of late Jean-Luc Godard were no challenge to me – I may be the only person ever to have found a plot in Godard's Passion, let alone attempted to explain it to others. And then one day, watching David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, I discovered that not only did I not understand what was happening, I didn't give a toss about discovering what the author had laboriously concealed from his audience.

Of course, sometimes an opaque or suggestive means of telling a story is the most powerful one: but the puzzle-composition which an audience is invited to solve, before explaining the whole thing over dinner afterwards stopped holding much appeal for me. Tarkovsky's movies are beautiful fantasies, but I honestly wouldn't mind an occasional voiceover of explanation in Solaris. Is it too awful to admit to preferring the dream sequence in Oklahoma over the ones in Lynch and Nolan?