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I listened to the last of Mary Anne Sieghart’s excellent trio of One to One interviews recently on BBC Radio 4. This short, intense programme displayed Sieghart’s mastery of the art. A great interviewer guides the interviewee with a firm but gentle hand. Coaxing not bullying, so that ultimately the subject of the session moves up to a different plane, bypasses the interviewer,  and seems to open up directly to the listener. The questioner shrinks and the subject grows. Watch or listen to any great interviewer and you will see what I mean. It is the classic example of less is more. Parkinson, Desert Island Discs, and the great black and white TV interviews of the 50’s and 60’s. Dimblebys, Frost, Burgess to name but a few. Sieghart’s subject was Charles Hanson, a lifelong criminal whose darkest moment was when he killed his third wife with a knife following her affair with his own son who subsequently committed suicide. I highly recommend you listen to it here http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b01jqjl1

What makes the Hanson interview so remarkable is the way in which he recounts his journey from ignorant brute to repentant sinner. These words I use are so trite, but so apposite. This journey could be interpreted as a triumph for the prison system. Hanson seems to have been redeemed through his fifteen years of incarceration. Improved by kindness, matured by structure and enlightened by education. It is brilliant, extraordinary, a totally neat solution and rounded story.

In fact the story is anything but complete, because Hanson will suffer for ever, his dead ex-wife and son doomed to their sad fates. Like so many ways in which we live our lives in the wrong order, the listener realises that had Hanson been granted the benefits of structure and education which were afforded him in prison, earlier in his life, he might not have sinned, and most dramatically, almost certainly would not have murdered.

The interview encapsulated the lunacy of a world which shies away from the cost of giving people what they need most, when they need it. An education feeds the ability to tell right from wrong. An education gives perspective. An education does not guarantee any of these things, but it gives its recipient a chance of a balanced life.

I met a murderer once. In one of my previous lives I worked for a firm of solicitors based in South London who specialised in criminal defence law. In those days the system demanded that there should always be a representative of the solicitor’s office present in all meetings between the accused and his barrister. Legal aid payments were generous for these meetings, but did not specify any level of qualification on the part of the representative who might be an aged toothless pensioner who fell asleep in meetings and in court. Equally that person might be a young, keen law student such as me.

The case involved an alleged racist murder. A young man of non-native English origin went into a fish and chip shop one evening. Shortly after ordering, a group of white youths followed him in and started taunting and verbally abusing him. The white boys started to push and shove the young man while continuing the spoken insults. At one stage the victim made a break for the shop door. He very nearly made it out of the door. At the door stood a lad who moved to block the doorway, and pushed the victim back into the shop. The victim slipped on the floor and the gang kicked and beat him to death.

My client was the door-blocking youth.

The barrister collected me early on a Saturday morning and we drove down to the prison. Just like in the films we went through security checks, loudly banging steel gates and crashing locks.

I have never forgotten the face of our client. Look up a photograph of young Tony Curtis. That was his face. Not literally, of course, but he possessed that same movie star quality, beauty almost. What remains with me still though, more than thirty years on, are his eyes, his dark dead eyes. The more we talked, the more clear it became that he had no education, no real understanding of what he had done. He was totally lost, in every sense of the word. He was an animal in the basest sense.

The One to One interview makes me wonder what the prison system might have achieved for him.

 

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Producer profiles

I wrote this article as pasrt of a series of producer profiles for Great Food Magazine. Photos are by its editor, Matt Wright

The story of Rutland’s famous miller

Published May 28, 2012

By Jan McCourt

Fifty years ago, a boy climbed onto the back of a pony in rural Leicestershire and rode out into the countryside. The little boy lived in the city of Leicester. Ponies are conducive to childrens’ dreams. This dreamer’s dream was quite unusual. On his regular route lay the Fenney Windmill at Shepshed. The mill towered above the little boy as his pony ambled by. From the first time he saw it from his pony, much as it would have been viewed more than a century earlier by any traveller on horse-back, Nigel Moon decided he would become a miller.

Childhood dreams come and go. Nigel’s dream was shared by his parents. As it became clear that young Nigel was very serious indeed, so his father, a fresh water biologist for whom the countryside was a passion, and his mother, started driving around the country with him, looking for mills in need of rescue.

Having tried to buy Whissendine mill in the early 1970s, the family bought derelict Soham mill, Cambridgeshire, in 1974, which they restored. Nigel’s mother ran a shop in a caravan selling flour and frozen ready-mixed dough. Their aim, was to encourage people to bake their own bread using real flour.

Nigel restored the mill at Soham and rebuilt its sails, his first attempt at doing so. Paradoxically, Nigel, having adopted the most traditional of crafts, embraced the future. He decided to use a steel arm in the new sails as a stronger option instead of the traditional wood. When the sails were finally ready to turn in the wind, he let them gather speed. The great new sails came slowly to a halt as the wind died down. Nigel’s mother stood back to admire her son’s great achievement just as the weld on the new steel join cracked. The whole sail sheared off and, falling, impaled itself in the ground a few feet from where his mother was standing.

History does not record how Nigel’s mother reacted, but she is still to be found, now in her nineties, hard at work supporting her son in his lifelong endeavour. Nigel learnt his lesson from his flirtation with modernity. He went back to wood.

Although Nigel’s early attempts to buy Whissendine Windmill had been rebuffed, he maintained contact with the building by helping  in the restoration of its windows over several years.

The family’s quest remained beset by the curse of the drive to convert mills into houses as an alternative form of a rural-housing dream. This in itself was a threat to the remaining mills’ chances of ever regaining their original purpose.

Nigel still had his heart set on taking on the Whissendine mill and negotiated with its owner at the time for three years.

Between 1981 and 1986 Nigel was commissioned to rebuild Wymondham Mill. He managed to buy Whissendine Windmill in 1995. Too few of us ever really realise our dreams. Nigel was determined to be what he has since become: the proprietor of one of England’s few remaining fully operational nineteenth century windmills. For Nigel though, he had to be a very particular miller. Not for him the glistening steel of modern, sterile, equipment, or the link in the chain of creation of mass-produced bread.

Nigel’s views are clear. To preserve our mills, we must stop viewing them solely as objects to be preserved. They must earn their keep.

Outside Whissendine Windmill lies one of the many scale models of a mill that Nigel made as a boy. If you were to conjure up an image of a typical miller, your vision would be of Nigel. The miller, covered from head to toe in a light dusting of organic flour, his blue eyes dancing and shining brightly above a smile, surrounded by his thick beard.

More on Whissendine Windmill…
The 60-foot tower mill was built in 1810 and restored by Nigel in 1996, having stood idle for 74 years. The mill produces a variety of flours. Address: Melton Road, Whissendine, Rutland LE15 7EU, 01664 474172

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