For several decades now I have been seeing people I was at school with become semi-famous, the most completely famous of whom is now Richard Branson, with whom I shared a prep school, and even a rugby team for a term. (I was the worst in the team. He was a force of nature whom you really did not want to get in the way of, even then.)
Now, something else along similar lines is happening to me again. I am starting to notice what you might call graduates of the Alternative Bookshop/Libertarian Alliance/Free Market Think Tanks operation of the 1980s. And Greg Foxsmith is definitely a name I recall from those days. He was a customer, subscriber, name I remember in filled in forms, and I think I must have met him quite a few times, although I could not put a face to him until last night. How completely his thinking aligns with mine on all those precious issues, I do not know and do not care, but I would be very surprised if he did not pass the Perry de Havilland metacontext test with some ease. He is, in short, One Of Us.
And last night, Greg Foxsmith was on the telly, and I would have missed it had not a friend (thanks – she knows who she is) rang me and made me watch it. The programme was called Make Me Honest, and if you follow that link and you get to this:
Programme Three: Greg, Carla & Michael – Thursday 6th May 21:00, BBC Two.
Greg, an experienced criminal lawyer, took on two mentees – 21-year-old Michael who had convictions for football violence and theft, and Carla, an ex drug-addict. Greg offered Michael work experience in his own office to help him back into the real world. Greg knew that the first few hours out of prison were crucial for ex-addicts and kept a close eye on Carla and continued to phone her everyday.
With Mike the story was very mixed, and by the end Greg was no longer in touch with him, and was fearing the worst. But Mike had been shown making some progress, and there was definitely cause for hope at the point in the story where the programme left things, as well as foreboding.
With Carla, both the story and the outcome of the story were positively Dickensian, and by “postively” Dickensian, I mean Dickensian, but in a very, very good way. Charles Dickens is often denounced by the One Of Us team (see above) for recommending such things as the expansion of state welfare and state education. But Dickens is also often criticised by the One Of Them team, for believing in the redemptive power of individual human intervention into the often cold and cruel realities of life, and especially life for the poor, unfortunate, feckless and unhappy. Dickens believed passionately in altruism. But he was much more cautious about collectivism, and refused to criticise individualism.
Foxsmith came over as the best sort of Dickens father-figure/hero, who reached down into the ranks of the doomed and, with the help of the (here) much reviled BBC, gave a couple of them the chance to do better. And one of them definitely did. The thankyou letter that Carla sent Greg at the end, about how she now lived in a nice house with a nice man, instead of wondering where her next fix was coming from, literally brought tears to my eyes.
The help that Greg offered wasn’t anything very profound. He set up meetings, and phoned around for people willing to give interviews, and then nagged his two charges to make sure they showed up. If meetings were missed, he squared probation officers by getting his two delinquents to apologise, and by assuring said officers that things were nevertheless going okay. What he did that made the most difference was that he simply took a relentless interest in the two of them. He praised where praise was due, criticised when that made sense, but did neither to excess. He gave them an audience to act good to, a gallery to play to, in a good way.
At no point in these stories was it ever suggested that punishment was not an appropriate collective response to crime. After all, if they faced no punishment, these people would have had far less of an incentive to pull themselves together. Greg Foxsmith is himself a criminal lawyer, and never suggested for a minute that he thought the criminal law to be other than completely necessary.
But nor, for that matter, were we treated to any diatribes from Greg in favour of free market capitalism, or even set piece speeches about individual personal responsibility, either in the sense that people like Greg owed a helping hand to the less fortunate, or in the sense that, in the end, it was up to the less fortunate to make better luck for themselves by behaving more wisely and less self-destructively. But the message that individual action can make a profound difference to the world nevertheless shone through brightly. (Although, caveat, maybe there were such speeches right at the beginning, and I missed them.)
I tend to resist what is called, often very oddly, reality TV. It seems to consist either of pathetic would-be celebs making public fools of themselves, or pathetic would-be Richard Bransons ditto, and all of them being sniggered at by the despicable TV apparatchiks who set them up for all this humiliation. But this was different. This was TV both showing reality, and simultaneously changing it for the better, or at the very least trying to. These programme makers, you sensed, did not despise the people they were filming.
Well done the BBC, and well done Greg Foxsmith. Something tells me that we have not heard the last of this man.