LITERATURE works in mysterious ways. There are some novels you might describe as like “a nice warm blanket on a cold day”: a P. G. Wodehouse, perhaps, or an Agatha Christie. But To Kill a Mockingbird? Or James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain? Yet that was the literature sought out by Anthony Ray Hinton and The Death Row Book Club (R4, Monday of last week), which he convened while awaiting — for 28 years — execution in Alabama.
After new DNA evidence cast doubt on his sentence on a double murder charge, Hinton was released. A film and book followed, as well as numerous speaking engagements, such that the first-person testimony offered on this programme had a curated — at times, poetic — tone. There was something of The Shawshank Redemption in his description of the transformative nature of art, and a filmic sensibility in his account of a typical execution: the orchestrated clattering of cans against bars, the flickering lights, the hideous smell.
The book club was Hinton’s idea, and began with a group of six, all of them charged with atrocities meriting execution in the State of Alabama. But it was not literary escapism that they sought; instead, the reading list was characterised by themes of injustice and racial inequality. The one white member of the group — a supremacist who had lynched a black neighbour on the orders of the KKK — underwent something of a conversion experience after reading Harper Lee, presumably without the help of advance trigger warnings. And the robust, confrontational nature of the reading seems to have worked — too well, in fact. The prison governor closed the club down when the number of aspiring members grew too many to handle.
For Ray, a rough-sleeper in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, a long-term sentence of a different kind may also be coming to an end. Ray has been on the streets since 1999 and has stoutly refused the services of more than 100 outreach workers — a statistic of which he is evidently proud. We met Ray in The Patch (R4, Monday of last week), a programme that, each episode, sends its presenter, Polly Weston, to a different area of the UK, on the basis of a choice by a random-postcode generator, to investigate any local story that takes her fancy. This was the first time that the device had sent her to a London postcode: EC4 V5, a tiny area measuring 0.02 square miles bordering St Paul’s.
The story of the moment was not difficult to find: the happy transformation of the St Paul’s Youth Hostel (once upon a time the choir school to the cathedral, and surely one of the most impressive edifices in the YHA’s housing stock) into a homeless shelter. Facilitated by the City of London Corporation as a temporary Covid-lockdown measure, the project has been granted a year’s extension and expansion. Alessio welcomes the fresh intake — his former comrades from the streets — with the news that he has been clean of drugs for three months. Meanwhile, Ray, a veteran of the days when police and outreach workers would together “wash down” the streets of rough-sleepers, is now helping to recruit more staff.