Disability, a New History on Radio 4: We can't get enough

We’ve hear diaries of the disabled from all centuries, discarded flyers for freak shows, letters between aristocrats disfigured by smallpox and grappling with wooden limbs, and an account of Samuel Pepys visiting a lady with a beard (“It was a strange sig

Disability: a New History
Radio 4

Invariably, the shorter the programme on Radio 4, the more creative and appealing it is. Tweet of the Day, my current obsession, recording the facts and sounds behind British birdsong, is less than 90 seconds long and more memorable than anything uttered for the following 180 minutes on the Today programme. The recently broadcast A History of Noise was captivatingly brief and loopy, featuring a French anthropologist crouched in a cave summoning, with groans, painted bisons. And now a run of 15-minute programmes – rather sonorously called Disability: a New History (weekdays, 1.45pm) – comes on with a wit and variety that nobody first tuning in could have anticipated in a million pious years.

We’ve heard diaries of the disabled from all centuries, discarded flyers for freak shows, letters between aristocrats disfigured by smallpox and grappling with wooden limbs, and an account of Samuel Pepys visiting a lady with a beard (“It was a strange sight to me, I confess. And pleased me mightily”). In one episode, an essay by the 18th-century politician William Hay, who was born with curvature of the spine, recalled the self-loathing that accompanied feeling obliged to make a joke of his disability before others got in there first – as though the act of first ridiculing oneself provides firm inoculation against any pain caused by others.

It is, of course, a standard impulse, whatever the era. I was born with only half a left hip, and the subsequent operations and scarring and occasional limp can usually be hidden but when they are not (if I’m tired, or on a beach) I do feel a nagging need to make reference to it and never like myself for doing so. The scars seem to be the least of the problem. I don’t think I mind them much at all.

The presenter Peter White – ever confident and eloquent – openly laughs at some of the more appalling facts discussed. “Are you really telling me that this was supposed to be a medically based thing propounded by scientists?” You can feel his interlocutors (historian, psychologist) immediately loosen, feeling the breeze in the room provided by a presenter at the top of his game. This ten-part series could run all summer and still never be enough.

 

The presenter Peter White. Photograph: BBC

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
Show Hide image

The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times