Disability: a New History
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.