Saturday 1 March 2014

What did the BBC do for me this week?

So, following through on the spirit of the previous post, what did the BBC do for me this past week?

Well, it gave me an episode of Nature on Radio 4, Bewitched by Dragonflies, which made me want to sit by the semi-stagnant waters at the end of the falling stair of locks at the end of the sadly-blocked-off segment of Lancaster Canal (over the road from the Longlands Hotel at  Tewitfield, near Carnforth, should you fancy a visit) in order to re-watch the dragonflies I saw there - so large and so in-yer-face yet so beautiful. (I also saw an owl there, for good measure, in broad daylight).

The programme, a beautifully-constructed parade of voices, featured dragonfly enthusiasts and scientists, and was so full of fascinating facts about dragonflies that I'm quite sure I failed to take them all in - though, pausing, I can certainly remember certain things, such as the contrast between hawkers (which behave like hawks and follow and swoop on prey) and darters (which sit on things like reeds and then leap upwards at passing prey) for example. 

I didn't know I wanted to know so much about dragonflies.

The enthusiast, Ruary Mackenzie Dodds, was so vivid and poetic in his descriptions that the British dragonfly population should seriously consider making him their ambassador to the world. 

He was wonderful, and so were the two scientists - biologist Robin Wootton, who made a very good case that the dragonfly's motion was comparable to that of a helicopter's, only much better, and PhD student Milly Sharkey who discovered that larval dragonflies are able to see (and exploit to their advantage) polarized light (useful in murky water). 

Then there was Tuesday's The Life Scientific, in which Jim Al-Khalili interviewed forensic anthropologist Sue Black. 

She's a deeply likeable woman, whose line of work takes her to places most of us just couldn't face going to, in so many ways. 

She loves anatomy, and described the contrast between the many bones of a child and the far fewer bones of an adult, and the challenge of tracking those bones as they develop in a growing child. She also described her early experiences of working in (and learning from) a butcher's shop.

She went on to describe her experiences of investigation and identifying corpses in Kosovo, and I don't think I've ever heard anything so powerful as this on the radio before. 

She was, as seems to be her nature, so matter-of-fact yet so humane in her description of her work there. As well as her main role, she also acted as 'mum' to the others there, including to the British soldiers, some of whom found themselves overwhelmed by what they were witnessing - such as the soldier who imagined his own daughter's face on the body of the corpse of a two-year old Kosovan girl (shot in the fields by Serbs) and broke down in response. He was then hidden by colleagues behind a row of boots before Sue Black cottoned on to what they were doing and went to the soldier and allowed him to cry on her shoulder, thus helping him to see that it wasn't his daughter and that he shouldn't feel guilty about the girl lying in front of him. That's the kind of story you don't forget in a while.

Also wonderful - and not dissimilar in the scientific field of its subject - was the episode of Desert Island Discs with Professor Hugh Montgomery, an intensive care specialist who, besides his intensive care work, also managed to find time to discover the 'ACE fitness gene', climb Everest, run extreme marathons, write children's books, break the world record for playing the piano underwater and, as a youngster, swim and investigate the wreck of the Mary Rose. Among other things.

What a man - and what an engaging man too! (He did claim that he couldn't change a plug though - not that I entirely believe him there).

His motivation?

Well, his father "used to say the worms will get you" and he was, probably as a result, conscious of the inevitability of death from childhood. Still, he didn't despair at that; instead he drew inspiration from it:
"I've learnt that life can end randomly and pointlessly at any time. I don't want to be on my death bed and think 'damn! I wish I'd learnt to paint and write songs'"

He told of how patients with terminal diseases really can survive longer by refusing to give in and told the touching story of a patient who seemed to be hanging on to life because he didn't want to let him down.

His taste in music was interesting too. He chose one of my favourite songs, Kate Bush's The Man with the Child in his Eyes. That shows taste.

Still, whether Kirsty Young should have allowed him a fish-spearing kit as his luxury item is highly debatable. Tut, tut. Rules are rules after all.

Three of the best then, and all worth bouquets. 

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