RADIO / Slipping under the red tape to save our souls

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The Independent Culture
IN OCTOBER 1991, without warning, the Yugoslav army decided to bomb the seventh truck in a convoy taking 120 wounded Croats out of Vukovar. Dr Christopher Besse, in the sixth truck, saw it happen in his rear-view mirror. Two young nurses were blown through the windscreen and horribly wounded. He got them into a Serbian tank and began a desperate fight to keep them alive until they could reach a hospital. Trying to ventilate one of them, he was fast running out of steam himself and managed to persuade a young Serb soldier to help him, despite the boy's reluctance to be involved with anyone caring for Croats. Out of such ironies was born the medical emergency relief agency called Merlin.

Dr Besse is a real hero. His achievements were celebrated in the first of SOS (R4), a series about people with a passion for rescue. He has responded to news of suffering in Romania, Kurdistan, Bosnia, anywhere he could get to, often immediately. He uses his skills to save lives when he can, but he stresses also the importance of reassuring battered and defenceless people that they are not alone. Sensitively interviewed by Matthew Parris, he came across as a passionate, energetic, resourceful man, the kind who can slip under red tape and leave it to wrap itself around the bureaucrats. His organisation is equally nimble, providing the means to get skilled, committed help to wherever it's needed. If you hadn't heard of him before, you certainly will again.

Radio 4 had a downbeat Valentine's Day. In Anyone Can See I Love You, Hetty Baynes gave a magnificent impersonation, down to the last boo-boo- be-doop, of Marilyn Monroe, the woman who liked 'soup, pasta, chocolate pudding and the Kennedys', and whose emotional life went downhill faster than her fame shot up. In cold print, the script looks cloyingly melodramatic - 'Take this heart. Is it living? Is it dead? Is the moment between caught on film?' - but whispered in that kindergarten, kiddie-porn voice, it was oddly touching.

Earlier, Claire Rayner was noisily out of breath, arriving late for the Woman's Hour inquiry into the secret of a long romance. According to her husband Des, the answer is never to stop talking, which he demonstrated, volubly. When Claire finally stopped panting, she gave double value as an Infertility Day expert, chatting briskly about not getting too worried about things, or, alternatively, having a permanently semi- erect penile implant.

The very next day, there she was again, tramping to the top of the moors for Homing in on Haworth (R4) to rhapsodise, between gasps, about Emily Bronte - 'young, intense, adolescent, tubercular, wonderful]' The week before, she got to the very summit of Harrow-on-the- Hill, again in short pants. I'm getting used to her sounding as if she were in the transition stage of labour, but is it doing her any good? They'd better keep her off the Cairngorms.

It is 30 years since Jamaica got its independence and Trevor Rhone's play The Power (R5) was about the self-confidence that requires. The hero was a child called Theophilus, from Look Behind - it's a real place, not far from You No Send Me No Come. Appealing to Theophilus's sense of magic and the supernatural, a clever teacher gave him the self-belief to use his intelligence and win a scholarship to school in Kingston. It was a simple allegory, elegantly done.

Further away still, Mike Thomson spent a week on St Helena (World Service). A thousand miles south of Angola in the South Atlantic, it looks, he says, rather as Tunbridge Wells must have done in the Fifties. High on the mountain- top, facing the wind and rain, is Longwood House, where Napoleon died, now owned by France and managed by a glum Frenchman. An optimistic naturalist sets traps for the huge local earwig, with its black body and red legs, but he hasn't caught one for some years. The people are fiercely English - it is our second-oldest colony - but feel badly betrayed by the loss of their citizenship. In this tiny outcrop of basalt and bananas, every house has portraits of the Royal Family. Surely we could spare a minor royal to pay them a visit now and again?

The furthest spot visited in the week was a real desert island called Henderson, way out in the Pacific, for which Juliet Vickery, a plucky ornithologist, forsook the boggy Fens. Her fascinating programme was the first in a series called Tales from the Back of Beyond (R4). She spent a lot of time being seasick, catching rats and observing the behaviour of her companions as they became territorial over bars of chocolate, bartering them for fish-hooks and relief from washing-up. But the birds were even odder.

She compared a fairy tern with a lesser noddy; she knelt under a palm-leaf, listening to the World Service and spying on a day-old petrel in the hour before dawn; she watched as a greater frigate bird practised klepto-parasitism on a poor booby. The booby was so scared by the frigate's 9ft wingspan and its enormously inflated red throat-patch that it regurgitated its lunch, two whole flying-fish. The frigate got one, but Juliet got the other and roasted it on the beach. Her companions were unimpressed by this resourceful foraging. 'Ugh, Juliet,' they said, 'you've eaten booby sick.' Still, it made a change from pork- scratchings in East Anglia.