RADIO / Take two onions

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The Independent Culture
HERE'S an idea: 'Rub the part morning and evening with onions until it is red, and rub it afterwards with honey - or electrify it.' The part receiving this attention - the scalp, of course - is then expected to sprout hair. Straight upwards, presumably, and smelling like a Chinese take-away. If you had 300 guesses as to the author of such a tip, you'd never get it right. It was none other than that famous old Methodist trichologist John Wesley. His remedy cropped up, if you'll forgive the expression, in the course of A Word to the Wise (R4), an anthology of ancient, arcane advice introduced by Rosalind Miles.

Sounding coy and winsome, like a cross between Thora Hird and Maureen Lipman, she tackled 'Health Matters' on Monday. There were hints about choosing a wet-nurse (with detailed instructions on checking the equipment); on therapeutic nasal irrigation; on the perils of excessive exercise; on medicinal leeches, and on cold baths. Wise parents, apparently, dip their children in cold water daily until they are three-quarters grown - at which point they would undoubtedly take a violent revenge.

Silliness is enjoying an Indian summer at Radio 4. Another new series sent Phil Smith into the undergrowth in search of the Tribes of England. He began in Norfolk, at the reconstructed Iceni village of Cockley Cley. The man who built it hid under the ticket-counter at first, refusing to speak, but Smith's blandishments drew him out. Soon, they were chewing pine resin amicably (an Iceni cure for sore throats, NB Ms Miles), despite the unusually fastidious Smith's abhorrence of the blackened fingernail from which it was proffered. Then they paused to listen to the silence, while one of them invoked the old vegetative gods and hoped to hear the rumble of Boadicea's chariot.

Phil Smith is not as irritatingly whimsical as Ray Gosling, but Norfolk brought out the worst in him. It's a peaceful county, whose natives know how lucky they are, but he was desperate to find 'flies in the ointment or serpents in the withy bed'. He got short shrift from Lord Walpole when he suggested that his tenants doffed their caps at his approach. They don't go in for that kind of thing any more, you silly fellow. A couple of old men warned him that 'we're not very fast to get excoited, but if we dew, ye'd better watch out'. But he pressed on as far as the pub before getting the message. 'They should'a cloosed the borders, kep' furriners out.' Perhaps he'll do better in Cornwall next week.

If he doesn't encounter the Beast of Bodmin. PC Peter Keane enjoyed his finest hour on Farming Today (R4) describing his long, patient hunt for the fiendish slayer, though whether it's a puma or a panther he couldn't tell. It's a new situation, he said. Alas, he is wrong. Such animals are nothing new. The excellent historical documentary Hindsight (R4) took up the hunt. As a child in the 1760s, William Cobbett spotted a cat the size of a spaniel in a dead elm in Surrey and was thrashed for refusing to say he was lying. Only when he got to Canada much later did he see one again. It was a lynx.

The theory is that jungle cats were carried on ships to keep the rats down, and then carelessly released in British ports. Their descendants regularly challenge the likes of PC Keane with their depradations, from Cumberland to Kent. In an enjoyable ramble, Dr Karl Shuker padded off after other exotic creatures, telling us of Gerard de Nerval taking his pet lobster for walks, and Rossetti's Brahmin bull laying waste to his little Chelsea garden. Oddest of all was the giraffe acquired by George IV. He needed one to keep up with the French royals, but his animal arrived at Windsor too weary to walk and they built it a Zimmer frame, with wheels, to stop it falling over.

At the end of the week of course, every channel seemed to be dominated by Northern Ireland. Among the futile semantic agonising about the difference between 'permanent' and 'complete', and far too much dangerous speculation as to what would probably go wrong, there came a predictable interesting angle from the World Service's Newshour. Speaking from Washington as a new dawn was breaking in Belfast, Brendan O'Cleary of the Irish Times spoke of the quiet relief of those Irish Americans sickened by years of Noraid. He left you with a tiny, real sense of optimism. On Classic FM, Susannah Simons celebrated the ceasefire by playing 'Venus, the Bringer of Peace', a fine gesture that she muffed, as it ended, by calling it 'Mars, the Bringer of War'. Old habits

die hard.

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