Radio: The Things We Forgot to Remember, Radio 4; Longing for Silence, Radio 4

It takes Michael Portillo to remind us how lucky we are
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The Independent Culture

As I can never forget his political history, I am never going to be entirely happy with the notion of Michael Portillo on the radio; or certainly not as happy as the announcer after the show, who simply referred to him as "Michael". But I have to admit he did a pretty good job in this week's The Things We Forgot to Remember, which looked at the causes and the effects of the Bengal famine of 1943.

It was the largest loss of life in Allied territory during the war. There is some dispute as to the number of people who died in it: somewhere between 1.5 million and 7 million people. This rather wide range is itself a mute testament to the appalling indifference with which it was initially treated. The local government had caused the catastrophe in the first place, out of laziness, incompetence, and an initial panic about the Japanese advance, which led them to destroy food stocks.

"Nothing in the world is easier to prevent," said Amartya Sen, the Nobel-prizewinning economist (who is himself from Bengal). Once started, though, a famine is a different matter. The people who starved were farmers and tradespeople. "They did not know how to beg," said one commentator. "They just sat on the pavements and died there." It took the zealous indignation of Ian Stephens, then editor of The Statesman, in Calcutta, to raise public awareness; one of his techniques was the now-familiar publishing of pictures of the disaster.

Another one of the good guys was Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India, who urged Churchill desperately to do something. "In my time I've read quite a lot of diplomatic telegrams, some of them quite impassioned, but I've never read one quite like this," said Portillo. Well, he did not exactly govern during such a time of crisis, but he has a point.

As for another kind of suffering, I had no idea that so many people in this country suffer from tinnitus. This dreadful condition, a particularly nightmarish one which drives those with it up the wall, is shared by 5 million people in Britain. That is a rather high proportion. One in twelve. In Longing for Silence Kate Cook, who has it herself, went to examine the newly available cures.

As you might have guessed, if you want something that really works, you have to go abroad. The procedures involve having implants in your head (I got rather squeamish at this point and might have missed some of the details due to faintness). If you want to get treated in the UK, your best bet is to go to Cardiff to see someone who will talk to you about how to cope with it.

It is a great subject for radio, one would have thought, but in the end it was treated with a minimum of aural gimmickry. It was also left curiously unresolved, with Kate Cook deciding to go to Cardiff. Well? Did it work? Is she happier now? And why did they leave it like that?

A quick nod of appreciation to Doonesburyland (Radio 4), which saluted the great, still-running-after-40-years cartoon strip by Garry Trudeau. The main interviewees were Steve Bell and Martin Rowson, who between them know a thing or two about cartoons, and so love Doonesbury; the other interviewee, cheekily, was Ian Katz, the editor who dropped the strip from The Guardian when it turned into a Berliner. Within 24 hours mass reader outrage made him bring it back. See? You can make a difference.

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