The Week In Radio: Value the living, not the dead

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The Independent Culture

In A Tale of Two Skulls (Radio 3, Sunday), an artist named Jane Wildgoose read out a quotation: "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness, the tender mercies of its people, their loyalty to high ideals, and their regard for the laws of the land." Which suited her purposes nicely – the point of the programme was to find out where a pair of skulls she owns came from, and what she ought to do with them – but doesn't necessarily tell you anything useful. Some nations honour their dead in ways that strike other nations as blasphemous, or callous, or silly: leaving them out for vultures, burning them, eating them, wrapping them in bandages, drying them in catacombs, pickling them for medical students to practise on, burying them in wooden boxes – it isn't obvious that the dead themselves would prefer any one of these to the others, or that we should either.

If we want to show respect to our ancestors, we're better off worrying about the ones who are still around to express a preference. The Today programme (Radio 4, weekdays) has been running a series of reports on the way we look after the old: on Tuesday and Wednesday last week, these included the audio diary of 70-year-old Deddie Davies, who pretended dementia to go undercover in a care home for five days. Inspectors had deemed the unnamed home "adequate", and in important respects Davies agreed: patients were kept clean, properly dressed and well fed, and staff were intermittently attentive. But some staff were indifferent or unfriendly, and much of the time Davies found herself parked for hours on end in front of a blaring television, before being sent to bed early; loneliness, boredom and frustration soon set in, aggravated by indignation for those others who couldn't complain for themselves.

The reports were more effective because she seemed so undemanding – at one point, having asked if she might go outside for a walk, she was allowed to sit in the hall where she could get some fresh air: "Nothing seems to be too much trouble, really," she said, as if staff were peeling her grapes and running baths of asses' milk. But the mildness was deceptive: back in the studio with somebody from a care homes' association, she turned tart. When he spoke of a "range of strategies" to improve conditions, she snorted back: "Touring the country with Michael Parkinson on a 'dignity campaign' – that's going to do nothing."

Still, as Woody Allen pointed out, old age has to be better than the alternative, which is what Wildgoose was chasing after. Her quest for her skulls' origins sounded as if it was going to be pretentious, and occasionally was; but elsewhere, Wildgoose's singsong delivery wavered between blandness and genuine poetry. Her eventual decision to rebury the skulls whence they (probably) came seemed to be based on a notion of "cultural sensitivity" without real intellectual basis, too. For what it's worth, anybody who wants to have my skull for a football or a drinking cup is perfectly welcome. Just don't be in too much of a hurry.