Could we care any less?

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MARJORY WALLACE went to the funeral of a young man who had been mentally ill. His mother had reserved three rows: each place marked with the name of a member of the multi-disciplinary team entrusted with his care. They were all empty. From such experiences sprang MIND, an organisation working to halt the closure of hospital beds for the mentally ill. Care in the community was not working.

Consequences (R4) this week tackled the history of this idea. There is a modern myth that it all began with Thatcher, but it was first mooted by Enoch Powell when he was health minister, in 1961. With typical overkill, he declared that the old asylums should all be closed. "If we err," he said, "it is our duty to err on the side of ruthlessness." By Christmas 1992, when ex-patient Ben Silcock was mauled by lions after crawling into their den at London Zoo, ruthlessness was winning.

In his careful Scottish voice, Niall Dickson told the story. In the Fifties, he said, the development of psychotropic drugs had made it possible for some kinds of mental illness to be stabilised, giving patients a chance to leave grim old Victorian establishments. But what measures would care for them, and who was to be responsible? In short: few, and nobody. Though one in three of us will suffer from mental illness, it is not a high-profile predicament and four successive administrations have failed to tackle it.

It was a sorry tale of muddle and buck-passing, in which the only political heroes proved to have been an unlikely pair: Dick Crossman and Edwina Currie both did their best, but were defeated by apathy and political cowardice. Yet the programme ended on an optimistic note. With responsibility passing to the NHS executive, patchy improvements are beginning to appear. However, Richard Hannaford's report on Today (R4) suggests that complacency would be ill-advised. In Camberwell, 22 mental-illness beds are always full, largely because there is nowhere for their occupants to go, though private beds as far away as Southampton are pressed into service. Sometimes, one wonders about the mental health of MPs.

Today in Parliament (R4) does little to dispel such thoughts. This week our representatives debated cuts to the World Service - a proposal, incidentally, that has brought me a large, unanimously furious postbag. Another Scottish voice, this time the precise and disdainful one belonging to the Foreign Secretary, suggested that private funding would be allowed to make up the shortfall caused by his actions. Apparently dazzled by his arguments, MPs voted to support him. But where is this funding to come from? Will politically sensitive regions, where the World Service is the only widely accepted voice of truth, be prepared to allow private companies to take over? And what price will such companies demand, both financially and ideologically? Ted Heath was the only MP we heard voicing such doubts, but the Father of the House was not heeded. Asked by James Naughtie on Today whether a Labour government would restore the funding, Robin Cook failed to answer, resorting instead to cheap party propaganda. You could despair of the lot of them.

Sounding uncannily like Naughtie, but in reflective mood, John McKay is back with Aesthete's Foot (R4), his stories about life in Fenton Heuch. This is a small, fictional town in East Lothian, six miles from Lendy, 10 from Bonnerton and about 400 from anywhere interesting. Its remoteness, coupled with the sort of climate that can make strolling to Fine Fare for some extra sprouts worse than half an hour in a Sri Lankan monsoon - with a chilly week in Reykjavik thrown in - means that everyone treasures cars. McKay talked about a day in the 1970s when local boy-racer Eddie McArthur drove his orange Capri to victory against the hot- rodder from Dumby, by means of shenanigans achieved while the Dumby lads were busy seeing who could pee highest up the War Memorial. His talks are beautifully written, funny and sad, delivered in Garrison Keillor- ish deadpan. Scotland, he said, is a nation starved of glamour. Maybe, but with him around it isn't short of irony.

Meanwhile, in Chislehurst, a girl handed her mother a brandy, saying she was going to need it. That's one way of approaching a delicate subject. Another, chosen by a London girl, was to switch off her mother's television; a third, in Lichfield, chickened out altogether, leaving it to her friend to burst in on a family party shouting that the daughter of the house was gay. All three families seem quite happy with their lesbian offspring now, but Mum, I've Got Something to Tell You (R4) showed that it hadn't been easy. The London girl did best. There were maternal tears in Chislehurst, while bed-ridden despair set in at Lichfield, but in Tottenham the jolly Barbadian mother was rather keen to get back to her soap and didn't waste much time fussing. This was a curiously touching programme, gently comic and bravely honest.

R3 set off on The Road to To- ledo, a series about a journey undertaken in 1501 by Philip the Fair. It took him two years to get from Flanders to the Spanish court, singing all the way. A contemporary diary, and music from the Segovia Codex, provided a delicious taste of the adventure, all bagpipes, tabors and piercing discords. And no sign of Bob Hope anywhere.

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