Poetry in potions: a doctor writes

THE CRITICS RADIO
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Indy Lifestyle Online
MORE than any other medium, radio loves anniversaries, and between them R3 and R4 are making an aural mountain out of the bicentenary of John Keats's birth. Next week the airwaves will be jammed with Odes, but the season began with a persuasive feature that was less about Keats the poet than John Keats the Doctor (R4). It was a shock to be told that Keats spent half his adult life in medicine, but then you remembered that he died aged 25. The way Dr Ruth Richardson told them, these six years were the making of the compassionate poet who wrote of "the weariness, the fever and the fret" of illness, physical pain and mental torment.

Richardson toured the landmarks of Keats's medical career - a pharmacy in Edmon- ton, Guy's and St Thomas's hos- pitals, a graveyard in Southwark - piecing together his life as a trainee doctor, anatomist and surgeon. An evocative trail, it pressed home the gruesome realities of medicine at a time when the causes of disease were largely unknown and the universal treatment was bleeding.

In the old operating theatre in the roof of St Thomas's church, Richardson winced at the operating table. "It's awful," she said, appalled by its rough wood and bloodstains, "your legs would hang off the end." (Convenient for amputations.) She spotted sawdust between the floorboards. That was to stop blood dripping through the ceiling onto the heads of the congregation below.

The suggestion was that Keats found all this just as revolting as we would, especially since he had the bad luck to be appointed "dresser" to a particularly cack-handed surgeon. It would have been Keats's job to hold down the (unanaesthetised) patient,dress the wounds and clean up afterwards. In anatomy classes, he would have had to dissect bodies stolen from fresh graves. Andrew Motion, Keats's biographer, was sure Keats had "a really, really horrible time". We didn't need convincing.

You could see how Keats's revulsion about body-snatching and dismemberment inspired his poem "Isabella, or a Pot of Basil", the story of a woman who keeps the severed head of her murdered lover in a garden pot. Even after he gave up medicine, in 1816, it informed, even determined, the nature of his poetry. As Motion said, he wrote "physicianly poems", strewn with medical ideas.

From doctors to spin doctors: in the first part of his critique of the public-relations industry, Matthew Parris claimed that "even the monarchy" is playing The PR Game (R5). He obviously thinks PR is a bad thing, especially for the Royal Family, but never quite defined his terms. Were we dealing with the unstartling truism that royal personages have always promoted themselves ("Smile, Fred, smile. Wave at the people!" as Helen Mirren says in the final scene of The Madness of King George) or had the present Queen engaged the services of Max Clifford? Parris galloped over a lot of familiar ground - from It's a Knockout to the Squidgy tapes, Camillagate and Will Carling - in familiar company: fellow pundits Andrew Morton, James Whitaker and Penny Junor.

Parris argued that as "PR grows fat, monarchy sinks beneath it"; but even on the evidence presented here, it was clear that the Royals' undoing was not so much PR's fault as their own. First they fell out with each other, then they mobilised PR machines in media combat. (So the "pro-Charles" story about Diana's pounds 170,000 grooming bill was chased off the front pages by the news that she had helped to rescue a drowning tramp.) James Whitaker gravely pronounced that Prince Charles's adultery confession was "the biggest PR disaster that the Windsors have had in a very long time". You were beginning to tire of the programme's over- reliance on this witness (where were the wizards of spin?) when the man from the Mirror found the middle of the bat. About 20 years before the Princess of Wales went for a drive with Richard Kay of the Daily Mail, Whitaker too had been the target of a manipulative Royal briefing - from Prince Charles. The tryst sounded intriguing (did he slip unnoticed into the Aston Martin?), but it wasn't pursued. Instead we heard how successfully Edward and Sophie were managing to keep the media at bay. No one seemed to notice that Sophie Rhys-Jones is a PR girl.

And no one blamed the Royal Family's tarnished image on mobile phones. Well, they can come in handy. On Thursday Chris Evans (R1) had a problem. He'd booked David Platt, the footballer, to play "Person or Personality?", the quiz that tests celebrities' fading grip on reality by asking them if they know what's happening in EastEnders. Platt was due to appear at 8.38am, but at 7.50 Chris got a message: Platt had rung to say he couldn't wait till then, he had to go out straightaway. Chris was incredulous: "He hasn't got a mobile phone? That's like a footballer without a Barratt home!" More messages - Platt would hang on at his hotel, he was trying to borrow a phone - built a crescendo of anticipation. So when the England captain eventually came on air, at 8.38, on somebody else's phone, he couldn't help being a bit of an anti- climax. Despite an impressive ignorance of the identity of the father of Shell's baby (his answer, Dirty Den, was 10 years out of date), Platty didn't quite make a credible celebrity. When Chris awarded him nice-bloke points it became crushingly clear: a Person without a phone is not a Personality.

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