inside back: Lie back and think of elephant

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The Independent Online
We imagine that we are all blind when we listen to the radio - that since there are no pictures to look at, a blind person and a sighted person are listening to Gardeners' Question Time or Simon Mayo on roughly equal terms. A few seconds thought suggests that this can't really be true, though. You can't really understand a blind person's experience of the world by shutting your eyes and groping your way around the house for 10 minutes: to be blind is not simply to have the pictures taken away, any more than radio is simply television without the pictures - a point movingly demonstrated in Touching the Elephant (Wednesday, Radio 4).

Matt Thompson's feature borrowed its premise from the old Indian fable of the blind men disputing the nature of an elephant they've come across: one feels its trunk, and thinks it is some sort of snake; one gropes its leg and deduces it must be a tree, and so forth. Taking this rather literally, Touching the Elephant confronted four blind people with an elephant at London Zoo.

The most interesting part of the programme, and the part it's easiest to talk about, was the initial interviews, when Kim Normanton asked the four what they expected from an elephant. All of them knew that it was big, and that it had a trunk; but after that their ideas diverged wildly. Danni knew that it would have big ears, but imagined them standing up, like an Alsatian's; Lauren, a 10-year-old with a vivid imagination, got pretty well all the details right until she was asked how it would feel: furry, was her guess.

Tom, a piano-tuner with a philosophical bent, got closest with a description couched in fairly abstract terms: "You couldn't but be overwhelmed by the size of the thing, and you would have to look up at it... You would have to be amazed and perhaps appalled by the trunk and the tusks... which must mean, I think, that it doesn't really have a face." Elephant enthusiasts may disagree, but I think this is not a bad way of describing the way so many incongruous features are pulled together on an elephant's head.

But the programme still illustrated an extraordinary gulf not so much between the sighted and the blind (especially those who have never seen, who have no visual memories to refer to). In the most obvious sense, it's a difference between the haves and the have-nots; but, without being sentimental or pretentious about it, the programme drew you to the view that it cuts both ways. Asked what she thought of sighted people, Danni said: "They take things for granted quite a lot, in life." The programme bore that out, especially in the final encounters with the elephant, when all four were excited, overjoyed even, at meeting a creature whose size and strangeness is for most of us commonplace. This was more touching than I would have believed.

Along the way, Tom mentioned that blind people have excellent memories, which he felt might give him something in common with the elephant. He didn't say whether, as popular myth has it, they can also tell when somebody is lying by the sound of his voice. Not that this talent would be much use today. The most depressing feature of the election campaign has been that politicians no longer bother lying; they simply fail to state anything substantial enough to be called the truth.

Listening to Today earlier this week, when John Humphrys was trying to get Michael Portillo to give a firm answer about his views on Europe, I had a sudden intuition that this must be what it's like to grope your way around an elephant. Only much, much less fun.