inside back: Lie back and think of elephant

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, VBA)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: The West flounders in the Middle East morass

Independent Voices
David Tennant as Hamlet  

To vote no or not to vote no, that is the question... Although do celebrities really have the answer?

David Lister
All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition