Daytime TV: Intolerable cruelty

Gary Day on the injustice meted out to a whistleblower, medieval minds and meteorology

May 7, 2009

Jessie is left without morphine. She screams in pain. Gilbert has soiled himself. But no one cleans him up. Welcome to a hospital near you. Bullying elderly patients, stealing their food and leaving them in chairs from 7.00 in the morning till late at night. What was it The Who sang all those years ago? "Hope I die before I get old." Too right, if this is what's in store. No medicine, no dignity and damn all kindness. Behold the reality behind the rhetoric of "standards", "targets" and "accountability". Let's be grateful there are no such disparities in higher education.

If there are, then we'll need a whistleblower like Margaret Haywood, the subject of last week's Panorama (Monday April, BBC One 8.30pm). She was so shocked by what she saw - "No I won't help you!" shouted one nurse at a pleading invalid - that she decided to make it public. But as this was a breach of patient confidentiality, she was struck off by the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

This august body appears to think that the reporting of ill-treatment is a far more serious matter than the ill-treatment itself. Why else would they deprive Margaret of her livelihood while leaving most of the perpetrators in post?

Here's a question. Is the rise of the whistleblower related to the decline of the documentary? The task of investigative journalism seems to have fallen to a few courageous individuals like Margaret. And like anyone who tells the truth, she has suffered for it.

The Franciscan friar Roger Bacon was sent to prison for doing the same. Or perhaps it was because he liked setting fire to things. At least that was the impression given by the actor playing him in Robert Bartlett's fascinating Inside the Medieval Mind (Tuesday 28 April, BBC Four 8pm). The programme is a repeat. So are most things on television but, unlike them, this is definitely worth a second viewing.

Robert's hands play an invisible piano that wafts you back to a time when men slipped down from the sky on an anchor; a time before expressions like "quality of care is now our primary concern" existed. Why, the clock itself had yet to be invented. Like Dr Who, Robert materialises in a remote period but, unlike him, he does not meddle in its affairs. He watches medieval villagers go about their business. He speaks quietly so as not to disturb them. Later, he has to speak loudly to be heard above a battle behind him.

Robert's theme is the disenchantment of the world. Before the cult of "transparency", life was thick with meaning. The beaver, maintained a bestiary, bit off his testicles to show the hunter that he had nothing the hunter wanted. Similarly, we can stop the devil in his tracks if we cut vice out of our lives.

At this point in history, natural and supernatural explanations peacefully coexist. Isidore of Seville knew the physical cause of a solar eclipse but he also believed it had a spiritual significance. All this begins to change with the expansion of trade, the growth of towns and war. The conquest in 1085 of Toledo, that great centre of Islamic art and science, is the decisive moment. Aristotle's physics and Muslim mathematics challenge the Christian understanding of the universe. All is now inquiry and experiment. Imagine it. The light of the indivisible God split by a prism.

Thomas Aquinas set himself the task of reconciling reason and revelation. He didn't succeed. His Summa Theologica was unfinished when he died. A monk who copied out the second book described it as "very long, very verbose and very tedious". Clearly, Heaven's splendour was fading.

But the Earth has marvels of its own. Marco Polo is stunned by the sights of the East. On his deathbed he declares he could not tell half of what he saw for fear of not being believed. His travels inspire Christopher Columbus to set sail for this fabulous land but instead he discovers America - the moment, says Robert, that the modern age begins. It calls forth a new kind of man: the administrator.

First, though, the 19th-century adventurer. James Glaisher hired a hot-air balloon to measure the quantities of moisture in the atmosphere (Rain, BBC Two, Wednesday 29 April 9pm). At five miles up, he passed out. His companion, the aeronaut Henry Coxwell, was paralysed with cold. His hands had turned black. And so he used his teeth to open the gas valve, causing the balloon to descend rapidly.

Glaisher was one of many who advanced the science of meteorology. George James Symons kept meticulous records of rainfall throughout Britain. Luke Howard had his head in the clouds and named them. Rain seemed gentler in the age of Dickens. Now it pours hard and heavy, but not enough to wash away the injustices endured by Margaret and her like.

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