Kate Chisholm

Pulling power | 19 May 2016

Plus: in Science Stories, Naomi Alderman claims Florence Nightingale was 'a shocking nurse', driven by ambition. And how many of you, like me, have had enough of the Archers?

Pulling power | 19 May 2016
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Monday’s ‘World on the Move Day’ on Radio 4 was a bold challenge to government policy and proof that radio is much the most flexible, the most accommodating, the most powerful medium when compared with TV. Without much ado, the day’s planned schedule was squeezed, manipulated, overturned to allow the team behind the Today programme to mastermind a live discussion throughout the day about the migration issue, as if to say to the government, here’s what people not just in the UK but from around the world care about. Let’s listen to them and see what solutions they might have to offer.

Angelina Jolie Pitt was the biggest prize as she took over the You and Yours slot to lead a live lunchtime debate on Radio 4 and the World Service that looked beyond the overcrowded boats in the Mediterranean and the homeless refugees queuing up on the borders of the EU to the migrants who have already arrived but not settled and to the reluctant hosts themselves who are not always so welcoming or accommodating. Why did she choose to use this forum? Because it gave her immediate access to a global audience. But not only that. She knows that speaking on the BBC gives her an authority, a cachet that surpasses her own glamour. Ponder that, Mr Whittingdale.

The BBC’s pulling power depends on its back story, those 90 years of producing programmes like Science Stories, Radio 4’s attempt to breathe life into areas of knowledge that for many are offputting or misunderstood. On Wednesday night Naomi Alderman looked at the myths about Florence Nightingale, the lady with the lamp, forever imagined as the ultimate nurse, gentle, self-effacing, a vision of charity in her nun-like habit. Nonsense, said Alderman. Even her own sister, Parthenope, thought Florence was ‘a shocking nurse’, driven not by compassion but by ambition. She was an intellectual, who aged nine was writing letters to her mother in French and at 16 worked into the night on her Greek homework.

When she arrived at Scutari on the outskirts of Istanbul, less than a fortnight after the horrors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, she was shocked not so much by the stench of blood, the terrible wounds, the inhumanity she witnessed, but by the chaos, the lack of any organisation, the way that individual deaths were not even recorded. What drove her to work so hard was not so much her desire to relieve that suffering but to take note of it, quantify it, compile detailed lists about it. Her legacy has nothing to do with lamps and veils, said Alderman, but instead should be looked for in the thousands of pages of lists, columns, tables she compiled and published in the years that followed her experience in the Crimea.

‘Her numbers screamed out for change,’ said Alderman, who as a successful novelist knows how to thread her words together, spinning a web that attracts and then holds our attention. ‘Her columns of figures spoke as loudly as the cries of pain of the soldiers,’ because Nightingale created from them beautifully coloured pie charts. These showed visually and most powerfully that there were more deaths from poor sanitation at Scutari than battle wounds. Alderman spoke with such passion about the brilliant effectiveness of these diagrams that she made Nightingale’s statistical obsessions as riveting as a narrative about her life.

I wonder how many Archers addicts have given up, no longer able to withstand the nightly dose of wailing and despair as Helen languishes in prison and Rob continues to flex his insidious authority. I’m off now for a fortnight and am so relieved to be getting away from Ambridge. So far I’ve stayed loyal, listening every night out of the creepy belief that in some way I’m supporting Helen and Henry just by being there. The slow burn of this storyline has worked brilliantly. Why else would I be so convinced that I need to help Helen, as if she really existed? But it’s disturbing too, worming its way each night deeper and deeper into my thoughts, and I’m not sure I can take it any more.

Now the soon-to-be-departed editor Sean O’Connor has announced that he’s leaving behind him an even nastier legacy, which will take even longer to unfold, and inspired this time by Shakespeare, no less. That dastardly misogynist Brian is intending to replace Adam (his stepson) as heir to Home Farm with his love-child Ruairi when he reaches 18 (five years to go). It’s too much, far too much.