Essays: Bees with PhDs |
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Bees with PhDs

IN Survival (Anglia) we saw a model of the society we will presumably need to evolve if we are to get out of our present impasse. It was a beehive, filmed from inside by the remarkable Oxford Scientific Films unit. The bees never stop work for a single moment. No strikes or negotiations. Tote that pollen. Lift that cell.

A drone which had ceased to be useful was efficiently stung to death by a worker: no passengers. An invading wasp was trapped in the vestibule of the hive by a posse of guards and belaboured from all sides until one of the defenders stung it in the vulnerable spot between thorax and abdomen: no immigrants. With the lens poked right in amongst the action, each bee’s ceaseless activity looked so intricately complicated it was hard to convince yourself that it was all instinctive. A labour force composed entirely of Stakhanovites with PhDs, the swarm toiled on, dedicated forever to the task of sweetening our breakfast toast while helping flowers to screw each other at long range.

Getaway (BBC2) was about dogs. Dogs, I think, are in every way less edifying than bees, which do not foul the footpath end seldom attack a human being unprovoked. (The only bee that ever stung the present reviewer almost killed him, but even that bout of pain-streaked delirium was preferable to having had his right foot ingested — and, mercifully, regurgitated — by a mad cattle-dog in 1945.) The dogs in question were a specially bred species of racing hound, designed to outrun one another while brainlessly trailing a bag of aniseed up hill, down dale, and over stile. With their pelts shaved close for speed and their diet confined to prime protein and sherry, the hounds are as pampered as a prize marrow. So silken are their skins that they open up like a trout if they misjudge a barbed-wire fence.

Having not an ounce of fat to keep them warm, the precious creatures lounge about in fur coats comparing manicures while waiting for the off. Crazed owners refer to their snooty pooches as ‘the chap on the other end of the lead’ and when the dogs are racing cry out things like ‘Hagha! Hagha!’ and ‘Haagheeyaaaagh!’ Bitter experience has taught me to steer clear of sporting types emitting weird cries, but these yo-yos seemed reasonably gentle. The prize money was low and expertise appeared to be its own satisfaction, the main aim being to breed a dog which would hold the trail like a tram and look like Natalie Wood.

The sponsors have not yet moved in on hound-trailing, but the way they have battened on the horses is a portent. In the past week of show-jumping, the BBC, nominally dedicated to keeping the hucksters out of your living-room, brought us the Calor Gas International Championship, the Radio Rentals Trophy, the Courvoisier Cognac VSOP Stakes and the Courvoisier Cognac Supreme Championship. Most of these events would not exist without sponsorship, and the sponsorship would not be there unless the BBC read out the sponsor’s name at regular intervals and printed it in the Radio Times. So the BBC is on the horns of dilemma.

With the numinous outline of spoon-bending Uri barely faded from our screens, The Frost Interview (BBC2) regaled us with yet another boy psychic. This new avatar was called Matthew Manning, and he was in the Spiritualism business. David told us gravely that Matthew was 19 years old, ‘author of a book,’ and endorsed by some professor or other as the most gifted thing of his kind in the western world. Matthew recounted stories of his childhood, when the furniture used to rearrange itself whenever he was around. Wardrobes moved. A china ornament inexplicably changed position. Unsolicited books arrived. The headmaster of Matthew’s old school ‘didn’t actually witness anything myself,’ but was satisfied that something was up. Poltergeists, it seemed. were aroused to a frenzy of communication by Matthew’s mere presence. To placate them, Matthew took up automatic writing. Some of his letters were in other languages. One of them was from Sir Stafford Cripps. David showed us this letter, pointing out that it strongly resembled a letter from Sir Stafford Cripps.

Among the presiding spirits in control of Matthew’s handwriting is one Dr Penn, who does diagnoses on the basis of people’s birthdays. David collected some birthdays from the audience and Dr Penn did his number. The first diagnosis was a bad back and a kidney malfunction. The owner of the birthday stood up and revealed that, yes, she had had a bad back, combined with a numb feeling at the base of the spine! David encouraged us to be astonished by this. The second diagnosis was of a skin complaint and lymphatic glands affected by white corpuscle imbalance. This time the patient, another lady, said none of it was true. David was somewhat discomforted, but Matthew didn’t turn a hair. When Dr Penn was wrong, he said, he was very wrong.

The very same British professor who authenticated Uri was on hand to pronounce Matthew genuine. Matthew’s brainwaves were examined and declared to be kind of eerie. The programme’s end-roller came up, accompanied by David’s usual burst of James Bond music, and a voice-over said that the girl who was supposed to have had the skin disease had just remembered she once suffered from athlete’s foot.

On Midweek (BBC1) Dr Gerhard Schiethart from Holland told Ludovic Kennedy how he had offed a terminal cancer patent. A BMA spokesman said that this sort of thing should not happen and had certainly never happened when he was around. Dr Saul Crown said it was absurd the way the BMA went on denying things. Ludo himself seemed well aware of the truth, which is that it happens all the time. Eric Newby on One Pair of Eyes (BBC2) told stirring tales of four-masted ships. The girls from Coronation Street (Granada) were still in Majorca, dancing to ‘Y viva España’ — which they could have been doing in Manchester. Aquarius (LWT) is halfway through a luxurious two-parter on the Artur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition in Israel. The music is delicious.

The Observer, 20th October 1974