Essays: Getting away with murder |
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Getting away with murder

HIBERNATION was the subject of a Horizon (BBC2) called ‘The Big Sleep’. If waking up had been the subject the programme would probably have been called ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’.

In the Land of the Media, the habit of pinching famous titles is by now firmly ingrained. There was a time when media people made at least an attempt at originality, straining their tiny imaginations to produce variants of ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ and ‘Have Gun Will Travel.’ An article or a programme would be called ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Telephone Operator’ or ‘Have Eggs Will Omelette.’ It was dull, but it wasn’t outright theft. Calling a programme on hibernation ‘The Big Sleep’ is outright theft.

The level of invention having revealed itself to be so low, it was not surprising that the moral sense was low as well. The programme asked no questions about the ethics of what the scientists were up to. It did not even seem to be aware that questions of ethics might be raised. It just nodded its silly head admiringly while the men in the white coats got on with the job.

Animals, it appears, have been helping us in our attempts to understand hibernation. ‘A sedated catheter,’ crooned the soothing voice-over, ‘is inserted into the sleeping bear’s bladder.’ Presumably the voice-over meant that it was the bear that would not feel the catheter, and not the catheter that would not feel the bear. This was by no means an easy presumption, however, considering what has been happening to other animals. Not only have bears been helping us. Squirrels and rats have been helping us too.

Dr Beckman was shown experimenting on a squirrel, whose entire brain was exposed to view under a transparent cap. ‘The animal has had the top of its skull surgically replaced,’ murmured the voice-over, ‘so that it can be clamped firmly into Beckman’s apparatus.’ One’s plans to clamp Dr Beckman into an apparatus of one’s own devising were interrupted by an assurance that ‘there are no nerves in the brain itself.’ This was a relief. It was safe to assume, then, that the squirrel did not mind the experiment at all. Later on it could always wear a little beret.

Dr Swan operated on a rat. In my notes it says that Dr Rat operated on swan, but I’m afraid I was merely doodling to get my eyes off the screen. ‘Swan,’ breathed the ever-attentive voice-over, ‘is about to lift the still-beating heart out of a decapitated rat.’ After Swan had accomplished this feat, he clamped the still-beating heart into his apparatus. ‘The rat heart continues to beat for three hours.’ We were assured that the research was so important that Dr Swan has devoted his life to it. Elsewhere in the laboratory, the rat’s head was no doubt moved to hear this.

About ten years back a craze developed among the psychologists for studying something called REM sleep. Your eyeballs move when you dream. The psychologists used up a lot of animals while examining the implications of this fact. What the psychologists found out from the animals was nothing beside what the animals found out from the psychologists. The cats, in particular, found out that the average psychologist is capable of practically anything. In reputable American universities cats were kept awake indefinitely by being made to stand on bricks surrounded by water.

The results yielded by this kind of research might or might not be useful, but there can be no doubt about the usefulness of what we learn about the researchers. Protected by the otherwise valuable conventions of free inquiry, a scientist is armed even against the disapproval of his own colleagues. If he is a butcher — and the less original he is, the more likely he is to be cruel — there is nothing to stop him except the laws of the land. It follows inexorably that if the laws of the land change, the pretensions of scientific research change with them. Whatever is not forbidden will be done.

In a World in Action (Granada) called ‘The Hunt for Dr Mengele’ (happily it was not called either ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Nutter’ or ‘Have False Passport, Will Hide Out in South America’) there were films and stills from the concentration camps to show what Nazi scientific research was like. A law unto himself in Auschwitz, Josef Mengele had a marvellous opportunity to prove scientifically that the Jews were an inferior breed. He particularly favoured experiments on twin children, since one child could be preserved as a control while the other was cut up, often alive.

There is no reason to suppose that Mengele was particularly nuts. Within recent years, government research funds in this country have been used to prove, among other things, that a cat with a severed spinal column will have trouble landing on its feet when dropped from a certain height. How can we be sure that a man capable of doing such a thing to a cat would not do the same sort of thing to a human being if he were allowed to? How can he be sure? The true villains are the men who do the allowing. Unfortunately most of the Nazi hierarchs cheated justice. Which does not mean, of course, that their devoted minions should be allowed to cheat it as well.

So far Mengele has got away with it. He is holed up snugly in Paraguay, protected by that country’s obscene government and by his own financial resources. On the strength of this programme, the greatest danger he runs is of being bored to death by his terrible friends. ‘World in Action’ took a lot of risks but were scarcely likely to succeed where the Israeli agents had failed.

In The World About Us (BBC2) the astonishing Clare Francis sailed around the world. She was lucky in being able to film her own achievement. Poor Schubert has had to rely on his admirers, with results exemplified by A Winter’s Journey (BBC2), one of the worst arts programmes I have ever seen. A little classic of misinformation, it conveyed the impression that Schubert was a tragic, doomed rebel ‘against the bourgeois world.’ He was, on the contrary, bourgeois to the roots and a byword for merriment. That lager commercial — the one in which Schubert is tempted off to the pub, leaving his symphony unfinished — seemed a probing analysis by comparison.

‘Do you think I’m sex?’ sang Rod Stewart on Top of the Pops (BBC1). In the course of time it became clear, or at any rate less unclear, that this was Rod’s way of asking whether we thought he was sexy. Unless we thought he was sex, he would not be hap, and would eventually go craze.

The Observer, 26th November 1978

[ This piece also appears in The Crystal Bucket ]