Essays: Heart of the matter |
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Heart of the matter

SEX CHANGES and organ transplants dominated the week. I gave the sex changes a miss, on the grounds that what’s right for some of us leaves others of us crossing and uncrossing our legs while whistling nervously. Organ transplants, however, are of vital interest to all.

You never know when you might need a new heart. The question arises, however, of how the doctors know that the donor is dead. In Panorama (BBC1) we were shown the tests that the donor is given when he is wheeled into the hospital. Iced water is dripped into his ear. Does he flinch? A wisp of cotton wool is brushed against his eyeball. Does he blink? If six of these tests all come up with a zero reaction, the donor is considered dead and is immediately raided for his kidneys, his heart, or whatever is required by the patient currently scheduled to be granted a new lease of life.

As a layman I was hugely impressed by the fastidiousness of the doctors concerned. My only doubts arose from the fact that I once knew a girl who would have shown no reaction to any of those six tests or another six like them. Her name was Kerry Mills and I suppose that she is now Australia’s Federal Minister for Education or something like that, but at the time I am talking about she was twelve years old and had volunteered as a guinea-pig for a clinical case study I was compiling as part of my psychology course at Sydney University. Everything I did to her produced no result whatever. When I tapped her knee there was no reflex. Nothing.

‘The donor’s heart has finally stopped,’ said the voice-over. ‘If he wasn’t dead when he was wheeled into the theatre, he certainly is now.’ This part went without saying, since they had already taken some bits out of him. But what if he had been alive when they wheeled him into the theatre and he hadn’t been able to tell them? I stress that this is a personal worry. People related to donors past and present are right to have confidence in medical opinion. When one makes ill-timed jokes about Donor’s Club cards and donor kebab, one is well aware that a nagging insecurity is finding verbal expression.

Goodbye Gutenberg deserved its repeat. Here was a vision of the fully computerised future, when all the electronic machines in the world will be linked up and our bodies will consist entirely of transplants. There is nothing more thought-provoking than the spectacle of a Japanese engineer and a Japanese computer having a long conversation in Japanese. The Japanese are able to give their machines voices only because the Japanese language, though fiendishly complicated when written down, consists of a relatively simple set of sounds when spoken. English has thousands of sounds and so will be much more difficult to render digitally. This particularly applies to Brian Walden, presenter of the redoubtable Weekend World (LWT), which last weekend illuminatingly analysed the economy. Nor would Eddie Waring be an easy subject.

On World of Sport (LWT) there was motorcycle jumping. The venue was Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. As a venue for motorcycle jumping, Exhibition Stadium is perhaps not ideal. There is no room for a take-off run, so a track has to be laid up the tiers of seats all the way to the high rim of the stadium. This enables the motorcyclist to rush downwards at terrific speed and leap into the air. Unfortunately there is very little room for him to stop in after a successful landing. A few straw bales were provided to soften the potential resistance of what looked like a large toilet.

As has become common with trash sports, there was a welter of expert commentary. ‘If you’re going too fast,’ one commentator explained, ‘you’re gonna overjump the ramp.’ He didn’t need to add that if you’re going too slow you’re gonna break every bone in your body. Another commentator interviewed the star jumper, whose name was Gary. This, too, has now become a trash-sport basic: the pre-interview, usually complemented by a post-interview conducted either on the victory dais or in the ambulance. ‘Gary, the wind’s gusting 25 m.p.h. How’s it gonna fectya?’ Gary politely declined to point out that the wind wasn’t gonna fect him half as much as the prospect of taking a nose dive into a toilet while riding a motorcycle.

Gary having by some miracle survived the jump, the next man at the top of the track was Karel Soucek, described as ‘a latterday knight who travels the world seeking adventure — a strange and solitary man.’ Karel hurtled down the track, up the ramp and into space. His front wheel was too high. ‘He’s in trouble.’ Karel’s front wheel was by now directly above the back wheel, so there was nothing he could do except let go and land on his behind at 80 m.p.h. ‘He’s up! He’s walking away from that crash. Ken, I can’t believe he’s walking away from the crash.’ But with professional motorcycle jumpers at this level only one thing counts — making it to the post-interview. ‘I’m glad,’ grunted Karel, ‘I din hurt myself.’

Gary was trying to break his world record of 176 feet, but the wind and the proximity of the toilet put him off. The commentators later revealed, however, that during a subsequent engagement at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas Gary succeeded in breaking both his legs while attempting to jump the fountains. ‘We can only wish him a speedy recovery.’

Naked armpits were the most arresting sartorial feature at this year’s UK Disco Championships (Thames). Even those dancers whose costumes had sleeves still contrived to leave their armpits bare. Why they should have done this was a mystery, but an even bigger mystery was how the satin trousers stood the strain. If there were some give in the trousers their survival would be easier to explain. But there isn’t room for a flea in there.

The most inventive dancer was Clive Smith from Bristol, who does a death-defying routine which he climaxes by grabbing one of his own feet and flinging it at the roof. The inevitable result is that he strikes the floor violently with his head, but by some strange method of self-discipline he seems to be prepared for this, and comes up dancing.

Elton John was the first subject in a new series called Best of British (BBC1) which after this can only go up. Paul Gambaccini interviewed Elton at his palatial home. Elton explained that tunes just come to him at dizzy speed and that if he hasn’t written the song in twenty minutes he shelves it. Not even Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, we were told, always inspired him. Paul tried Elton out on what was described as a poem by John Donne. Actually it was a fragment of a sermon by John Donne, but neither of them noticed. Elton found a tune for it instantly. ‘No man is an island,’ he wailed.

Kate Nelligan didn’t get to bed with the German POW in the first episode of Forgive Our Foolish Ways (BBC1). Presumably she will in the second episode. Her missing husband will turn up alive in the third episode and there will be hell to pay in the fourth episode. There is a certain predictability about the enterprise, but perhaps it will stun us yet.

The Observer, 19th October 1980
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]