THERE IS a magnificent art museum in Bruges, one of whose galleries is
dedicated to images of ghastly martyrdoms. Here is St Catherine crushed under
the wheel, there St Laurence charred against the griddle.
I visited it as a child in the company of many other fascinated and
bloodthirsty schoolboys, and remember our matron turning to the picture of a
pious saint having his skin removed, and explaining that this image was not
wholly accurate: human skin didn’t come off quite as easily as the artist had
depicted. It seemed a reasonable comment at the time, but now sounds chilling.
Chilling is also an apt description for a new Centre for the Mind in Oxford
dedicated to questioning what goes through the mind of a martyr in his or her
death throes. Does intense and consuming belief in a god or cause ameliorate
On Leading Edge (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) we heard from
Baroness Greenfield, who is in charge of the centre, about this and other
experiments that aim to question not the validity of belief, but the mechanisms
by which it operates.
Contrary to reports in the press, the centre is not going to wire up human
guinea pigs and apply hot chilli paste to their skin. It is reluctant to say
what it is going to do, because prior knowledge of the process by the subject
might interfere with the experiment; or, in other words, it’ll spoil the
But, if you want a clue, look to the United States, where a recent
experiment put a group of nuns on intravenous drips. They were asked to
meditate, and when they reached the point of transcendent “oneness” with God,
they pressed a button that filled their bloodstream with a harmless dye to tell
which bits of the brain were involved in prayer.
It’s the sort of experiment you’d expect to take place in the state-funded
laboratory of some unreconstructed socialist dictatorship. Which parts of the
brain light up when exposed to party propaganda? No doubt somewhere in darkest
North Korea, such things go on. Tony Plett’s series The Great Leader,
the Dear Leader and the Tour Leader (Radio 4, Mondays) did little to
de-mystify one of the most isolated nations on earth.
But his programmes were enthralling and entertaining. We were introduced to
Nicholas Bonner, a former landscape architect from Cheshire, who had upped
sticks to Beijing to become the only tour operator offering trips into North
A jovial fellow, Mr Bonner takes on the endless frustrations of bureaucracy
with great bonhomie, even when the first attempt at a tour ends up as a
day-trip to a dismal border town. But Bonner’s intrepid travellers behave as if
they would be thrilled by anything, provided it happens within North Korea.
The “sites” consist of a visit to the opera — Kim-il Sung wrote many that
celebrate the struggle for independence against Japan — a museum of gifts given
by various dodgy regimes to Kim Jong-il, and, curiously, a Buddhist temple
where the resident monks praise the courage, generosity and perspicacity of the
On the basis that learning about other cultures is always a good thing,
Faith to Faith (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) was also a good thing.
In the first of three programmes, in which believers from across the religious
divides spend time in each other’s community, we met a young Muslim, Samina,
and Jenny, who belongs to a lively Pentecostal church. Their experiences were
recorded as audio diaries, but the intimacy this might have provided simply
deadened the programme. Without doubt a worthy programme, but one that needed
fiery and articulate protagonists.