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In their own world

12 July 2013


OBJECTS from our past can have a transformative effect on our consciousness, in ways that mere words can never have. Handling a childhood toy, or tasting a favourite sweet brings on Proust's famous "madeleine effect": such distillation of memory and sensation is routinely used as a way of communicating with elderly people whose short-term memories are long since shattered.

But it can go much further than this, as we discovered in It's My Story: Living in the memory room (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). "Reminiscence centres", are commonplace in British towns and cities, but to get the fully immersive experience you need to go to Holland, and Hogewey dementia village, where residents are surrounded all the time by a confected environment recreated from their pasts.

Within the village there are 23 houses, organised into seven different social, cultural, and ethnic characters. There is a semblance of freedom, though in reality only one exit, through a reception area, and the behaviour of the dementia sufferers is indulged in a benign and protective manner. Thus, if a resident visits the supermarket and walks out with two trolleys of ice cream, it is not the responsibility of a frazzled family carer, but instead the goods are quietly spirited back to the shop, with no fuss.

The presenter, Kim Normanton, whose own mother was prone to bringing home expensive bags full of pick-and-mix sweets, was our guide to this peculiar fantasy world, and asked some of the questions that would trouble most of us. Most important, is it ethical to enfold dementia sufferers in an entirely fictitious environment? The answer is yes, perhaps, if that were the case; but the residents at Hogewey are not entirely out of touch. You might be losing your marbles, but you are never going to go back to powdered eggs.

Nostalgia of a different kind suffused Radio 3's tribute Going Underground (Thursday of last week), marking the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. As well as Jonathan Glancey's waxing lyrical about the perfect Platonic forms captured in the architecture of Arnos Grove station, we had buskers, writers, and the presenter, Petroc Trelawney, describing the noises of the trains, the air compressors, and the escalators in Wagnerian terms: leitmotifs resonating in symphonic counterpoint.

It was reassuring to hear some real music in the Underground, courtesy of the licensed busking scheme, and a recent policy of piping music into some stations. The latter started life as a means of scaring off loitering teenagers. Perhaps it was a private joke on the part of the station manager that the music we heard being piped on this occasion was the fight scene from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, an archetypal depiction of youthful delinquency.

A quick word in praise of the tennis commentary team on Radio Five Live, whose ability to observe, describe, and analyse the high-velocity exchanges at Wimbledon never ceases to amaze. Of all radio commentating assignments, tennis must be the most difficult, and they now need only to find a way to lift their voices over the screams of adoring Murray fans.

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