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Forgive and forget?

07 March 2014

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THOSE who find it difficult to forgive David Starkey for his many crimes against intellectual courtesy and tolerance may have found helpful the former historian's contribution to The Essay: Forgiveness (Radio 3, Monday to Friday of last week). One well-turned, provocative turn among five delivered by assorted writers, Starkey's contribution demonstrated a more reflective persona as he discussed Cordelia's forgiveness of Lear.

Neither Starkey nor the other contributors were great advocates of the forgetting part of forgiving, as expressed by Lear at the end of his life. To forget an evil actwas both unchristian and, Lady Neuberger said, un-Jewish. Indeed, Lady Neuberger's piece devoted itself to debunking the idea of "getting over it".

Of the attempts to define exactly what forgiveness is, Madeleine Bunting, to my mind, came closest. Forgiveness did not magic away pain and anger: it was a choice about how one went about dealing with a trauma. It was a process, a way of seeing the world and narrating a relationship with it. And the Lord's Prayer reminded us that we must gain forgiveness in order to forgive.

In our secular age, Bunting went on, that initial forgiveness was sought not from God, but from oneself, and could be delivered, at a price, through a variety of self-help therapies.

The fact that forgiveness requires compassion may lead us to speculate on the neurological infrastructure involved. As Science in Action (World Service, Thursday of last week) reported, there has been some advance in the study of autism, and its heavy predominance in men: a ratio of four to one, which increases to seven to one for Asperger's syndrome. In short, brain development in girls appears to be more robust than in boys, so that it takes more genetic mutations to affect the operation of a girl's brain than that of a boy's.

One might have expected there to be an Asperger's patient on the roster of Paul Whitehouse's series Nurse (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), since almost every other variety of psychiatric disorder features in this uneasy late-night drama. The premise of Nurse involves a fictional community psychiatric nurse doing her rounds; each 15-minute programme consists of a sequence of dramatic vignettes.

In last week's episode, we met Herbert, a gentleman of the old school, whose courteous discourse is suddenly cut short by filth. There is an Alzheimer's sufferer, a bipolar motor-mouth, and a Christian (it was not explained what else afflicted her).

Immediately unsettling is the sense that dramatic licence may topple into caricature, particularly since Nurse comes from the same team as delivered the mock phone-in show Down the Line, with its parade of eccentrics.

But the main problem with the format stems possibly from the opposite impulse, and a conscientiousness about mocking the vulnerable. For this is more scripted than Down the Line, and is delivered with an earnestness that never enables lift-off from the page.

If it is going to shift to a more mainstream slot, there is some work to be done.

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