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Doctor’s challenge

03 July 2015


NOT many people would describe dementia as a gift; but Jennifer Bute is not an ordinary dementia sufferer, if such a thing exists. As a former GP, her grasp of the challenges with which she is confronted is greater than most; and the relish with which she engages others with them is bracing.

When she revealed her diagnosis to friends and family, it came accompanied with leaflets on the subject of dementia. Dr Bute's illness provided her with the perfect opportunity to launch her own medical-awareness campaign.

As we heard in The Doctor's Dementia (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), Dr Bute is now giving talks on the subject. The underlying message is simple: it is not the end of the world. But when the symptoms of an apocalyptic collapse are so plenteous, this is not an easy message to preach.

In Dr Bute's case, these include hallucinations - episodes when she forgets, for instance, that someone else is no longer a child; and an episode when she cooked all her food shopping, but omitted the unpacking stage. It was only the sound of exploding bananas that brought her to her senses.

Dr Bute was a charming guide through these adversities. The faults with this programme were not of her making. Since she herself identified the Church as an important part of her life, it would have been instructive to hear more about the nature of her faith. I could also have done without the clunking clichés: in particular, the simpering piano music that, like the swarming bees of Dr Bute's hallucinations, is as annoying as it is predictable.

Similarly, in The Listening Project (Radio 4 weekdays), the wistful tinkle of a piano is never far away; but all is forgiven when you hear exchanges as powerful of that of Pam and Ken (Wednesday of last week).

While the prevailing sensation left by an episode of this now well-established strand of bite-sized conversations is of the heart being warmed at the fire of human kindness, one is often reminded of the bitter coldness at one's back. Thus, Pam appears to have remained a decent and loving wife and mother, despite the appalling behaviour of her parents when she married out of Orthodox Judaism.

The central scene in this reminiscence is cinematic in its horror: Pam greets her mother in the street, but she declaims in reply: "Who are you? I don't know this woman." Both parents died early, leaving a legacy of guilt unredeemed; and a lifetime of conversations such as this.

You could imagine the scene recounted a different way - the focal point not of tragedy, but comedy. Kate Fox's comedy The Price of Happiness: A big white wedding (Radio 4, Sunday) arose from that same disjunction between the expectations of others and the pull of one's own desires. Kate was not going to have a big white wedding; instead, it was a bring-your-own-food-to-the-lighthouse affair, a plan marred only by a miscalculation of the tides.

Quirky as her own tastes are, her show demonstrated the old adage that there's nowt so queer as folk; witness the audience contributor whose dream wedding would be attended by seagulls in dickie bows.

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