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Radio review: MrBallen’s Medical Mysteries, The Evidence, and The Reinvention of Italy

24 November 2023

Twitter/X/MrBallen

MrBallen, aka John B. Ballen, promotes his latest podcast, MrBallen’s Medical Mysteries (Wondery podcasts, released Tuesdays)

MrBallen, aka John B. Ballen, promotes his latest podcast, MrBallen’s Medical Mysteries (Wondery podcasts, released Tuesdays)

THERE is a rhyme that I recall from my schooldays. It told of an unfortunate chemist, and its punchline was contained in the imperishable couplet: “For what he thought was H2O was H2SO4.” No more need be said of that fictional scenario, but it sprang to mind when I heard the latest of MrBallen’s Medical Mysteries (Wondery podcasts, released Tuesdays). In the case recounted here, from 1944, a chef at Oregon State Hospital kept the cockroach poison in the same store as his fruit and veg. Needless to say, it didn’t end well.

“MrBallen” is the professional moniker of John B. Allen, who has gained a following as a storyteller (his other podcasts include the unambiguously titled Strange, Dark and Mysterious Stories.) Jackanory this ain’t. In each episode, our narrator sits us down and recounts a grisly tale of medical mishaps and diagnostic drama. “It could happen to you,” the promotional material declares. But this is not a podcast dedicated to public-health education, although one would hope that lessons about the proper storage of sodium fluoride have been learned since the last war. Rather, it exemplifies a metastasised form of the True Crime genre, and is played — one has to admit, rather effectively — for thrills.

By comparison, there is a suitable decorum in Claudia Hammond’s new show, The Evidence (World Service, Sundays), in which a medical panel engages in open discussion in front of a live audience at the Wellcome Trust. This week, it was all about “putting the mouth back in the body”, which means not just that we should be flossing regularly, but that the mouth can tell us a great deal about other health conditions. Medical students do not spend enough time on the mouth; and, in this respect, traditional medicine is helpful in encouraging us to go back to basics — or orifices.

This was not a programme for the queasy, and I learned more than I wanted to about the various colours and textures of a diseased tongue. But the mouth can also tell us about conditions as various as diabetes and dementia. Fortunately, we were spared audience questions involving personal symptoms; otherwise, this might have turned into a medical version of Gardeners’ Question Time.

Italy — still less its population considered individually — does not, one would imagine, suffer from a national inferiority complex; and yet that it does was the conclusion drawn by one of Anne McElvoy’s interviewees in The Reinvention of Italy (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). The country is threatened by a “demographic winter”, as the birth rate falls to 1.24 — one of the lowest in Europe. Giorgia Meloni’s government has created a “ministry for the birth rate”. While her rhetoric is distinctly anti-immigration, she is quietly doing deals to allow legal migrants to help in particular areas of the economy.

McElvoy’s essay opened in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, presumably as a means of introducing the theme of tradition and change in Italian society. Yet, not even the great biblical frescoes of Giotto could elicit discussion of the Church’s place in whatever reinvention the country must undergo.

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