Radio review: no cure for the common hospital crisis

The A&E trolley crisis has a wearily familiar sound. A bit like Joe Jackson’s Leonard Cohen tapes

“Leonard Cohen: His Part in My Victory”: Joe Jackson interviews the great man. Photograph: RTÉ

“Leonard Cohen: His Part in My Victory”: Joe Jackson interviews the great man. Photograph: RTÉ


In a week when presenters such as Sean O’Rourke and Pat Kenny fill out airtime with panel discussions on what to expect in 2017, it turns out we should have seen the biggest story of the new year coming. That, at least, is the message emerging from coverage of the hospital trolleys crisis. Across the board, consultants’ accounts of patients lying on gurneys in corridors are accompanied by statements that the whole sorry situation was entirely foreseeable.

On Today with Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Dr Jim Gray of Tallaght Hospital wearily notes that “there’s a predictability here”. Earlier, on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Dr Fergal Hickey of Sligo University Hospital dismisses Health Minister Simon Harris’s assertion that the surge in A&E admissions was unexpected: “To suggest this is unpredictable or unprecedented is simply nonsense.”

There’s no need for a crystal ball when the core problem, according to these frontline staff, is simple – there aren’t enough hospital beds. When Hickey pops up again on The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), he says Ireland has far fewer beds per head than average for the developed world. Last year, he adds, more than 90,000 patients had their hospital care delivered to them on trolleys, equal to the population of Limerick city. It’s enough to make you dive back under the covers in terror – assuming you have a bed to begin with.

Perhaps the most dispiriting statement on the matter comes from Prof Anthony Staines of DCU, who tells Kenny that “they closed a scad of hospital beds in the 1970s and 1980s and the system hasn’t recovered from that”.

Still, before one starts harking back wistfully to that bygone era, it’s worth listening to Sure ‘Twas Better (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) as a corrective to any incipient nostalgia. Presented by Will Hanafin, the programme features archive audio clips from the 1970s on topics such as sex education and gay rights, which serve as a handy guide to how attitudes have changed since.

In one excerpt, Doireann Ní Bhriain interviews young Dublin men who admit to a startling lack of knowledge about the reproductive act, never mind women’s physiology. Asked why he had never spoken to his parents about these things, one man replies that he would have got a belt had he inquired.

Elsewhere, a young David Norris argues for the decriminalisation of homosexuality with the late Fianna Fáil TD Noel Davern. It’s not an edifying spectacle. Callers queue up to denounce homosexuality, or “sodomy”, as “unnatural”, while Davern doesn’t even bother pronouncing Norris’s name correctly.

For all that, a slightly smug tone runs through the programme, as comedian Colm O’Regan and writer Jules Coll comment on each clip in a condescending manner that only hindsight allows. “I am so glad times have changed because that makes me really sad,” says Coll after the Norris item.

While her upset at the intolerant mindset on show is natural, it’s more difficult to share her certainty that things have automatically improved in our era of “freedom”, as opposed to the previous era when “there were a lot of rules and regulations”.

Likewise, the mockery of old adverts is a bit obvious, not to say tedious. Given how quickly advertising fashions change, laughing at the would-be sophistication of products such as Cinzano vermouth and Ritmeester Dutch cigars is like shooting fish in a barrel: one suspects the self-conscious irony of so much current advertising will provide an even more target-rich environment for future observers.

There’s the odd telling observation, as when O’Regan remarks that those who look back fondly on the good old days tend to be from the societal mainstream and not ones who were shunned as outsiders.

Perhaps that’s the most to be expected from what is essentially a slice of bank-holiday whimsy. That the voices from the past provide much more interest than those passing judgment on them tells its own story, however.

In a similar vein, there’s no need to embellish the raw material at the heart of The Joe Jackson Tapes Revisited: Leonard Cohen (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday), if indeed we need to hear it at all. The tapes in question are cassettes from interviews conducted by Jackson for Hot Press magazine in the 1980s, and the order of the names in the portentous programme title is no accident. Fans of Cohen may enjoy hearing him meditate on his work in his mellifluous baritone voice, but they hear a great deal more from – and about – Joe Jackson.

For the most part, the actual interview tapes take a back seat to Jackson’s commentary. Instead, the journalist explains why he asked the questions he did, with frequent reference to his past life, from his poetic efforts to his being “betrayed by my first girlfriend”. Even when Cohen is heard, it is frequently in a supporting role to Jackson, whether urging the journalist to submit a manuscript for publication or assuring him that “it was a pleasure talking to you”.

The end result is by turns frustrating and preposterous. There are some fleeting glimpses into Cohen’s creative process, but a more accurate title might be “Leonard Cohen: His Part in My Victory”, to paraphrase the name of Spike Milligan’s third wartime memoir.

“You have to remember these tapes were made for print rather than broadcast,” Jackson remarks at one point. Well, he said it.

Radio Moment of the Week: Special relationship – Huh!
Slips of the tongue are a fact of life in live broadcasting, but occasionally they tell a truth that Freud would be proud of. Presenting the It Says in the Papers slot on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1) on Thursday, Carol Murphy comments on a newspaper report over fears of the political crisis in Northern Ireland could further destabilise Brexit negotiations, with the governing executive ceding power to Westminster. Or as Murphy says, “elections could lead to control being handed back to Washington”.

The UK may sometimes be called the 51st State, but even post-Brexit, it surely hasn’t come to that yet?

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