PG Wodehouse Got It Right

PG Wodehouse’s quip about it being easy to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine probably counts a dinner party bigotry these days. But being married to a Scot I reckon I’m permitted a bit of licence and besides it’s true. At least according to a revelatory documentary called The Glasgow Effect, in which doctors and sociologists analysed just what it is about the city that makes people die younger. Presenter Iain Macwhirter had the idea when he was diagnosed with heart disease. Despite exercising, not smoking, and possessing good genes he was told “Scottish men just get heart disease”. Was there, perhaps “something dark in the character of the city” he wondered. Can you, effectively, die of geography?

One obvious culprit is industrial collapse, but compared with Manchester and Liverpool, which also suffered industrial decline, premature mortality is 30 per cent higher in Glasgow. Perhaps, the programme suggested, Glasgow is in some way lacking in life skills. “We’re not very good at being positive to one another. Negative relationships between men and women go back generations and with terrible housing who could blame them for wanting to go to the pub?” said one sociologist. Glaswegians suffer from the “lashing out response” when stressed added a GP, whereas people in Liverpool tend to verbalise their response with humour. Dr Christine Goodall, an oral surgery consultant who gets to treat all the stab wounds, said, “I think there’s something about the west of Scotland personality. We’re not terribly good at dealing with confrontation and young men are not inclined to walk away but stand up and fight.” Then there’s the problem of gang violence. According to Chris Kerr from Easterhouse, job prospects are stunted by the clan mentality. “Young people are very insular and start defending their area in gangs, so when they’re 19 or 20 and they want to move on they can’t even get a bus into the city because it involves crossing five areas.”

Part of the excellence of this programme was the way that it rallied a number of different disciplines – medicine, sociology, psychology – to reach its conclusions. The new Radio 4 controller Gwyneth Williams has announced one of her first changes will be a new weekly science slot at 9am, (by axing Taking a Stand, On the Ropes, The Choice and Between Ourselves) so let’s hope this multi-disciplinary approach will continue.

So to the archetypal Englishman, Billy Bragg, who gave a typically wry and witty interview to Tom Robinson on 6 Music. He admitted blagging his way into his first record company. “They said ‘Are you the guy who’s come to tune the television?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ I did it, it wasn’t that hard. Sorted me out a treat.” The same kind of chutzpah came in handy when he was trying to get his songs played by John Peel. “I’d left my albums and I was listening to him and he said ‘I’ll do anything for a mushroom biriani’ so I went down found a Indian takeaway, took it to Broadcasting House, and hour later John played The Milk Of Human Kindness at the wrong speed.”

Life skills medal of the week, however, has to go to 90 year old Corrie star Betty Driver, whose outstanding Desert Island Discs should be compulsory listening in citizenship classes or wherever children are prepared for adulthood under Michael Gove’s new curriculum. Bullied by a domineering stage mother, the young Betty became a cash cow for an uncaring family, and endured a miserable marriage. But expertly steered by Kirsty Young she emerged as a generous spirit, with a sharp sense of humour and a delicious laugh. Who else would apologise for choosing a perfectly lovely disc of herself singing by saying, “Ooh I can’t bear it. I sound like an old tin can!”.