Monday, August 2, 2010

Layer 338 . . . Tom Jones Revisited, More Music, Equal Opportunities, and Developing Talent

Further to Oxzen's recent musings about Tom Jones, the latest Observer had a whole page on the man, his life and his career, including the news that Praise & Blame has become Britain's best-selling album. At 70 Tom is the oldest male musician or singer to reach No 1 in Britain - taking over from Bob Dylan and his album Modern Times.

It's appalling when someone like Tom Jones is described as "not much good at school", which means only that he didn't do well "academically". What they're trying to say is that the pupil was a bit, or plenty, thick, when the reality is that the school was hopeless at finding someone's talents and developing them - and in fact the school never even tried to do so, which was probably the case.

Here's an example. My old secondary school is a school Listed by English Heritage. (My old Primary school is too, but that's another story). What that means is that it can't be mucked about, or its original form changed, which includes its outdoor areas. It had, and still has, a large number of games pitches, and a proper athletics area which includes facilities for both track and field events. In a school like that there's at least a possibility that some of its pupils will be seriously encouraged and enabled to do well in sports and athletics.

By way of contrast, a similar school built at roughly the same time on the opposite side of the city is not Listed. Some years ago at least 50% of its sports fields were sold off to a property development company, and those previously open areas and sports fields are now covered with bijou houses. So what kind of message does that give to the local community and its children about the value the school, or society in general, places on children's physical education, or encouragement for achievement in sports and athletics?

In this country we throw money at "elite" athletes whom we think might win medals in high profile competitions like the Euros and the Olympics, having identified those so-called elites from club competitions, but the reality is that most kids don't get any proper opportunities for proper coaching in a school context, so that only those who join clubs have sustained contact with trained coaches, facilties for practice, and the excitement of regular competition. It's not too difficult to guess which kids get to join the clubs outside of school, and have eager parents driving them to and from their clubs and competitions.

It's the same story with tennis, of course, which is why twats like Tim Henman and the odd character like Andrew Murray are Britain's sole high-achieving representatives at the Wimbledon championships, which are said to be the biggest and best tennis competition in the world. In some other countries even the smallest villages have decent public tennis courts.

It's somewhat different with music, since it's possible to own an instrument and become proficient at playing it through hours of practice at home, with or without lessons from paid professionals - not that this happens very often.

The crying shame, however, is that music as a school subject is on the whole taught in a tokenistic "academic" way and not thorough regular instrumental lessons by skilled teachers and tutors of musical instruments, except for a small minority of kids who have been picked out as having gifts and talents, or who get access to instrumental tuition because they have pushy parents, who probably, in addition, pay for private lessons.

It's not hard to imagine how much potential talent goes undiscovered and undeveloped, mainly because as a society we don't set out to develop it and don't fund such activities - leaving it to ambitious and dedicated parents to buy the instruments and the lessons if they want their children to have the joy of playing an instrument, either solo or in a band.

Because of this lack of opportunity most people in our society don't own an instrument, and have never known the pleasure it gives to play well and to play in bands, and we don't as a whole appreciate what developing musical talents does for children - especially those kids who find it hard to succeed and build their self-esteem through "academic" work.

Even if a child never does well enough and isn't talented enough to make and sell albums,  or perform in public, the pleasure that's to be had from playing an instrument, or being able to sing well, is incalculable. The number of undiscovered, frustrated and underachieving musicians in this country must be massive - with huge consequences for individuals, communities, and the country as a whole - both in terms of individual fulfillment and enjoyment of life and untapped commercial potential.

Just ask people like Wynton Marsalis what music does for the soul and the spirit. Many of us get some benefit from just listening to music. Being able to create and play music gives a whole other dimension.

Other countries see and do things differently. Schools in places like Japan, Korea and China set out to offer all kids, and not just the 'elites', a proper musical education - seeing it as integral to the development of character. It's the norm. It's not unusual.



Talented writers, whose books have been shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize, are apparently no longer writing about sex. So says an article by Tim Adams in the latest Observer. Mr Adams has in the past written extensively on this subject in Observer 'specials'.,,818295,00.htm,,1067744,00.html

Adams reminds us that DH Lawrence's 'Lady Chatterley's Lover', following its eventual publication in 1961, sold around two million copies.

So why are there no novelists writing about sex and human sexuality in the 21st Century? Surely the subject hasn't lost any of its interest? Surely novelists still have something to say about sex and relationships?

Apparently Andrew Motion thinks novelists are afraid to describe sexual encounters because they fear they'll end up being nominated for the Bad Sex Award. Quite right too - they've learnt a lesson that most descriptions of people having sex are rubbish. They're either stupidly full of inappropriate metaphors and similies, or they simply fail to convey the true essence of positive sexual experience. Quite possibly too many of our writers, who tend to live quite solitary lives, have had too little in the way of sublime, satisfying and fulfilling sex, and therefore find it difficult to say anything about it with an authentic voice that speaks of knowledge and wisdom.

However, it's not as though sex isn't a basic and integral part of most people's lives, since most people recognise that sex is rather wonderful, especially when you're young and prone to falling in love. What one might call transcendental sex is surely an essential part of a life well lived, since the urge and the instinct to have sex is hard-wired into all, or most, of us. And whilst the sex drive diminishes as one gets older, that doesn't mean that sex loses its potential to give pleasure and to provide an amazing intimate connection with those we most wish to be intimate with.

At the very least sex provides physical, emotional and spiritual release and stops us accumulating stress and tension to the point of exploding. Wilhelm Reich wrote about this decades ago in a book called The Function of the Orgasm.

DH Lawrence set out to tell the truth about sexual desire, and sexual needs. Lady Chatterley represents all women who have sexual needs but have great difficulty in expressing and satisfying those needs, thanks to personal inhibition and the restrictive conventions of society.

According to Tim Adams, Lawrence also set out to legitimise the word 'fuck'. "Lawrence had striven to cleanse it of its furtive, contemptuous and expletive connotations, and to use it 'in the most simple, natural way: one fucks'."


Sex and the City told stories of New York women fucking their way through life in a search for Mr Right, so that they could settle down and live happily ever after.

There was a three page article in yesterday's Observer - in the New Review section - which also dealt with writing about sex. In particular, with women writing about sex.

True confessions in new women's lit

Candace Bushnell's Sex and the City columns inspired some dire chick lit, but also a generation of more serious young writers

The piece takes issue with the whole genre of chick lit and so-called 'confessional' writing, which has no artistic merit and does nothing more than entertain and titillate. Of course it also makes a hell of a lot of money from people who are desperate for a bit of entertainment and titillation.

As for serious writing about sex and relationships . . .

"For all that she might get annoyed by those high-heeled women on the sidewalk, without Sex and the City, there would arguably have been no Emily Gould. The 28-year-old has just published her first confessional memoir, And The Heart Says Whatever. In 11 pithily written essays, Gould, a former co-editor of the Gawker gossip website, charts her experiences as a young adult in New York, working in jobs she loathes, facing up to failed relationships and going to parties attended by people she dislikes. Her debut has already attracted praise from the likes of Jonathan Franzen, while Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of American Wife, has hailed it as a modern-day version of The Bell Jar. Gould is one of a new generation of female confessional writers who, according to Sittenfeld, "speak, in our often phoney and cheesy culture, to the truths of women's lives".

"Gould decided "very consciously to let go of whether or not anyone likes me". In And the Heart Says Whatever, she deliberately resists the urge to mould each story along a neat, narrative arc with a cleverly packaged ending. "I don't tie everything into a little bow and say: 'That's what I've learned'," she explains. "I think a lot of women writers go around apologising, saying: 'Oh stupid me, oh the goofy things I did when I was young and didn't know any better' but I set out specifically not to do that… I just want it to be OK for women to be complete people, to have sides to themselves that aren't whitewashed or palatable."

Meghan Daum, another of this new wave of serious 'alternative' writers who focus on sex and relationships, apparently

"sees her writing as a corrective to the tradition of women's magazines that talk about relationships, diet or body image in a redemptive fashion, plotting each minor self-improvement along a wider trajectory of personal growth. "I tend to be very honest and my goal is to identify something people think but are afraid to say," explains Daum. "That's not the general cultural expectation of women."

The article concludes,

"It's quite scary to men to know what [a woman] is thinking. It's much more convenient to imagine that they aren't really people", says Emily Gould.

In the same way, one imagines it might be easier to dismiss the work of female confessional authors as being somehow facile and glib because, on the surface, they deal with the small moments of everyday experience rather than dealing with the grittiness of big ideas. But this would be to do them a disservice. By engaging with their readers and speaking to them on their own level with humour and candour, Gould, Daum and Crosley seek to illuminate broader truths. They might not always succeed but at least they aim for something bigger; for something that is hopefully a little more nuanced than the endless search for Mr Right and a world viewed through the bottom of a Martini glass.

What a wonderful thing  it is to have writers who seek to question common assumptions and to challenge the status quo, who also set out to illuminate broader truths and spread a little enlightenment.

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