Helena Kennedy: young, gifted, black-eyed
Sunday 23 June 1996
Hunter Davies, who conducts these interviews, is a mixed blessing. Though sometimes he is estimable, asking just what we want to know, sometimes he interrupts, irritatingly, with his own theories about what his guest is saying. When Kennedy talked about her first great love, for instance, Davies insisted on renaming it a relationship, and dragging in Catholic guilt, but she brushed him tidily away, like a toast crumb. She preferred to remember her family's desperate grief at the death of John Kennedy - who might, indeed, have been a relation, they agreed - and her parents' strong and humorous sense of values. In those days, all she wanted was to look like Mary Quant, all straightened hair, white face and black eyeliner, which prompted her mother's comment that her eyes looked like two burnt holes in a blanket.
When she got to Gray's Inn, a step that made her uncle think she was going in for hotel management, her co-educated friendliness led to her having to beat off dozens of inhibited chinless wonders, but she stayed with the ideals of her parents, who had never cared much for status based on possessions, and she developed a brisk and dismissive manner with those who, like Davies, attempt to deflect her from the points she wants to make. He stood no more chance of holding his ground than an ant in a deluge.
Upping sticks to go away to study was the subject of Bloody Students (R4), which this week reached the Sixties. As one who was also one of those departing teenagers (leaving her little sister ironing her hair straight at home), your reviewer found this programme a bittersweet exercise in nostalgia - patchy and perforce incomplete, but gloriously right in its tone of exhilaration and occasional despair. My student children ask me about the Sixties as if they were pre-history, and in some ways they are right. Those were the days, as one contributor remarked, when students were feared, as the Chartists had once been. Not for us today's angst about jobs and student loans. We lived on our grants, we were justifiably optimistic about our futures and we marched, even if some of us can't quite remember, any more, precisely what we marched about.
A Northerner recalled the nervous excitement of turning up for his first lecture in a suit, carrying a leather briefcase containing a Parker 51 and a bottle of Quink, only to have his flattened vowels publicly derided. "Well," said a Reading professor, "One can always, surely, work down a colliery, can't one?" No wonder we protested. Over the snobbishness, the idealism, the anxiety and the sense of power and freedom floated the voice of Joan Baez. Oh yes, we fervently sang, we shall overcome.
Baez was one of the Voices (R3) chosen by David Attenborough to illustrate the pure, silvery, untrained power of human vocal chords. His was, of course, an anthropologist's selection. He is a man incapable of being less than fascinating, because everything fascinates him. He mused about the fundamental instinct that leads us to sing; gibbons, our close relatives, sing duets in the rainforests of Borneo, he said, and strong middle-aged women in Bulgaria are respected for a tradition of strident, loud, choral singing in dissonant harmony which sounded, frankly, more astonishing than beautiful.
On Tuesday's Woman's Hour (R4) came a sad little item advertising classes in which mothers are having to be taught how to sing to their babies. And in Medicine Now (R4) came another piece about the value of music as therapy, describing the sense of release given to dying patients when they are permitted, by professional therapists, to make music. All this rather refutes Attenborough's ideas about the natural gift of music, but the balance was restored on Saturday. Humphrey Burton's magisterial account of the life of Menuhin, Master Musician (Classic FM) has passed its half- way point and reached that same decade of freedom, the 1960s. Burton does this series so well because he doesn't need to do much research. He was actually there when Menuhin conducted his son and his sisters in a performance of a Mozart concerto for three pianos. He knows what it was like, and how to communicate the sense that Menuhin is a man happy to make music with virtually anyone.
We had to imagine Fonteyn and Nureyev dancing Swan Lake to Menuhin's solo violin, but we could hear how beautiful and spontaneous it sounded. And we could hear, too, the electrifying combination of Menuhin and the Indian sitar-player Ravi Shankar playing a raga together, a performance that, his wife said, made Yehudi so nervous that he shook with fear.
England has produced an instrument not unlike a sitar, but even more mysteriously lovely. It is the psaltery, whose tinkling, harp-like notes accompanied Leslie Forbes's Arthurian feast. No apologies for returning so soon to A History of Britain in Six Menus (R4). You really mustn't miss any more of them, on the evidence of the first two. Forbes was at Glastonbury last Sunday, relishing smoked eels and all kinds of related Arthurian nonsense. I particularly liked the weary old hippies in search of supernatural vibes, who were there to draw strength from the esoteric vortices of the place. "Eee, yoah," brayed one of them gustily, "it's the energy babbling trew your feet." She was, she said, coming from the suburbs of Antwerp: she was, in fact, coming straight from 1968.
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