In pursuit of the great god Growth, the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, has been urging a new spirit of thrust and entrepreneurial hunger upon girls and young women.
Following the publication of a report by the Women’s Business Council, which estimated that if a million more women become entrepreneurs, the nation’s productivity would increase by 10 per cent in 17 years, the Government is to take action. An advice pack for girls is to be sent to all primary schools.
“A vital part of future career success is the aspirations that girls have early in their lives,” Ms Miller has said, and that sounds sensible enough. Who, after all, would not want members of the next generation to live up to their potential?
If only it were not for the niggling suspicion that the Government has a particular and limited view of what constitutes aspiration. Career success is increasingly perceived in the way it is presented on television – as a matter of power, money and visibility. The aspirational models for schoolchildren are ruthless, kickass bosses like Alan Sugar or Mary Portas or the panel of smug, sneering bullies on Dragons’ Den.
There is, girls and boys, another way. Politicians and other public figures may find it hard to believe, but the greatest achievements are not necessarily those reflected by fame, visibility and power over the lives of others. Some people, women and men, not only derive more satisfaction working away from the limelight but often accomplish more than those who are centre stage.
I’ve been reminded recently of how much can be achieved by a subtle, indirect, collaborative kind of power when reading a newly published memoir, Fiz: and some Theatre Giants, by Eleanor Fazan, a director and choreographer who is something of a legendary figure in the theatre but is relatively – and contentedly – unknown in the wider world. Now in her eighties, “Fiz”, as she is known, has had an extraordinary career working at a high level with an impressive, varied list of brilliantly talented, often difficult men, from the music-hall star George Robey to Herbert von Karajan and including, among others, Lindsay Anderson, Alan Bennett, John Schlesinger , Barry Humphries and Laurence Olivier.
It was Fiz who, in 1961, directed Beyond the Fringe, turning a 55-minute student revue at the Edinburgh Fringe into a full-length show which triumphed in the West End and Broadway. I first met her when I was writing the biography of Willie Donaldson, who produced Beyond the Fringe, and discovered that she had written unpublished essays, now included in Fiz, about working with Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Alan Bennett and Dudley Moore, and a portrait of Willie himself.
What was striking about her insights into these complicated men was that they were utterly individual, and often at odds with the accepted view, but always perceptive and interesting.
The extraordinary career described in Eleanor Fazan’s book – a fascinating theatrical memoir in its own right, incidentally – has relevance to Maria Miller’s campaign to raise the aspirations of girls at primary school. Without headlines or shows of aggression and ego, Fiz has clearly contributed more to theatre, dance, opera and cinema than many of the show-boating stars who are now household names. “I have always been drawn towards those who needed to kick up, those who just couldn’t toe the party line,” she writes, and that strength and bloody-mindedness has served her as well as the stars with whom she has worked.
Not everyone finds professional fulfilment being a boss, and pretending that they do, or even that their role is less important than those who get the attention and publicity is misleading and unkind. There is certainly a case for getting primary school-children to aim high when thinking of their futures, but presenting success solely in terms of winning with sharp elbows and competitiveness, as if everyone should aim to be like the deluded, over-ambitious idiots on The Apprentice, is unhelpful.
Girls and boys could learn a more nuanced lesson in career fulfilment: that it is not necessarily those with the loudest voices and on the biggest salaries who achieve most, both for themselves and for the big world beyond.
Let’s get drastic on plastic bags
Here is a genuinely embarrassing news story. The Italian government, so often mocked in the British media, has been attempting recently to improve its environmental record. Acting on research which revealed that 72 per cent of all waste washed up around its coast consisted of plastic bags, it planned to introduce a law banning the sale of bags made of thin plastic in favour of re-usable or biodegradable ones.
Unfortunately, the EU vetoed the legislation, prompted by the “greenest ever government” of the United Kingdom.
Few things are as provably harmful to the sea and landscape as thin plastic, as the nature writer Richard Mabey pointed out recently in a letter to the conservationist Sir John Lister-Kaye. “I suspect,” Mabey wrote, “that we are now getting a really huge build-up of synthetic non-degradable organic molecules in the ecosystem.”
In spite of all that, the Cameron Government prefers to support the interests of plastic-bag manufacturers. Truly, the political landscape is at its most disgustingly polluted in the area of the environment.