Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing

The government seems hell-bent on destroying arts education in this country.

During the recession of the early 1990s, schools had their funding from government funding amputated and a musical education became a sign of a middle-class upbringing. During this latest period of financial austerity, the arts have once again been summarily dismissed as superfluous in straitened times. Conductor of the Bedforshire Youth Orchestra, Michael Rose, says music services in his area, Central Bedfordshire, are set to have budgets and teaching staff cut to zero.

More broadly, the arts are facing annihilation at the hands of a government that can only comprehend social goods in narrowly economic terms. The professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, A C Grayling, has urged the arts and humanities to "put up a fight" against these cuts, or else face destruction. But the coalition seems hell-bent on reducing policy formulation to a cost/benefit analysis, with the axe it has taken to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) being a case in point. Rick Rylance, chief executive of the AHRC, said that we need to stop viewing the arts as simply costs to society. Rylance told the Times:

On the cuts issue, it seems to me that the mind shift we have to go through is to stop thinking about these things (funding higher education) as costs and start thinking about them as investments, because we are not going to get growth and a healthier society unless we invest in these things.

How are the arts of value to society? Several studies by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) have explored the effects of art and music education on young children's learning. These studies showed that music instruction can help build intellectual and emotional skills, facilitate children's learning and strengthen numeracy and literacy skills.

A forthcoming study produced by the neuroscientist Professor Nina Kraus concluded that schools that fail to give music a central role in their curriculum are making a mistake. Music "fundamentally shapes" brains, and can help combat the learning difficulties associated with dyslexia and autism.

The report concluded that that "long-term musical practice strengthens cognitive functions and that these functions benefit auditory skills. Musical training bolsters higher-level mechanisms that, when impaired, relate to language and literacy deficits. Thus, musical training may serve to lessen the impact of these deficits by strengthening the corticofugal system for hearing."

Not only does music aid brain development, but it also instils discipline. Many people complain that children today have short attention spans. Learning a musical instrument helps them to learn to concentrate over long periods of time. Playing in orchestras encourages team work, which is deemed by most employers to be an essential quality. Learning a musical instrument gives children a sense of achievement. Acquired self-worth could have knock-on effects in other aspects of a child's life.

The government must re-evaluate the value that it places on the arts, for we are at grave risk of losing them. Sir Thomas Carlyle's critique of utilitarian man seems particularly apt:

Mechanism smothers him worse than any Nightmare did; till the Soul is nigh choked out of him, and only a kind of Digestive, Mechanic life remains. In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism; has fear for nothing else, hope in nothing else: the world would indeed grind him to pieces; but cannot he fathom the Doctrine of Motives, and cunningly compute these, and mechanize them to grind the other way?

"In Earth and in Heaven he can see nothing but Mechanism..." Britain is at risk of becoming a society that only values that which can be crudely accumulated. Must this be an inevitable consequence of the financial crisis?

 

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism