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David Mitchell’s Diary: Ireland’s autism-friendly sport and after-after-parties in Dallas

I believe the GAA makes a major contribution to improving the mental health of teenagers, obesity rates and juvenile crime.

On Wednesday I flew to Dallas, Texas,  where Sunken Garden, an opera by Dutch composer Michel van der Aa that I was involved with, is being resurrected by the Dallas Opera House. When I check in to the hotel the receptionist says, “We’ll put you up on the 23rd floor.” The Republic of Ireland, my home for 14 years, doesn’t have a hotel with a 23rd floor. My room has a view of the flat roofs of nearby office blocks, freeways ten lanes wide, the Dallas sprawl and several cranes. I’m at eye-level with a crane operator’s cab. It’s the size of a small Portakabin. I catch myself playing a game of imaginary Spider-Man, jumping from crane boom to rooftop to the ledge outside my window.

The sunset is a pink nuclear tomato spattered against the vast flat west. The theme tune from the 1980s TV show Dallas is on auto-repeat inside my skull. Why can I remember this tune and not passwords for online banking? I text my brother to see if he knows. “Because we’re Bobby and JR, is why,” comes his reply.

Union don’ts

After the opera’s opening night on Friday there’s a reception for cast, crew, orchestra, donors and friends of the opera house in the rooftop bar of another hotel. My ears pop on the way up and pop on the way down. It’s a free bar, and the singers and musicians are thirsty. Today being Michel van der Aa’s birthday, he is treated to a Wagnerian rendition of “Happy Birthday” with the knob turned up to 11.

At the after-after party, conversation turns to tales of American union regulations. One of those present was nearly fined $1,300 for moving the musicians’ chairs in the orchestral pit (not in Dallas). His misdemeanour was to fail to instruct the chair mover to reposition the seats. A set designer had seen a director told not to address an actor with a minor role: by speaking to the actor directly, rather than via an intermediary, the director was elevating the actor’s status (and pay-scale) to that of a principal. I view unions as a historical force for good, and believe that in many British and Irish contexts, an emaciated union is the only bulwark against zero-hours servitude. The anecdotes I hear, however, remind me that reality is complex. No wonder so many American productions are filmed abroad. Art is difficult enough to make already.

Rock of ages

On my last morning in Dallas I have a few hours to kill, so I wander to the Nasher Sculpture Center, which is now one of my favourite acres in North America. It is currently hosting an exhibition entitled “First Sculpture” and it is five-star extraordinary. If you’re reading this within visiting distance, I urge you to go. Visitors learn about, and meditate upon, an array of hand-axes, spheroids and carved rocks whose resemblance to human heads is undeniable. Some are mere hundreds of thousands of years old, while the Makapansgat Pebble – an apparent head with hair, eyes, nose and mouth – is circa 2.5 million. I learn the word “pareidolia”: the psychological process whereby the mind perceives familiar patterns – like faces – where none exist.

The exhibition’s thesis, that the carved, chipped and “knapped” (more new vocabulary) artefacts on display are the first artworks our species created, is persuasive and mind-expanding. One bird-shaped carving with eyes and beak is attributed not to a Homo sapiens but to a Homo neanderthal. I hold a hand-axe made 700,000 years ago and wonder if I also hold any of its maker’s DNA in my genome. These artworks remind me that while verbal gloop, nerve agents, cliff-edges and the whims of dictators comprise our present political narrative, these are only a clutch of mumbled syllables in the greater narrative of our species. If that.

Child’s play

Coming home to Cork, I change planes at Heathrow and buy a copy of New Statesman at the still-shiny Terminal 2. I’ve never written a diary column before and I hope to pick up some pointers. My predecessor on this page, I find, is Jeffrey Archer. Fair play to the NS for its across-the-spectrum inclusivity. Readers may recall that Mr Archer complimented the Irish on having not only the best rugby team but also the best-mannered fans, who refuse to distract opponents’ penalty kickers by booing and whistling. Perhaps a little credit for this could go to the Gaelic Athletics Association, I wonder?

It would be ill-advised to attempt a potted history of the GAA here (or anywhere), and its critics’ accusations of historical sectarianism and a lack of transparency are not without foundation. In the credit column, however, the GAA organises national leagues for Gaelic football, the sport of hurling (high velocity aerial hockey) and camogie (hurling modified for women and girls); as well as sport camps for kids during the long Irish summer holiday. While the old “garrison sports” of rugby and football are officially eschewed, a pragmatic crossover exists at the grass-roots level.

By weaning kids off Clash of Clans (or their smartphone game of choice) and encouraging them to interact face-to-face rather than through social media, I believe the GAA makes a major contribution to improving the mental health of teenagers, obesity rates and juvenile crime, and promotes the kind of taken-for-granted sportsmanship that earned Mr Archer’s approval. The GAA club in my local town of Clonakilty recently held a well-attended public meeting about how to involve young people with autism. My son has autism, and while he needs to run around and burn off energy as much as any 12-year-old, he has zero interest in winning and requires a calm and experienced supervisory eye. Good on the GAA for wanting to build this bridge. On the far side is a more autism-friendly future. 

David Mitchell will appear at a “How to Understand Autism Better” event at Kings Place, London N1, on 22 March.

The paperback of “Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8” by Naoki Higashida, translated by KA Yoshida and David Mitchell, will be published on 22 March by Sceptre

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge