The student purse then and now

Posted by Susan Tomes on 24 September 2009 under Daily Life, Musings  •  2 Comments

Several good letters in today’s Guardian on the subject of university fees. Various people point out that the older generation in Britain benefited from non-repayable grants. Today’s students have loans, and the average debt when a student graduates is now £15,000. Current students point out angrily that the older generation had it easy with their grants. And of course they are right: we were lucky.

But there’s one thing I don’t understand. When I was a student, we all felt incredibly short of money all the time, despite having grants. Everyone counted the pennies, made instant coffee for one another, and refrained from doing expensive things. We rarely went clothes shopping, rarely went to cafes, rarely ate out, and certainly never went to non-university entertainments for which we had to buy tickets at ‘real’ prices.

Although today’s students have loans, it also seems that they feel much richer than we did. They all have mobile phones, something my generation couldn’t have afforded. They seem to think it’s normal to meet in coffee bars every day and buy £2 cups of coffee. They travel internationally at the drop of a hat. They go to pop concerts which cost as much as buying opera tickets. They regularly go to clubs with entrance charges, and spend large amounts of money on drinks as well. They seem to buy new outfits constantly.

A young friend of ours recently said to me, ‘You said that everyone at university would be scrimping and saving. Well, they aren’t. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Let’s not do that, it’s too expensive.’’ I didn’t know what to reply. No doubt the explanation for all this is complex, and it certainly baffles me. Is it that certain things (like travel) have become evilly, artificially cheap, or is it just that there’s a lot more money sloshing around the system these days?

The language of handwriting

Posted by Susan Tomes on 21 September 2009 under Books, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

In Monday’s Guardian, Umberto Eco laments the decline in children’s handwriting ability. He gives various reasons why he thinks it’s a shame that we don’t handwrite letters any more, but surprisingly doesn’t talk about the impact that someone’s handwriting can have on the reader.

When I was a teenager, long before we had computers – let alone mobile phones – I knew the handwriting of all my friends and relatives. It was indissolubly linked to my idea of them; I could recognize each person’s handwriting as soon as a letter plopped through the letterbox onto the doormat. The actual form of the handwritten letters, the spacing, the ink colour, the boldness of the script, the way the address was placed on the envelope – all this seemed to convey information about the writer. Someone’s handwriting was an aspect of their personality, and to be deprived of that aspect was to know less of the person. I read and re-read the handwritten letters I received, delighting in the character revealed by nuances in writing style, and by the look of the words on the page.

In the computer age, however, there are many people whose handwriting I have never even seen (and they haven’t seen mine). We communicate by e-mail and text message, and even our rare personal letters are word-processed.  Occasionally I may happen to see a friend’s handwriting on a shopping list or something, and it often gives me a little shock, because their handwriting is not as I imagined. I sometimes adjust my concept of a person because of what I realise on seeing their handwriting. I might think, ‘Oh, if they write like that! ….then I like them better.’ And I can’t feel that I’m wrong to feel that way. As Eco says, handwritten texts can be minor works of art, and like works of art they are windows onto inner worlds.

Goodbye, older women

Posted by Susan Tomes on 19 September 2009 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

There’s been a lot in the press this summer about middle-aged women and the way they’re unceremoniously dropped from positions such as BBC newsreader or presenter. Newsreader Selina Scott brought the topic to everyone’s attention with her age discrimination claim against Channel Five, and lots of middle-aged women added their own experiences of being expected to slip away quietly and leave the field to younger women. As a middle-aged woman myself I felt enormous empathy. Where exactly are we supposed to go when we slip away, and how are we supposed to finance ourselves in that limbo?

Yesterday I was throwing away a bunch of arts leaflets which I’d had on my desk all summer. One of them was a little BBC Proms booklet covering the whole concert series. Because the topic was fresh in my mind, I looked through all the publicity photos in the booklet.

There were 14 photos of women musicians, all young and glamorous. There were 13 photos of male musicians. Seven of them were middle-aged or older men – fine people like Philip Glass, Daniel Barenboim, Peter Maxwell Davies, Yo Yo Ma, John McCabe. All handsome and characterful. But where were their female counterparts? Middle-aged or older women were completely missing from those publicity shots.

Who lays down the guidelines which dictate that older male artists look interesting, but older women artists don’t? It’s another example of double standards in this supposed age of equal opportunities.

Pulling out the stops

Posted by Susan Tomes on 15 September 2009 under Concerts, Musings  •  1 Comment

I was in the audience this week at a concert of ‘early music’. At one point, a harpsichordist played a piece. Between two of its variations he pulled out a harpsichord stop which produced a different tone colour, and then he played a fast variation.

When it was over, a woman leaned over to me, pointed at the harpsichord and asked, ‘What was that lever he pulled which made the instrument play faster?’

I was a bit taken aback. I explained that he’d just changed the tone colour by using one of the stops. ‘Was there a change of tone?’ she said. ‘I didn’t notice that. All I noticed was that he pulled some lever and suddenly the harpsichord was, like, “Whee!”‘  She mimed something whizzing along merrily.

‘The instrument doesn’t play itself!’ Bob burst out. ‘It was the player who produced the fast notes!’ The woman took this in, raised her eyebrows, tilted her head and nodded thoughtfully as if to say, ‘Well, now I’ve learned something.’

During the rest of the concert, I couldn’t get her question out of my mind. It seemed to imply a hinterland of strange assumptions. Do people really think that you can press a button or pull a lever and make an instrument ‘play faster’? How do they think the notes get into the instrument? What do they think when they watch the player’s hands moving on the keys?


Posted by Susan Tomes on 10 September 2009 under Daily Life, Inspirations, Travel  •  1 Comment

When I was in the Highlands recently I had the pleasure of meeting the eminent Scots musicologist Dr John Purser, who has been presenting a long-running series of radio programmes on the history of Scots music – much of which has come as a surprise to today’s radio audience. John and his wife Barbara treated us to one the best meals we’ve had in a long time, all cooked from produce they had grown or reared on their croft, or gathered from the shore.

Dr Purser also gave me a copy of a very interesting CD which is about to hit the shops, and I want to recommend it. It’s called ‘Scotland’s Fiddle Piobaireachd’. This Gaelic word ‘Piobaireachd’ is more usually encountered in the form ‘pibroch’, which doesn’t (as I thought) mean ‘bagpipes’ but refers to the classical music of the Highland bagpipe. Over the centuries, pibroch has also been played by Scots violinists who also use the type of ornamentation played by pipers. It’s a very serious type of music which has little in common with the merry jigs and reels we tend to associate with Scots fiddle music.

On this disc, the American violinist Bonnie Rideout, who has made a special study of pibroch, plays it on her violin and viola. Listening to the music has something in common with listening to a solo Bach violin partita. Usually it begins with a haunting melody – a lament, love song or ‘gathering call’ – and then develops the melody in a series of increasingly complex variations, culminating in a virtuosic display. On some of the tracks, Bonnie is accompanied by bronze age horns supplying the ‘drone’ of the pipes. She’s also joined here and there by a flute player, a clarsach, bagpipes and voice.

Bonnie Rideout tunes her violin and viola in all sorts of different ways. For the opening track, ‘MacDougall’s Gathering’, for example, she tunes her viola to B flat, b flat, e flat and b flat. For the closing track she tunes it to D, A, d, a. It’s a most intriguing record and a glimpse into a musical heritage of which I was hardly aware.