Sunday, 15 May 2011

The irrelevance of relevance

I have spent most of my life disliking meringues and taking a dim view of the many people who said that I must have something wrong with me. I always thought that they must have something wrong with them.

My 9 year old daughter doesn’t like mangoes at the moment. To her, they are not good to eat and are lumped with sprouts and drawing pins in that regard.  She also thinks that Wagner’s music dramas are “boring”, although I've always been careful only to play her one act at a time on long car journeys and also to supply a most educative running commentary about the significance of plot, character, symbol and psychology, and about the Leitmotiven that weave them into the wonderful musical world which that horrible man gifted us.

At the Cambridge Union last week, Stephen Fry contested a motion proposed by one of Wagner’s musical heirs, Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sell. The motion was that “This house believes that classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth”. Perhaps it should have read, “This house believes that people with made-up, poncey, pretentious names should be careful what they call poncey and pretentious”. But that wouldn’t have said anything about whether DJ Kissy Sell was right or not, although it would have said a lot about his name.

Fry’s side won by 365 votes to 57, which isn’t surprising given his audience, the fact that the motion was what I believe it was - until recently - considered relevant to call “a monga”, and that the proposer didn’t even sound like he believed in it when he sparred with Fry on The Today Programme beforehand.

One of the worst things about those who believe people should “stay as sweet as you are”, and which unites radicals after our souls with marketing executives after our money, isn’t just that the ‘relevance’ of something is determined solely by the person experiencing (or avoiding) it, but that a snapshot of what that person considers ‘relevant’ is thought to be an end on the matter. Indeed, I’d imagine that these days it’s probably quite hard to become a professor of literature or art if you don’t believe such a thing.


People who claim anything is “irrelevant” are small-minded and, worse, encourage others to be small-minded. Relevance doesn’t exist until we find it. It is created or discovered, or may be passed to us. It is a matter of social imagination and endeavour, not individual whim. Often, like classical music, it requires effort. Nothing can be ruled out as "irrelevant". Nor does anyone's indifference to or ignorance of something make it so.

That is why good teachers who don’t patronise us or lecture us but care about our development as discriminating beings are so important.  They love not only their subjects but their pupils, and enough to try to make it worth our whiles not only to transmit that love, but to stimulate curiosity, discussion - and criticism. They - and we - should be in the business of making things relevant: of putting something where there was previously nothing.

I disliked meringues until a lady I used to work with made some of such delicate taste and exquisite texture that I revised a lifetime’s prejudice after eating one with raspberries and cream and a cup of tea as strong and warming as a good handshake.

I had learned something. She had made meringues relevant to me. I just wish I’d had someone to encourage me to think more about meringues all those years ago, and to take me in hand with a view to expanding my mind instead of pandering to my stupidity and lack of curiosity.

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