Jeremy Paxman on meeting Joan Baez and liberating his right brain

Jeremy Paxman on meeting Joan Baez and liberating his right brain

I didn’t act quickly enough on my new year’s resolution of several years ago never to make another resolution, and before I knew what I had done, I had signed up for a class in how to draw. It was the fault of my pal Gus Casely-Hayford, who has since taken a job as director of African art at the Smithsonian in Washington, and is therefore out of earshot when I wince. A dozen of us meet in a room above a fringe theatre where two relentlessly upbeat teachers encourage us to believe that our attempts at depicting a bottle or an apple are somehow recognisable, with much misguided encouragement to grab the Blu-Tack and display on the wall an hour’s incompetent doodling.

For someone with no ability at all, it has been a horribly difficult, fascinating exercise, which brings you face to face with your limitations. Like most FT readers, I seem to be run by my Left Brain — the bit thought to control analysis and method. Drawing requires you to liberate the Right Brain. I heartily recommend it. The hardest lesson so far has been to attempt to deal with perspective: one of those commodities that instinct tells you exists, but you have sometimes to make up — my attempt to render a small square box on the table in front of me ended up looking like the tower at Canary Wharf. Trying to depict an egg in 3D was a nightmare. It was, one of our teachers said, a task given by the Dutch Masters to their apprentices, who might have to labour over getting it right for weeks. The experience left me convinced that the only good egg is a scrambled one.

I’ve just met one of the heroes of my youth. It happened at the invitation of BBC Radio 2, which asked if I’d like to interview Joan Baez. Her voice still carries a passionate charge, even though she’s now a 77-year-old grandmother, her tumbling black hair turned grey and cropped short.

I was never a great fan of “We Shall Overcome”, the song for which she’s most famous, having not quite understood precisely what all those people with shapeless sweaters were droning on about: what was going to be overcome — and when? But that voice! She could invest songs like “There but for Fortune”, or “Billy Rose” with a passion and compassion that I’ve never heard anywhere else. She’s just embarked on what she says will be her last long tour: the music business is a young person’s game. We talked about what it’s like when your body starts to let you down, what death seems like when it’s creeping up on you, and how her country could have elected as its president both Barack Obama and then a loon who thinks it’s statesmanlike to pick fights on Twitter. Like many a card-carrying liberal, of course, Baez is naive and unworldly. But how else can you keep passion alive? She is utterly beguiling. We certainly got on too well for the “Controller of Things That Cannot Be Said on the BBC”, who put her foot down over my use of the expression “marmalade-faced clown” to describe Donald Trump. I was under the impression that this was the common coin for someone who thinks that giving guns to teachers is the answer to shootings in schools.

You can judge for yourselves when the thing is broadcast on March 26. The dozen students in our drawing class come from all sections of society — a physiotherapist, a City trader, an engineer. I am by some margin the eldest. I had a similar experience when taking one of my goddaughters to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the other day. I have never seen a West End audience like it — half of them seemed to be wearing Hogwarts scarves.

My children grew up with Harry Potter, and JK Rowling did a wonderful thing in introducing millions of children to the pleasures of reading. She deserves every reward going. But I’m afraid this theatrical nonsense should never have darkened the stage.

Given how much West End theatre is unendurable tosh, that is saying something. The two parts of the play add up to a total of over five hours sitting in not especially comfortable seats. I slept through much of it. To be fair, I don’t suppose I was the target audience. But there was something about the barrage of exploitation in the foyer that stuck in the craw.

If the wonderful JK Rowling can bring a new audience to the West End, she will have performed us all another service. But I don’t think it will be done through merchandise. Like most democrats, I have been appalled by the way in which Jean-Claude Juncker has engineered the appointment of his scullion, Martin Selmayr, to become secretary-general of the European Commission. It is only possible because of the pretence that the commission is nothing more than the EU’s civil service and therefore above reproach. As anyone who has spent any time there knows, this is rubbish: the commission is the only institution in the EU empowered to initiate legislation, and its members have all drunk the Kool-Aid. Even Caligula shrank from actually naming his horse Incitatus consul.

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