I asked for a brief from Nicky as to what was required from me today and she said “inspiring” – my heart sank. It’s a tall order to be asked to be inspiring, especially when your hair looks like Ken Dodd lost a fight with a hand dryer and your brain feels like scrambled egg.
(We’ve all heard the maxim about life being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, although the exact ratio tends to depend on the standard of the air-conditioning – here in Scotland of course, it’s the reverse).
I thought a lot about whether I felt as though I was inspiring; do I feel like I could talk about that without resorting to serious fiction? Well, most days: no. I’ll sit in my pyjamas in front of my computer screen with a bottle of whatever sauvignon blanc was on two for one that week, or wishing I could crack one open, feeling like a vintage Bridget Jones and wondering how on earth I’ll ever make it to the word count. And when I do I’ll know that it’s been a slog; I’ll wish that it had been easier, that I hadn’t snapped at my daughter halfway through or resorted to producing the family supper by phoning whichever takeaway put a leaflet through the letterbox last, that – somehow – I’d managed to do it all a little bit better.
These days it’s very easy for us to doctor our lives to make them look perfect. To use shiny social media and put an instagram filter on our lives to make us look like we are exciting examples of perfection, to make us look like we are successful, like we have achieved, like we are fulfilled and empowered, but the truth is there are days when everyone feels small and lonely and afraid and like they don’t have the words to say anything, and that – even if they did – those words wouldn’t be worthwhile to anyone.
It’s a lovely coincidence for me that I’m here in Edinburgh, because – although I was born in Norway and I grew up in Ireland – Edinburgh is really where my story started. It was here in the late 50’s that Peter Trulls Frostrup – a Norwegian studying English at the university here – met Joan Drysdale McMurray Blair – a sixteen year old art student from Dumfries and Galloway on a scholarship to the Art College – and within a couple of years he had married her and whisked her back to Oslo. The very beginning perhaps of a Scandinavian/Scottish Alliance that September may bring…
Their time in Edinburgh was short but they were clearly at the epicentre of the city’s cultural life: starting the student magazine, hanging out with the likes of George Mackay Brown, listening to jazz, wearing black polo necks and wasp-waisted dresses (well not my dad) and immersing themselves in poetry, philosophy and art. It was the happiest two years of my parents’ lives. Just today I walked into town past the National Gallery – where I’m determined to catch the Taylor Wessing exhibition before I fly home – and – as it always does – it sent images of my young, art-obsessed mother roaming the city into mind.
Now, as an artist, my mother had very little success, and battled constantly with the voices I’ve just been talking about that whispered to her: telling her that her work was no good, irrelevant, ugly or – worst of all – had nothing to say. Conquering that voice is the challenge that all artists face, but it is also something that we can all relate to: the horrible feeling that creeps up on us now and again that tells us that we’re worthless, our words have no weight and – in any case – that no one is listening.
Isn’t it odd that in a world where we have more ways to communicate than ever before, where we are bombarded with digital communication: emails and texts and tweets and strange photos of other people’s food (which is what I’m told happens on the young people’s interweb twitterbook), so many of us feel lonely, out of touch and as though we have nothing to say and no way to say it.
I often felt angry with my mum growing up: wishing that she’d just get a job and stop plugging away at a career as an artist that seemed never to go anywhere and left us in penury. But I didn’t realise at the time that – even in her darkest moments – what mum did was incredibly inspiring for me; every day when she painted, she was finding a way of communicating herself, and the determination and focus that she put into her pictures was really an important, powerful and rare opportunity as a woman at that time- to be using her own unique voice to express herself.
The Art Room is a special charity close to my heart: one which strives to increase children’s self-esteem, self-confidence and independence through art projects. Giving young people a platform and the skills needed to articulate their feelings can help to drown out those negative voices, and as I watch my nine year old bankrupting the household with the paper she gets through with her own drawing, I can see how important art can be in investigating your emotional well being and finding empowerment. Whether she’s obsessively honing her pictures of birds, painting seascapes that capture our holidays better than any photographs, or sketching her beloved dog and not so beloved brother, I see again in her that urgent need to talk in pictures that I saw in my mum.
What I’ve come to understand is that art really is a life or death matter. As a child, I experienced at close hand what a destructive compulsion it can be when you don’t feel you are living up to the demands that life places on you, and the joy that can be found in a piece of work that no one will ever buy but which expresses exactly what you set out to say. My parents’ move to Norway wasn’t successful. My father’s taciturn, sexually liberated but emotionally inhibited countrymen and women were my mother’s polar opposites and after having three children in quick succession, me being the first, they moved us to Ireland in the hope that it would save their marriage. Instead it destroyed them, my father having found the perfect culture in which to indulge his alcoholic tendencies and my mother finding solace in a dangerous playboy, whose favoured activity was taking us into the Wicklow mountains and training us to shoot, with his array of IRA weaponry. I’m pretty good with a 22 rifle to this day!
Aside from his terrorist training abilities, to use a euphemism my stepfather and I didn’t get on, and meanwhile my father, working at the Irish Times, found in his fellow journalists the perfect pub companions and drank himself to death at 44. It’s small wonder that at 15, convinced I could do a better job of raising myself and – desperate to escape – I took the ferry from Dun Laoghire to Hollyhead and came on down to London town.
Many of the young people who The Art Room work with are described as being disengaged from mainstream education, disruptive and withdrawn. Giving them art as a means of communication is not just about enabling them to express themselves, but also the ability to reach out and touch others. And this is an ability that we – as women (gathered here today) – should not underestimate; as a sex we are empowered with a unique ability for communication and empathy, whether with each other or those we choose to shine our light on, it’s a wonderful gift that we should never take for granted, or stop indulging.
I survived as a wayward teen in London and my ability to express myself and communicate my ideas, not taught but learned on my parents laps, was what saved me from falling off the radar I believe. I had the address of a squat where I could grab a mattress but other than that I knew no one and nothing. It may sound tragic but I was excited, the world seemed full of possibility, despite having arrived in the middle of the three-day week, the miner’s strike and the punk explosion with Margaret Thatcher moving inexorably toward Downing Street.
What The Art Room does so wonderfully is tell young people that we are listening, that the world isn’t just made up of what they find in front of them, but a wonderful alternative world where they can see and be and think in different ways. It’s what I found in the world of books as a child, a place to escape my own difficulties and experience new worlds without having to leave my own bedroom. The Art Room offers a similar escape and also teaches these kids that they are skillful, brave, and full of the potential to capture and change the world through the work that they produce. Like many of the children that The Art Room works with, I lost a lot at a very young age. Through communication and self-expression I was lucky to discover a route to finding myself again. In many ways I was an Art Room child before it became an opportunity.
Indeed when two decades later I was offered the Observers Agony column, we briefly considered having a strapline saying, she’s had her problems, now let her solve yours! I continue to believe wholeheartedly that simply writing down your problems can be a huge step toward solving them. So many of us delude ourselves about what really are our issues, or about love affairs, or other important relationships, and keep traumatic secrets crammed down deep inside us. One of my favourite letters was from a man who’d got so drunk on a Friday night that he’d snogged his male neighbour as they walked back to their respective families – he wanted to know whether he should immediately leave his wife and start cruising gay clubs – to say he over reacted, would be an understatement.
Putting pen to paper has an uncanny ability to help focus us on what really matters, rather than what we delude ourselves into seeing as our emotional obstacles. I know that for many people putting paint to canvas has the same effect and think that The Art Room are doing a powerful thing by giving young people the chance to dig deeper into themselves and find something beautiful or angry or anxious that they can splash out across a canvas and use to help understand themselves and our strange world a little better.
But I’m not saying all of this to in any way brush over the Bridget Jones portrait of me and my wine glass; I certainly don’t feel that the slightly turbulent nature of my teens makes me an icon of inspiration, and you won’t be getting a misery memoir out of me any day soon – apart from anything else, I know they’d want to call it
“To Mariella and Back”
or “Snog, Mariella, Avoid” –
Or something equally pun-based.
No It brings me back to the question I was asking myself when I started writing this; what does it mean to be an inspiring woman?
It isn’t news to us now that women haven’t had the best of times. As my fellow blonde Tammy Wynette observed so mournfully “Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman”. I’m not knocking men, if might hadn’t initially seemed right and women had been offered the planet on a plate, I’m sure we would have grabbed the despotic potential equally enthusiastically. History, in the rare spots where we’ve actually been given recorded entries suggest we wouldn’t all have been saints, Catherine The Great and Imelda Marcos are compelling examples of how women are an impressive match in excessive avarice and sexual appetite to the most debauched of men but that said, I can’t help feeling that our natural inclination toward the non violent solution and natural talent for conversational engagement, might have dodged at least 50% of mankind’s least impressive moments from the American Civil War to Culloden, World War One to Hiroshima.
Despite our clear credentials for at least a job share in deciding how we humans should go about the business of running the world, I’m sure there isn’t a fellow female in this room who hasn’t banged her head on the boundaries of what still, in the 21st century, remains acceptable for my sex. Sometimes it can appear that things have actually got worse in the forty years that have ensued since we started banging the drum loudly for equal rights, having enjoyed voting rights far longer than we have experienced the full favour of a gender blind society.
And even though women in the Western world have it fairly good, when the result of 50 or 100 years of feminism as a movement leaves millions of women and girls all over the world denied the right to education or inheritance, see’s so many women subjected to physical and sexual violence, or when we don’t speak out against the abortion of female foetuses and practices like FGM; for me this ridicules the principles of equality that we purport to be true in the Western world. The need for inspirational women is just as urgent now as it was when my mum was cavorting over on Arthur’s Seat, or her mum was bringing her up in the borders.
So I wanted to do a bit of research; I wanted to find out who the women in my life had found inspiring. I sent messages out to friends and asked them who and why they had found inspiring in their lives & the answers flooded in. Of course, many of them said the people you would expect, women with big voices who span the emancipation movement of the last century: Emily Pankhurst, Bell Hooks, Malala Yousafazi and the amazing Eglantyne Jebb who founded the Save the Children organisation, for which I have just been appointed gender ambassador. But just as many spoke of women who no one beyond their immediate circles had heard of: mothers who maintained careers, and not just any careers but were high flying academics or hugely successful business executives; aunts who were working, raising kids, and still finding the time to learn violin because she had always wanted to, or take up dance classes or – and we’re back to art again – learn to paint; teachers who had inhabited classrooms with humour and generosity … normal women who had one thing in common, that they had never tried to scrimp on being themselves.
I have been lucky enough to meet a lot of inspiring women in my time. I’m also founding trustee of a small foundation – the GREAT Initiative – on whose behalf I recently travelled to Liberia to meet a group of women who were not only survivors of all kinds of suffering, forty per cent of the women I met had been raped during their terrible civil war but were also – funny, kind, generous, and undeniably themselves. It was them, these abused, uneducated mothers and daughters who’d ended that brutal war, simply by sitting in Monrovia’s main square, protesting with dignity and grace, until their presence became so embarrassing to the then president Charles Taylor, that he agreed to peace talks. These simple market women, empowered by their ability to end a war, then voted in Africa’s first ever female leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. They proved to me beyond doubt that together we are stronger than we can possibly imagine and we need to use that power more often, to shape the world into a more female form.
When I think about what I was saying earlier: the huge demand on all of us to constantly communicate some kind of self-image, online, in the street, in photographs or messages; it’s incredibly uplifting to consider that the women we have looked on as role models are the ones who have done nothing except exist as themselves and use what they have to improve lives around them.
One of my favourite things to do is sail. When I am on the sea: away from the internet and mobile phones and city lights, I can look out across the ocean in the twilight where it’s not quite day or night, and feel that I’m really alive. And that is when I feel at my most inspiring. This is something we should all be allowed to feel, and something we should all remember. It’s not being told I was voted one third of Britains sexiest voice (Judi Dench and Honor Blackman were part of that threesome , or being asked to judge the Booker Prize or present on radio 4 (although these are all things I feel lucky and excited to have done); it’s those rare moments when I am playing with my children, or scribbling away uninhibited or looking out over the sea that I know I am happy and privileged to be me. And if I really want, I can shout ” ready about” in a sexy voice on top.
& isn’t that what we are saying today, as supporters of The Art Room? That everyone should be allowed to feel utterly alive, utterly real and empowered to embrace and communicate their own feelings about the world as they find it. I know we all have days where that doesn’t feel like a possibility, but the truth is that I was able to believe that I could be a little bit inspiring today because I know that that potential is present in everyone, that I would be in a room full of wonderful women who all possess a truth and a powerful ability to express that truth if they choose to. And maybe that expression comes from painting or writing or cooking a wonderful meal or taking part in a sports fixture or a dance class, or helping less fortunate families down the street or across the world. But why do we put our self-esteem in the hands of strangers when it is only if we take ownership of our own identities that we can use them to be useful, to empower and inspire others, and make the changes that we would like to see manifest in our crazy world.
We are all just human beings – under one sky – we feel the same joy, the same pain, so wouldn’t it be a better world if we managed to spread it’s riches to those who don’t have the privileges we enjoy – like this wonderful lunch – here at this incredible castle. So give generously today and help lend your weight to the level of goodness in the world!
Copyright Mariella Frostrup