WRITING

Odda / Prince William / Slatkin / It could be you

September 2000

London isn't the only place with a power station-turned-arts centre. Here in Norway, they have one too. One hundred years ago, Odda was home to a few farms and a massive influx of visitors who came every year to marvel at the waterfalls. In 1906, an engineer called Sam Eyde realised that the region's water could generate income beyond the tourist kroner, and harnessed its power to create electricity. The first power station – Tyssedal Kraftstasjon – reflected the aspirations of a community facing untold wealth and importance; its high arched windows and stucco fašade hang over the fjord like a Venetian palazzo. Since its closure, it has found new life as an ad hoc arts centre. If it was in the UK, it would have changed the K in its name to a C and applied to the Arts Council for lottery funding. As it is, the interior remains unconverted, its immense turbines and generators creating the most unusual concert hall I've seen. I went there last week to hear folkemusikk played on the indigenous Harding fele and sung by the local Swiss Family Robinson, the Furholt sisters. There's a strong musical tradition here, which Norway's entries in the Eurovision Song Contest belie. Norwegians will remind you of two celebrated victories, but we'll always remember Jahn Teigen's split jumps and year upon year of nul points.

Buckingham Palace reports that Prince William – when he returns from the jungles of Wiltshire and his gap year – will study history of art. A caller to Radio 4 thought this a futile pursuit for a monarch in waiting and suggested politics, economics or business studies instead. Leaving aside the fact that the head of state is non-political (and that any member of the Royal Family trying to earn a living is hauled across the tabloids) I disagree. The history of art is a history of the greatest achievements of which human beings are capable. Through art, each age reveals its beliefs and fears, its ways of thinking and its ways of life. Understanding our collective past seems a good beginning for our future King.

From a selection of silly season stories, I particularly enjoyed the American conductor Leonard Slatkin's complaints about the uncomely appearance of orchestras. According to Slatkin, portly players should abandon cummerbunds (too much emphasis on rotund waists) and female violinists should cover their 'fleshy' arms. Apparently, it's no longer enough for orchestras to produce heavenly music – they have to look angelic, too. I'm used to this kind of fat-ism in ballet, where some companies still consider a dancer's size to be as important as her skills. But orchestras? In a country where people reach for their lawyers faster than they used to draw their guns, Slatkin would have been safer suggesting they dim the lights a little.

When Camelot won the lottery seven years ago, its catch phrase – 'It Could Be You' – was as much syndrome as slogan. It summed up perfectly our new relationship with excellence. Our heroes are no longer explorers, artists and scientists. They're pop stars and footballers, and while most of us will never be Mick Jagger or Bobby Charlton, we can all hold a tune and kick a ball. It could be you. 'It Could Be You' has turned elite into a dirty word and its repercussions are felt not only in the arts, but in almost every area where specialist skill and authoritative knowledge are a pre-requisite. Television and government have both struggled to tread the line between rightful access and mindless populism. Now, Channel 4's Big Brother takes 'It Could Be You' to the limit. It's a long time since all entertainment had to be about myths, legends and assorted deities, but surely it should reveal something beyond the mundane? Like Big Brother, John Peel's Home Truths on Radio 4 focuses on real people living real lives. It shows them to be quirky, inquisitive, generous and brave. Big Brother tells us that people can behave appallingly. I think we all knew that.