In his recently published autobiography, the English folk-rock singer and guitarist Richard Thompson tells the story of one of his most famous songs, which gives the book its title. ‘Beeswing’ is the story of a free-spirited woman who refuses to be tied down by any man or job. ‘You might be lord of half the world,’ she replies to her lover, ‘You’ll not own me as well.’ Thompson explains that the character is a composite of various people: the folk singer Anne Briggs, a tramp named Ted that Thompson used to take in and feed in the 1970s, plus other strong personalities he had known. Also drifting through the song is a reflection on the challenge of the creative life, and the spirit of the 1960s and 70s generation who rejected contemporary society and sought out alternative ways of living. Thompson did this too, converting to Sufism and moving to rural Suffolk to live near a religious community.
‘Beeswing’ was written much later, but the nature of its composition, drawing in stories and experiences from decades, tells us something about the creative process, that it can be like a vortex pulling in strands from all around it. ‘Songwriting,’ he writes, ‘is a strange business, and those who claim to understand the creative process are usually uttering bullshit of the first magnitude.’ The experience of ‘Beeswing’ was as much about faith as craft:
I was making up a story. One line led to another, and I had no idea where the tale was going. It was like being seven years old again, placing one foot in front of the other, step by step, with my head in thick fog, unable to see my hand in front of me, not too concerned if I found my way to school or not.
When we read about such intense bouts of creativity in music, it is interesting to think about how we talk about creativity in the wider world. Last week, it was the subject of a Creative Ireland online conference, which focused on exploring how to incorporate more creativity into the lives of young people. The motivation for society is clear: participation in creativity generates well-being; it also creates stronger communities and even economic success. No wonder countries and businesses are trying to figure out how to make their people more creative.
But how exactly do we define and understand creativity? Right now, the world is talking about ‘creative solutions’ for the post-pandemic era, for the climate crisis, and for every other challenge that faces us. Is this the intense Richard Thompson kind of creativity, or some other kind? Is all creativity the same?
For Arlene Foster of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, who spoke at the event, creativity at school means encouraging children to ‘try out ideas, to pose interesting questions and then try to find the solutions… to make mistakes… be willing to give things a go, persevering when the going gets tough, and being happy that if you hit a dead end, you can come back and try another way’.
This is certainly what the education system encourages in younger children, but what happens when they become teenagers? The emphasis on learning by rote, the focus on points, college and careers, exhausts young adults, and, despite the efforts of many teachers, squeezes out creativity in their school life.
This was more or less accepted by Anne Looney of Dublin City University, who is Executive Dean of the teacher-training college: ‘We’re quite open to the idea of discovering the unknown in early childhood education… but as children become young adults we’re more likely to be focused on the “conserving” impulse… [i.e. the straightforward passing on of knowledge].’
She also added that when student teachers come into DCU, ‘every single one of them wants to change the world’, but after they graduate and she meets them five years later, they are ‘captured’ by the system.
Consider, then, the ambitions for our society of the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, as set out at the event last week:
The primary determinant of success [in the future] will be the ability to apply knowledge and expertise in previously unimagined ways. Robotics and artificial intelligence will displace substantial quantities of activity that is carried out manually today. Healthcare, the law, even teaching, all will change beyond recognition. Our future will depend on our ability to be creative and inventive, to solve problems, to work collaboratively and experimentally, to think conceptually…
If this is the case, we need to get clear about what creativity means. We cannot encourage children throughout their primary school years to be creative and free, and then pull back on it in secondary school. And is it really a creative society if we have already decided what the results of that creativity should be – economic success? The Taoiseach later says in his speech: ‘Yes, let’s talk about post-Covid recovery, but let’s bypass “normal” and let’s have serious conversations about a better, more creative life in which everyone can flourish and be well.’ This is much more the radical direction we should be going in.
One of the speakers at the conference, Andreas Schleicher of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), said that creativity was easy to talk about but harder to integrate into education, and that part of the challenge is to find better ways to ‘measure creativity’.
But the irony is that we do already have a way of finding out how creative our society and education system is: just ask those who have emerged from it and chosen the creative life rather than a ‘secure job’. They will tell you that making that choice is still the most difficult thing to do, with so many around them doubting the value of their creative work and often waiting for them to fail. If we are serious about putting creativity at the heart of our society, then changing our view of creativity and creative people will be the real measure of success.
Watch the full Creative Youth conference below.
Richard Thompson’s book, Beeswing: Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice, 1967–75, is published by Faber.