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A Life Less Ordinary – Jude Kelly

“Focussing your creativity means you can see when creativity not focussed is a problem”

Jude Kelly is artistic director of the Southbank Centre in London, Britain’s largest cultural institution.

Where do you go to think?
I live by a canal, and I take a walk along there to a community garden, where there’s a seat, and I sit there. It’s also next to a weir, and it’s unusual to have that strong sound of running water right in the city. It’s incredibly tranquil and only a few minutes walk from my house.

What are the everyday pleasures that you can’t live without?
Prosaically, it’s green tea: about ten cups a day. Almost an addiction, isn’t it? Then there’s speaking to both my children every day on the phone. I probably ring them more than they ring me, but it is both ways. Enough for me to feel that they ring me, too.

To whom do you look for advice most often?
My partner, Andrew. Part of a good thing about a relationship is the other person knows you. So when you ask a question, even if it’s professional, they’ll be honest about what you need. And my dad, who is 92. I’m hoping he’s immortal because I don’t know what I’ll do when he’s gone. I also had a friend called Cedric Price, who died, an architect who was also an extraordinary original thinker. He was somebody who, when I asked his advice on something, he’d set me off on a completely different course of thinking. I miss him.

I have in mind a journey I’ve always wanted to do. Am I going to do it? Yes. Usually if I say I’m going to do something, I do it

What’s the best thing you’ve done for someone else?
Every so often, people who are professional friends – we have a lot of friends we know through work – come a cropper. They get sacked or have a reputational fall, or whatever, and I’ll make sure I ring them, offer support and be there, because I know that when people get in trouble, they can disappear, evaporate. I think in terms of ‘do as you would be done by’ and people have said how much it meant to them that I was there. You have to behave with unconditional commitment to people; you can’t qualify friendship on whether their status is up or down.

What’s the best thing anyone’s done for you?
It was my headteacher, Bill Pobjoy, who was also John Lennon’s headteacher. I was a very rebellious teenager and I did not have my best interests at heart. He made me focus on my talent, on things that would stop me getting into trouble. Instead of squashing the impatience of a creative young person, he appreciated it and made me feel I was somebody who mattered, who wasn’t silly. Basically, he told me to go the assembly room every lunchtime and run my own drama company. I was 15, and I did it. There was a real clarity of making myself focus my creativity in a positive way, not a negative way. As a result, I have looked to do that for young people, because I can see that creativity not focussed is a problem.

Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?
The Arctic Sea, in a Russian icebreaker. A group of artists went with a group of scientists, about 30 of us altogether. Have you ever sailed next to an iceberg? It is just awe-inspiring. We often talk about how nature can make you feel so tiny – that iceberg was unbelievably big and beautiful. You don’t really know what to say in response to it. I did get a glimmer of what it might feel like if you’ve inherited a relationship with nature as part of your culture, as if you and nature are in exactly the same sphere of thinking. That was amazing.

What’s the best thing you can cook?
A really good moussaka. The reason it’s good is because it’s a bit complicated. All the different layers. And it’s Greek, and I love Greece. I’ve spent a lot of time there and I like to hail Greece’s assets and I think moussaka is one of them.

How do you make yourself happy?
By going windsurfing, which is my hobby. Mainly in Greece, when I can get there, but also in West Wittering [in West Sussex]. That makes me very happy.

Name the art and/or culture that most inspires you or enriches your life.
I’m thinking about the word ‘inspires’ very specifically when I answer this. I love culture and art, and I see a lot of it, from all over the world. When I see individuals and communities under intense pressure, and they make art together, I find that the most inspiring thing. People make art to say, ‘Here I am; this is who I am and who we are.’ During the Siege of Sarajevo, the orchestra came to rehearse every single day, crossing Sniper Alley to come together as a group of artists and make music. They kept the orchestra going, even though snipers shot some members and others were chopping up their furniture for firewood.

Can you name something you’ve bought that you would never give away?
A little outfit that I bought for our second son, Johnny, who died of a cot death. It’s new and he never wore it; it still has the wrapping and the original hanger. But I like the fact that I still have it. This was a long time ago, so this isn’t a recent grief, but if Johnny had lived, I wouldn’t have Robbie, who was conceived quite quickly afterwards.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?
Last month, I did one of the Women Of The World festivals in Bradford. I started WOW seven years ago as part of my work at Southbank Centre and now it’s been to 25 countries all over the world, and is still growing. We’re doing Nepal and Sri Lanka next. Of course, Bradford has many challenges, but the young women there – not all Muslim, but mostly – the way that they believed in their future, as future leaders, future British women and the determination they had to change the world for the better. Actually, ‘pleasantly surprised’ is too mild. I was thrilled.

When was the last time you made or created something?
I’m at the beginning of writing a book. It’s an enquiry about art, which includes things about me and my career so far. I’ve been asked to write one lots of times by publishers, but I always said no. I wasn’t ready and I didn’t have the time. Now, I feel compelled to write it.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Of course, it’s my children, but to choose something I’ve done just me alone, then I’d say creating Women Of The World. The challenge of the 21st century is to create equality, in race, gender and elsewhere, because humans should be equal. The response I’ve had from WOW, where about 1.5m women have been involved, feels like an achievement to be proud of.

What do you consider humankind’s greatest achievement?
Inventing systems in society that generate fairness. Legal systems, justice systems, community structures, volunteering, frameworks for humans to care for each other. In a small group of people, it’s not so difficult. To do it en masse – that is an amazing thing. And we get it wrong all the time because it’s so hard to do. But the struggle to work out how to do it is incredible.

Who best demonstrates, or has demonstrated, the courage of their convictions?
When you see systemic injustice, like apartheid, and you see people giving their lives away, knowing that they are giving their lives away for a better future for others. You hope never to have to do it, but you hope you could if you were called upon. This makes me think about the whole journey of people attempting to get civil rights, which goes right up to now with the Black Lives Matter movement.

What song could you sing most completely right now?
I’ve had Hey Jude sung at me so often, I could definitely do that. But I could also sing all of Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I used to sing Leonard Cohen all the time. I love his songs. But Joni Mitchell is my favourite of all. She is so witty.

What’s the best journey you’ve ever been on?
Perhaps going to the Arctic. But I have in mind a journey I’ve always wanted to do: walk the Pennine Way. Am I going to do it? Yes. Usually if I say I’m going to do something, I do it.

If you could do one thing to change the status quo, what would it be?
Gender equality. It’s the right thing to do and not doing it means we squander the potential for millions of people.

You’ve one trip in a time machine: where and when would you go?
I want to know how we navigate our brains, how neurological pathways work, so I’m going into the future to when we will understand how the brain works fully.

If money were no object, what would you buy?
You can’t buy time, so if money really were no object, I’d buy a fantastic old people’s home, a wonderful place where I could make sure people I loved could live together as they got old. With a masseur and swimming pool, waiters and cabarets. Because we need to think a lot more about what it’s going to be like for most of us when we’re old. I don’t see any solutions around.