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Dolly Parton’s secret for surviving decades of celebrity

And why she should have taken part in Bridget Kendall’s The Forum

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

26 April 2014

9:00 AM

It’s a shame Dolly Parton has never gone into politics. She’s someone who’s lived her life very much in the public eye and yet has never lost sight of who she is, of her claim to fame as a country singer. You can tell by the way she sings, even now after more than 50 years in the business, that it’s straight from the heart, nothing synthesised, nothing stage-managed. Her voice just ripples out, tripping lightly through those lyrics of broken hearts, feckless men, without ever sounding bored, trite, as if she didn’t really care. When Paul Sexton went to Nashville to talk to her for Radio 2, she not only gave him a list of her all-time favourite records (Otis Redding’s ‘I’ve been loving you too long’ was at the top of her list, proving her impeccable taste); she also explained how she has survived her decades of celebrity by keeping her sense of self unscathed.

On Dolly’s Jukebox (Easter Monday) she let us into her secret. ‘You’ve got to keep some stuff sacred…the lines I shouldn’t cross.’ Partly, I guess, that’s easier for someone like Dolly who has moulded such an idiosyncratic stage presence — the hair, the make-up, the spangly outfits. We never see Dolly unmasked. But it’s also quite cheering to hear someone of her stature and fame talk with such common sense. ‘It’s OK for people to know a lot [about me],’ she told Sexton, but it’s also important to her that she keeps hold of ‘my God place, my sacred place’. Somehow you believe her.

Dolly could have contributed to Bridget Kendall’s discussion on solitude on this week’s The Forum (World Service, Easter Day). Kendall’s aptly chosen guests were three women writers, a profession that necessitates a high degree of solitude. Dolly, you might think, with her public persona, her need to perform, could have had nothing in common with them. Yet in a way she echoed what they said about finding solitude often in company. In other words, solitude is a state of being, rather than the actual happenstance of being alone. It’s not necessarily about retreat, going into the desert, but about how you relate to the world around you, and that ability to withdraw yourself as and when you need to.

The Chinese novelist Yiyun Li told us that her most recent experience of solitude was actually standing in the line to go through passport control on arriving in London two days earlier. Suddenly she found herself with no internet access, no phone signal, no means of communication. Everyone around her was very agitated. But she said, ‘I was completely in my head, thinking about something that I was working on.’ Similarly, Eleanor Catton, last year’s winner of the Man Booker prize for her novel The Luminaries, explained that her most recent encounter with solitude was on a plane back to Calgary after a hectic schedule promoting her book. ‘I sat on the plane and looked at the seat-back in front of me for seven hours,’ not tuning in to any of the films, or reading the books she had brought with her. In transit. In a planeload of fellow passengers. In thought.

‘Embracing solitude is crucial to the learning process,’ declared Kendall’s third guest, the philosopher and educator Diana Senechal, who has campaigned against the American school system of teaching in small groups with pupils interacting with each other rather than listening to the teacher. We need to learn how to spend time with our own thoughts, she says, to listen, to engage in a private dialogue with what you’re hearing, or reading. There’s a kind of solitude in listening intently, of being alone with what one is listening to. That’s why so many of us listen to the radio. To have the chance to shut out the world and focus, really focus on what we’re hearing; to know our mind’s eye in this particular moment.

Fame, or rather being famous for not being famous, was the target of the first episode in the new spoof documentary series for Radio 4 Incredible Women, written by Rebecca Front and her brother Jeremy Front and produced by Claire Grove (Monday to Friday). Rebecca plays all the women (brilliantly deadpan); Jeremy spends 24 hours with each of them, talking about their lives Louis Theroux-style. Essex girl Danielle Simmons has decided to leave her starring role in a reality TV show and to lead instead ‘a normal life’ doing ordinary things like everyone else. But how do you write a character out of a reality TV show when you can’t kill her off (for obvious reasons) and she refuses to emigrate? Without the voices and comic timing the dialogue won’t lift off the page, but trust me these sharp half-hours are worth catching up with on iPlayer if you missed them during the week.

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