Saturday, December 31, 2011

Do you believe in magic?


Susan Langford MBE, photo by Stephen Davies


All year I've been planning to post about my friend Susan Langford but one's beloved Guardian beat me to it! The bleedin' front of them. Adds new meaning to the term chutzpah. But, since it is the season of goodwill to all - even newspaper people - and the reason for this cheeky usurping of my right to unparalleled tardiness is both honourable and valid, I will retire in gracious magnanimity. It's a very good piece and I urge you to read it.

The Guardian has named Magic Me, the charity Susan founded in London over twenty years ago, as one of eight charities benefiting from the annual Guardian and Observer charity appeal. This is far more than even the recently employed Pants could have brought to the table and, although it pains to admit, the Guardian's readership is marginally more than can be boasted here at That's So Pants.

I met Susan about ten years ago when I was working in Tower Hamlets. Magic Me was very effectively conjuring community harmony by bringing together (mostly) white elderly people and (mostly) Asian young people to discuss and document their shared history. Inter-generational mixing goes remarkably well if you don't angst too much about it and if you can bring the type of skill and wisdom Susan has in abundance to it. She got a well-deserved MBE last year for her Ginger-Rogerslike ability to waltz backwards in dancing pumps across the seemingly fatally rent fabric of civil society and make it all look too easy.

One of my favourite things that Magic Me does is to host cocktail parties in care homes. Susan discovered that elderly residents were being sent to bed straight after tea for no better reason than to relieve the staff of the responsibility of attending to them. So, she got together a group of adult volunteers who now go into care homes in the evening armed with a variety of drinks to suit diverse tastes, medical and cultural restrictions and with a remit to engage in lively conversation. If I knew that my charitable dollars were being directed towards providing Sex on the Beach to old people, I'd give more. Note to self - start similar charity here in Larrikin's End or move back to London before senility sets in.

Susan talks about the diminishing opportunities for the young and old to mix as people increasingly retreat to within narrowing cultural boundaries. That feels very true, especially in Anglophone cultures. You're much more likely to see large, extended families dining together in restaurants in Continental Europe than you are in Britain or here in Australia. But, I wonder if the great gulf of understanding that supposedly exists between the youngest and oldest of us might be a construct created by the in-betweens who haven't the patience to deal with either. The so-called 'generation gap' seems to me to be a very middle-aged, middle-class concept and it actually doesn't make much sense when you take into account the eagerness of the young to soak up knowledge and the capacity of the old to dispense it. This would seem a transaction opportunity made in heaven, except perhaps to those with a will to contain information exchanges within their own spheres of influence.

Ma Pants (82) and I recently went to a party next door to hers. The lady is Jewish but her husband is not. It was the first day of Hanukkah and we were fed blinis with smoked salmon and capers and also sausage rolls filled with pork mince. Their grandson, aged eleven, served us drinks and then sat down and engaged Ma Pants in a long and intense conversation about the walkie-talkie set he hoped to get for Christmas and the relative merits of the final four contestants in So You Think You Can Dance, an American TV programme to which Ma Pants has been inexplicably drawn. I could only watch it up to the point where the judges started shrieking, a spectacle which I am neither young nor old enough to tolerate.

One programme I did manage to watch for at least a bit is the BBC's When Teenage Meets Old Age, recently played here on our ABC. It's a classic social experiment scenario pitting opposing prejudicial views against each other, presumably with a view to creating a train-wreck no-score draw. Something a little less alarming but a whole lot more interesting happened. Society's economic-outcast bookends bonded in unexpected ways. There was mercifully little hysteria involved and a few ah-ha moments where it became apparent that both ends sensed that they'd been played off against each other by the mysterious middle. Who knew that a little peace, love and understanding could be so easy? That certainly isn't the mainstream view.

Is what Susan does magic or just well-executed common sense? My guess is exactly the right quantities of both. It is magical to have the ability to create the kind of project idea that will appeal to a diverse range of ages and ethnicities and also prove genuinely engaging and uplifting. The Moving Lives Project brought young and old women together to examine the life of Emily Wilding Davies, the suffragette who died in 1913 when she fell under the King's horse at the Derby. History? Politics? Feminism? Dissent? Aren't these all aspects of British society that the mysterious middle would have us believe are of no interest whatever to the young? Nice one Susan.

My last post was about Pecan Summer, the opera written by Aboriginal soprano Deborah Cheetham, who then went on to recruit and train a cast of Aboriginal people to perform in it. I've frittered away many an hour trying to imagine the conversations amongst various funding mullahs when the grant applications for that one arrived. I can't work out which is more remarkable, that the opera materialised or that its very being seems so audacious. When we all now supposedly have the freedom to pursue any avenue that piques our interest, how is it that we're so easily herded into age/gender/ethnic stereotypes when it comes to choosing which path to take?

I, for one, have been freshly inspired. 2012 will be the year of living defiantly. Thanks Susan.