Monday, 04 February 2008

Memories of childhood and street parties With the Children's Society's project on 'cherished early memories' we're sure to hear plenty about how the childhoods of many older people were happier and their neighbourhoods blessed with a more 'enfolding community.' I don't dispute the validity of many such accounts, any more than I'd dispute the reported unhappiness of much contemporary childhood. But in trying to write about intergenerational aspects of contemporary street parties, in work I'm doing with Streets Alive, I'm struck by the feeling that childhood happiness was so often constructed in a way which no longer applies. Some of the photographic evidence (eg) from the mid-century street parties (VE day, the coronation, the jubilee etc) suggests insights into the differences in older people’s perceptions of community and public occasions. Typical images (eg) show children sat at a row of tables along a street or in a playground. Bunting and flags distinguish the occasion. Adults, mostly if not exclusively women, stand round, usually at the children’s backs, policing the territory. The menfolk, we’re sometimes reminded in reminiscences, had performed their roles in securing the bunting, sorting the wiring for loudspeakers, and setting up the tables, and were most likely down the pub by tea-time. Scanning these images, it’s often difficult to discern many smiles on the children’s faces. This adds to the niggling impression that they have been corralled into this arena, been told that they will enjoy themselves, are prohibited from escaping or improvising their own entertainment, and afterwards, will be told that they enjoyed themselves. And surely, for many, that’s how the world was. There were hierarchies of authority which knew what was best for you (not just government, council, church, teachers, extended family, parents etc, but other institutions such as the BBC and the police as well) and it was culturally eccentric to question them. The world had an order to it and street parties, like so much else, conformed to that order, that sense of solidity. What we have here are some of 'the solids' whose turn has come, according to Zygmunt Bauman, 'to be thrown into the melting pot and which are in the process of being melted at the present time, the time of fluid modernity.' These are 'the bonds which interlock individual choices in collective projects and actions - the patterns of communication and co-ordination between individually conducted life policies on the one hand and political actions of human collectivities on the other.' (Liquid modernity p6) If studying street parties and childhood memories (and responses to climate change, come to that) show us nothing else, they should help us understand how individual action in relation to collective initiative is changing at local level.

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