I want to live with common people
This month saw the 109th anniversary of the birth of John Clare. Clare was remarkable for many things, including the authenticity of his evocation of his native parish of Helpstone and his stature as the greatest pre-C20th working class English poet. His passionate clarity owes much to a childhood spent wandering at will around the parish's commons: "Free from the cottage corner see how wild/The village boy along the pasture hies/With every smell and sound and sight beguiled/That round the prospect meets his wondering eyes" ("The Village Boy").
Within days of this anniversary the Guardian carried a feature on Louise Casey, the government's Trouble-Families tsar. It reported that, "As head of (the) antisocial behaviour unit she would turn up to housing estates that had just been 'renovated' and find 'small people wandering the housing estate ... I'm counting the number of kids wandering around, and wondering what the hell they are doing here. I realise then we needed to get through people's front doors early and that you could not just ignore behaviour .. if that makes me politically incorrect so be it. I think it is the right thing to do" (Guardian, July 18, 2012).
You might speculate what Clare, whose dreadful psychiatric collapse was fuelled by the enclosure of his local commons, would make of this call for infant internment. In his marvelous book of the late 70's The Child In The City, Colin Ward quotes Jack Common's observation of 40 years earlier: "you can usually deduce your fellow-Briton's class status from the way he regards the street. To some it is merely a communication between one spot and another, a channel or runway to guide your feet or your wheels when you are going places. To others it's where you live. The average working-class house is a small and inconvenient place. Nobody wants to put up with the noise of children in it more than they have to" (The Freedom of the Streets, 1938).
Notwithstanding her professional roots in homelessness, you might wonder about Casey's grasp on the realities of life on a social housing estate. But this is not just a class issue. This is about other big stuff too, like learning, emotional wellbeing, and, although Casey seems not to recognise it, social glue. Because whatever she thinks, there is life out there beyond the family and its private drawbridge. For the placemaker Nabeel Hamdi, "Belonging is not just about location but about meaning and association - the kind that offer a multiplicity of opportunities for social exchange (café), informal encounters in transit (streets) and collective ownership (squares, courtyards)" (The Placemaker's Guide To Building Community, 2010). Healthy communities are public communities, inhabited and constantly reimagined and recreated by all, including the young. The alternative is the living death of the gated community.
Clare's legacy, and our hopes for a well-balanced future are surely better served by the philosophy of The Council for Learning Outside The Classroom: "not allowing young people to engage in independent mobility and environmental learning, denies them the opportunity to develop the skills and resilience that they need to be able to be safe and manage complex environments. There are also indications that such restrictions have long-term implications for young people's future development, health and well-being.' http://www.lotc.org.uk/why/risk-challenge-and-adventure/
Perhaps Casey should get out more.
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