A long, long time ago (in what now seems like a galaxy far, far away) I was a young community education tutor. This was in the days when colleges were given a grant to provide education for their localities, and largely left to create their own programmes in collaboration with representatives from the local community. This process inevitably resulted in an eclectic patchwork of provision, which was how, starting in one beautiful autumn, I came to be teaching a GCSE psychology class for mature adults on the same afternoon that the dancing class met.
The little car I drove at that time had been made long before air conditioning was a standard feature, and on turning up for my first session on a sunny afternoon with the windows down, I could hear strains of a familiar melody: In the Mood, by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. This immediately stirred memories of my dad, a lifelong swing and jazz fan. Sitting there in my car, with a view through the window of the large room in which the class was held, I could see grey heads and smiling faces bobbing gracefully around the floor, and, in my mind's eye, my dad, who had died quite recently, listening to his old records and watching old Hollywood movies during his long illness, transported back to the fun and high jinks of his youth.
As the weeks rolled by, I began to purposely park my car in a place where I could listen to the music and watch the dancing for a few moments before I went into teach; observing the pleasure that the dancers took in their activity and listening to their music for a few minutes never failed to calm my mind, however frantic the morning had been, and always started my afternoon pleasantly. So, when I was allocated the same teaching slot the following year, I looked forward to observing what I had come to think of as 'my' dancers again. However, the hall was dark and silent when I arrived, and after a few weeks when nothing had changed, I asked the administrator at the centre if she had altered the time of the dancing class.
'We can't do dancing anymore' she said. 'What do you mean, you can't do it?' I replied. 'Surely you would get loads of enrolments again this year?' 'It's not that' she said 'we have to offer education where we can demonstrate progression. They just dance, don't they, we can't test them on it. And if we don't get the government funding, the fees we would have to charge would be too high for people here' ('here' being an area of high unemployment). 'So the old people can't come out to their dancing class anymore?' I asked incredulously. 'That's right' she said. 'We'd been running it for twenty years. But not anymore'. In further conversation, I found that the same fate had also been meted out to a long standing embroidery class 'because the ladies who had been coming for years said that they wouldn't be prepared to do assessments'.
For the rest of that year, when I arrived at the venue and looked into a dark silent room rather than one full of music, light and joy, I imagined all the people who would have been there dancing, now sitting silently alone in separate rooms, feeling old, missing their two hours a week when they could re-live their youth on a 'bright cloud of music'. And subsequently, over the twenty-some intervening years, I have begun to wonder how many such socially inept policies vandalised the spaces in which people within similar communities across the nation were able to come together, and in so doing, created the conditions for holes to form within the fabric of human connection.
In the days when I was still a young tutor, I used to wonder whether the bean counter who had curtailed the pleasure of thirty or forty local pensioners had considered the extent to which the slash of his or her pen had negatively impacted upon their personal psychological and physical health. But as time has gone by, and I have grown older while society has grown increasingly insular, this little tableau has popped up in my mind more frequently, most particularly when I read the 'why Brexit/ why the decline of liberal values' articles that now proliferate. The meanness of spirit shown to 'my' dancers has been repeated in so many different ways up and down the land by people whose stock response to 'shall we dance' would be 'so what profit is there in that?' The answer of course, is an awful lot, but nothing that you can collate on a spreadsheet. And until we get beyond this moral and spiritual wasteland, it seems to me that there is little we can do to get out of the dark, silent lonely room in which we all find ourselves.