Why are young people flocking to Bernie Sanders? What on earth do all those young Corbynistas see in the old guy? What’s going on?
It’s true. By all accounts there are a lot of young enthusiasts at Sanders’ meetings. I saw for myself (and recorded it here in a post in August last year) that there were a lot of young people at Corbyn meetings during the Labour leadership campaign. But there are plenty of older people at those events, too. It was the middle, roughly the 35-45 year olds, who were missing. Their absence is an issue that needs to be addressed. But for now, I’m interested in the ‘shock of the old’.
For there is indeed something shocking about some of those old radical voices. I heard an interview with Angela Davis on BBC radio last year. She was a voice of extraordinary power, not as an echo of her youthful African-American radicalism, but as an intellect completely engaged with the contemporary world and the issues of today. Her power to cut through some of today’s usually unquestioned assumptions about what was possible in the world shook me – and I know her work, or at least, used to. How much more amazing to encounter these ideas for the first time?
And so to another event which I think belongs with Sanders, Corbyn and the whole Shock Of The Old crew. The Social Eye of Janet Mendelsohn.
I’d never heard of her before. I almost bumped into her before I knew who she was. The Ikon Gallery in Birmingham was disgorging opening night guests out into a freezing January night as I arrived. A fire alarm. Janet was right beside me when a kind Ikon assistant brought out a blanket to keep their guest of honour warm. All around, the mostly young gallery goers milled, still clutching bottles of beer and glasses of wine, in high spirits and oblivious to the cold. Thankfully the false alarm was over quickly, and we got into the building to see Janet Mendelsohn’s photographs at her show, ‘Varna Road’.
It was the most crowded opening night I’d ever been to, and certainly the most youthful. The photographs had been taken in the late 1960s in Balsall Heath, an inner-city area of Birmingham, when Janet Mendelsohn was an American graduate student at Birmingham University’s Centre For Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). They are part of a much larger archive of Janet’s work which she has generously given to the University, documenting the lives of people in the earlier years of the city’s multicultural heritage.
It was followed a few days later by a symposium, The Social Eye of Janet Mendelsohn. A few years ago both the exhibition and the symposium might have been a small, worthy event attended by a handful of people. The organisers had initially booked a small meeting room in the library. They ended up having to book a theatre to accommodate all those who wanted to attend. As I sat there looking around at the excited buzz of young men and women, I said to my companion, “this feels like the Jeremy Corbyn rally.”
One of the first speakers was Professor Catherine Hall of UCL. Hall had known Mendelsohn as a young woman in Birmingham when she had lived in the city with her partner, Stuart Hall, the brilliant Caribbean intellectual and activist who was the heart and the brains behind the subversive radicalism of the CCCS.
For that is why the event, and the exhibition, had meaning for the young people there. It spoke of a different time when change was possible, necessary, and driven by the power of ideas and moral purpose. If I was here to review the exhibition and to report the symposium I would say much about Mendelsohn’s unjudgemental empathy, her unflinching female eye locked onto the male gaze, the joy and beauty she finds in places others thought unimportant, or even unpleasant. Varna Road was, at that time, ‘the most notorious street in Britain’, and its multicultural hinterland was exactly the sort of place that ,even as she documented it with her camera, was being denounced a couple of miles away by Enoch Powell when he delivered his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the city centre.
But that’s another story. This story is about the yearning of the young for art, education, politics and society to be about something that isn’t constrained and monetised. What the old guys – and women – have to offer is the story of how it used to be, and could be again, if the young take possession of their agency.