For those who may not yet have noticed, 2012 is the European Year for Active Ageing and Solidarity between the Generations. That is all a bit of a mouthful, though the idea at the heart of it is quite simple. People in traditional societies related to each other naturally across age groups, but in post-modern cities – including here in Europe – there often appears to be an unbridgeable gap between the generations. Young and old tend to stick with their peers, yet both have much to learn from each other.
Bridging that gap is what Magic Me – an imaginative Arts organisation based in Bethnal Green in London’s East End – is all about. Since its inception in 1989, it has aimed to bring the generations together in order to build a stronger, safer community in the borough of Tower Hamlets, linking what might often seem unlikely partners. Groups of local people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, aged from 8 to 80, meet on a weekly basis in schools, older people’s clubs, museums and other cultural and community organisations, designing activities that stimulate conversation and an exchange of ideas.
From 30 October to 9 November, photographs and artworks made by participants in some of the major projects that Magic Me has run this year will be showcased at the 12 Star Gallery in the London offices of the European Commission at 32 Smith Square. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a series of images from Weekend at Wilton’s, a cabaret put together jointly by Magic Me and the performance collective Duckie, which was staged in May at the historic Wilton’s Music Hall at the back of Cable Street. The cabaret featured an eclectic range of acts including the sword swallower Miss Behave and mime Dickie Beau, compered by flamboyant DJ Amy Lamé.
About 60 amateurs of all ages took part in the Magic Me sections of the programme, which involved dancing, singing, video projection and a giant stripping puppet. One group of children from Oakland’s School worked with artists Liane Harris and Douglas Nicolson learning about digital photography and creating images. They came up with glamorous images of themselves which were then projected onto a giant screen at Wilton’s.
Duckie’s producer, Simon Casson, says he witnessed some of the workshops that took place in the three Tower Hamlets schools that were involved in Weekend at Wilton’s, ‘and the most interesting thing was the relationship between the senior citizens and the young people – they have such a delightful rapport. This is social engineering at its best, and it’s all about the mix. Older people and retired people are often isolated in our society but here they are centre-stage, creating and performing.’
An entirely different side to Magic Me’s artistic work is revealed by images from View from the Top, a display that ran throughout the London Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer on the top deck of the No 205 bus. The 205 route takes in a stretch from the City of London to the Olympic park in Stratford, which was dubbed High Street 2012 for the occasion. Around 100 children from three Tower Hamlets primary schools, together with older people from the locality, worked with the printmaker, Janet Brooke, and the poet, Surya Turner, to decorate the buses’ upper ceiling with a 10-metre art-work. Surya Turner also collaborated with sound artist Dan Scott to create a soundscape of poetry, memories and street-sounds that recounted some of the tales behind the places that people would see from the top of the bus: from the market-stalls of Petticoat Lane to the bells made in the Whitechapel bell foundry and the muezzin call from the minaret of the East London Mosque.
‘We knew East London was going to be full of visitors this year and we wanted to welcome them and show them the richness of the area – its people, architecture and day-to-day life,’ explains Susan Langford, who is Director of Magic Me. ‘The children visited places along the High Street – including the bus-wash and the police-horse headquarters – and then they had to write poems about what they saw. They had to think what it would be like to work there.’
Another project featured in the 12 Star Gallery exhibition is Where the Heart Is, which was the fruit of several months’ collaboration at the Women’s Library in Old Castle Street off Aldgate between seven students from Mulberry School for Girls and seven local older women. In a series of workshops they shared and mapped their experiences and ideas of love, family, friendship and belonging. ‘This sort of venture is all about bringing East Londoners together, recognising what they have in common,’ Susan Langford says. ‘And often it’s easier for young people to talk to older people of different communities.’
Over one weekend this summer the participants, ranging in age from 15 to 80, shared their testimonies with the public in performances which involved audience members being sent out to explore the neighbouring streets, aided by a map, a podcast and a video on laptops, imagining what the area must have been like in the past. They particularly focussed on the life of the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who had ‘lived in sin’ with an Italian artist, Silvio Erasmus Corio, by whom she had a son, with whom she later moved to Abyssinia at the invitation of Emperor Haile Selassie, dying in Addis Ababa, where she was granted a state funeral.
Few of the people who have been involved in Magic Me’s work have had quite such a dramatic life as Sylvia Pankhurst’s but they all have stories to tell. The constant changes that have taken place in the East End can nonetheless be disconcerting. ‘But the primary aim is to get younger and older people to work together, finding out about other people’s points of view,’ Susan Langford stresses. ‘This often breaks down assumptions. Within Bangladesh-origin families the dynamic between generations may change as children know more English and act as interpreters for their mothers.
‘We’re talking about a creative means of bringing people together and getting them out onto the streets; sending women out with a camera is a great way of getting them to express themselves, for example. Of course, we can’t change the habits of a lifetime. We can’t solve the issues that exist between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East or the like. But we create a space in which people can interact here.’