The two great arts of the 20th century are I think, film and jazz. While jazz, unfortunately, seems to be declining into a minority interest, film shows no sign of flagging. It still has the capacity to stimulate, to touch us deep in our hearts, to excite and to reflect our world back to us. I was moved to think about this by a couple of films I saw recently, both of which managed to say more in a few minutes about the nature of community and identity than Blair and his cohorts have done in 10 years.
‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is I know a romantic comedy and the reviews on IMDB seem to treat it as no more than that, so probably one shouldn’t read too much into it. Nevertheless in one important scene Josh Lucas and Patrick Dempsey as the husband and fiancé (don’t ask!) of Reese Witherspoon talk about life in the small town in which Lucas and Witherspoon grew up. The details of the story don’t matter here, and would be a nasty spoiler if you haven’t seen the film. Essentially however it illustrates how an important part of real communities is not necessarily shared beliefs, but shared stories.
Think about any family gathering and almost certainly it will involve the sharing of stories, not just about the people there but also about people long gone. These may not be told chronologically or even completely, they may not even be true, but sharing them allows everyone inside the group to pick up and draw meaning and strength from them – reinforcing the sense of identification. I suppose wakes and weddings are the prime examples.
Translating this to the geographical communities of villages and neighbourhoods in which we all live, makes the importance of continuity in keeping those stories alive apparent. Villages drowning in seas of commuter housing, neighbourhoods facing a massive influx of people of other cultures and religions both face the same problem. Maintenance of shared stories becomes impossible and perhaps more importantly the old stories are lost.
We need to recognise that these strains apply as much to the ‘incomers’ as to the ‘locals’. I lived in Wolverhampton in the late 1960s at which time one could see at the weekend, large groups of men sitting in circles in the local park. I was told, and I believe it to be true, that these gatherings were based on links back to the local village in Pakistan or Bangladesh. For at least some of these immigrants therefore continuity was maintained but only it seems by discussion of the ‘old days’.
For children born in this country, the old days of course are irrelevant and unknown – perhaps even literally meaningless. A combination of religion, language and myth generate separation and isolation on both sides of the divide. Stories though have intrinsic value and sharing them in the new context could be a source of a new understanding. Stories from an isolated village in Bangladesh could be as illuminating to English neighbours as they were to those to whom they were originally directed.
Another insight may come from the phenomenon of so-called ‘world’ music where musicians from wildly different musical heritages often combine to generate new and exciting ‘stories’ in the studio. If we can get that openness out of the studio and into the locality who knows where we might end up.