It was at a board meeting of Frontier Youth Trust in Birmingham when a youth worker came out with this phrase. He had been engaged with young people for several years through music and the arts. But contrary to what you might assume he was not working in inner city Birmingham, (or Leeds or London for that matter), but in Bournemouth. In this seaside resort the beach was less than two miles away, with the iconic Sandbanks area sharing the same post code as the estate where many of the young people live!I have written before of the sad realisation that children and young people in poor families often travel far less than we assume: that their experience of the world is pretty parochial in a geographical sense. A child in a family living in West Pilton, Edinburgh, for example, had never seen the Firth of Forth until I took her to the shoreline just a few hundred yards north of her house. And a family living in South Lowestoft never visited the immaculate stretches of sand less than five minutes from their home although from the top floor they could see the sun rising over the North Sea each morning.
So the youth worker’s comment did not come as a surprise. Its significance is possibly due to the fact that it dropped into my consciousness at a time when I had already been pondering another thought. A friend and colleague, who works for The Children’s Society, relayed an exchange between what I took to be a school teacher and an inspector concerning some teenagers. The inspector was worried about what he or she termed the “lack of aspiration” demonstrated by the young people. The teacher ventured an alternative interpretation: perhaps it showed considerable acumen and insight. Many of them simply would not have opportunities of worthwhile jobs, let alone careers, and so to dream idle dreams made no sense.
The youth worker from Bournemouth went on to make the connection between the geographical restrictedness, and the limited life expectations of the young people: “This reflects their whole attitude to life. They cannot see beyond the immediate.”
Now parochial behaviour and attitudes are not restricted to one group of people or one culture or tradition. You could say that it is a characteristic that the human species shares with other animal groups, despite the God-given gift of imagination and the search for spiritual meaning that is our unique inheritance. It is well attested that those who are anxious or depressed find their horizons, physical and emotional drawing in on themselves. Infirmity and old age can be accompanied by a similar process.
So why, I wonder, did the comment, “Some of the young people have never been to the beach” strike such a telling chord for me then and there? Perhaps it was because I was still processing the reactions to our annual Founders’ Day at Mill Grove. Every November the Mill Grove clan gets together to remember the very first child, Rosie, who on
20 November 1899 was cared for by Herbert White and Ma Hutchin. One of the eagerly-awaited parts of the celebration is the first showing of the slides of the summer holiday in North Wales. This year there were nearly 200 shots of youngsters climbing mountains and rocks, kayaking and sailing, swimming in streams, jumping into mountain lakes and pools, fishing, exploring cycle trails in forests and across wide open spaces.
The collision of these two contrasting experiences of young people took me back to the time when I first introduced the idea of going for a holiday in North Wales to youngsters from the East end of London. (For them Southend-on-Sea, with its pier, the Kursaal, and Peter Pan’s Adventure Playground were the extent of their knowledge and expectations.) “What is there in North Wales?” one asked me. “A pier? Amusements? Shops? Parks? Chip shops?” When I said that where we were going there were none of these close by, but ventured, perhaps unwisely the thought that there were beaches, mountains, rivers, lakes and sea, she commented, “What? Nothing but sand, rock and water?!” It dawned on me in an instant that we had a mountain to climb, not just the one behind the village where we stayed, but in the minds of those for whom holidays were simply an extension of the urban world with which they were familiar.
Nearly forty years later I rejoice that not just children, but children’s children have now welcomed with open arms the opportunities to explore North Wales in many and varied ways. To have gifted sailors, climbers, cyclists, and swimmers in our extended family is such a joy and blessing.
This takes me back to the young people in Bournemouth and all whom they represent worldwide. How can minds be opened, horizons expanded, given the crippling realities of poverty and the absence of real choice and acceptable life-chances? I am so thankful for the example of Mill Grove and the way it has introduced children and young people to life and experiences beyond the immediate, the predictable and the parochial. But this is in many ways an exception.
It is encouraging to hear worldwide of camps, projects and ventures that offer young people a period of time in another place and doing outdoor activities. I hope that this expands minds, aspirations and horizons long term.
But realistically, most will not have such opportunities, so the answer, if there is one, must lie elsewhere. This is the time of year when Christians celebrate Christmas, and I close with a reflection on how the story behind the festival might offer a clue to the expansion of horizons and aspirations that reckons with the realities of life for the poor.
Christmas is all about good news for the poor. You find it in the Magnificat, the song of Mary:
“He has pulled down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things…”
You find it in the message entrusted to the shepherds:
“News of great joy for all people. To you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour…”
The essence of the story, of the Gospel (good news) at the heart of the Christian faith, is the belief that out of love the Creator God chose to enter his creation as a baby called Jesus. He came among us, as one of us. He grew up in the very ordinary town of Nazareth, as one of a people living in a land under Roman occupation. He understands the realities of our situation, our limited horizons and our lack of aspiration, and brings the seed of change, of hope.
He does not call us to promise to perform noble deeds or to travel to holy places (holidays?), but rather helps us to see that in our everyday lives, in our neighbourhood, there are signs of His presence, signs of hope. He is the God of small things. And where He is welcomed, He opens minds and hearts; He kindles love and imagination. We may not get the chance to go to the beach, but we find that there is something of the experience of the beach within our own lives, households and communities, in our streets and parks.
A couple of weeks ago there was a knock on my front door. When I opened it there stood a little boy clad in warm winter clothes, holding two leaves in his gloved hands. He stretched out his hands with a smile. The leaves were for me. Why? Because a day or two earlier I had suggested to him and his mother that on the way home from school he might try to find some beautiful autumn leaves, perhaps tinged with red or even gold. He had found them.
It so happened that on my way home from the station last night I passed the very tree where he had found those two special leaves. There were more: hundreds of them, lying on the pavement while the sounds of factories buzzed close by, and lorries and cars hummed on the motorway at the end of the road. Others may have travelled to see the wonders of the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, the Fall in North America, or Japanese cherry blossom, but here in E18 were glories, treasures lying at our feet. Make no mistake about it: these are not ordinary leaves, they are beautiful beyond description.
How I came to notice such leaves and to cherish their beauty I cannot say, but one friend who should take much credit is a Japanese photographer and artist, Koji. Over many years walking with him in the countryside of Appenzell, Switzerland has been nothing short of a revelation. While I have been identifying far-flung Alpine peaks, and exquisite flowers and plants, he has been noticing the glories beneath our feet: leaves, puddles, insects, reflections, patterns hidden to those who see only with the eye.
Where possible I have always encouraged children and young people to go to the beach. My natural habitat is the world of mountains, seas and skies, and to enjoy it with young people is one of the greatest privileges and joys that I have known on earth. But the kindling of the imagination starts with the here and now, not the there and then: and music, rap, street dance, cycle stunts, graffiti may be the best indications that the image of the Creator is alive, however tarnished, in those communities where the young people never go to the beach.
I wish you a happy Christmas, wherever and however you celebrate it.