Opinion

A lost generation? I wouldn’t be so sure

Our education should prepare our children to scale the heights of obstacles and not be defeated by them, writes Big Issue founder John Bird

When I was a boy I heard of a man called Bird. I heard of him in comparison with another man called Thelonious Monk. They were jazz players and they seemed to produce music that to my young ears was off tune and nothing like Elvis or Cliff.

Yet I was caught in this strange world of late nights and all nights; that is, I was rough sleeping, on the run from family and police. And it was only London’s West End clubs, and nearby clubs in Earl’s Court where I could shelter until the early hours.

There I had to listen to this scratchy, blowsy, shrill kind of music. After quite a few weeks of this it changed my music patterns and preferences; I became habituated to it. I loved ‘Bird’ because I was Bird, and I had spent quite a bit of time picking up stories of great ‘Bird’ people, as if to build myself up by association. I might be a social rat running in the drains and gutters of life, but I was something and would one day be someone.

The incredible creator Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, inventor of bebop with jazz shifting into music that was considered abstract and much like classical, turned out to be called Bird because he liked chicken wings. But then his music soared, like a bird, and that was good enough for me.

How did I come recently to think about ‘the Bird’?  Because it was the year of his hundredth anniversary. And also because I thought of his terrible sufferings, the progeny of former slaves; and the deep racism in the south of the United States where his family came from.

Also I was thinking, unconnectedly, about the mass of observations that have been thrown around the media about how our current young could become a lost generation. Their suffering at the hands of Covid-related problems could isolate and diminish them.

They will have lost much of their schooling and lost much of their socialising. And this, it seems, would have crippled them for the times to come.

It seemed to me a very one-sided argument about a lost generation. It seemed to miss the sense of humanity that we always praise: the idea of coming from behind. The idea of struggle being a life enricher. The idea that out of strife comes something stronger than living a life of comfort. And going from one comfortable zone to another comfortable zone.

Isn’t there any room left in the world for saying to young people, “You know all the great stuff in the world, from Tiger Woods’s consummate golfing – though I know nothing about golf – to Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker’s sax; it came from hard work. And reversals of fortune?”

I was reminded of this when I was told of the incredibly beautiful thinking wrapped up in a simple comment by mega Hollywood movie star Kirk Douglas:  “My children have unfortunately suffered from the problem that they did not pass through poverty.”

In other words, Kirk was made strong by his former struggles.

Perhaps we need to be making our young people aware of the perilous world we live in. That we have to fight for it. It’s not going to fall perfectly formed into our laps.

Are we allowed to be risky? Are we allowed to see our children make mistakes?

I discovered ‘Bird’ and Thelonious Monk at a time when I was open to their lives and music. We were struggling; they with their music, me with the police. The struggling made me. The pain made me. The suffering and pain made Monk and ‘Bird’. I don’t know of finer pieces of art than their work. This is the Renaissance in latter days.

I wish we could all embrace the idea that if we are going to do something in our lives it’s not going to be like putting a series of crosses in a box, and that’s the end of political and social involvement.

Bird, aside from his name, inspired me. He made me feel that going off on a riff, a seemingly mad unmusical riff, was a complete and acceptable way of seeing a piece of music.

But are we allowed to be risky? Are we allowed to see our children make mistakes? Are their mistakes seen as a part of growing up and living? Can they fathom their way through lockdown and Covid-19 and become stronger by it? Are we going to see their schooling as the only place they learn?

As an unschooled personage, a one-time rebel against all things proper, I might not be the best person to answer that question.

All I can say is that this fracture of the system presents us with some very interesting ways of breaking free from the orthodoxy that keeps us tied to a two-party system; and an educational system that simply makes us well-informed but not rounded and full.

There is so much to learn. But the first thing we need to learn is that none of the political/partisan posturing does any more than address the appearance of our lack of answers. And that our education should prepare our children to scale the heights of obstacles and not be defeated by them.

Let’s teach our children to absorb and transcend difficulties; that’s really all I’m saying. And see this time of difficulty as the time to learn the most. Bring hope not despair.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. @johnbirdswords 

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