IMAGING and REIMAGING: Youthful Futures. Words by Rosalind Jana.
1. I was back at home for the weekend, kneeling up in the loft with boxes and books all around me. It was finally time to sort through all my old schoolwork: childish posters and poems, GCSE notes and diagrams, A-Level timelines and endless, endless test essays. All those years distilled down to paper. All those facts, figures, dates, and words temporarily consigned to short-term memory, then dropped again. As I waded through words and diagrams, I found a stack of English books. In the top one there was a speech I’d written age 16.
We’d had to put ourselves in the shoes of a newly elected Prime Minister, heralding in a new era for the country. It was a rhetorical exercise but I’d obviously engaged with it fervently, keen to talk about university fees and bankers’ bonuses.
It was at the point when I’d first started properly reading and talking about politics: the year of the student riots and protests in Parliament Square. We discussed it with anger, but also a strange sense of optimism – a sense that, perhaps, we would have the tools and means in future to change the status quo. Things felt tumultuous, but they also felt just within grasp. There was a strange satisfaction to be found in discussing the news. Although it was often grim, it didn’t include the wanting-to-curl-in-a-ball-and-hide-from-the-world feelings it so regularly incurs now.
At sixth form, that sense of possibility would continue. I’d write angry poems on Michael Gove, and meet up with friends to drink coffee and bitch about newspaper headlines. I’d keenly think about change, newly fired by all the books I was reading on feminism and climate change. I was frustrated, but I wasn’t resigned. Instead I wanted to tackle it head-on.
All of this sluiced its way back into my memory while I was reading the speech. First off, I felt pangs of sadness. I’d opened with an observation that ‘as with nearly every generation, we are currently living in uncertain times. The recession, unemployment, and terror threats overshadow us all. But we must not let this fear paralyze our nation.’ I now look back on that point as one where things felt a hell of a lot more certain than they do now (not least because Trump was still just a slime-ball, wotsit-shaded shoddy business-man, rather than President-elect of the United States), where fear was present, but hadn’t crystallized into the hate-fuelled sentiment and action we’ve witnessed recently.
But I also felt pride. Here I was, so fired up: so sure that, even though this was just a game of make-believe, an exercise in what-would-I-do-if-I-were-in-charge, my future would involve fighting for all these things I deeply cared about. Here I was talking with insight and anger about healthcare, education, empathy, and the right to free speech at a point long before Brexit, long before Jo Cox, long before this increasingly vile rhetoric that has hardened into something every more ugly and divisive: a language of have’s and have-nots, us and them. Ah, the Clegg and Cameron days! There was almost a hint of nostalgia (almost…) It had been an academic game – a piece of writing designed to do well in an assessment - but it was still one where I felt there were good odds.
It was also rather amusing. Among my suggestions for change, I wanted to stop the sale of forests, revolutionize the education system, up the status of teachers, and force a pre-BHS, still very oily Philip Green to kindly give back his billion pounds squirrelled away through tax evasion – in my favourite flourish, the money being used to fund tuition fees for nurses.
Reading back over it, I also felt this sudden surge of wanting to do better by my past self. I wasn’t ashamed – that’s too strong a word – but it did make me wonder if I’d lost some of that original feeling. Maybe I’d got a bit too complacent: more likely to tut at headlines then look away, think about something else. Not that I don’t care about any of those things now. I do. Probably more than ever. But perhaps my idealism has dulled a little. Or rather, everything feels overwhelmingly beyond control in a way it didn’t back then.
As we grow up and come face to face with more of the world, it’s very easy to lapse into this vague fatalism – wondering what one person can do in the face of so much that needs to be transformed. Perhaps it gets more painful. Certainly more complex. We begin to see the huge edifices and structures already in place. How on earth do you fight in a country where low-level benefit fraud is stringently punished, while huge-scale tax evasion continues to be, if not rewarded, then certainly viewed as more acceptable?
How do you even begin to choose where to start if you’re facing down xenophobia and prejudice in every corner, being female and expressing an opinion on the internet comes with the ever-looming possibility of retribution from trolls, global warming is already visibly fucking over the planet, benefits claimants are treated like criminals, food-bank use has grown exponentially, rents are unfeasibly high for young people, refugee children are not treated with empathy and understanding, and any city trending on Twitter gives cause for panic about another terrorist attack?
In face of all that, it’s tempting to shut off entirely: easier to not look at the news, stop paying attention, suspend the hurt of caring for a while. Sometimes that’s necessary. We can’t take on the weight of the world all the time, especially when it’s broadcast 24/7 on twitter, Facebook, rolling news. Relentlessly tuning into that is emotionally and psychologically corrosive. But sometimes we spend too much time looking the other way. Of course. It’s easier than trying to tackle something – anything – that would help, in whatever minute way, to mitigate the seeming swirl of chaos.
Perhaps what I’m ultimately aware of here are all the ways in which our dreams dim. But, oh, are dreams important. What my sixteen year-old self reminded me was that we need to keep on dreaming. We have to keep on imagining a better, fairer future – because if we stop imagining it, and trying in whatever limited way we can to bring it into being, then of course it won’t exist.
2.) I was in the V&A with a heavy bag, two hours to kill and a ticket for You Say You Want a Revolution. I hadn’t thought much about what the content of the exhibition would be beforehand, sticking, instead, to that strange, amorphous mix of images and symbols I still associate with the sixties: mini-skirts, The Beatles, Woodstock. Instead I was faced by a sprawling, marvelous set of installations and sounds covering everything from consumer culture to student movements to the Vietnam War. It was unexpectedly moving. It may have been sleep deprivation, but I felt close to tears at various points; veering between wondering where we’d gone wrong since then, and reminding myself that, actually, much tangible change has been wrought in the last few decades.
The battles being fought then – especially in the realms of gender, sexuality, racism, war, imperialism, the actions of governments – are still fraught now. We’ve made progress in some ways. In others, there are miles and miles left to go. What struck me most though was the strength of belief. Some of it was misplaced. Plenty of it was all stoned conversation and no action. But among that, there were flashes of explosive thinking – the kind we can dismiss rather too innocent in retrospect, but still a kind that propelled change.
We move forwards. We gain ground. Sometimes we lose it. But we keep on living, and (hopefully) we keep on wanting better. Better always has to lie ahead.
It’s hard to write about any of this without sounding indulgent. Both of these sections began with ‘I was’: me, me, me, I, I, I; situated in a particular place, experiencing a particular thing; pushing everything through the lens of what I saw and experienced. But perhaps that’s inevitable, it being the only way to enact change. You have to feel. You have to believe in the possibility of transformation. You have to choose as and where you can add to the sum of good in the world, rather than detracting from it; where your individual actions add to the collective.
We are quick to dismiss the young for their optimism, telling them that it’s a phase. Today’s fresh-faced leftie is tomorrow’s comfortable, property owning conservative, and all that… But perhaps we all need a little more of that teenage spirit. It doesn’t have to be naïve. It can be informed and complex and pragmatic and soaked through with nuance. It can be realistic. But it can also be fired by that particular type of energy that comes with holding on to hope. As Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘your opponents would love you to believe that it’s hopeless, that you have no power, that there’s no reason to act, that you can’t win. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender, a power you don’t have to throw away.’ And if hope is a gift, perhaps dreams are an investment: a way of maintaining some faith in what’s yet to come, and working out how we go about making it happen.