I visited a youth club on a council estate in central London last night. I went because I wanted to see if I could interest a few young people in this crazy Newton Circle Project I’m trying to push. I knew almost nothing about the estate, about the drugs and knife crime and the youth unemployment — all of which I was informed about in the first few minutes. Faced with a long list of violent anecdotes and depressing statistics, the social workers understandably doubt that the young people could get interested in anything that smacks of school learning, of history, of libraries. It all seems so irrelevant — or does it?
That question hung in the air last night, powerfully, with me wondering if what some of these young people needed was the most massive distraction possible — I mean, a mental distraction, another world, the historical one that educated literary types so happily escape to on a daily basis in this country. Those lost historical worlds keep many of us sane, or we like to think so, and then everyone scrambles to make art out of our happy distractions. Somehow, somehow, we seem to believe that immersing ourselves in the historical past can make us better, make us more attuned to the moment because we can summon up all these dead people and let them explain a little how the moment came to be. That it had a past.
I didn’t initiate this project to provide a distraction to young people on council estates, nor do any of my funding applications talk about history as distraction. I use all the appropriate words to try and explain how learning about the past can make you feel like you fit in better and acquire some connection to the present. But the only reason that is possible is because, weirdly, everyone seems to care about what they know they don’t know and sort of feel they should. It’s that caring that I love so much about this country. It’s not hard to convince people that they ought to know something about Isaac Newton and, once they do, that other people will want to listen to them. I found that out last night on that council estate when I met a few young people in need of a distraction.