[Guest blog by Liz Mytton]
I really enjoyed being on The Cart on Saturday during the African and Caribbean Embrace Festival. Broadgate was buzzing – or maybe thumping is a better word. The music stage was brilliant, with a constant stream of local talent, and along with the dancers, singers and majestic parade of African ‘Kings’ and ‘Queens’ (complete with red carpet), the event was a fantastical treat. The rain sought to dampen spirits, but with glorious food on offer from the around the world (I had Rice and Peas with curried goat. Delish) and the amazing Cart and it’s attached shelter, we became one of the most popular locations on the site. We also had free umbrellas at hand, and used the downpour to draw in those wanting to keep dry.
In my role as artist, on the cart to solicit the views of local people on Coventry 2021, I created what I thought would be a winning opener, asking what they knew about the bid for UK City of Culture. Some knew very little; some were nonplussed by the prospect of the Coventry gaining such an honour when they felt there were more pressing issues to address. Homelessness was one such recurrent theme, with numerous people commenting that more should be done to help the vulnerable in the form of outreach work. A few others were concerned about city planning and what they considered to be ‘eyesores’ or the result of poor architectural vision. ‘There’s a really poor mix of old and new. We hide away our treasures, building student apartments in from of them.’
For me though, one of the most interesting things about my time on The Cart was meeting several of Coventry’s mature citizens. It’s so easy to put people of a certain age into a box, making assumptions about their needs, wants and dreams, and it’s this reductive habit, prevalent amongst decisions makers and the general public at large, that annoyed so many of my interviewees. I say interviewees – it was hardly that formal. I was treated to a number of stories about the past, something one expects when meeting the elderly, who are often the masters of reminiscence – it was fun to hear about the Coventry of days gone, particular in relation to the change in city layout and the era before the ring road. After a few of these conversations, I could feel myself going soft and mushy on the inside, thinking about the good ol’ days and how life back then was simple and how everyone pulled together in post-war camaraderie. But then I met a woman, on her way to the bus station to take a mystery tour, who when asked about the past said, ‘Who cares? It’s gone. I’m tired of turning up to elderly events and hearing music by Vera Lynn!’
She went on to explain that in her view, entertainment and cultural activities for the elderly were often focused on the past, and on many occasions, a past that was stuck in a particular era. ‘Not everyone is interested in the second world war, eating scones or going to tea dances – maybe if your ninety five and British, but what about the rest of us? We like other music, other food, and we’re still alive! I was a teen in the 60s – I still want to rock ‘n’ roll!’
Her comments hit me hard. Was I one of those people who had limited expectations for older people, who sought to placate and infantilize them with nice stories and gentle pursuits? She got me thinking. ‘What would you like to see more of then? What kind of Coventry would make you happy?’ Without hesitation, she replied, ‘I want to dance! Where are all the social venues for people of my age – for those in their 60s and 70s who want to go out on a Saturday night for a boogie? If we had more variety, we’d be healthier and happier. Not everyone wants to sit in a semi-circle watching soaps every night!’ The subject of diversity was important to her, and she felt that the council and cultural leaders should recognize that age is just one part of a person’s identity and that the ‘over 55s’ were not one big, homogenous group.
This sentiment was echoed by Andrew, an elderly man with learning disabilities. He said he’d found things difficult since his parents had passed away, and that he wanted a wider variety of social activities to engage in – ‘not things just to keep him busy’, but real enrichment and learning experiences – particularly things in the city centre. He felt drawn to the centre, as he enjoyed the busyness of the streets, but felt he lacked a focus once there and a club of sorts would help.
Another couple made a similar comment, stating that elderly people often come into town just to combat loneliness and that they felt there should be more street activities, such as theatre and festivals. ‘This way, you can come into town, do some window shopping, see a free event and feel part of something, even if you’re alone. We need to establish a real centre, a hub, so everyone knows where to come and where they can belong.’ Wise words.