I took my family to the stunning King’s Cross Theatre production of The Railway Children yesterday. This wasn’t any visit to a theatre. We weren’t spectators of a production and more participants in the production.
We arrived half an hour early to the purpose built 1,000-seat theatre, complete with a railway track and platforms but we didn’t have to wait for the start of a performance; the inclusivity of the experience was evident from the start. Met by characters in costume, “held” in a waiting room dressed as a period station space and then directed to our seats, the characters mingled with the audience from the beginning.
We weren’t spectators of a production and more participants in the production.
Directed by Damian Curden, the Artistic Director of York Theatre Royal, the play was first produced at the National Railway Museum, York, in 2008/9. It enjoyed both critical and financial success. Its popularity, in part, will be due to the spectacle (the presence of a live steam locomotive and a vintage carriage) as well the magic of E. Nesbit’s story which appears timeless. Yet, the magic for me was the continued dialogue with the audience and the wonderful invitation to join the village community (become the village community) at the end of the show and celebrate the return of the father.
It was a reminder to me that one does not need to live in a community like that to feel (and perceive) that you are surrounded by people you are connected to and who make you feel better about life because of it.
The Village Effect: Susan Pinker
Pinker’s argument is clear: the people who invest in meaningful personal relationships with lots of real social contact are more resilient to challenges in life, have better psychological defenses than those who are solitary or who engage with the world largely through social media.
In my chapter on education in the The Relational City I argue for the creation of 5th Spaces to promote true community collaboration opportunities. It is my argument that the individualism and materialism of the 21st Century has led to two sorts of spaces we inhabit: the environment of the home (which is increasingly inhabited by the individual living alone without relationship to others around them) and the environment of the workplace (where we spend an increasing number of hours to the detriment of our ability to sustain relationships elsewhere).
Those like American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg call for the creation of “Third” spaces. They are physical locations where people meet on the level of social/cultural experience. Yet a “fifth space” approach to education takes this argument further. It promotes a vision of education where many of the third place structures which foster encounter relationships, and the workplaces and workspaces which promote economic growth and development, are united with the physical environment of the school itself.
This is no magic elixir but the epoxy-like bonds of village life
This argument quite deliberately excludes discussions of, what I term, the “fourth space”, the virtual/digital networks which have certainly pulled individuals and groups into a space that have certainly made the world seem smaller, allowing us to develop a much wider, yet more shallow, nexus of support. These networks, are no match for the face-to-face communications of personal relationships which, so science is now revealing, impacts on our happiness, or reasoning capacity (particularly memory) and even our life chances.
The ultimate village life: Sardinia
We are beginning to understand why women, on average, live 5-7 years longer than men in the developed world. Research suggests that one reason may be the premium women place on tight/known personal connections and interactions.
But in Sardinia, there are no such age distinctions. Women and men live to similar ages and an astonishing number, between 6-10 times the ratios in modern cities, live to the age of 100.
The sceptics point me to the fish, the olive oil, the Mediterranean climate or the pace of life. Sure we know that eating too much animal fat, high salt intake, cigarette smoke or obesity shortens life. Pinker highlights scientific research which suggests that relationships – the people we know and care about – are just as critical to our survival and not just any sort of contact but real face-to-face communication which not only impacts of psychological well-being, but, scientists believe, be the very thing that switches on and off the genes responsible for our immune response for cancer and, specifically, tumour growth. That’s what Steven Cole and his team at UCLA have found and other studies support the medicinal benefits of relationships.
Studies is France of 7000 utility workers found the quality of their relationships was a strong predictor of who would be alive at the end of a decade or studies of Swedish citizens found lowest rates of dementia in people with large, strong friendship groups or 50 year old men with such friendships less likely to have heart attacks than those who live a more solitary existence.
Pinker’s book, which I highly recommend, explores this in great depth. Her conclusion, and my highlight from the book is:
You don’t need to live in a community like that to know you are surrounded by a tight circle or people whom you’ve invested serious time and affection over the years and who return that attention
My theatre experience yesterday reminded me how easy it it to make people feel connected and how, in school, we should strive even harder to unearth the best practice that creates such conditions for young people.