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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, October 22, 2005
    Old souls dressed in bright new clothes

    Back in the city centre, I looked closely at the anxious faces of the new youngsters readying themselves for a night out. Their faces appeared pinched and slightly weary, and I felt sure that, behind their impish smiles and sugar-sabotaged teeth, these young people knew that soon it would be their turn for unemployment and early parenthood. These "kids" were old souls dressed in bright new clothes, much like the city itself: "modern" kids. As I stared at them, I remembered that when I was a boy, we used to play football against a secondary school with the somewhat hopeful name of Leeds Modern. The joke, of course, was that there was precious little that was modern about Leeds, including that school. This is palpably not the case now.

    I was struck by Marc Riboud's pictures and Caryl Phillips' description of the young people of Leeds - paralleling for him the city of Leeds, as writer and photographer revisited it fifty years on, for a piece in today's Guardian Weekend. 'Old souls dressed in bright new clothes' - I take that as a sympathetic expression which illuminates something about what's happening to people in our northern cities, about the boundaries of modernity, about where the heart of these places really lies.

    This "new" population occupy houses that may now have indoor plumbing, but the privies are still there in the middle of the block, and at the end of many streets there are rubbish-strewn clearings that suggest demolition began but has now been abandoned. The truth is, for all their cramped poverty, there is a durable history to these red-brick streets that is simply not present in the ephemeral glitter of a Leeds city centre that is trying so hard to reach out and appropriate modernity, as though it is a commodity to be bought on credit at the local supermarket.

    I think Philips has touched on something really valid, which I see increasingly, the more I get to know families in this comparable northern place. The young people may dress modern, and face some distinctly modern dilemmas, but they carry old souls - in other words they are the product of a durable history, and deeply connected to it. It's not just about joblessness and child-rearing; in their concerns and ethics and sense of community these young people go a lot deeper than they often get credited for. There's a strong sort of dignity and a harsh sort of hope in all that.