Michael Young: Vision and the Limits of Innovation

| No responses | Posted by: Kate Gavron | Theme: Social Innovation & Investment

Kate Gavron was associated with the Institute of Community Studies and the Mutual Aid Centre since 1992 and was a Trustee of the Young Foundation until 2009. At the conference she spoke about Michael the man and how his early life might have influenced his later work.

Michael Young: Kate Gavron 11th November 2015

I am going to talk a bit about Michael the man, with a few suggestions about how his early life might have influenced his later work. Geoff will then analyse his importance as the great social entrepreneur of the 20th century.

I first met Michael Young in the early 80s. My husband Bob had met him and Peter Willmott in 1957, shortly after the publication of Family & Kinship in East London. They all remained close friends, as did I from when I first met him, and I worked with him from 1991 until his death. He wasn’t always easy to work with – he was the most stubborn and determined person I’ve ever met. However, he was always fantastic company and, let’s face it, he was usually right in an argument. And he loved a good argument about his newest ideas. In fact, he was almost put off starting the School for Social Entrepreneurs because he could find nobody to argue with about it – it was so obviously a good idea.

Michael’s parents were far from conventional: his mother, Edith, was from an Irish family and she was a painter. His father, Gibson, was Australian. He was a musician – a violinist – a music critic and a conductor of community singing – he would conduct huge crowds of people before football matches, for example. Their marriage was not happy and Michael was an only child. His early life was not helped by his mother falling in love with a Russian communist when Michael was a small boy, nor by the family leaving for Australia shortly afterwards, where they spent seven unhappy years, in a series of houses. Although Michael’s mother got on with her mother-in-law she did not get on with her father-in-law. Neither was she getting on well with her husband, and both of them had affairs. Michael has been accused of romanticizing the lives of the extended families of Bethnal Green, but it may just be that compared with his own childhood theirs indeed were happy families. In her autobiography, his mother describes him being left on his own when she was out acting (another interest of hers) and his father was performing in a concert. This was when Michael would have been seven or eight. She describes finding him still awake on her return home, and on asking him why he wasn’t asleep, he replied:

“I can’t, till you come back. I never do. I count, and go on counting, sometimes up to a million and when I’ve counted a million I tell myself you’ll be back. Tonight I had to start all over again.”

In the early 1920s the family returned again to London, first Gibson and a year later Michael and his mother, to yet another new home in a new part of the city and, no doubt, a new and probably unsatisfactory school for Michael. His parents were both having further affairs, and Michael would remember being given money to go out and get himself lunch in order that his mother could be alone with her lover. He said that he wasn’t always given enough money but luckily the woman who ran the café would take pity on him. Actually, food was never that important to Michael, although he certainly enjoyed a good meal and he said he was hungry all his life until he went to Dartington. When Tony Flower, a long-time collaborator of Michael’s, first had lunch with him and was expecting lunch in the House of Lords, instead this is what happened:
“We had tomato soup. In fact, we always had tomato soup. Everyone has a theory about the man: about his only-childhood, about his mother and grandmother, about Dartington. Personally, I think it’s the soup.”

Shortly after returning to London Michael’s parents separated, following which he was sent briefly to a hopeless-sounding boarding school near Bristol, paid for by Gibson’s father in Australia, and then to another, not much better, in High Barnet. His mother moved from one lover to another and she changed housing even more frequently than she did partners. About one relationship she wrote: “So frequently did we change our flats that we became completely expert at it. Michael never knew where he’d be coming home to on his next holiday.”

Finally things improved for Michael. On a trip to the UK, his father’s sister had visited Dartington Hall School and she recommended it as suitable for Michael. How right she was. It was founded by Leonard Elmhirst and his prosperous American wife Dorothy, and it was just the sort of school that could release Michael’s creativity and curiosity about the world. He flourished there. More importantly, he became a dearly loved protégé of Dorothy Elmhirst. His mother wrote as follows: “He was growing rapidly closer to Dorothy Elmhirst than he was to me; her family was becoming his family; she, as his good, bountiful mother, had taken the place of his own wayward, erring mother. I tried not to resent it.” A sad admission from her, but the love that Michael had from the Elmhirsts was something he cherished all his life.

One other sadness I will mention: after Dartington Michael read for the bar. He was living with his mother again, not altogether happily, when his much-loved father Gibson, plagued by asthma (from which Michael also suffered), left again for Australia. Within a year he had died of heart failure. According to his mother, Michael could not talk about his father for a year after his death. His mother lived until she was 95.

There is no doubt that Dartington, and the Elmhirsts, helped Michael to develop his independent mind, his sparkling brilliance and his determination to improve the world. In starting Dartington the Elmhirsts stated that their school aimed ‘to release the imagination, to give it wings, to open wide the doors of the mind.” They took him with them to the United States where, still a teenager, he met President Roosevelt and discussed Cuba. From his parents he inherited a love of both music and art; he wrote poetry and painted. But there was a sort of restlessness, and dissatisfaction with the world, that drove him on and made him the creator of so many organizations – we listed 35 ‘main’ organisations – and there were many others – in the book published to celebrate his 80th birthday.

Working with Michael was always exciting and intellectually both demanding and stimulating but it wasn’t straightforward. Noel Annan described his work heroically:

“Whatever field he tilled, he sowed dragon’s teeth, and armed men seemed to spring from the soil to form an organization and correct the abuses or stimulate the virtues he had discovered.”

More prosaically, the way he started organisations has been brilliantly described by Tony Flower, who I quoted earlier. This is what he wrote:

“So here’s what you do: you spot a problem, imagine a solution and give it a working title. Then you write to everyone who might conceivably have an interest in it, and many who don’t; produce a paper taking in the resulting comments, without once losing sight of the original notion; form a steering committee; set up a charitable trust or a company limited by guarantee (preferably both); meet someone by chance on a train outside Basingstoke and invite him or her to become the unpaid director of the new organization; launch the new body at a press conference, couple this with an article in the Guardian, carpet-bomb the charitable foundations with grant applications, stick with the fledgling organisation for precisely as long as is necessary and then push it out of the crow’s next to make room for the other six institutions which you are waiting to hatch that week.”

Michael was a shy man. He didn’t enjoy speaking in the House of Lords and he didn’t do it very often. He didn’t enjoy public speaking at all, in fact, and I suspect that is one of the reasons why he pursued neither a career in politics, having worked for a while in the Labour Party Research Department, nor as a barrister, nor, indeed, as a teaching academic, which he also tried for a while. He always said that he felt he could achieve more outside politics and surely it is true that nobody could have achieved more than he did.

He was not, in my experience, very good at being idle – in fact he was hopeless at it. He could certainly enjoy himself on holiday and he was a perfect guest, but he couldn’t leave his work behind him. Most of us are satisfied with having something to read while on holiday but Michael couldn’t enjoy himself unless he also had something to write. He had three wives and six children. He was probably not always an easy father to have, although he talked about his children often and clearly loved them. One of the famous stories about him – his son Toby has written about it more than once – was the way that he liked to spend Christmas Day visiting cemeteries in East London in order to see people visiting the graves of family members, taking with them sustenance of various kinds for the departed, including presents for long-deceased children. I know this story is true because he invited me to join him, I think more than once, and was disappointed when I said I wanted to be with my own family on Christmas Day.

I worked with him on what started out as a 40-year-on re-study of Family & Kinship in East London and which finally ended up as The New East End, published after Michael’s death. We carried out a large survey in the old borough of Bethnal Green and did a lot of supplementary interviewing. I said earlier that Michael was shy. He told me that he never stopped feeling intensely nervous before doing an interview; that may be why people responded to him easily: he was a gentle and tentative interviewer. He didn’t record interviews – he was not a man who was fond of technology although he loved cars – especially fast cars. But he remembered a lot from his interviews and he would make notes, in tiny handwriting, usually in his tiny blue-papered diary.

After the research process – and it has to be said that Michael never set out on research without knowing pretty clearly what he wanted to discover – there was nothing that he liked more than the creative tension of authorial disagreement. It was never anything other than friendly but it could be relentless and compromise wasn’t something that appealed to him hugely; he preferred to win the argument – which he usually did.

The thickest file in my rather chaotic filing system is one marked MY. In it is some of the tortured history of the writing of the New East End. But one of the very last letters in it from Michael, sent from Australia and therefore hand-written, gives me a neat segue to our next speaker. I will finish with an extract from it because it shows that Michael, within a year of his death at 86, still felt he had plenty of things to do. I should explain that he had an idea for an arts educational Tagore Institute, named for the man for whom Leonard Elmhirst had worked in the 1920s, and this is an extract from what he wrote to me:

“Attached an over-the-top bidding-high letter I have written to Geoff Mulgan, spurred on by you. He told me he’s especially interested in incubators. You can see that I have been prompted by Language Line to try and think big, or somewhat big, about social businesses which are high-minded and do-gooding and also hard-headed and profit-making! An unholy combination? I don’t see why it should be so unholy, if not exactly holy.

“Could the Tagore Institute be part of it, though I suppose Brick Lane would be better? (Calm down, Michael, I can hear you both say.) It couldn’t make money, though, unless perhaps it became the British branch of the Bangladesh Open University. A friend of mine at Tagore’s university in Bengal says Tagore favoured open learning in the 1920s, when I was a babe, more or less.”

Geoff didn’t succumb to Michael’s blandishments on that occasion, but he came to the Institute of Community Studies later, renamed it the Young Foundation, and we will now hear from him.


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