In 1985, we had a dream of a better world, a world that came together like Captain Planet’s Planeteers to solve problems. We, the human race, joined hands across the oceans and saved not just the lives of people in need, but “our own lives” at the same time. Because, as dozens of rock stars told us, “We are the world”.
In this more ironic age, the USA for Africa song seems more insipid than inspiring – but it was a time where people really did believe in common-sense international solutions. Sure, many of those people were rock stars, who tend to solve any problem by inserting themselves into it. And looking back, it was sometimes difficult to discern the line between selfless acts of charity and a career-enhancing stadium gig.
But Live Aid made a difference, both in terms of awareness and fundraising. And We Are The World’s writer Michael Jackson and his band of idealistic musos seem far removed from a Presidential nominee who’s more interested in building walls than solving hunger.
The message that all of us have to take responsibility for some of us also feels at odds with Live Aid’s other host country, since 52 per cent of Britons thumbed their noses at the EU in last week’s Brexit referendum.
But there was a time when Britain did believe in internationalism, and in people from around the world coming together to make things better. I know because I lived bang smack in the middle of it.
In 1985, the year of We Are The World, my family and I moved to Britain and lived in the heart of central London, in a place called William Goodenough House. (The surname never stopped being amusing, especially since the whole place is now called Goodenough College. It’s more than good enough – it’s really nice.)
The place was founded by a bunch of bankers who wanted to give promising lads from the colonies a chance to come and experience the Mother Country, while the building I lived in had been built with funds raised by the Lord Mayor of London to thank the Commonwealth for its WWII food parcels.
For a 9-year-old kid from what was then a relatively white-bread part of Sydney, this was a mindblowing experience. Suddenly I was living alongside Canadians, Africans, South East Asians, West Indians and even some Americans who’d somehow been allowed in despite not being in the Commonwealth.
There were even New Zealanders, which meant that for the first time, I heard about the notorious underarm incident. And then I heard about it again, every time I met a New Zealander.
There were regular parties hosted by students from various countries. Banquets were cooked, songs were sung, national dress was worn, and all were welcome – I’ll never forget my first smell of durian at a Singapore National Day event. It was a place where diversity was not a buzzword, but an everyday reality
We kids had access to a room with a snooker table in it, endless corridors to sprint down before getting told off by a staff member, and our own enormous private park with a locked gate to keep us safe. And we enjoyed them all with friends from all over the world. It was an idyllic experience.
I went and stayed back at the college in May for the first time since we left in 1987. These days it welcomes students from every country, and over the years the College has been in operation, many of them have ended up getting married. Some of their kids have come back to study themselves.
Walking around the pristine grounds of Goodenough College last month, watching a kaleidoscope of students breakfasting in the café and dressing up for a formal dinner, I realised how lucky I was to have grown up there myself. We lived among so many people, who looked and talked so differently from one another, that there really was no “normal”.
My visit made me wish that I’d studied overseas myself, and had the chance to build a fresh network of friends from around the world as a grown-up. And I hope that if I ever have kids myself, I’ll be able to give them that same practical experience of discovering that the world is full of many kinds of people, and that we all have an enormous amount in common.
Specifically, being better at football than me was something that every other kid had in common. But we still all got together after school to do it, and I still loved every minute.
More than three decades after We Are The World, our planet seems more divided than ever. But I still believe that we can work together for a common cause, even if it’s just beating me at football. And at an early age, I grew comfortable living next to people who don’t look or talk like me, and learned that the wider your experience of the world, the richer your life is.
I’m still so grateful that Britain first gave me the chance to experience that. And for my childhood in a part of the country that’s still more interested in opening its doors than slamming them shut.
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