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         ‘It came to me in a flash,’ says Len Rodkin of the idea that has made him rich. ‘I was in an Early Learning Centre with my grandchildren just after we had been to the playground, and I thought: why do kids get so much special attention, and old people so little? Why aren't there playgrounds designed for people of my age? And why isn't there such a thing as a Late Learning Centre?"
         The more Len Rodkin thought about it, the more the idea of a Late Learning Centre appealed to him. A place where old people could go to find out things they wanted to know. A place where they could be unashamed to admit ignorance about things and put it right. A place where it was never too late to learn...
         ‘People of all ages like to learn things,’ says Rodkin. ‘Even kids who don't like school like to soak up football and pop music statistics. Adults have a craze for learning - otherwise, pub quizzes and “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" wouldn't be so popular, would they ? So why should old people be any different? Of course, old people can go to libraries - old people DO go to libraries, if they can find one - but there's no special place for them. There's the University of the Third Age, of course, but that's more for people who want to learn narrowly about one thing. That's why I dreamt up the Late Learning Centre.’
         The first Late Learning Centre opened in London two years ago and was an immediate success. Old people who had always wanted to know about mortgages, or medicine, or memory, or any of the things that concern us in later life, could now find a helpful range of books designed to fill them in. There was also a whole range of books about their own lifetimes, catering for what Len Rodkin calles the "Beatle factor".
         ‘It used to be a joke that old judges would ask plaintively in court, “Who are the Beatles?”. Nowadays most judges actually grew up with the Beatles. It's young people who don't know who the Beatles are. So old people buy two kinds of book on music; books on their own era, the Beatles era, and books on young people's music so that they can communicate with the young, especially their own grandchildren.’
         Len Rodkin waves a handful of books at me with titles like "Bluff Your Way in Hip Hop", "A Short Cut to Techno" and "Ibiza Made Easy" plus one which I swear was called "It's Never Too Late To Take Up Drugs", though I may have misread it. But isn't it unsettling for young people to find that their elders are taking an interest in their culture, and understanding it as well?
         Len Rodkin grins.
         ‘Hugely,’ he says. ‘Traditionally old people's function has been to disapprove of young people's noise and fashions and clothes. If you get enlightened old people being appreciative of young people's culture, it is very disturbing for young people, which is all to the good.’
         Late Learning Centres are not quite like Early Learning Centres. They are less like a shop, more like a licensed library - you can get a drink in there, and log on to the internet, and smoke too. But wouldn't that be, well, a bit corrupting for any young people who happen to come in?
         ‘Young people aren't allowed in,’ says Led briskly. ‘Unless accompanied by a senior - that is, someone over 60. You don't get old people wandering by themselves round in the Early Learning Centre, do you? Unless they've brought their grandchildren? Same difference with us. Don't want young adults fouling up the place unless they're vouched for.’
         Late Learning Centres have long since outstripped the mere sale of books, and, just as Early Learning Centres sell toys, Late Learning Centres sell gadgets, gizmos and Geiger counters. They also tell their customers how to use them.
         ‘Old people have got the money and the will to buy satellite-linked steering systems or advanced e-mail software, but very often they haven't got the know-how and nobody to ask. Come to the Late Learning Centre, spend some money and we'll patiently tell you how to use everything. If your memory isn't what it was, and you forget what we said - come back and we'll tell you over again!’
         Would YOU like to know more about the Late Learning Centre ? Well, wait till you're older and we'll tell you then....

The Independent
Mon Mar 29 04

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