Sunday, August 23, 2015

For the last few months, I have been involved in volunteering for an organisation called On The Record, a co-operative based in London who are interested in oral and visual history. The project I have been specifically involved with is called A Hackney Autobiography, and focuses on the history of Centerprise, an organisation that was based in Hackney from its inception in the early 70s to around 2012 – a period of 40 years.
My father was involved in Centerprise in the 70s, and I was raised in Hackney, so the project has had some personal dimensions for me. I went to secondary school right near where Centerprise was based, in Dalston, and remember going there as a child.
It's easy to forget, strolling around Hackney now - with its myriad bars and coffee shops, and trendy-looking young population – just what it was like at the beginning of the 70s. To give you some perspective, when Centerprise opened its doors, there was not a single bookshop in the entire borough. There were libraries, obviously, but no bookshops – a remarkable statistic given that Hackney had and has a population of roughly 200,000. Stoke Newington Bookshop had yet to open. Not only did Centerprise introduce a cafe and a bookshop (below) together – something that was a regular feature in founder Glenn Thompson's native USA – but it also housed an advice centre, a reading centre, a publishing project, youth club, creche, and more. In addition, many groups, ranging from female-dominated collectives such as the Hackney Flashers to Chilean exiles from Pinochet's brutal regime in that country, took advantage of Centerprise's free meeting spaces. 

Centerprise bookshop. Photo by Ken Worpole
This was highly unusual in a Hackney which at that time remained desolate, largely ungentrified and working-class, with large swathes of unemployment. In contrast to the insanity of today's London housing boom, there was plenty of dilapidated housing and declining industry in Hackney during that period, much of which was taken over by squatters. The 70s was a dark time for not just Hackney, but for London and the rest of the UK as a whole. The economy remained in recession, framed against the backdrop of the 1973 oil crisis. In the late 70s, around the time I was being born, the 'Winter of Discontent' hit. Successive bin strikes ensured that rubbish lined the street as abnormally freezing weather hit. Three day working weeks were introduced to conserve electricity. It's almost unthinkable today, given the ubiquity of technology, but for some of the 70s television companies had to cease broadcasting at 10:30pm – again to conserve technology.
Operating with this as a context, Centerprise's publishing project allowed local working people's voices to be heard, with books released chronicling Hackney history and the autobiographies of those who had lived in the area for a lifetime. In addition, Centerprise Publishing Project released editions of poetry by local students, as well as housing left-learning publications such as Hackney Action and the Hackney People's Press. This flurry of activity was conducted while Centerprise was being operated as a collective co-operative, in the true spirit of the time. Every Monday, staff would meet and collectively make decisions on the running of Centerprise, with a rotating of duties. Many other organisations operated in a similar manner during those halcyon, heady, politicised days as the 70s blurred into the early 80s, reflected in the tense post-punk of the time (Gang of Four, The Slits, The Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Joy Division, and other acts too numerous to reel off) that was released from labels like Rough Trade (itself a co-operative), Factory, Mute, and many others. Feminism, anti-nuclear demonstrations (the CND were at the peak of their popularity) during the Cold War era, squatting and anarchism (exemplified by anarcho-punk bands such as Crass) were all prevalent during the period.
I got in touch with On The Record after writing, first, an article on an exhibition at Bishopsgate Insitute by OTR showing images of orators at Speaker's Corner; and then on Centerprise itself (the latter of which can be viewed below – there's also an extended version of the article here).

For the project, I have been based at Bishopsgate Institute, near Liverpool Street Station, which contains a huge archive of material relating to London, scanning much of the books released by the Centerprise Publishing Project, and archiving the seemingly inexhaustible various documents that have came our way relating to Centerprise – everything from old copies of Hackney Action to photographs, letters, and assorted ephemera.
I have also been researching numerous photos of Hackney during the 70s and 80s – the period that the project is particularly interested in – at the Hackney Archives on Dalston Lane, and have took part in workshops mapping the history of Hackney, and of events surrounding Centerprise and related to it.

These workshops led to a presentation by myself and another volunteer of the history of protest and confrontation in Hackney, beginning at the end of the World War II with revolts by The 43 Group – an anti-fascist group set up by Jewish ex-servicemen in London - against the fascist agitator Oswald Mosley, whose Union Movement rallies in Ridley Road (now famous for its multicultural street market) were disrupted by the group. Various battles against Mosley's 'blackshirts' had culminated in the infamous Battle of Cable Street a decade earlier, when Mosley was leader of the British Union of Fascists.
Meanwhile, in the 70s, there would be repeated battles between anti-fascists (including the Anti-Nazi League) and the National Front, who had essentially inherited the raison d'etre of Mosley's mob, in Hoxton and Shoreditch. Again, given the gentrification of these areas today, with Old Street's nightlife strip and the seemingly never-ending night traffic, it seems difficult to imagine that in the 70s, these ares were desolate, violent places, on the frontline of these battles. The connection drawn between The 43 Group and Centerprise was that Centerprise Publishing Project would go on to publish a book on the history of the 43 Group in the early 90s (below).

From this, we focused on how Sandringham Road, in Dalston, had become another frontline of tension – this time between the local police and the West Indian community, after a raid on a local cafe. Related to this, we documented cases where a number of young black men had died in mysterious circumstances in Stoke Newington Police Station during the 80s, such as Colin Roach and Michael Ferreira.
The presentation can be heard below. 

The project will culminate in a book, a website and an app, which will map the history of Centerprise in Hackney. Links will be posted on here.