The London Estates & Neighbourhoods That Became Publishing Houses
Leila Kassir, Academic Librarian: English Literature, explores some of the community publishers that inspired and transformed London's neighbourhoods...
“How can we transform our neighbourhood into a publishing house?”
This title question is posed in the second volume written by Authors of the Estate, a publishing project from Freedom & Balance. It has produced two volumes so far each written by residents of an estate in Wembley, North West London: St Raphael’s and most recently by Chalkhill. These publications combine text and images, written and produced directly by residents.
Freedom and Balance describe themselves as “an art college for the artist in everyone” that includes talks and workshops in addition to publishing which is run by André Anderson the ‘Headmaster of Freedom & Balance’.
The two Authors of the Estate books are the latest examples of community originated publishing added to Senate House Library’s collections, which contain numerous self-published and small press books and pamphlets produced within and by local communities, particularly from the 1970s onwards.
“You are now an authority” - Authors of the Estate, St Raphael’s Estate
Many of these community publishers existed to provide an outlet for writing by those whose voices and stories were often unheard within mainstream publishing due to biases and prejudices of gender, ethnicity, age or class. These publishers provided a space for subjective writing from direct, lived experience.
In John Berger’s obituary for Glenn Thompson, one of the founders that set up the bookshop and cultural meeting point Centerprise, in Dalston, he stated: “literacy was more than the capacity to read, it was the capacity to lay claim to a legitimate inheritance”. Although written specifically about Thompson, this statement underpins much of the ethos of the community publishing movement.
Many of the community publishers generated writing via workshops, often held within bookshops or other community centres that also offered playgroups and cafes. The works produced are direct, are relatively uncensored and in their very existence and their means of production defy attempts at exclusion. These works challenge who has the authority, the right, to an authorial voice.
Here are just a few examples of the many community publishers represented within Senate House Library’s collections:
Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers
Established in 1976, the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers was an umbrella grouping for community publishers, primarily those promoting working class writing. The initial Federation consisted of 8 groups but by 1989, when the attached image list was printed, there were over 30 member groups including the Basement Writers and Centerprise, more of which below. The Federation held annual AGMs and a conference and between them distributed hundreds and thousands of books. The Federation’s legacy is maintained via the Fed online.
Founded in 1971 by African American publisher and youth worker Glenn Thompson and Margaret Gosley, Centerprise was a bookshop (at the time the only one in Hackney) which fulfilled a varied role for the local community. As one of its books describes, Centerprise was “a bookshop, coffee bar, youth project, adult reading centre, advice centre, meeting rooms and publishing project”. Thompson and Gosley wanted to encourage young people to write but over its lifetime a wide variety of groups met, wrote and published within the space on Kingsland High Street. One of its writing projects was the Centerprise Young Writers, who met on Wednesdays at 6pm. Members of this group, aged from 14-25, wrote the publication As Good as We Make It (1982) which was illustrated by pictures by Centerprise’s Young Photographers Group.
Centerprise also published works on behalf of other community publishing groups. One example is the book The Gates (c.1974) by two Stepney boys, Leslie Mildiner and Bill House, an autobiographical novel explaining why they refused to attend school. Mildiner and House were members of the Stepney Basement Writers Group. The preface to the book highlights the lack of funding for the production of books written by young working class writers, stating: “the streets of East London…are still generally unwatered by public ‘Arts’ money”.
Basement Writers, Stepney
The Basement Writers were founded in 1973 to bring working class writing to a wider audience. The group met weekly in the basement of the old town hall in Cable Street, hence their name. Despite the problems with funding outlined above, the Tower Hamlets Arts Project (THAP) and bookshop supported the Basement Writers. Window on Brick Lane (1980) by Sally Flood is a good example of their support for working class writers. As the pamphlet’s blurb describes, Sally was “an embroidery machinist from Whitechapel…[who] turns out a huge amount of poetry commemorating any and everything that has happened to her”.
Black Ink Collective, Brixton
The Black Ink Collective was formed in Brixton in 1978, with the aim of publishing stories, poems and sketches by schoolchildren. Many of these focused on the realities of education, work and unemployment. Their first publication was a play by Michael McMillan entitled School Leaver (1978) which was “dedicated to unemployed school leavers past, present and future”. In his introduction to Black Ink’s 1983 collection Livingroom, the writer John Agard highlighted the difficulty of getting published by the “straight established publishing houses”, especially for black writers. He also made the important point that even if works were printed, they were not reviewed in the mainstream press, therefore limiting potential readership.
If you are interested in exploring community publishing further, a good place to start is via the Senate House Library catalogue and our collections, which contain the above works and many others. The Ron Heisler Collection is particularly strong in holdings. Here’s a short list of further reading and links to explore:
• Hackney Writers / A Hackney Autobiography
• Thinking Black Britain, 1964-1985 by Rob Waters
• Remembering 1968: the Hackney Centerprise Cooperative by Tom Woodin
• Working class writing and publishing in the late twentieth century by Tom Woodin
• Federation of Worker Writers and Community Pulbishers / Working Class Movement Library