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Oral history interview with Ken Worpole


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Oral history interview with Ken Worpole

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Centerprise (Founder)

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Worpole, Ken (Subject of)


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MAPPING THE CHANGE: Hackney Museum oral history project

KEN WORPOLE - member of the original Centerprise
Born 23rd June 1944

First Adult Experience of Hackney / Hackney Downs School: 1969

I moved to Hackney in 1969 as a trained teacher and went to teach at Hackney Downs School. And I was there for four years.

Hackney Downs School was just in transition then from being a boys' Grammar School, to being a Comprehensive School. And then when I arrived there I guess probably about 40% of the pupils were Jewish: not Orthodox Jewish, but Jewish by faith - or were not observing Jews. That made a very strong impression.

Early Impression of Hackney's Jewish Identity: significant change now

My wife’s father was Jewish and her mother had converted to Judaism. And so when we first arrived here one of our first impressions was that Hackney still had a very strong Jewish identity – because we were interested in these things. The shops, food shops, dress shops. And so on. And I think that's a major significant shift from then to now – the loss of that non-orthodox Jewish population, though we have still very strong orthodox Jewish communities in the north of the borough. But generally Hackney no longer has that strong Jewish feel.

Involvement in original Centerprise: origins

So I taught from 1969 to 1973 at Hackney Downs School. But in about 1970, I met up with - or I was contacted - by a Black American draft - resister, who was new to London, and was working as a Youth Worker in Hoxton for the Inner London Education Authority. He had this idea to set up a project, based on the Scandinavian notion of the book café - the sort of political book café. And I got very interested in this because I was an English Teacher. While I stayed working as a teacher, I was involved to a lesser extent in the early days of Centerprise. Although it was principally the work of this Black Youth Worker called Glenn Thompson, and his wife or partner, Margaret., along with Anthony Kendall, Erica Stern, and some others. They really did the work to get it going. I was still working as a teacher. But giving a lot of support.

Centerprise early projects: Oral History

And one of the early projects we did was an oral history project, which was called "A People's Autobiography of Hackney".
Dalston Was His First Significant Encounter with Black People.

I trained to be a teacher in Brighton, so when we came to Hackney and bought a small house in Stoke Newington, this was the first time we'd lived in an area with a significant Black population. We then called it a West Indian population. I know one now talks about the Afro-Caribbean population.

Race Relations - Pubs: Colour Bar/ Race Attitudes

You have to remember that many pubs operated a ‘colour bar’ then. It was informal. I had met this before because before I'd trained to be a teacher I had worked as a trainee civil engineer. And worked in the Midlands. And I'd been on several jobs where we had an Indian trainee with us, and we might go to a pub and you'd simply be refused service so we left. "We don't serve Blacks." That sort of thing. So I was a bit used to it. It wasn't a strongly contentious issue then amazingly. I would say - this is a very big generalisation - half the pubs in Hackney simply did not allow Black people in them or made them feel unwelcome. And it was the kind of informal Colour Bar. The majority of the others would, but they stayed in the Public Bar - while everybody else used the Saloon Bar. For example our most local pub in the next street - which was where we bought the house and had the children - The Londesborough Arms, Black people stayed in the public bar, and the saloon bar was used by White people.

Race Relations: Ridley Road made Dalston ignore Colour Bar - tolerant.

What was different about Dalston?. Because of Ridley Road Market, which had a lot of West Indian stall-holders and customers, most of the pubs there did not operate a Colour Bar. So it had this strong effect. Partly because of Ridley Road and so on. It was because Dalston was a centre of Caribbean life, because of the market, but also because the pubs there were much more tolerant. And I don't think people have given enough credence to how institutions like pubs and bars structure the geography of a place. So much as something like an informal Colour Bar that pushed West Indians towards and around Ridley Road, and the pubs around there. Dalston pubs were much more tolerant.

Ridley Road: History as Saturday 'Speakers Corner' for political groups and religious groups

And Ridley Road was obviously - had this sort of history as a place where political groups would leaflet - speak on Saturdays. Religious groups would meet and speak on Saturdays. And there was quite a vibrant, if occasionally confrontational politics around Ridley Road. It wasn't just a marketplace - it still had the sense that it was also a 'Speakers Corner'. On Saturdays particularly. People - different rival Left-wing factions - would sell newspapers. Black Nationalist organisations, Black Unity and Freedom Party, and several other Black political groups would sell papers there. And obviously the market - a lot of the stall-holders were Jewish so when the Yom Kippur war erupted in 1973 there was a phenomenal amount of fund-raising for Israel in the marketplace during that war.

Dalston: Always part of political geography of Hackney. Willow Tree Pub - Fascist drinking spot.

So Dalston's, I think, always had this - it's very much a part of the political geography of Hackney. But on the fringes, there was a pub, 'The Willow Tree', just in Balls Pond Road. That still was a fascist pub. It had been in the 50s. And it was one that people still kept clear of well into the 1970s. In fact there is a gangster's autobiography, which I think I've probably got, 'Bullen' (by Henry Ward with Tony Gray, Hodder & Stoughton 1974) - nobody's heard of it for donkey's years. But he talks a lot about drinking in the 'Willow Tree', as a kind of mixture of gangsters and old Moseleyite type people.

Duke of Wellngton pub: 'The Sugawn Theatre'

And then slightly along Balls Pond Road was the 'Duke of Wellington'. Which was managed or possibly owned – from the end of the 70s, but certainly in the 80s and 90sm- by an Irishman called Jerry O'Neill who was a very cultivated man with a great interest in theatre and poetry. And it had a small function room at the back, which he turned into a theatre - 'The Sugawn Theatre'. And he was a novelist. A very good novelist. And the Duke of Wellington was another meeting-place for poetry groups and so on. And that had a strong cultural identity. I remember seeing a production of Brecht’s play, ‘The Measures Taken’ there, with live music by Cornelius Cardew and his band.

Crown and Castle pub: Alternative comedy venue

Then towards the end of the 70s - came the Punk movement, as is very well told in this pamphlet by Aaron Williamson (Splitting the Atom on Dalston Lane sic). Then, the end of the 70s, the 'Crown and Castle', on the corner of Dalston Lane and Kingsland Road, Kingsland High Street, became a venue for alternative comedy. Quite a well-known part of the, kind of, circuit. The upstairs room. And that was, kind of, interesting, because the 'Crown and Castle' was a very run down pub. Front bar was West Indian. Back bar was White - including a heavy contingent from Dalston Police Station. And upstairs were, kind of, Left-wing comedy. With a kitchen, and so on.

Pubs that had live music
The Sussex in De Beauvoir - jazz.
Kingsland Road pub near Metropolitan Hospital. "fancied itself as a bit of Las Vegas, I never went in there, but on Saturdays, all the cars would park outside.." "very glamorous" "all white" "lots of jewellery". American crooner/song book style.
They started the Oral History Project ' The People's Autobiography' in about 1972. Worked at Centerprise publishing oral histories until 1979. "Tremendously exciting times":
Talks about wider oral history movement, called 'History Workshop Movement' - it's Guru was the Historian Raphael Samuel who lived in Spittlefields. As an English Teacher trained in a progressive college of education, very committed to encouraging children's writing. Children would write and draw and would print on a spirit printer. He became interested in the reproduction of culture. West Indian boy, Vivien Usherwood in remedial class very talented. He wrote some poems, which they initially duplicated and used in their lessons. The went the next step into offset litho printed 100 copies - got another Black student to take the photo for the cover - in the end they sold 10,000 copies. They were included in anthology of poems about London by Kenneth Baker the Cabinet Minister.
That's when he realised there was an appetite for poems, stories, histories. Moved from being a teacher to being a community publisher at Centerprise. Involved in producing books for schools, oral histories. Very amateurish, met as an evening class because that was the only way to get funding. Contacted people by putting letters in the newspaper. Interested in memories particularly around certain trades: furniture, clothing or work in hospitals. "Everybody then had a budgerigar. Greeted like heroes, people so pleased to talk they would get out the best china and the best seed cake and so on, then you would get this rattling of teacups while you were trying to talk about fighting the Fascists".

Didn't have the resources to pay attention to quality - (they were later stolen). Broadcasters would use this lack of technical quality as an excuse not to use them - cultural form of exclusion. He urgently wanted to get the thing transcribed as soon as possible, didn't really trust the tape to have a lasting value. Then to publish. Got heavily involved in ideological argument about whether to edit out sighs, ums and ahs to make it flow. Pretty ideological bunch, purists, non-purists, but they muddled through - did a lot of publications through Centerprise. Had successes, gave the bookshop an identity. It started out looking just like a left-wing bookshop because of the local history stuff it changed people's perceptions and became much integrated into the life of the borough. Tremendously exciting times. Ian Sinclair writing /publishing very avant garde poetry. Would bump into each other at the printer, Expression Printers in Balls Pond Road. A few of the books he typed on electric type writer by hand, did everything, scissors, blue pencil, cow gum, we thought this was fabulous this was the revolution - tin of cow gum electric type writer - what more did you need. He left Centerprise in 1979, but stayed involved into the 1980s
The original Centerprise: The place and the people who went there.

Well the story's well-told in Patrick Wright's book about Dalston Lane - 'A Journey Through (The Ruins sic). When Glenn Thompson was looking for a place to set up this book café - radical book café - he originally, and Larraine, my wife, and I went to look with him... There was a Sainsbury's actually in Stoke Newington High Street, which had just closed. But that didn't get chosen. But then Dalston Lane was due to be demolished, and they were letting the buildings out. The council owned them all I think. But they were letting them out on short-term leases. You know, a year at a time. With a maximum of three years, by which time it was due to be demolished. So Centerprise moved into 32 Dalston Lane.

And it was a double-fronted shop. And the front half was bookshop, and the back was a coffee bar. And upstairs were, kind of, a couple of small administration rooms.

And it was funded by ILEA, really to attract young people - particularly young people who were a bit at a loose end. On the streets. And it did to a certain extent. But it also became... well there was this whole, kind of, alternative culture was very strong then. I mean, it was which was a mixture of of New Age stuff - you know, books about men from out of space, Eric Von Daniken, Mescaline trips in Mexico, Herman Hesse’s 'The Glass Bead Game', There was so much, kind of, going on culturally - politics and New Age. That really, the people coming into the bookshop, were coming - and you know a lot of the boys at Hackney Downs School were really in to this stuff. I mean very early on - you know, fifteen - they were reading 'Ouspensky'. I mean, very weird stuff. I didn't like it at all. But, you know, for them it was getting on to higher spiritual plane, because it was partly connected with the music scene....

So, and also, Centerprise very early on got a contract to stock 'Open University' text books. And they weren't great sellers. But it did give it, again, that sort of cache - that it was part of a self-educating sort of tradition.

So it was a, kind of, alternative bookshop. And I would say the majority of people coming into it were young people into the alternative music scene. Into, kind of, music festivals, free festivals. Into, you know, drugs. But there were also Black people who were into mixed bands. And so on. And all the sorts of people that any kind of free community centre usually gets: a few regulars who are probably on day-release from Hackney Hospital with mental health problems. You know, all those people.

But, you know, because of the diversity of things we were doing. And particularly the local publishing of local history, we were trying to give it some ballast as well. Not just appealing to the young, or the Left-wing, or the alternative scene. But to also locate it into this wider sense of Hackney. Because class was still a big political issue then. And, kind of, the celebration of class and the recovery of class memories, was very much part of the politics at the time. And, rightly so. I was moved to tears often, and astonished by the sheer hard lives that some people had lived that, we'd interviewed. But also their skills. For example, the cabinet-making skills - their tools. Their tools were worth as much as their life. They'd tell you that a cabinet-maker had to have fifteen saws, and eighty-three chisels. And, you know, you get those stolen, you might as well be dead actually. So, you know, all that was really fascinating stuff. And worth recording.

Race-tensions in Dalston/ Hackney: counterpoint to love, peace and alternative society. Centerprise fire-bombed. The riots

Those things was still... the police issue was so difficult. Because there was a whole series, as you know, of deaths in police custody. The Stoke Newington Police Station had a notorious reputation, where Black people went in, got badly beaten up. Occasionally didn't come out alive. And the police attitude to Black people on the streets was just simply, you know, horrific. So apart from all the love and peace stuff, and the alternative society, there was this edge as well, around the issue of the police and Black people. And that came and went.

And so that by in the 70s when the National Front kind of got going again, it all turned very nasty I have to say. And I didn't like it one bit. I didn't like that period at all. Because it was scary. And Centerprise was firebombed. And once I was beaten up as I left Centerprise - locking up. And then on Sundays we'd go down to Brick Lane to, kind of, leaflet - because that's where the National Front sell their paper. And it got heavier and heavier. And I was not completely happy with the, sort of, the way that a lot of the Left, kind of, almost seemed to be enjoying this. Not something I approved of then, or approve of now. You know, I think you need to know when to, kind of, step back and change direction.

So that was a very bad period actually. And I was very good friends with Blair Peach. And obviously was very distressed when he died. I mean, interestingly, Blair Peach organised a picket - but it wasn't in Hackney - of the 'Railway Tavern' in Stratford, for operating a Colour Bar. And people always said 'well he was always a marked man by the police for that'. I mean, he was a very active anti-racist.

So I suppose there was this period of what people regard as the best of the 60s, or the early 70s. The sort of 'Peace and Love' and burgeoning cultural democracy - 'and let a hundred flowers bloom; let a thousand schools of thought contend'. Community publishing. Everybody finding their own voice. And then underneath it there's this, kind of, state trying to hold it in. And, I guess, contain it, in a place like Hackney.

So police-community relations were terrible, actually. Truly terrible. And that didn't make a good atmosphere. So when the first riots happened. I think it was about 1981? That was just horrific. And I remember, we were having a meeting - you know, we were having a writers workshop in Centerprise. And I saw these kids who I knew. White kids. Because by then Centerprise had moved to Kingsland High Street. It was right on the edge of Sandringham Road - which was called the 'Front Line' - where the Black and White Café was. And we were having this meeting, the writers workshop. Very hot evening, with all the windows... And then I saw these kids who I knew. They weren't that racist, but they weren't, you know... But they were, kind of, gearing up. They knew that it was all going to kick off that evening. And it did. And it was horrific. It was horrific. Police vans, riot shields - all that stuff. You know. Sealing off whole streets. Did it have to be that way? Well I guess it did. Because the National Front seemed to be on a kind of roll. And I think, in my opinion the Left - certainly the Socialist Workers Party - may have been right for a short while. But not far along... I mean the 'Rock Against Racism', that was a good thing. And the 'Anti-Nazi League'. But it all got very nasty. And I think it could have been diffused earlier. Without, you know, so much, sort of psychic damage to people.

The old guard councillors of the 70's and earlier kept control of the council officers, 80's & 90's saw corruption and gentrification. But the old guard Councillors had a mistrust of the voluntary sector:
Riots brought a turning point government policy changed overnight, that's where urban regeneration comes from. Investment back into the city. The problem with Hackney, you'd need a whole book more than a book to talk about the local authority. In the early 1970's the majority of Labour Councillors lived in council houses, a significant number of them had Jewish, Communist Party backgrounds, they, were intelligent, strategic people mostly men, who knew how to get what they wanted. The local authority officers did what they were told. Gentrification in the 1980's brought the gentrification of the council – an almost complete middle-class takeover. In the '70's majority of hackney housing was council housing, something like 80%. New councillors "didn't have the old toughness - chutzpah - to tell the officers what to do, officers often rang rings round them".

West Indian settlers: From 1st generation home-owners, to 2nd generation renters

We moved to Oldfield Road, which is a small terraced street that runs from Londesborough Road - Barbauld Road actually. It was a very small terraced house. We bought a house there for £4,400. We had a friend who lent us some money to pay the deposit on a mortgage. But it was interesting. That road was certainly about a third West Indian in terms of residents. And a lot of those had mortgages. And they were working as nurses or bus drivers, or in London Transport, and so on - very respectable. There were probably already then, another third, who were Greek Cypriots, not Turkish Cypriots - Greek Cypriots. Who were also buying their own houses. It was a terribly quite, terribly respectable street. A familiar feature of that street, as it was lots of places around there, was that clothes vans would come down in the morning to drop off the separate bits of dresses and other clothes to be machined, and collect the finished product in the evening. Stopping at a lot of the houses.

A lot of women - but also the men sometimes - in both the West Indian and Greek Cypriot families, were sewing for a living on machines. Fairly heavy industrial machines. You could hear it a bit next door - we had one next door. But it was, there was no unemployment - so it seemed. And it always struck me as unusual that it was the 2nd generation who ended up being poorer than the 1st generation. And I think this is an historic reversal of an historic pattern. Whereby the 1st generation arrives. Struggles in, kind of, tenement buildings - in, you know, slums, and so on. To get enough money. And then this next generation benefits from that. I would say that the first generation of - or certainly the people we knew in our street - the West Indians. Had come over. Had got the, you know, Public-Sector jobs. Were paid a reasonable wage, with job-security. And they're able to actually get a mortgage. And they were able to, kind of, start buying a house. And yet their children were not. So the next generation were actually poorer. Had less opportunities and advantages, than the 1st generation

You see these things because they're a powerful impression. I mean, Sunday morning. All the West Indian people were dressed up to go to church. And West Indian funerals were enormous. You know, in Church Street there were at least then two West Indian funeral directors to arrange for the repatriation of bodies to the home island. So that was very very strong. It was a very highly structured way of life. Which I think subsequent generations struggled to, kind of, find their footing within that. Or in fact couldn't. Because they were priced out of the housing market. Job-security disappeared. And, of course, they were born here. They didn't want to be buried back in the West Indies. You know, they were born here. So phenomenal kind of cultural transition, which was not happy. You know, which was a difficult transition.

Tell us about Places socialised and areas you knew.
Tremendous period of creativity and alternative political provision.:
'Freeform' Community Arts project, still around in 'Hot House' London Fields
Chats Palace

We sometimes went Hoxton Hall old musical theatre run by mission charity which did all kinds of things theatre in very difficult circumstances because the National Front was very well organised round there.
The Factory at Newington Green was another community centre that did theatre as well as a nursery. Centerprise had a nursery: the project was trying to put everything together: childcare,, adult education, opportunities for whole family, music, dances. The Factory discos highly thought of. In Hoxton Square there was a Latin American centre at end of 70's. Alternative political provision, "not all fighting and leafleting, a good bop and so on". Chat’s Palace too had great theatre, dances, and wonderful pantomimes.
New Social Movements: Environmental Movement, Women's Movement, Gay Liberation Movement, Black Politics and so on. Communist Party:
Centerprise sold a lot of feminist literature and various Women's groups met there. His wife Larraine was very involved with the childcare movement, which had links to the Women's Movement.
Communist Party, quite strong in early '80's Euro Communism. He was never a member.

Tremendous provision, always somewhere to go on a Saturday night - the Rio started in the late 70's. Tremendous creativity - creating institutions, many of which have stayed: The Factory is still there, Hoxton Hall, Chats Palace, Freeform, Centerprise. All were trying to find a balance between politics and culture. That's why he found them so interesting. Loathing of left wing politics without any sense of fun.

Pubs were much more important then: The Allen Arms was an important meeting place, in Allen Road? Which is now gone. Was run by formidable Irish woman called Bridie. Very welcoming to West Indians. Big horseshoe bar. Fantastic juke box: Miles Davis Lena Horne, James Brown, Tamla Motown. Great place run by Bridie and her husband.

"The Duke of Wellington was another very important to me, because we often did poetry readings there. There was a Hackney Music Workshop, the folk scene was quite strong we used to do joint things with them, music and readings at the Duke of Wellington, so it was pretty lively.”

Chemistry to Hackney, it's special: don't know what the chemistry is, but does seem a more tolerant place. Compares to Islington, finds "Upper street horrific.
Is Hackney like it is because it's a transitional place, transitional housing. Attracts people who wanted social change.
Talks about a book that compared Hackney to third world country, because of statistics. People outraged. There is a chemistry, I don't know what it is.
Attitude to the Olympics: Opposed to it partly because no history of it delivering any of the legacies that were promised. It may be they have found the trick of delivering it afterwards. He has been a bit involved the whole landscaping thing. Heartbroken at the loss of the allotment site, Manor Gardens. The Athletes Village looks like a garrison, it's horrific. Cycled up and down the Lea for donkey's years, it's going though some of it was pretty rotten, can't be against change. Preferred for it not to have happened, but now it is we should try and work to make sure that it does deliver the legacy.

Dalston Interchange
Getting right balance between improved public infrastructure for the widest range of people possible or regeneration as gentrification and displacement. Suspicious of things that look as though they're displacing rather than improving.
Impressed with Mayor in recent years. Optimist about Hackney, feeling better managed than for 20 years at least.
Bits of Hackney still very run down:
Stamford Hill doesn't feel like it's had any tender loving care. Stoke Newington station, pretty rough round the edges.

Wish there was more sense of history in the borough: St. Mary's lodge. The Hackney Society is doing a very good job.

Hackney parks haven't changed differently to the way national parks have changed: Victoria Park when his children were young had lido, boating on lake, model boating lake, parks used at weekends, traditional playgrounds. occasional events like brass bands, all very manicured. Very well kept. Population has changed, demographics - age. Wouldn't see picnics 30 years ago like you do now. Turkish tradition of picnics very strong. Now they're managed more for fun and all year round use - much more used, possibly than they were.

Dog owning - thinks it is nationally out of hand now: Old photos of Clissold Park have no dogs or very little dog walking. Dog population is up to 9 million nationally.

He interviewed the Jewish novelist Alexander Baron in 1983 who grew up in Hackney, active before war fighting Mosley. And said that a lot of it was game playing - he and his Jewish mates would stand at one end of Ridley Road, Mosleyites at the other end, shout slogans at each other . Afterwards occasionally they would meet up in the pub, or a Jewish guy would take out one of the mosleyite girls.
Race Attitudes: 'The 43 Group' - from extreme prejudice and underlying racial tension, to tolerance

Centerprise did publish a book called 'The 43 Group', which was a group of Jewish ex-servicemen who called themselves 'the 43 Group'. Including the very famous hairdresser (Vidal Sasson sic). And they were a mobile anti-fascist unit. You know, communicated that if any of Moseley's turned up on Ridley Road. They would be there within the hour. And they would knock the hell out of them. So there was a very brutal side to it after the war. But it had largely petered out by the time we got here at the end of the 60s.

But in the same way, it disappeared in Hoxton - and that's a big change. The sheer physical discomfort that you could see some White people had in being in the same shopping queue as a Black person has all gone. There was all this underlying tension around race particularly. You know, when the police, when it got in the late 70s, when it all got very over-heated and the police, kind of, waded in on behalf of the Right Wing. And one felt very uncomfortable. And it wasn't a good time to live through. But that is a complete difference between then and now. I mean that sort of physical discomfort, you know. People are more tolerant. They may say other things. And they may want to move out to Enfield, and all that sort of stuff. But actually, two generations down, it just feels so different. So different. You know? You can't imagine that sheer, tribal, kind of dislike of the otherness of Black people. Or people who didn't speak English - the otherness of them. That's gone.