Ten years of the radical history of Hackney

The first post was the text and images from the debut issue of Hackney Heckler

The first post on this blog was on 19th February 2011. I didn’t do a huge explanation at that time, partly because I wasn’t sure how sustainable it would be as a project. I was also a bit apprehensive about how the things I wrote would be received by people who had actually participated in the events at the time.

Ten years on is a probably a good point for some reflection.

Background to The Radical History of Hackney site

I first started coming to Hackney in 1987 for music gigs. The Borough’s reputation preceded it – there was a thriving subculture of radical art and politics here, including huge amounts of squatting. A year later I moved to neighbouring Haringey and was a regular visitor to Hackney before finally moving here in the mid nineties.

I’ve long been inspired by the radical history work by people like Past Tense and History is Made at Night and others. But I never saw myself as being a Historian, or knowing enough about things that had happened in the place where I lived.

Then I had some conversations with younger friends in the pub. We spoke about the long list of black people who had died in police custody in London. And I mentioned that Colin Roach had been shot in the lobby of Stoke Newington police station in 1983. And then I went off on one about the insane levels of police corruption in Hackney in the 1990s and how Stoke Newington had been a textbook example of bent cops who controlled the drug trade and routinely fitted people up.

And my younger friends looked at me quizzically and I realised that this was the first time they’d heard all this and that actually it did sound a bit fantastical and perhaps I had misremembered it all. So I looked around and it was clear that these were things that had actually happened, but there wasn’t a lot of information about them online.

So I figured that I could just scan a few things in and post them on a blog. That would be a nice little project which would be short-lived and could be fitted around my worthy-but-not-radical office job and family life. The comrades at 56A Infoshop were very generous with their Hackney Community Defence Association and Hackney Solidarity Group material from the 1990s, which complemented a few things I had kicking about in my boxes of radical printed matter that can be a source of irritation to my partner. I also had the beginnings of a Hackney radical history timeline from the Hackney Anarchy Week festival in the 1990s that I had been involved with organising. The early focus was on documenting events from my time in London that had happened before everything was recorded on the internet.

An alternative version of the header image kindly supplied by an anonymous comrade designer

Then I kept remembering other things. And reading around one subject would yield some tantalising links to other areas for exploration. Sometimes I’d find out enough for a new post, but if not I’d post requests on my Wantlist. People would then leave comments with further information and some cases offer to send me their own scans or printed material, which is how I ended up republishing hugely important documents like Hackney NUT’s Police Out of School and an online archive of Hackney Peoples Press. The support I’ve received has been incredibly touching.

I also got involved with the Radical History Network, which was a great way of meeting like-minded people, talking through various issues in discussions, gaining insights into other projects. And reassuring myself that it was actually possible to have a reasonable stab at this sort of thing despite not having “done history” since school.

Successes

The site generally gets about 25,000 views a year (36,000 last year) so thank you for that!

The top five posts of all time by views are:

  1. Timeline
  2. The sad story of Fred Demuth, Marx’s son in Hackney
  3. Fighting The Lawmen (HCDA’s pamphlet on police corruption / “stokey cokey”)
  4. Hackney’s Anarchic Nineties
  5. The National Front’s Hackney HQ

Broadly people have liked the site and I’ve had some amazing feedback from Hackney residents past and present as well as the expected politicos. So thank you if you have said nice things.

Despite my misgivings about irritating activists by misrepresenting what they were doing, the site has mainly annoyed precisely the right people, judging by the (unpublished) comments from racists and individuals who seem to think that any efforts to improve the world are bad in and of themselves.

It’s been even more satisfying that material here has been useful for great initiatives like On The Record’s documentation of the Centerprise and the recent tour de force which is the Rio Tape Slide Project book – as well as an irregular informal exchange of ideas with the heroes at Hackney Archives, Hackney Museum and elsewhere. 

At its best radical history can inspire and inform contemporary struggles and it’s been good to get stuck into things like the Museum of the Home’s racist memorial to slave trader Robert Geffrye, as well as the campaign by the victims of Spycops to get justice.

On a more personal level it has made me very happy that the comments boxes here have reunited people who haven’t seen each other for decades, including estranged family members.

Misgivings and things which didn’t happen

My enthusiasm for the site waxes and wanes, hence the erratic posting schedule. Juggling this and other projects on top of my worthy-but-not-radical office job and family commitments means that I can’t always spend as much time as a topic deserves. 

There were a couple of excting offers of working some posts up into a book, but time doing that would mean less time doing this. There has also been a trickle of requests for help from people doing research for school or college projects which I’ve engaged with grudgingly (not least because very few people then send you the output of this research). 

Breathless enquiries from the media have got shorter shrift – maybe I won’t drop everything to help you with a piece you are doing today, right this minute about the Angry Brigade…

The biggest risk with this sort of site is that it just creates nostalgia. I’m excited by the long history of resistance and struggles in Hackney, but am conscious that it’s easy to slip into a restless feeling that everything was happening back then – and that today looks boring in comparison, which isn’t true. And of course the material conditions (as yer Marxists say) are completely different now. Most of my younger friends who I chatted to ten years ago in the pub have been priced out of Hackney since. 

I’m also struck by the fact that some of the most popular posts attract people with ideas that are diametrically opposed to mine. National Front hardman Derrick Day is one of the most popular search terms and he seems to exert a weirdly fetishistic pull on people. Frederick Demuth being Marx’s son (or not) seems proof enough to a large number of people that Marx’s ideas are therefore completely tainted. Perhaps reading the material here will give some of these people pause for thought, but the polarisation of current discourse suggests that is optimistic.

I’ve been gently challenged by my neighbours about not covering feminism sufficiently well, which I agree with. The same is probably true of black history and other areas. If I had more time I’d definitely do more interviews with people and perhaps organise some events or publish the odd pamphlet. Or spend more time in physical archives rather than on google. Or be better at encouraging others to contribute.

Short of a lottery win, or retirement at some point, or the complete transformation of society after a world revolution, things will probably just chug along in the same way though. I have a pile of unfinished posts that I am looking forward to polishing up. Over the last ten years I’ve realised that I’ve only really scratched the surface… 

2 thoughts on “Ten years of the radical history of Hackney

  1. Hi, as an occasional visitor to the site can I just say how much I enjoy it. I like the fact that your interests are eclectic and do not wallow in the nostalgia that much of Hackney history is presented with these days…

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