I was at Pages bookshop in Lower Clapton Rd on Tuesday 17th November (if you live in Hackney its nearly opposite the Clapton Craft beer shop) to hear Barry Burke and Ken Worpole talk on a re-issue of their 1980 booklet on late nineteenth century radical Hackney, Hackney Propaganda.
It was standing room only and no it wasn’t in a telephone box. In fact it was rather like seeing a comeback performance by one of your favourite bands and finding that 35 years on not only were they still alive but actually still rather good.
Hackney Propaganda needs to be seen in its 2015 facsimile reprint in two prisms.
The original booklet, which came out of work done in the Hackney WEA in the early 1970s was published by the (now sadly departed) Centerprise bookshop in Dalston in 1980. It chronicles- briefly, not least because I suspect evidence is quite limited (though there may be more than is in the booklet)the rise of radical, pre-socialist, politics in Hackney from the 1870s to around 1900.
This was the period after the demise of Chartism but before the appearance of organised labour and socialist politics. That said the rise of the Social Democratic Federation and William Morris’s split from it the Socialist League in the 1880s is covered.
It is a fascinating period of (mainly) working men- gender is not a huge issue in the booklet (see below)- trying to find ways to meet and discuss radical ideas and to do so in ways that would be popular. The relevance to 2015 is hopefully clear.
And they succeeded. Mostly not allowed to meet in pubs (Tory landlords- unlike now) they gathered in coffee houses and financed themselves. The largest had memberships into the thousands.
There was serious politics behind this. One of those involved was Joseph Lane who formed the Labour Emancipation League and who mentored a young George Lansbury who eventually became the leader of the Labour Party.
Anyway, it is excellent news that the booklet is back in print. Do buy one or several, particularly perhaps if you have moved into Hackney since the 1970s and don’t know that much about the world of radical politics we had almost lost.
The second prism of the booklet is that which arose out of the History Workshop movement which started in the mid-1960s and is still very much with us.
The idea was not to look at leaders and great institutions but at the grassroots and archival evidence of local activity.
In that sense Hackney Propaganda was undoubtedly speaking to the Hackney left of 35 years ago to remind them of their history and performed a valuable role in doing so.
Yet the point made by the booklet that things discussed in it were more or less in living memory is no longer true. Indeed those who can remember Hackney in the 1970s let alone the 1870s are becoming as time moves on rather fewer, sadly.
If it was researched and written anew it would certainly focus a lot more on what working women were up to and what they thought of radical politics in the final quarter of the nineteenth century. It might also make a bit more of what those who were not radical were up to. I’m far from sure what the strength of working-class Toryism in Hackney was in the period covered but it certainly existed.
I make these points simply to underline that the research agendas of 35 years ago remain fertile and relevant.
So again buy a copy of Hackney Propaganda and visit Pages bookshop if you’re in the area. Discussions such as the one held last Tuesday don’t happened on Amazon