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The Bishopsgate Blog provides an added insight into all of our activities, Library, Courses, Events and Schools and Community Learning. Our regular blogs will feature speakers from our Cultural Events, photographs, documents, letters, posters and ephemera from the Library, up-to-date news and information on courses and first-hand accounts of our Schools and Community workshops.

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Our inspired Schools and Community Learning programme delivers a range of workshops and projects using the unique and fascinating collections found within our world-renowned Bishopsgate Library. Our workshops are suitable for learners of all ages and are used by wide variety of audiences from primary school pupils to pensioners.

Our regular blogs will demonstrate how our Schools and Community Learning programme encourages discovery and enquiry amongst our wide-ranging participants.


Culture and arts, heritage and history, ideas and independent thought all come together in our exciting events programmes. You can enjoy talks, walks, discussions and debates, or one of the many concerts that take place throughout the year.

Our regular blogs will give an added insight and perspective into our dynamic programme with content from speakers at our events.


Situated in a Grade II* listed building, Bishopsgate Library’s beautiful reading room is a peaceful place to study that is open to all; a calm oasis amid the bustle of Spitalfields and the City. In our dedicated Researchers’ Area, you can consult our renowned printed and archival collections on London, labour, freethought and Humanism, co-operation, or protesting and campaigning.

Our regular blogs will provide a new way for you to engage with the library collections and services, new acquisitions, activities and future developments.


Our comprehensive range of short courses offer you the opportunity to discover, discuss and be inspired in a welcoming environment. Our courses are conveniently designed to take place throughout the day, including lunchtimes, after work and at weekends. We have five course strands, Arts and Culture, Words and Ideas, Languages, Performing Arts and Body & Exercise to choose from.

Our regular blogs will provide up-to-date news and information.

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Author and historian Sarah Wise is a regular tutor of 19th-century social history and literature at Bishopsgate Institute. One of her courses this term will look at the frightening re-imaginings of London in 19th- and 20th-century works of science fiction. We asked her a few questions about the new course and her interest in Victorian London.

Q: What first drew you to delve into London's Victorian past?
A: I grew up in the golden age of British telly - when adaptations of all the classic 19th-century novels were on at least once a week, and that fired my imagination about these larger-than-life people, the Victorians. So I started reading the novels and much later on, when I spotted the Victorian Studies Master's degree running at Birkbeck College, I signed up for it, and that was that.

Q: Your books on the underside of Victorian London have struck a chord with modern readers. Why do you think this is?
A: I had thought when I began to write that I was exploring social issues that were firmly in the past, such as human trafficking, rapacious, unregulated landlordism, abysmal working conditions. I'm unhappy to say that over my writing career, all of these things have risen up from the dead and have become very present concerns. Also, perhaps, my books show that there is so much virgin territory in the archives - stories that have never been told since the day they happened. It's always fun to try to find a fresh angle on an aspect of the past, or to rescue incidents and individuals from obscurity.

Q:Thinking about your Science fiction course this term. How much do you think the re-imagined worlds of Wells or Orwell drew on contemporary reality?
A: With Wells, he was exploring in fiction some of the growing ethical dilemmas that late-Victorian and Edwardian science were throwing up but which were not being deeply explored by scientists themselves or by journalistic popularisers of science. His novels were a way of opening up a dialogue about where amazing new discoveries could lead mankind. With Orwell, what is sometimes forgotten is how very well read he was in even pretty obscure Victorian fiction - although very much a 20th-century man, he was exceptionally well acquainted with the thought and unresolved anxieties of the 19th century too. For example, the 'Prole' scenes in 1984 are recognisable from some of the experiences of late-Victorian social investigators in London's slums.

Q: How much of an appetite was there among Victorian readers for stories of other worlds?
A: Well, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe and HG Wells were all pioneers of what we now call science fiction and they found wide readerships -. There was a huge appetite for non-fiction books in which the latest scientific thinking was presented for a general readership, and science fiction also captured that hunger for probing new developments and how they might impact on everyday life.

Q : What do you hope your students will take away from their encounter with these unusual visions of London?
A: Terror and wonder! Well, also a sense of the 'real' world that each fiction was responding to - the various anxieties about how the future might shape up. Science fiction holds up the mirror to the real world, so it can be a great way into social history. Also, it would be nice if anything a student read on the course triggered their own ideas for fiction.

Apocalypse London: The City in Science Fiction starts on Monday 18 January 2016. Sarah will also be looking at The London 'Lowlife'Novel, 1889-1907

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The Victorians and the Modern-Day Christmas

by Courses on 17 / 11 / 2015
Christmas has been celebrated for centuries in various forms but it was not until the mid-19th century that it took on the popular guise which we know today. Tutor Caroline Ings-Chambers looks at how our present-day Christmas is a gift from the Victorians.

The signs that Christmas is coming are everywhere at this time of year. Evergreens seemingly spring forth in profusion, thousands upon thousands of tiny lights unashamedly generate pretty carbon footprints, minimalism is superseded by decorations of red and gold or anything shiny, seasonal foods amass ready to waylay the waistline, and medleys of “Christmas Greats” fill the bottomless pit of our ears over and over again. On the streets, in the shops, on the radio and the television, the message is one of seasonal good cheer - the Christmas rush is on. Commercial it may be, but the chances are it will draw us in.
Victorian Christmas Card
Christmas, as it is known today, began in the Victorian era. Christmas trees, garlands and other evergreen decorations, presents, Christmas dinner, mince pies, Christmas cards, crackers, Father Christmas - even the commercialism of Christmas, all began in that period. Amazingly, though, Christmas had almost disappeared as a festival at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  As a religious observance, it remained widespread, but the festive jollity that had once been associated with Christmas had been stamped out by the Puritans and not revived in the intervening years.

With their austere evangelical outlook the Victorians seem unlikely candidates to have revived and in many respects generated the modern “Merry Christmas”. Paradoxically, this came out of their fear of a changing modernising world. Mass migration from the country into the towns and rapid industrialisation meant that traditions were vanishing. The way of life of a nation no longer seemed stable. Amidst the upheaval, the Victorians cast into the past for answers about how to live in the present. Nowhere did they do this to more lasting effect than with the way they evoked the spirit of Christmas past.

In their revival of the festival of Christmas, the Victorians had an inspired vision. They began with an almost blank canvas and created a festival that moves beyond the boundaries of religion to celebrate life itself, with its emphasis on bringing people together, remembering the importance of loving one another, the joy of living, of new life and of family. The same message lies in the symbolism of the decorations, which is why, when we scratch below the tinsel, Christmas captures the better part of who we are across the boundaries of history, culture and tradition.

Caroline Ings-Chambers will be looking at how the Victorians revived Christmas and why in her course The  Victorians and the Modern-day Christmas.

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London street markets are a cherished and historic part of the capital's neighbourhoods, valued by tourists and locals alike as an essential aspect of London's character. But can they survive in today's overheated economy as anything more than an expensive plaything for the better-off? Author of 'Save our Town Centres' Julian Dobson takes a look at the pressures and tensions facing London markets.

Image of London market

Writing in The Phylon Quarterly in 1958, Jean Malcolm described Portobello Road as a combination of ‘marché aux puces and fruit-and-vegetable market’. ‘Along and off this dingy thoroughfare and between the squares and tree-shaded roads are streets of peeling porticos, five-storey tenements, or squat, decrepit houses that huddle over cramped shops and cafés.’

Nearly sixty years on, Portobello Road advertises itself to the well-heeled as ‘the world’s largest antiques market’ and visitors are encouraged to browse the ‘iconic London market stalls full of English character’ selling fruit and veg. Tourists come to see an area they know as the setting of the film Notting Hill.

The ebb and flow of wealth and reputation signal that this has always been a difficult and contested space. Notting Hill in the 1950s was the fiefdom of slum landlords and violent riots. Today the intimidation takes the form of property speculation that prices out low-income residents.

Yet Portobello Road is also a place where different notions of value are being tested.

Westway Trust emerged from the hugely disruptive construction of the A40 flyover at the north end of the road in the 1960s. As compensation to the local community, the mile-long strip of land under the flyover was handed over to a charitable trust.

Today there are community facilities including gardens and sports clubs, business premises and social clubs. But in an ironic twist, it is Westway Trust’s own plans that are now outraging some locals.

Homes and Property, the magazine of property portal Rightmove, reported in August that Portobello Market was threatened by plans to build a shopping mall. The Westway Trust calls ‘Portobello Village’ an ‘exciting opportunity’ to benefit the local economy; opponents claim it will destroy the character of the market, replacing it with a ‘sanitised shopping experience’.

Walk into a shop or past a market stall and you’re entering a complex game of power and capital. Westway Trust has long promoted community interests in the face of development: today it is being challenged to stay true to its history.

The tensions being played out in Portobello Road are close to the surface in many parts of London. Markets, from Brixton in the south to Queen's Market in Upton Park in the east, are often the flashpoints where those tensions are exposed.

Julian Dobson will be exploring these issues in Is the Market Killing our Markets talk on 24 November, drawing on the recently published 'How to Save Our Town Centres'.

Our current exhibition Cries of London was curated by the Gentle Author of 'Spitalfields Life' and runs until 29 January 2016. 

'How to Save Our Town Centres' is available from Policy Press or good bookshops.

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'Masters of the Airwaves: the Rise and Rise of Underground Radio' charts the history of black music radio in London. Co-author of the book Lindsay Wesker explains why he and Dave VJ felt it was important to tell the story of British black music radio.
Cover image of Masters of the  Airwaves by Lindsay Wesker and Dave VJ
When I try to summarise Masters Of The Airwaves in a neat, 30-second pitch, I explain that it’s a book about radio, a book about passionate music lovers, a book about music but, specifically, music we were not allowed to hear!

I will later tell you who prevented us from hearing black music on UK radio but, first, I will talk about some of the acts that benefited from black music pirate radio.

When my co-author Dave VJ (Vinyl Junkie) first conceived this book, he was anxious to tell the real story of British black music radio.  It was then my idea to e-mail a questionnaire, so the key players could tell their stories in their own words.

For us, the key theme running through everyone’s stories is that we were all very frustrated. We knew there was a lot of great black music out there, but it was really difficult to find it and enjoy it.

When the reggae singer Ken Boothe had a No.1 pop hit with his version of Bread’s Everything I Own, we were thrilled to hear some authentic Jamaican reggae on the radio, but we had no idea Ken Boothe had a vast catalogue.

When the reggae singer John Holt had a No.1 pop hit with his version of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make It Through The Night, again, we were thrilled to hear this Jamaican icon on our transistor radios but, many of us, particularly those of us with English parents, had no idea how much music John Holt had already recorded.

When Kiss FM first launched as a pirate radio station, the main beneficiary of this exposure was the man known as The Godfather Of Soul, James Brown.  When Kiss FM launched in 1985, James Brown had only had seven Top 40 hits and only one Top 20 hit, so would have had minimal play on legal radio.  What we didn't know was that James had already released 54 studio albums, so it gave us all great pleasure to introduce James Brown to a wider audience.

As the most sampled man in hip hop history, many people were aware of 8 or 16-bar chunks of his music, but few had heard the full-length originals.  Nor did many people know of all his satellite projects; band members making solo music, such as Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Lyn Collins.

Pirate radio allowed a whole new generation of music lovers to gain a proper black music education.

But who were these people that refused to represent black music on their radio stations?

From my later dealings as a promotions person at assorted record labels, I learned that the radio establishment (Radio One, Capital One etc.) viewed much black music as ‘club’ music and not ‘radio’ music, and must have been enormously dismayed when Kiss FM got a legal license and stole many of their young listeners.

So, for Dave and I, the pioneers of pirate radio were not only entertainers and educators, they showed young, British music makers that legal radio was the mere tip of an iceberg and, had it not been for the exciting, innovative genres showcased by pirate radio, British pop music would not contain successful exports such as Sade, Mica Paris, Soul II Soul, Floetry, Dizzee Rascal, Estelle and Emeli Sande.

Thankfully, Dave and I now have weekly radio shows on an exceptional radio station, www.mi-soul.com, an online radio station now on DAB all over London.  It allows people to hear every black music genre from the last five decades and I know, from doing my own radio show, many people, even people that view themselves as experts, are still discovering songs and artists they had never heard before.

Popular music contains more songs than any of us will ever know, so it gives Dave and I real pleasure to share our appreciation and knowledge with the radio audience, and showcase all the wonderful ice below the ocean’s surface!

Lindsay Wesker and Dave VJ will be talking about Masters of the Airwaves:the Rise and Rise of Underground Radio on Thursday 12 November.

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With the film 'Suffragette' just about to be released in cinemas nationwide we asked  Sarah Jackson, who co-wrote 'Voices from History: East London Suffragettes' with Rosemary Taylor, why she thought it was so important to get a working class perspective of the Suffragette Movement.

Suffragette sees the UK suffragette movement brought to the big screen at last, in all its grave and gritty glory. When I heard that the story would be told from the point of view of a young working class woman – Maud, a laundress in the East End – I was delighted. 

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her famous TED talk. She warned: “They make one story become the only story.”

For too long the story of British women's battle for the vote has been the story of the Pankhurst family alone. Though it is without doubt an astonishing, inspiring, important story, there are so many more to be told. What about the democratic Women's Freedom League? The women trade union activists in the North? The Indian suffragettes who marched with the WSPU? And my personal heroes, the socialist East London Federation of the Suffragettes? 

While the new film still tells a single story, the choice of a protagonist at the margins of her society is a step forward.  In 1912, the film's central character Maud (played by Carey Mulligan) is working in an East End laundry and gradually becomes involved with her local branch of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). 

It was only in October 1912 that the WSPU began actively campaigning in east London again, although the organisation's first London branch was opened there in 1906. The WSPU's physical move west in the intervening years was mirrored by a move away from their initial working class support base.  

Sylvia Pankhurst led the new East End campaign, and after a shaky start (in her memoir Pankhurst recalls being pelted with fish heads) in just over a year the east London WSPU branches built a true mass movement for equality, drawing support from women and men and becoming a trusted part of the community. 

Based in Bow but with branches all over the East End, they grounded their campaign in the everyday reality of working women's lives and connected individual hardship to structural inequality. They argued that if women had the vote the whole community would have greater leverage in the struggle to improve pay and working conditions, secure decent housing, and protect their children's health. 

From their very early days the east London suffragettes saw the vote as just one aspect of the struggle for equality and adopted a broad campaigning programme, often working with other groups and networks. They fought for a living wage, decent housing, equal pay, old age pensions, Home Rule for Ireland and many other causes. Being “mixed up” with other issues ultimately led to their expulsion from the increasingly autocratic WSPU in January 1914, when they opted to continue as a separate organisation.  

On top of sexism, surveillance, and state oppression, the east London suffragettes had to contend with intense class prejudice, sometimes from within their own movement. According to Sylvia, after demanding that the east London branches separate from the WSPU, her sister Christabel added that “a working women’s movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex… Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest.” 

Free of stifling WSPU control the new organisation flourished, adopting new tactics which focused more on mass mobilisation than individual acts of heroism. Many of the East End suffragettes were the sole breadwinners for large families, and a spell in prison was too high a price to pay if it meant their family being evicted. Instead they marched through east London, lobbied politicians, held huge public meetings, opened their own social centres, organised benefit concerts and parties. They even recruited a small ‘People’s Army’ of supporters to defend them from police brutality.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, factories across east London closed and food prices spiralled. The suffragettes led community action to support those most affected by the sudden wave of unemployment, organising the distribution of milk for starving infants and opening a volunteer-run children’s health clinic, a nursery school and a series of canteens serving nutritious food at “cost price”. They even opened their own cooperative toy factory, which paid a living wage and included a crèche.

After the events of Suffragette, did Maud join the East London Federation of the Suffragettes? I like to think so. This extraordinary organisation, like many others, has been left out of the single suffragette story. It's our loss because their democratic, grassroots, intersectional approach holds important lessons for activists today. The insensitive “I’d Rather Be A Rebel Than A Slave” t-shirt campaign accompanying the new film makes this clear. 

What makes their absence especially frustrating for me is that they were acutely aware of the importance of representing themselves, of recording their lives, and telling their own stories. “Some people say that the lives of working women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful voice in winning the vote,” states the first issue of the Dreadnought, defiantly. “Such people have forgotten their history.”

Sarah Jackson will be discussing the East London Suffragettes in Votes, Wages and Milk: The East London Suffragettes on Tuesday 27 October. 

You can also 'meet' the rebellious East London Federation of Suffragettes in our course The Suffragettes who demanded more than the vote with David Rosenberg.

As home to many of the archives for protest and campaigning groups we are keen to explore protest and campaign, past and present. 

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Time Travelling to the London of 1716

by Events on 07 / 10 / 2015
London has a colourful history, from the depths of the Middle Ages, through the time of Shakespeare, the Great Plague and Empire, to the pummelling of the city during the Blitz, and its resurrection in the 50s, the capital has had many historical moments. Historian Dr Matthew Green tells us about one of his favourite times in London's history.

As the author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me where, if I could go back to any year in London's history, would I go?

I asked someone this question myself once, at the Port Eliot literary festival, late at night. The stranger (who had just fallen out of a dance tent, I should add) responded decisively: the 3rd September, 1666. And what would he do there? Stand in the middle of the City as the Great Fire raged about him, basking in the chaos, and then travel to Seething Lane to dig up Samuel Pepys’s carefully-buried Parmesan cheese, and eat it. 

For my part – and less dramatically – I’d like to visit London in the year 1716. Why 1716? For a start, it would be bloody exciting. You’d find the Thames frozen solid and could skate across its sparkling surface, past ox roastings, poetry tents, and printing presses churning out little mementoes ‘printed on ice’ at the Frost Fair. London would be awash with rumour, too.  As Jacobite armies drew closer to London, you could drop into a smoky, candlelit coffeehouse to learn the latest news from the misty battlefields of the North, and discuss it with strangers late into the night, fuelled by dishes of ‘bitter Muhammedan gruel’. Inside too you might read the Shift Shifted, easily the most radical paper ever to be published, oozing venom and calling for the overthrow of George I from its less-than-ideal newsroom: a prison cell. 

In February, you’ll be able to watch the ringleaders of the Jacobite Rebellion have their heads lopped off at Tower Hill, and in March, see a portentious comet flare across the night sky.

The celestial body would look down upon a liminal city on the cusp of the modern world. There’d be chocolate houses and pig’s-bladder condoms, wallpaper shops and mathematics clubs. The City was the nerve-centre of Britain’s expanding empire of trade. At the Royal Exchange, you’d find the colonnades thronged with international merchants, sealing deals that would send ships to the farthest reaches of the globe. And in the West End, Bond Street had emerged as the chicest street in Christendom where the ‘fireflies of fashion’ gadded about, window-shopping for their periwigs and civet perfume, excreted from the anal glands of African civet cats.

In 1716, London is beginning to look modern, too. All over the city, jagged timber-framed houses with lurching gables have been replaced by auburn brick townhouses boasting an elegant harmony of proportion, familiar to 21st-century eyes, though smeared in seacoal fumes. Though it's the biggest city in Europe, London is still relatively compact in this period - you can walk from the salty seadog suburbs of Limehouse and Wapping to the beau monde’s brand new townhouses in Piccadilly and Mayfair in three hours - but it's poised for massive expansion as it sprawls into fields, meadows and market gardens on her eastern and western cusps, like a giant squirming octopus. Hanover Square, a fine lamp-lit square in up-and-coming Mayfair, is a mere two year’s old; in the east, Spitalfields is taking shape. 

You’ll find the people reassuringly complex, too. If you visit the brooks and bowling greens of bucolic Hackney, you can meet the sex-crazed law-student Dudley Ryder, the epitome of a London bourgeois, who is forever affecting masks and guises to make people think more highly of him, a harbinger of British politeness and reserve. He is writing a secret diary – just as revealing as Samuel Pepys’s – chronicling this year and last. There is something of Hyacinth Bouquet about him.    

Yet there is horror here too, and savager. Go to the Sessions House at the Old Bailey, and you’ll see the sledgehammer of English justice at work, sentencing destitute mothers to death for stealing so much as a wig or silk handkerchief; their children will be amongst the crowd as she chokes on the Tyburn noose at one of London’s ‘hanging holidays’. In an increasingly commercial and consumerist society with no shortage of migrants, things are often valued more highly than people. If you go to the Hoxton Square coffeehouse, you can participate in an inquisition of insanity, or go to gawp at the ‘moonsick’ at Bedlam lunatic asylum, open to the public. 

At Clerkenwell's bloodsports arenas, you’ll see mastiff dogs crunched to death by grizzly bears for the pleasure of paying, blood-baying crowds. And you’ll find the streets strewn with festering offal and hopeless beggars and prowled by link boys who lure travellers towards cut-throats and footpads lying in wait in blind alleys. There will be cattle everywhere too, and see the River Fleet turn red with blood after mass slaughterings at Smithfield.

Modern in many respects, it’s still an alien world in others and this tussle between the familiar and the unfamiliar makes wandering the streets of London in 1716 an uncanny, almost hallucinogenic experience. Which is the stuff of great sci-fi - another reason why I’d choose to time travel back to 1716.

Dr Matthew Green takes us on an historical journey through 800 years of history in a Time Travelling London on Wednesday 14 October.

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Rhyming slang can claim to be London's one truly home-grown language. It may have started around 1830 among the canal-digging navvies, the villains of St Giles or, as is most likely, the costermongers of the East End. But in multicultural, modern-day London how is slang evolving? Expert in slang lexicography Jonathon Green takes a look.

No cities, no slang. Thus London is the crucible of the world's anglophone counter-language. The first terms – those of the capital’s criminal beggars – were collected around 1532, and the tradition of slang dictionaries has continued ever since. They have never wanted for material. Criminal terms were augmented and then overtaken by ‘civilian’ slang. The reverse of standard English, with its essentially top-down upper- or middle-class coinage, slang came from the streets: the genuine ‘gutter tongue’. 
Illustration of Petticoat Lane Market
But if all slangs can trace their ancestry to London’s poor, some are more ‘London’ than others. Rhyming slang, the probable creation of the East End costermongers of the 1830s, is the obvious candidate. It was coined mainly to befuddle the punters and, while there is really no great trick – one simply leaves off the rhyme – it doubtless worked, and still does. But rhyming slang was very much monocultural: the language of the white working class. If its form spread elsewhere – Australia, where it has persisted, and the United States, where it has not – it remained firmly rooted in the naphtha-lit markets of the 19th century Old Oak (Smoke: London). 

Rhyming slang has not disappeared, but like black cabs and red telephone kiosks its role is as much iconic as it is practical. The press regularly worries on its behalf, bewailing the seeming ignorance of its use by the under-30s. But this is as it should be. The year is 2015.

London is no longer monocultural. It is a world city seen as a showcase of multiculturalism. Slang moves on, perhaps faster than any variety of English. The under-30s have their own vocabulary: fittingly entitled Multicultural London English (MLE). It reflects their lives and their backgrounds. Initially, around 2006, dismissed as ‘Jafaikan’, i.e. the specious borrowing by young Londoners of Jamaican patois, it is far more complex. 

MLE does offer some patois, but it also blends in rap and other black slang from America, traditional Cockney terms (including the odd rhyme), the terms that have grown up around London’s own rap ‘grime’, and the home-grown inventiveness of young Londoners. It represents what has become of London since World War II; the influx of immigrants, the fading of rigid class barriers and, perhaps most vitally, the breakdown of a line between black and white. 

Yet MLE, for all it’s ‘cutting edge’ notoriety, may not be that new. Slang is a continuum that has run through the generations and MLE is simply the latest version. It is a development and not a sidetrack, let alone a parallel creation. MLE is the name that has been given to the current set of words that, for the last few years, have fulfilled the role of 'youth slang'. For the generations to come there will be new words and new ways to turn a phrase.

Jonathon Green will be looking at rhyming slang in Slingin' the Old Jack Lang on 22 October. This event is part of our Cries of London series of events. 

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Archives help us make sense of different historical perspectives and provide an amazing insight into the experiences of past generations. Patrick Vernon OBE  looks at the importance of black archives in promoting political activity and grassroots activism. 

Black archives matter for all of us in understanding political and social change today. Over the last two decades, academics, historians and community activists have been discovering and lobbying for research, preservation and funding of black-related archives in mainstream bodies and community-led organisations. In London and nationally there are many examples of major museums and institutions making their archives and collections more accessible to the public, often with the support of Heritage Lottery Funding. 

However most of these archives are connected to the slave trade and the British Empire. Although this is important, there is a growing trend in promoting the archives of community activists and their contribution to race relations and the fight for social justice in Post-war Britain. The George Padmore Institute based at new Beacon Books explores the life of the late John La Rose and the rise of the supplementary school movement. The Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives focus on the life of Jessica and Eric Huntley as publishers and campaigners on local and international issues. The Black Cultural Archives established by Len Garrison has a number of individual and community organisation archives, including the Runnymede Trust.
Bernie Grant and Lennox Lewis photograph
At Bishopsgate Institute there are a number of archives; but the one which has a personal interest to me is the Bernie Grant Archive, which covers the social and political life of the late Bernie Grant MP. His archive reflects a cross-section of black ephemera with newspapers, magazines, hand bills,  pamphlets and personal letters from the period 1950 to 2000. The archive also has a collection of racist stereotype post cards and advertising material from the late Victorian era to the 1960s, again highlighting the social change in the media and public perceptions of black people in the UK and USA.

Included in the archive are many wonderful photographs that show Bernie in his many roles; a Council leader in Haringey, trade union activist and MP, he also worked in Europe and founded the reparation movement, as well as campaigning on Broadwater Farm and policing. One of my favourite images is of Lennox Lewis, the most successful black boxer to date and Bernie. I tweeted this on the anniversary of his death and received over 30,000 views and was constantly retweeted by people around the world (including Lennox himself). This image reflected the growth, confidence, and aspirations of black people in the 1990s trying to break the glass ceiling in academia, sports, media, politics, the civil service and business. 

Patrick Vernon OBE will be talking to Jeffrey Green, Victoria Northridge and Stefan Dickers in Exploring Archives: Black Ephemera on Saturday 3 October.

Upcoming events and courses at Bishopsgate Institute offer you the chance to explore the Bernie Grant archive, while complimentary events look at the role music played in shaping the black British experience in the 1970s and 80s.

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Between 1981 and 1986, Ken Livingstone led the most experimental, controversial and influential city governments in modern British history. Author Andy Beckett uncovers the forgotten triumphs and  disasters of Livingstone's Greater London Council in his book 'Promised You a Miracle'. The following is an extract from the book: 

Protest badges from the 1980s

Of all the risky experiments in early 1980s Britain, cultural, economic or political, one attracted particularly wide derision. On 17 February 1982 the usually polite Guardian published a mocking three paragraph item about ‘a new wheeze’ from the spectacularly unpopular, seemingly doomed political curiosity that was Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council. ‘This is a Womens [sic] Committee,’ explained the unnamed journalist, ‘which will monitor all council activities to check that they are looking at things from a woman’s as well as a man’s point of view.’ The report continued even more condescendingly: ‘Sexism – albeit of a cheery and trivial sort still lurks at County Hall . . . Valerie Wise, one of the councillors most enthusiastic for the scheme, wants “a committee that is going to be able to interfere with every decision of the council”.’

By 1982, for journalists, even some Guardian ones, feminism was an old story. Women’s Lib, in its modern British incarnation, had been going for a dozen years now. Some veterans of the struggle were slipping away to do other things, like Anna Coote with her new television career at Diverse Production. Meanwhile even feminists with fresh campaigning ideas, such as the peace camp at Greenham, struggled to get the attention of the media and Britain’s overwhelmingly male politicians sometimes, even, of the ideologically curious and unusually gender conscious Livingstone himself. ‘We had no proposal for the women’s committee in the 1981GLC manifesto,’ he told me, despite the document’s hundreds of pages and wide-ranging ambitions. ‘We had a proposal to set up an ethnic minorities committee, and on the back of that, people like Valerie said we should do something for women. So it was an afterthought.’

In February 1982 Wise was twenty-seven. She had been a GLC councillor, her first elected office, for barely a year. Tall and slightly gawky, her narrow face dominated by her trademark circular, thick-rimmed glasses, she spoke in a youthful, upbeat, slightly grating voice, with non-London tinges to her vowels (she had also lived in the Midlands and the north). She was still in awe of her mother, Audrey, a political prodigy herself who had been a prominent feminist from the late 1960s onwards, and a stubbornly outspoken left-wing Labour MP in the late 1970s. ‘I feel very privileged to have been the daughter of Audrey Wise,’ Valerie said, with oddly stiff affection, when I interviewed her in 2013. Two walls of her living room were given over to volumes of Hansard covering her late mother’s years in Parliament.

Socialism was the prime political faith passed from mother to daughter. ‘I’ve called myself a feminist for some time, but coming to the GLC has meant my first contact with the women’s movement,’ Valerie admitted to the feminist magazine Spare Rib in July 1982, two months after the women’s committee had officially started work. Her frankness was either naive, faux-naive, or immensely self-confident – or most likely a mixture of all three. ‘It’s been an amazing learning process for me, and I hope that’s going to be mutual.’

In 1982 Livingstone’s GLC badly needed a new purpose. ‘What we’d really wanted to do was build housing and modernize the transport system, and those we were blocked on,’ he told me. The council’s attempt to revitalize the capital’s economy and make it more socially just, through the Greater London Enterprise Board, was proceeding modestly at best. Livingstone was trying to wean himself off giving endless provocative quotes to hostile journalists, his original approach of leadership by outrage having proved increasingly counterproductive. The euphoria of the precocious London Labour left’s seizure of the GLC in 1981 – ‘London’s Ours!’ – seemed very distant a year on. As two of the many young, questing left-wing thinkers and activists who joined the Livingstone administration, Maureen Mackintosh and Hilary Wainwright, wrote in the slightly chastened 1987 book they co-edited about their experience, A Taste of Power: ‘No one in the GLC thought we were creating socialism now.’

This GLC rethink was part of a wider retreat by the British left from 1982 onwards, as Tony Benn’s Alternative Economic Strategy began to lose momentum after his failure to win the Labour deputy leadership, and Thatcherism finally started to create a new economy as well as destroy the old one. But if ‘Red Ken’ had given up on building socialism in one city, his GLC still had enough power, money and chutzpah for a different radical project. 

This was a new relationship between the state and the citizen, and between the increasingly disparate groups of citizens in London. It would have implications for the whole of Britain. And it would rival, and in some ways undermine, the psychological revolution being driven through by the Thatcherites.

The idea of the women’s committee had crystallized during 1981. When Wise arrived at the GLC, she knew a lot more about politics and bureaucracies than her innocent manner suggested. She had worked for her mother Audrey in Parliament. She had also worked for a groundbreaking group of union shop stewards at the military-industrial conglomerate Lucas, who sidestepped the company management to develop worker-designed green technologies and other non-military products. Finally, during her curries in Tooting with Livingstone and Michael Ward, she had helped arrange the left’s seizure of County Hall.
When she became a GLC councillor, Wise told me briskly, ‘Because of my involvement with the Lucas shop stewards, I became vice-chair of Mike Ward’s industry and employment committee straightaway. Industry and employment were key parts of our manifesto. It was one of the most important GLC committees.’ She nodded with satisfaction. ‘I was in the right place at the right time.’

At industry and employment she became interested in how the GLC might alter the London economy to better suit women. She told Spare Rib that she ‘tried meeting regularly with women[’s groups] outside the GLC but . . . it just didn’t work. The only way to get a proper strategy, to ensure things happen, is by a committee.’ Otherwise, ‘You get swallowed up by the system . . . becoming “the statutory woman” on things . . . just a front.’ She wrote a proposal for a women’s committee. She remembered, ‘I went to Ken, and he was very receptive. I put it immediately to the Labour Group [of councillors].’ She smiled: ‘It was hard for them not to agree to it, given that there was already an ethnic minorities committee.’

You can hear Andy Beckett in conversation with Ken Livingstone in Red Ken's GLC: Loonies or Visionaries? on Thursday 8 October.

As home to many of the archives for campaign and radical groups we are keen to explore protest and campaigns past and present.

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Hand & Lock have been producing the world’s finest hand embroidery since 1767 and this autumn we are delighted that they are going to be running two new embroidery courses with us. To provide a bit of background information for the courses Robert McCaffrey from Hand and Lock gives us a brief history of haute couture: 

Though haute couture started in France, it was a once-famed but now largely forgotten Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth,  who started the ‘high fashion’ trend. Moving to France in 1845 he started work as a dress salesman before graduating to dressmaking and winning acclaim for his designs at the 1851 Great exhibition in London and the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle. 
Image of Charles Worth dressmaker
In 1858 The House of Worth opened its doors and was one of the first fashion houses to use live models to showcase designs to clients. In time, Worth became known as ‘The father of haute couture’. Notable clients included: Empress Eugenie, wife of Emperor Napoleon III; Elizabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary; Louisa, Queen of Sweden; Margherita, Princess of Usedom; Maria Cristina, Queen of Spain; and Ranavlona, Queen of Madagascar. One of his lasting legacies was sewing his name into each garment he produced, pioneering the concept of the fashion brand.

One of the most iconic fashion designers was Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel who founded the brand Chanel in 1909 and was credited with liberating women from the constraints of the corset and popularising ‘casual chic’. 

Image: Left: Coco Chanel. Right: Christian Dior 'New Look'

In her early days, Chanel hired Russian immigrants to work in her embroidery studio realising her vision and developing it through the 1920s and 30s. By the outbreak of WWII, when she closed her shops claiming ‘it was not a time for fashion’, she had a workforce of 3,000 women.

Throughout a colourful and controversial life she created the famed Chanel suit and the little black dress.  American Vogue likened Chanel's ‘little black dress’ -  to the Ford, alluding to its almost universal popularity as a fashion basic. 

Another famed French couturier was Christian Dior. In 1940 Dior was called away from fashion to undertake compulsory military service. Little is known about the next two years. 

In 1942,during the occupation of France , Dior produced couture dresses for the wives of Nazi officers and collaborators. Allegedly at this time he passed sensitive information to his sister in the French resistance. He would later honour her by naming his debut fragrance Miss Dior.

Pre-war fashion had been restricted by rationing but when Dior showed his debut collection in 1947 it was a voluptuous ‘New Look’ -  an average Dior dress used 20 yards of fabric. After Dior’s death in 1957, Yves Saint Laurent took over as haute couture designer and remained at the company until 1962.

In 1970 Pierre Cardin hired an eighteen year old assistant based on sketches he had been sent; the young man was Jean Paul Gaultier. Just six years later Gaultier released his first individual collection and developed his style year after year before becoming known as the ‘enfant terrible’ of the French fashion scene. 
Image of Jean-Paul Gaultier and Halle Berry in an Ellie Saab dress
Image: Left: Jean Paul Gaultier with Madonna. Right: Halle Berry in a dress by Elie Saab 

Another early starter was Beirut-born Elie Saab who at just 18 opened his first atelier with 15 employees. His overtly feminine aesthetic and romantic crystal-encrusted gowns are a dazzling fusion of Middle Eastern detailing and European sensibilities. He gained local notoriety when Bierut’s high society began wearing his pieces before earning international fame after Halle Berry wore an Elie Saab gown when she won the Oscar for Monster’s Ball.

Hand and Lock will be running two courses this autumn: Traditional Goldwork Workshop and Contemporary Haute Couture.

SPECIAL OFFER: Anyone booking a Hand & Lock embroidery course will be invited to attend their annual prize-giving event on 5 November and entered into a prize draw to win a VIP guided tour of their studios. Deadline to book is 21 September.

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Feeding London across the centuries

by Courses on 03 / 09 / 2015

From Roman oysters to priceless Parmesan, London’s position as a world-leading port has given her people plenty of food to choose from. Tutor Caryle Webb-Ingall looks at how Londoners’ appetites have been met. 

With what was at one time the largest and wealthiest port in the world, London has arguably shaped the appetite of the nation. As produce from around the globe found its way to the London docks, markets grew up throughout the city to supply traders, restaurateurs and citizens with all kinds of food from the exotic to the staple. 

Image of London Food market
As far back as Roman times, there is evidence that a wide range of food was available from oysters, sweet apples and cultivated cherries to new vegetables like carrots and cabbage, as well as herbs including borage and chervil. 

During the middle ages, the church held strict controls over fasting and feeding, although inevitably the wealthy ate well, notwithstanding the rules. Much of the population was employed one way or another in feeding London at this time, with unpaid labour from within the household and many street sellers, stall holders and specialist dealers. Some parts of the industry were important enough that guilds were established such as the Ancient Guild of Pepperers, which was established around 1100 and renamed the Worshipful Company of Grocers in 1376 to reflect their widening interests. 

By Tudor times expanding overseas trade made luxuries such as sugar, ginger or Parmesan cheese available to those who could afford them. Although little used at first, now-familiar items including potatoes and tomatoes were also appearing from as far away as the Americas.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain’s trade expanded to such a degree that individual wharves and docks became dominant in their specialist areas. Hay’s Wharf, for example, handled 80% of all of the dry goods entering the country and became known as ‘the larder of London’. The fishermen that sailed from Barking became part of the world’s largest commercial fleet.

The markets that grew up in medieval and Tudor times expanded, some becoming the great wholesale outlets for vegetables, meat, fish and flowers that still operate today. As London expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries, local street markets were established to serve the new suburbs. Many of these continue to thrive, with some seeing a new lease of life from a resurgent interest in fresh, quality produce.

Caryle will be looking at the history of London's great food markets and the development of coffee houses and chippies in her course Feeding London: Markets and Meals for Londoners.

You can also find out about the history and politics of street trading in our series of events Cries of London

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Open Houses London focuses people's attention on the capital's great architecture. We asked tutor Steven Barrett to tell us the landmarks and buildings that he thinks gives London its unique character.

I've chosen the Boundary Estate in Bethnal Green because it embodies many of the themes I'll be covering on the Architecture of London course. History isn't only about famous people, it's about ordinary people too, and a history of London's architecture shouldn't focus only on famous landmarks but include some of the everyday buildings that have changed Londoners' lives. 

Image of Bandstand at Boundary Estate
The Boundary Estate is a perfect case study - the first planned housing estate in the capital; one of the very first in the world. It replaced Victorian London's worst slum, the Nichol, a labyrinth of dilapidated streets and courts which housed upwards of 6000 people and had a death rate double that of Bethnal Green as a whole. In Charles Booth's famous survey of East London published in 1889, Life and Labour of the People of London, the Nichol was coloured almost entirely black, Booth's lowest category denoting 'vicious and semi-criminal' inhabitants.

However, in only ten years the Nichol was gone, replaced by the Boundary Estate with its gardens and bay-fronted flats, bandstand, schools, dairy and parade of shops. The course covers the history of the Boundary Estate, focusing on its origins in Victorian philanthropy, emerging socialism and new forms of local government, and its impact upon later housing projects including the large-scale postwar rebuilding of London's housing stock. The Boundary Estate provided the template for planned urban living not only in London, or the UK, but in many other great cities and nations of the industrial age.

Famous buildings such as the Palace of Westminster and St. Paul's Cathedral are hugely important buildings in the history of London and truly iconic (a much over-used word) in that they can appear to sum up or represent the city by themselves: a picture of Big Ben says 'London' to everyone familiar with the capital. 

Steven Barrett will be looking at the Architecture of London in a one-day course on the 28th November. As well as studying London's great buildings themselves you can explore how their special, iconic, status is achieved through photography, painting, film and TV. 

Make sure that we on your itinerary for Open House London

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One Century – Many Battles!

by Courses on 15 / 06 / 2015

The East End has been a magnet for immigrants seeking freedom, safety and prosperity for hundreds of years. It has also been a focal point for anti-immigrant movements resenting 'their' territory being encroached upon and transformed. During the  20th century it had been a venue for provocative marches and rallies and dramatic clashes of ideas on the streets, as our tutor David Rosenberg reveals. 

Mention the word “Battle” in connection with the East End and many people will instantly recall Sir Oswald Mosley and the iconic 1930s clash on the streets between fascists and anti-fascists at the “Battle of Cable Street”. Estimates for the numbers on the streets that day vary between 100,000 and 300,000. But in the bigger picture, that was just one of several dramatic encounters that occurred on this territory in the 20th century – territory that has provided a home for immigrants and refugees over several hundred years, despite the efforts of those who wish to claim it exclusively and keep “intruders”, “invaders” and “interlopers” out of the East End. 

The cast of characters who have contributed to these encounters includes some surprises. In 1978 the National Front was riding high in London on an anti-immigrant platform and contested dozens of seats in Tower Hamlets at the local elections, as it sought to follow in Mosley’s footsteps. On Sunday mornings in that period, its supporters gathered in growing numbers to sell papers outside a shop run by a middle-aged Jewish couple on the corner of Bethnal Green Road and Brick Lane. Rampages in the vicinity, directed against the local Bengali population frequently followed the NF paper sale. On the day of those local elections, a gang of teenagers whose minds had been poisoned by racists, attacked and murdered Altab Ali a 25-year-old Bengali clothing worker, as he walked home from work.

Later that year Mrs Thatcher stole the National Front’s thunder – and no doubt many of its potential voters. Her televised comments that Briton’s feared being “swamped” by “alien cultures” brought harsh anti-immigrant sentiment into the political mainstream debate. 

Harsh language, but also unoriginal. In 1902 the Bishop of Stepney, Cosmo Lang, accused (Jewish) immigrants of “swamping whole areas once populated by English people”. And a populist anti-immigrant group that filled the streets at that time expressing similar sentiments, claimed material support from, among others, the author Marie Corelli and Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes.

You can gather your own clues to try to uncover the deeper layers of the story of these recurring battles, and find out how the communities that have been victimised have built alliances across ethnic and religious divides, by enrolling on the course “Battle for the Streets: East London encounters with racism and Fascism” with David Rosenberg.

David Rosenberg is the author of 'Battle for the East End' (Five Leaves Publications, 2011) and 'Rebel Footprints' (Pluto, 2015)

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Gitika Partington: A few notes on singing

by Courses on 02 / 06 / 2015

I'd like to teach the world to sing’. Celebrating 10 years of acapella choirs at Bishopsgate Institute, tutor Gitika Partington tells us why she loves to teach singing and why she believes that anybody can sing.

Over the years I have sung harmony with thousands of people. I even taught a song to the entire audience and performers of the Royal Albert Hall – twice! I started harmony singing when I was about 5 years old - singing with my family. The love of harmony started right from the start and carried on through the Church Choir, the Drama School Pop Band, the Heavy Rock Band, Jazz, Reggae, Soul Pop bands of my twenties - it was all about the harmony. 

The Tubthumping Chorus and Bishopsgate Singers celebrate all types of voices, and the sound that comes from a mixture of very different voices is joyous. We have energy, passion, it is fun, we laugh and we sound great.  We don’t perform - we ‘share’. End of term concerts just seems to happen. We put out 100 or 200 chairs and the friends come. We have some great videos on youtube of end of term ‘sharings’. 

There is no audition and no-one has to have musical qualifications  or sight singing skills to join the choirs.  The rehearsals are jolly, challenging, there is usually an urn and a biscuit not far away. I put all the separate audio parts on a closed website and many singers download their parts and listen to them during the week on the bus. This term I asked the choirs if they could write me some little sound bites for this blog, as to why they came to the choir and I was a bit blown away as I had forgotten why people keep coming back every term. Here are a few of the quotes.

"I love the fact that when I first came and was a bit unsure of whether I was good enough, Gitika said to me, "Everyone can sing; give the altos a go."  

"It is a brilliant way for non-musicians to make music collectively. Singing opens my heart as well as my throat! It lifts my mood, is one of the highlights of my week. I haven't got that great a singing voice, but I feel welcome and it's such a great feeling to be part of a community choir."

"What I like best is that some songs are so challenging to learn at first, but with expert teaching we produce a performance that sounds pretty marvellous!  The whole is so much more than the sum of its parts! Not only that, but we have a lot of fun doing it and make new friends!"

" Singing with the basses has been an unexpected joy. Over the years close friendships have developed and led to other shared interests, none of which would have happened without the choir - it's a bit like a singing version of the "Men in Sheds" fraternity. I can't think of a better start to a week than singing with Bishopsgate and the Tubthumpers."

Gitika is the author of Novello’s Sing Pop Acapella Books 1-3 and Oxford University Press Voiceworks Community. Her new album with 3 Bucket Jones of self-penned electronica, melancholic indie pop folk-ish material continues to be lavished with layers of sumptuous harmony vocals. 

Tubthumping Chorus and Bishopsgate Singers will be starting again in our autumn term. Sign up to our newsletter for updates.

The Life and Death of Powell and Pressburger

by Courses on 22 / 05 / 2015

From the 1930s to the 1960s Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger revolutionised British cinema, producing films quite unlike anything produced in a national cinema traditionally dominated by 'realism'. Our film studies tutor, Hilary Smith looks at why the films of Powell and Pressburger created such an impact then and now.

Winston Churchill tried to prevent it ever being shown. It provoked publication of a pamphlet which harrumphed that it was: ‘a highly elaborate, flashy, flabby and costly film, the most disgraceful production that has ever emanated from a British film studio.’ The critics of the time didn’t exactly fall over themselves to offer gushing praise either. The Picturegoer reviewer rallied himself enough to opine: ‘I can't enthuse about this picture ... but I must say that it has a great deal of merit in it’, whilst the Evening Standard grudgingly conceded: ‘This is not a great picture, but it is exceptionally good entertainment.’ 

So why is it that a film so damned with faint praise, or simply damned, is now considered by many to be one of the finest British films ever made, and its creators to be the greatest artists in the history of British cinema?

The film in question is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and its creators were Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. They came from vastly different backgrounds and pathways into the film industry, yet together they made some of the most ambitious and remarkable films of British cinema. Their symbiotic relationship is indicated by their then unheard of joint credit of ‘writer-producer-director’ they created for the title credits of their films.

The responses to Blimp on its release show how out of sync their films were with the times - and indeed how ‘out there’ the films were. Yet when viewed now their work seems timeless. Ironically, Churchill’s wartime description of Britain’s ‘finest hour’ could equally apply to Powell and Pressburger, as it was during the Second World War and in its immediate aftermath that they produced a glorious run of films, their collective masterpiece. 

The need for wartime propaganda was a motivating factor, though the faces of the British government mandarins must have been a treat when they saw the results of their brief to Powell and Pressburger for films promoting Anglo-American friendship and understanding. One very much doubts they expected the ensuing glorious but decidedly quirky paean to the English countryside of A Canterbury Tale (1944). And they must have been positively agog at the portrait of an RAF pilot in limbo between the worlds of heaven and earth - the former depicted in crisp black and white, the latter in sumptuous Technicolor - in the achingly romantic A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The palette of their colour films is absolutely stunning. Technicolor is utilised to magical effect in the hauntingly beautiful reimagining of a Himalayan convent outpost in Black Narcissus (1947) and the spellbinding ballet-world milieu of The Red Shoes (1948). It seems fitting at this point to return to the words of the aforementioned pamphleteers. They stated they singled out The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp because: ‘of all forms of idea communication - print, speech, radio or film - the film, especially Technicolor, leaves the most lasting impression upon both the conscious and sub-conscious mind of a nation.’  

For them, that was why the films of Powell and Pressburger were so dangerous. For us, it is why they are so worth discovering or revisiting, and revelling in their many delights.

Hilary Smith will be looking at the films of Powell and Pressburger in a one day course on
Saturday 27 June.

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Tools not rules: What makes a good play?

by Bishopsgate Institute on 21 / 05 / 2015

What is it that makes a great play great? Characters? Plots? Wisdom? Honesty? All of theses things and a little something extra. Our tutor Jennifer Farmer gives us an insight into what she looks for in a good play: 

Much of my life as a playwright, dramaturg and theatre-goer is governed by the pursuit of the 'good play'. Each working day I strive to either write a good play, facilitate a good play or see a good play. So with all of this time and effort spent on the good play, it is worth considering the question: what is a good play? And is what makes a good play the same as what makes a play good? Okay, yes, that ended up being two questions...
Jennifer Farmer playwriting course
The phrase 'a good play' can evoke thoughts of a conventionally well-structured work with three-dimensional characters and a strong narrative arc. One where the conflict is clear and draws to a satisfying resolution. A play which knows the rules and follows them. As a playwriting tutor, part of my job is to share with students the conventions, if only so they can be disobeyed or ignored. In order to strike the balance between technical skill and creativity, I think it is imperative to see the conventions as 'tools not rules.'

It is widely accepted that serial word inventor Ben Jonson coined the word 'playwright' as a sneer to dramatists he perceived to be merely constructing plays, but not imbuing them with poetry. Choosing 'wright' because it means builder or craftsperson, Jonson was targeting those who created plays which were solidly well-built, but lacked a sense of artistry, of daring and transformation. And though the original negative connotations to 'playwright' have disappeared, are we more preoccupied with building the solid and safe than creating the flawed yet fascinating?

Two recent plays to challenge our very relationship with narrative, structure and character -the rules- were Tim Crouch's Adler & Gibb and Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play, at the Royal Court and Almeida theatres respectively. Bold and audacious, both plays polarised audiences and critics and definitely prompted more questions than they answered. During and after both, I felt confusion, revelations, unsettled, angry and exhilarated.  

Image: Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play  at the Almeida Theatre. Photographer: Manuel Harlan

Grayson Perry, in a 2009 Guardian article, argued the value of emotional responses in gauging the quality and success of a work of art. “The art world over-privileges an intellectual view of the world rather than an emotional one... I think it's perfectly valid to say you love a piece because it makes you cry, rather than saying it references Lacan.” 

Because Adler & Gibb and Mr Burns were works which refused to play by the rules, refused to play nice and refused to be good plays, they also forced us to engage more than our intellect and our academic understanding of playwriting/ theatre-making. Which makes them plays which were good. 

Jennifer's Playwriting course starts on Monday 15 June. Join in the conversation. #BIcourses

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Radical Citizenship at Bishopsgate Institute

by Bishopsgate Institute on 21 / 05 / 2015

What happened when we allowed a group of young adults to develop a corridor exhibition inspired by historic materials documenting the story of an extraordinary twentieth-century political movement? Interpretation officer Michelle Johansen provides an update on a new arts heritage project and reflects on the process of interpreting historic collections in creative and collaborative ways.

Since February 2015 we have been collaborating with Emergency Exit Arts to deliver a youth training project called Radical Citizenship funded by the Heritage Lottery’s Young Roots grants scheme. The project builds upon a previous partnership (The Only Way is Ethics, 2013-14 ). The current phase of the project offers skills-based training to equip young adults (aged 18 to 25) to produce and facilitate a series of public events, a temporary exhibition and a schools learning programme inspired by items from one of our collections, the Mondcivitan Republic Archive, which has recently expanded from one to almost one hundred boxes of materials following a donation from the Schonfield World Service Trust

A project archives placement is currently supporting library staff to catalogue the newly-accessioned materials while an exhibition placement is working with me to curate a temporary corridor display that interprets the Mondcivitan message and materials in fresh ways. The exhibition work began in April 2015 when a small, self-selected group of young adults attended workshops teaching heritage interpretation and exhibition design skills. An informal exhibition working group was then established to continue developing the 11-panel, two-dimensional display after-hours in the library. 

Image: Interrupted in the decision-making process

The members of the group have committed increasing hours to the collaborative exhibition development process since April. When asked why, the responses included the following:

The thing that has kept me coming along week after week is the discoveries we make each time. Going through the folders of archive materials numerous times is like digging deeper and deeper into the past. Because we’re reading documents very closely, as we search out quotes or text to use to tell the exhibition story, every session reveals more historical background and new ideas or concepts. It’s just really rewarding.      

When we started looking at the archive materials in the first training sessions at the beginning of the year I thought they looked really boring but then I started reading the letters sent by the members to one another – and the nicknames they used, like ‘Owl’ – and suddenly the story became a human one. I was also seeing more and more modern parallels in the type of issues the Mondcivitan Republic were addressing, especially around the time of the election in May, and that made me want to explore their views further.

I finished my A-levels last year and I’m on a gap year working in a supermarket to save money for university. I miss school [laughs] and I wanted to do something with my time that wasn’t just going to my job but that made me think a bit deeper about things. I like the collaborative elements of working together on the exhibition too. We’ve all got different skills and ideas we bring to the sessions and I like sharing those and the discussions around which items will go on which panel to tell the overall story in the best way possible.

The group travel considerable distances across London to get here for sessions at the end of a full working day. Their levels of commitment to the exhibition process have been maintained even as the work has become less creative (the laborious process of scanning archive sources to submit to the designer is now underway). My tips to other heritage organisations thinking of undertaking similar collaborative youth work would be:

- Offer an intensive training session at the start of the process to build skills and encourage teamwork

- If practical, provide full and free access to a relatively unknown collection to encourage engagement, exploration and a sense of ownership 

- Provide clear exhibition milestones – then step back from the process to ensure the ideas and outcomes are authentic and participant-led

- Allow a long lead in from the initial training to the print deadlines to facilitate creativity and genuine collaboration across weeks rather than days

The project exhibition panels go up in our corridor on Monday 29 June. A ‘meet the curators’ exhibition launch in the main library from 7.00pm will provide an opportunity to question members of the exhibitions group about their experiences of developing the display from start to finish over a glass of wine or soft drink. 

here to book your space at this free event. 

Bishopsgate Library collections cover a variety of subject areas which explore radical, social, labour, feminist and gay history in London.

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Archivist Nicky Hilton writes about our Alternatives to Religion project in the recent issue of ARC, the monthly magazine for members of the Archives and Records Association.

Bishopsgate Library collections cover a variety of subject areas which explore radical, social, labour, feminist and gay history in London.

Stay up to date with all our events and activities. Sign up to our newsletter.

Our Everyday Muslim Project has also been featured in ARC magazine.

Library and Archives Assistant Emmy Tither has written about our Everyday Muslim project for the recent issue of ARC, the monthly magazine for members of the Archives and Records Association.

Bishopsgate Library collections cover a variety of subject areas which explore radical, social, labour, feminist and gay history in London.

Stay up to date with all our events and activities. Sign up to our newsletter.

Our Alternatives to Religion Project is also featured in ARC magazine.

Colin Clews looks back at LGBT life in the 1980s

by Bishopsgate Institute on 16 / 03 / 2015

Colin Clews, author of the popular and informative 'Gay in the 80s' blog takes a look back at LGBT life in the 1980s:

Queer life in the 1980s was an extraordinary mix of progress and setbacks as lesbians and gay men became increasingly visible. The 1982 launch of Channel Four - with its remit to address the needs of minorities – had a hugely positive impact on the representation of queer people. Out and Out on Tuesday offered a magazine-style look at lesbian and gay life: the Corner House was the first attempt at a queer sit-com and two series of In the Pink charted the development of queer cinema.  

And despite the 80s beginning with global protests over the movie Cruising, filmic representations gradually improved. Films like Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (another contribution from Channel Four) didn’t problematise queer people but rather social attitudes towards us.

But as our visibility grew so did the attacks upon us – from the physical to the political. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality’s 1980 report Attacks on Gay People found, for example, that “about one in eight [attacks] leads to the death or disablement of the victim”. A 1984 report by the Gay London Police Monitoring Group (GALOP) documented immense hostility from the police: for example, a man seeking police assistance when a group of men attacked a gay pub, was told, “Well what do you expect? You’re a queer in a queer’s pub. Fuck off before I nick you for being drunk and disorderly.”   

A Victorian law, the Customs Consolidation Act (1876), was resurrected to justify repeated raids on Gay’s the Word bookshop. Countless gay men were arrested for ‘importuning for immoral purposes’, an offence that was created to stop ‘stage door Johnnies’ harassing showgirls as they left Victorian musical halls. Public displays of affection by lesbians and gay men resulted in charges of ‘insulting behaviour contrary to the Metropolitan Police Act 1839.’

With the first UK case of AIDS in 1981 gay men struggled to make sense of this mysterious and deadly condition. Prior to the introduction of HIV testing in 1985, life for many gay men included an anxious daily check for Kaposi’s Sarcoma skin lesions – one of the defining conditions for AIDS. Meanwhile the Press revelled in the notion of ‘the gay plague’, suggesting that we were both morally and medically infectious.

And then the passage of Section 28 heralded the close of the decade.

Colin will be joining Linda Bellos to discuss LGBT London in the 1980s - the media and the 'Loony Left' on Tuesday 21 April.

The Lesbian And Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA) is based at Bishopsgate Institute.

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London in Fiction: May Day by John Sommerfield

by Bishopsgate Institute on 12 / 03 / 2015
London Books recently republished John Sommerfield’s 1936 politically-charged novel ‘May Day’ as part of its London Classics series. This new edition was made possible by the generosity of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union and three of its officials – Bob Crow, Alex Gordon and Brian Denny. John King, co-owner of London Books, explains why the book is still as relevant today as when it was written.
 John Sommerfield's May Day
This March sees the first anniversary of the death of trade-unionist Bob Crow at the age of 52. He may have divided opinion as leader of the RMT, but even his worst enemies knew that he was an honest man. An idealist who believed in people over profit, he was also a pragmatist whose success often seemed to be resented by those in power. With Tony Benn, who passed away three days later, he represented true Labour values during an era when the party has moved further away from its roots.
Bob was greatly influenced by a previous generation that saw class and the workplace as the battleground for a fairer society, forming mass working-class movements and helping to create the welfare state. This generation included John Sommerfield, author of May Day.
First published in 1936, this unique novel is set over a three-day period that ends on May 1st. The workers in an east London factory are being bullied by new owners. Speed-ups, accidents and lost earnings have to be confronted. With today’s zero-hours contracts, wage freezes and falls, May Day could easily have been written now. But in 2015, it would struggle to find a publisher. It is just too original.
Sommerfield creates a vision of London that mirrors Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 film Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis, Ashley Smith’s non-fiction A City Stirs, the cut-ups of a David Bowie or DJ Shadow. There is no main character, instead a big cast of diverse individuals whose experiences weave together to create the larger tale. These threads tell us as much about the present as the 1930s. Human nature doesn’t change, so life repeats.
Bob Crow and John Sommerfield were optimists who felt capitalism was as bad for the bosses as the workers. They never met each other, but when the RMT funded the London Books republication of May Day in 2010 the link was cemented. A launch was held in The Brown Bear pub in the East End, once run by Bob’s aunt. He said some words and we drank to John. The circle was complete. Now it’s time to remember Bob through May Day.

You can hear Alex Gordon and Brian Denny discuss the impact of the book when it was first published and its relevance for today’s readers in our event May Day on Tuesday 24 March.

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When Anne-Marie Sweeney was asked to make a film for the National Women Against Pit Closures (NWAPC) she was happy to do so. Here's why:

The National Women Against Pit Closures (NWAPC) wanted a film to show their political voices were not silenced when the 1984/85 miners' strike ended, but continued to be heard long after. 
Image of women picket at Yorkshire Main Colliery Feb 1985

Image: Courtesy of John Sturrock (www.reportdigital.co.uk) Women picket at Yorkshire Main Colliery Feb 1985

In 2005 they held an extraordinary weekend in Sheffield to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the coal miners’ strike. They invited women that they had stood shoulder to shoulder with in struggles, both during the strike and in the twenty years after it. They wanted both to celebrate and learn from these voices that resonated from picket lines, peace camps, migrant movements and war zones.

Brenda Procter, Chair of NWAPC, was one of the organisers and chaired the event: “This wasn’t about nostalgia for 84/5 - we had business to do. This was 2005 with Thatcher’s offspring, Blair, in charge - attacking the working class, privatising and war mongering. We invited some of the most frontline and experienced campaigners in the last thirty years and we were there to get our heads together!”

The event was an unforgettable rollercoaster of radical politics, poetry, internationalism, dancing, theatre and song.  It ended with the night skies exploding with fireworks organised by members of the Fire Brigades Union.

I wanted to reflect in Going Through the Change! the uncompromising political stand these women had taken and the impact it had on their lives.  Many were regarded as 'enemies of the state'. They had endured surveillance, suffered strip searches and imprisonment. They chose, as their weapons of survival, stinging humour and sisterhood.

The Irish Civil Rights leader Bernadette McAliskey (formerly Bernadette Devlin) talks of the change that occurs to the whole of our lives, once we as women, cross the threshold and take to the streets – “There is no going back.”

Bernadette explains why we become, of necessity, so strong in resistance. Not only do we have to continue to care for our families but also, “We’ve had to fight alongside our men and with them at the same time. We’ve had to educate them in our equality while we’ve worked with them for the equality of the whole.”

The film’s title refers to this very big change in the lives of these women.  But it also acknowledges that this film is a portrait of women of a certain age, many grandmothers, all activists, speaking with a wealth of political experience and clarity. 

It is uncommon to hear the clear political analysis of older working class women, they are still hidden voices. Using rare archive footage we hear them from the heart of their struggles.

We filmed the audience, sharing their experience often in close-up. Their faces mapped hardship and suffering, but, also charted the way to continue to find great humour and joy in resistance, despite devastated communities, personal loss and the forces ranged against them. True grit and true stars!

You can watch Going Through the Change!and hear Anne-Marie Sweeney discussing the film on Tuesday 3 March 2015.

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Dramatising John Lilburne

by Bishopsgate Institute on 17 / 02 / 2015

The John Lilburne 400th Anniversary Conference turns the spotlight on an often overlooked historical character. The dramatic appeal of this courageous campaigner was not lost on writer Martine Brant who co-wrote with Peter Flannery the TV serial "The Devil's Whore" and its sequel " New Worlds". She explains why Lilburne is a gift to the dramatist.

It’s hard to imagine writing a drama set in the Civil War without casting the charismatic radical John Lilburne as one of its leading characters.  In Free-born John, the personal and the political are indivisible. Fearlessly provocative, obsessively single-minded in his fight for social justice, Lilburne stands out as one of the most striking figures of his age.
Devil's Whore Channel 4 image
Lilburne is truly a gift to the dramatist.  Here we have a man who shines through as colourful but complex, fanatical but flawed, egotistical but egalitarian.  A man unafraid to speak truth to power (even to his old comrade-in-arms, Cromwell),  a man driven by the desire for justice and reckless of his own safety and comfort. 

In our TV drama The Devil’s Whore, we tried to stay true to his historical character, and although not a great deal is known of his personal life, his persona spoke out from his words and actions:  indeed, for Lilburne, words and actions were one.  He acted out his principles and led by example.  Twice exiled and frequently thrown into gaol, he refused to be silenced but continued his campaign from his cell.  Father of 10 children (many named after the prisons in which they were conceived!), he was inevitably torn between his duty to his family and to the cause of liberty, yet he found a way to reconcile his conscience: without the rule of law and social justice, his family would have no life worth living.

Lilburne is a gift to the dramatist, too, because of his principles, burningly revolutionary at the time and bitingly relevant today.  Lasting democracy lies in our willingness to defend it.  Lilburne’s life demonstrates how important it is to stand up and speak out for our freedoms and to hold firm despite setbacks.  As we watch our civil liberties being eroded, we would do well to remember the man who, above all others, argued and fought and suffered in the cause of religious toleration, of a broader franchise, a government elected by popular mandate and a fair and equitable legal system. 

This year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta;  the sign at Runnymede declares the site to be ‘The Birthplace of Modern Democracy’.  Wrong.  Modern democracy was born in the blood, smoke and stench of the English Civil Wars and in the struggle of those men like John Lilburne whose conviction and sacrifice forged the liberties we know today and so readily take for granted.  Bringing these key figures to life through drama can only inspire and inform the ongoing discussion about our freedoms and privileges.  

Martine Brant and Peter Flannery will be taking part in the Lilburne 400 conference on Saturday 14 March

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Doctor Barnardo in the East End of London

by Bishopsgate Institute on 11 / 02 / 2015

John King gives us a glimpse of the London Dr Barnardo would have experienced back in 1866 as portrayed in Simon Blumenfeld’s 1930s novel 'Doctor of the Lost' and explains why the book is as relevant today as when it was published.

Image of a Boy from Dr Barnardos










The East End that Thomas Barnardo found when he first came to London in 1866 was one of great poverty. This was a time of rampant capitalism, when the few were becoming very wealthy at the expense of the many.

London was the capital of a great world power, and yet Barnardo found himself surrounded by disease, unemployment, prostitution, alcoholism and violence. Even more shocking were the thousands of hungry children he saw sleeping on the streets, many dying from the cold. He decided to act, offering food, shelter and education. He stayed and fought for their futures, part of a parallel tradition of charity and service. Jealous rivals tried to smear Doctor Barnardo, but he won his battles and his work continues to this day.

Simon Blumenfeld’s account of Doctor Barnardo’s arrival and early years in the East End – Doctor Of The Lost – was written in the 1930s, when the old ways were being challenged by an organised working class and the seeds of a post-war welfare state were being sown. Blumenfeld was a devout communist and in the novel he links the revolutionary spirit of Barnardo’s religious drive to his own beliefs.

Discussions between Barnardo and a non-religious colleague filter through the text while, in keeping with his debut Jew Boy, Blumenfeld recreates a dynamic, if cut-throat, east London. There is hardship and sorrow, but also humour, morality, bravery and a host of well-drawn characters. It is an optimistic work, one that merges the two eras.

In many ways, Doctor Of The Lost is more relevant today than when it was first published. The idealism of the 1930s and post-war era has been replaced by a familiar greed; a selfishness that is now hidden behind a stream of liberal values that are very rarely lived.  Those who question this doublespeak are belittled, told they live in the past, and yet the return to a society where profit drives every decision and the privatisation of core services is seen as progress is actually a return to a much older model. Doctor Of The Lost may tell us a lot about London in 1866, but it tells us even more about London in 2015

London Books is an independent publisher which aims to bring old and new fiction together in a tradition that is original in its subject matter, style and social concerns.

John King is a co-owner of London Books and edits its London Classics series. He is also the author of novels 'The Football Factory' , 'Headhunters', 'England Away', 'Human Punk', 'White Trash', 'The Prison House' and 'Skinheads'. 

Sarah Wise and Ken Worpole will be looking at Dr Barnardo in the East End of London on Tuesday 24 February.

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The John Lilburne 400th Anniversary Conference

by Bishopsgate Institute on 03 / 02 / 2015

Born 400 years ago, John Lilburne's courage and passion for justice was unfailing during the turbulent wars of  the English Civil War. Jeremy Corbyn MP explains why he feels that the Lilburne 400 Conference is a timely reminder of a man who fought to establish many of the liberties and political freedoms we take for granted today.
John Lilburne image






The John Lilburne 400th Anniversary Conference is an exciting opportunity to hear leading historians of the English Revolution, political activists, film makers and writers present their unique and engaging take on ‘Freeborn John’...a man of his age and ours.

As many of our civil liberties are under threat in the 21st century, now is exactly the right time to recall the man who fought so hard to establish so many of them.

The enormous power that Cromwell bestowed upon himself at the end of the Civil War was seen by Lilburne and others as the replacement of a monarchical power for a parliamentary one. Lilburne wanted to see the real flowering of ideas and a fundamental reform of the whole way England and Wales were governed.

He defended the right of citizens to be tried by a jury of their peers, the right to petition and to demonstrate. But it’s not just his strongly held views on political liberty that made him a key figure in the history of popular rights.  He was a political organiser who built one of the first ever popular political organisations in British history, the Levellers.

Although the Levellers were to go on to be defeated, they contributed an indelible legacy of popular democratic demands to British political culture. In the end their message was heard by American revolutionaries in 1776, by French revolutionaries in 1789 and by every generation of radicals since.

The conference is a great opportunity to show a new generation the importance and excitement of this period of history.

Jeremy Corbyn MP will be one of the speakers at the Lilburne 400 conference on Saturday 14 March.

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