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Tragic tale of young Hackney poet, 12, who inspired a generation

PUBLISHED: 11:08 12 October 2016 | UPDATED: 11:52 12 October 2016

Four school students from Hackney Downs appear on Full House, 1972.  Philip Ramocon at piano, poets from left to right: Tom Murphy, Danny Morfett, Vivian Usherwod. Presenter Joe Melia sitting on platform.
Picture: BBC/Ken Worpole

Four school students from Hackney Downs appear on Full House, 1972. Philip Ramocon at piano, poets from left to right: Tom Murphy, Danny Morfett, Vivian Usherwod. Presenter Joe Melia sitting on platform. Picture: BBC/Ken Worpole

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Vivian Usherwood is the subject of an exhibition for Black History Month. Emma Bartholomew discovers the tragic Hackney boy whose poetry found its way into schools across the country.

Centerprise in Kingsland Road. (PHOTO: Hackney Museum) Centerprise in Kingsland Road. (PHOTO: Hackney Museum)

Vivian Usherwood was just 12 in 1972 when his remarkable poems were published in an anthology.

Some, like The Sun Glitters As You Look Up, are joyful – but others are more poignant, especially coming from such a young writer.

One called Life begins: “Life is playing me up despite having an affair with me. It thinks it hurts me.”

Another called Hackney asks: “Why is Hackney called Hackney? [...] It stinks of steam and smoke. Why do I have to live in this place?”

This poem originally appeared in Vivian Usherwood’s book Poems in 1972:

Why is Hackney called ‘Hackney’?

Why could it not be ‘Dirty’?

Its name stinks of steam and smoke.

How much longer do I have to

live in this place?

Everybody wants to leave and

try to forget about Hackney.

But I can’t:

It’s groaning inside me

And that is why everybody smokes

To forget about it.

Everybody wants to leave and

go to the country.

The short anthology was the first publication by Centerprise, the groundbreaking community centre and publisher in Kingsland Road, Dalston, which was open from 1971 until 2012.

It initially cost 5p and went on to sell more than 10,000 copies as teachers across Britain bought copies to share with their pupils. Vivian was even invited onto Saturday night BBC2 culture show Full House, where he read poems accompanied by his friend and pianist – Philip Ramocon, who went on to work with U2.

Having inspired a generation of youngsters in the ’70s, the poems are now being resurrected and read out to youngsters who visit Hackney Museum this month.

Vivian’s story is one of many told in a new exhibition exploring Black British art in Hackney over the last 50 years.

Writer and former Hackney Downs School teacher Ken Worpole, 72, was responsible for bringing Vivian’s work to a wider audience.

Ken recognised his pupil was a “very talented young man”, but that he had problems reading and writing. His teacher for the extra lessons he attended, Ann Pettit, told Ken Vivian had been writing some “really lovely” poems, and initially they were read out to other children at the school.

But Ken shared the poems with his friend: Centerprise founder Glen Thompson. “The poems were so admired and liked that it was the first publication that Centerprise did,” he said.

“There was so little writing by young black people around at the time that lots of schools became very interested and it became an enormous seller.

“It was very exciting at the time, and Centerprise was really pioneering a lot of new writing.”

But although it made Vivian “feel good” to get recognition, he seemed deeply unhappy at the children’s home where he lived.

“Obviously there was a sadness in the poems,” said Ken.

“Vivian was a bit of a loner. I think he was always struggling. He sometimes just used to sit in a small group who had been given extra tuition in reading and he would write one of these poems straight off. It obviously meant a lot to him.

“In the ’70s children’s homes had terrible reputations and it’s not surprising children in them were not happy. As teachers we weren’t told we had any wider responsibilities to care than literally teaching in the classroom. I would hope today that someone in the school would pick up if someone was especially unhappy.”

After Vivian left school he got a job and would pop in occasionally to see Ken.

But in his late teens he died in a fire in the flat where he lived alone. The coroner recorded an open verdict.

Niti Acharya, curator and museum manager, said: “It is really sad, especially after you read his poems and build up a connection with him. The children we have read his poems to have been sad. But they also take on board there is a whole future they are continuing – keeping history alive through their conversations.”

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