Search

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

Archant

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.”

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hackney Gazette visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hackney Gazette staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hackney Gazette account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Latest Hackney Stories

Saturday, May 26, 2018

To listen to LCD Soundsystem through their intricately produced studio recordings, it’s easy to miss the musicianship James Murphy and his crew of unwilling rock stars command.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

A display in Hackney town hall’s newly refurbished vaults will shed light on the building’s 1930s origins, and the amazing relics unearthed during its £16m revamp. Emma Bartholomew speaks to curator Jacoba Mijnssen about democracy, regalia, and the mysterious cleaning unit uncovered by workers

Saturday, May 26, 2018

So you’ve been training got the big day, it’s been, you had a great time writes Dalston PT Matt Smith, Fitness First.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Middlesex coach Richard Scott hailed his side after a third successive win in the Royal London One-Day Cup.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Paul Stirling defied a thigh injury which forced him to bat with a runner to score his second century in less than a week as Middlesex beat Sussex by 74 runs at Hove in the Royal London One-Day Cup.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Block Universe - an international performance art festival taking place in London - is celebrating the artform with an international lineup.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The O’s will play a lot of local teams plus travel to Portugal for a seven-day training camp and it appears a good schedule for Justin Edinburgh’s side

Friday, May 25, 2018

Chelsea Clinton and local poet Jan Nobles appear at this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival

PROMOTED CONTENT

To celebrate LGBT history month, Hackney resident Amanda talks about her journey to becoming a foster carer, with the council’s support and training.

Education and Training

cover

Read the
Education and Training
e-edition today

Read Now


Newsletter Sign Up

Hackney Gazette twice-weekly newsletter
Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Most read news

Show Job Lists