Radical stories from Centerprise bookshop retold through audio tour app ‘A Hackney Autobiography’

Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise

Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise - Credit: Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise

An app will bring tales of resistance and equality in Hackney to life – courtesy of Dalston’s radical bookshop. Emma Bartholomew reports

Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise

Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise - Credit: Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise

Fascinating tales about Hackney inspired by books published by the radical Centerprise bookshop have been brought to life in a series of walking tours.

What’s more, you can take part whenever you want – they’re available through a free smartphone app.

Laura Mitchison and Rose Schling from On The Record spent three years working with community groups like the Afro Caribbean elders and Core Arts to produce A Hackney Autobiography and an accompanying book, The Lime Green Mystery.

Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise

Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise - Credit: Sherlee Mitchell's photo of Centerprise

When Centerprise opened in 1971 it was the only bookshop in Hackney.

Laura told the Gazette: “The founders were trying to break down barriers between people who consumed culture and who was producing it.

“When they were setting it up they approached Penguin and asked for money for bookshelves, but they told them: ‘No – working class people don’t read.’ They were more helpful later years when it was clear working class people did read, and they could write books too.

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“From the outside it looked just like a café and bookshop, but upstairs there were campaigns, youth club, free welfare advice, people playing chess or doing folk music, and a women’s-only performance space.

“What we found exciting was that so many places you see in London and the world are made for one purpose, but they saw community, cultural and youth work as indivisible.”

The pair met family and friends who had been involved in Centerprise over the years, some of whom had publications, photos and memorabilia piled away in their attics.

“The idea wasn’t just to look at the past and this building, but to relate the history to what’s going on in Hackney now, and using Centerprise as a lens to put all the radical culture and activity together,” explained Laura.

“People can go on immersive audio walks using the app and explore the present-day environment while hearing voices from the past. At certain points you’re not sure what’s past and what’s present.

“You might hear Dr Jelly’s bicycle bell in your ear but you are walking up a road with lots of bicycles.”

Each of the four stories links back to Centerprise in some way using books and campaigns that began there.

Inside Out Homerton has been developed with the mental health charity Core Arts to explore the old hospitals, maternity wards and the mental institutions.

Food and the Frontline explores Ridley Road market, and the clashes between the 43 Group and Oswald Mosley before the Second World War.

The Working Women’s Bus Tour starts at Columbia Road and provides a sonic bus journey to Chatsworth Road from the perspective of a woman bus conductor.

The final instalment, The Island, tells the tale of the tight-knit community in Stellman Close whose five streets could only be entered if you paid a toll.

The houses were classed as slums and knocked down in 1970, which inspired Centerprise to publish a book collaborating with the community.

“We tried to echo the way Centerprise worked with people,” said Laura. “They would bring the people being interviewed into the process of writing and editing the books, and were keen on having local people involved.”

They focused on the period until 1993 when the bookshop was run as a co-operative.

“We felt the recent history was too raw,” she said.

The shop shut in 2012 because the council put up its rent. The building is now occupied by literacy charity Hackney Pirates.

“The Hackney Pirates do seem to be keeping some of that same spirit alive by having a café and doing literacy work, but for a lot of the people involved in our project there’s a sense of sadness,” admitted Laura.

The app will available to download and the book will be launched at Sutton House on May 7. To attend or to buy a copy of the book email info@on-the-record.org.uk.

Find the free app A Hackney Autobiography on Google Play or the iTunes app store.