Once THAP had obtained premises in Watney Street, they followed Stepney Books in combining bookselling and publishing. The large section in the shop on writing by East Enders and about East London proved to be the most popular.
Black Saturday, edited by Les Miller and Howard Bloch, brought together local people’s memories of the Blitz. And anthologies of local writers and poets’ work, such as Old Age Ain’t No Place For Sissies by pensioner Gladys McGee, were a major feature.
THAP published biographies and anthologies. For ‘Ben’s Bunker Book’, author Ben Hayden built a nuclear bunker according to government guidlines on how to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear strike. He spent two weeks in this hole in Limehouse to experience the living conditions, laying bare the lunacy behind the governments advice.
Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers: life stories of pioneer Sylhetti settlers in Britain by Caroline Adams, was published in 1987 and charted the wave of Bangladeshi migration to Britain after the Second World War, which would eventually transform the cultural make-up of East London. As on previous occasions, it was left to a community publisher to shed light on a largely unexplored ‘secret’ history.
It was designed and published by Eastside publishers John Wallet and Denise Jones.
‘These poems and these poets are some of the reasons why I live in the East End. This is the east, and these are the people we should keep listening to…’ Benjamin Zephaniah
In 1991, the project launched What’s the Word? – a free newsletter on writing activities in the borough, and the next year organised the Writing in the East awards scheme for young poets, judged by writer Benjamin Zephaniah. A publication arose from this, as did the work of a group people with learning difficulties, convened by project worker Sean Taylor, in Cheese and Chips are Related to the Moon.
Later, in 1995, a stint in Newham brought together young people between fourteen and sixteen and professional writers, including project worker Jill Dawson, to produce the hard-hitting anthology, Telling Tales.
The location of Stepney Books in Whitechapel Market was fortuitous, leading directly to their entry into the publishing world. Celia Stubbs was on the rota of volunteer staff and one day got talking to a fellow market trader. She became entranced with stallholder Jim Wolveridge’s wry recollections of his East End upbringing in the 1920s and 30s and thought they would make a fantastic book.
Jim’s book, ‘Ain’t It Grand’ (or ‘This Was Stepney’) in 1976, was the first of a series of publications documenting working class lives and experiences. Titles include Looking Back – A Docker’s Life by Joe Bloomberg, Memories of Old Poplar by John Blake and Edith and Stepney by Bertha Sokoloff. Some were published in conjunction with other groups. Victoria Park by Charles Poulson was a joint project with Centerprise in Hackney.
Jenny Smith, Denise Jones and Jo Chesterton worked on many of the Stepney Books publications. ‘We were making it up as we went along,’ says Denise. ‘It was before computers. We had to learn lay-out, paste-up and design skills. How to liaise with printers and things like that.’
Jenny became the chief rep, with the stock filling up her back room. Outlets included the local Half Moon Theatre and the Labour History Museum. And they uncovered a previously unmined seam of writing. ‘You’d be surprised how many people had got manuscripts tucked away in the drawer,’ says Jenny. ‘They came through the letterbox, I should think, of the rate of about one a month.