The Bookshop in Watney Street, in Whitechapel, and now in Brick Lane, has always been a home to writers groups – encouraging new writers and new writing. A 1970’s THAP leaflet stated: ‘Writing doesn’t have to be a grand, solitary or self-indulgent experience, the project’s focus being on sharing and discussing each other’s work.’
In the late 1970’s, THAP, Centerprise, Stepney Books and other community publishers and writers workshops from around the UK gave a platform to working class writers who weren’t often represented by the literary mainstream. This led to the formation of The Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP). This was a non-profit making umbrella organisation for writers’ groups and community publishers, who wish to share their skills and work with their communities.
Working with the publishing arm of the project, a series of books and pamphlets were produced, being sold in the shop and whatever outlet would take them. Garment worker and writer Sally Flood was particularly adept at selling her books, taking them to the readings and conferences which the groups would regularly take part in.
These events took place in rooms above pubs, youth clubs, community centres and local festivals. Although it was not the intention to produce ‘stars’, several people who took part went on to work as writers and performers including East London playwright Tony Marchant.
Poster for reading groups from the FWWCP members.
THAP became an early member of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP). Mad minibus journeys to various parts of the country brought the members together for an annual event to share and discuss their work.
Groups of representative writers visited America and Northern and Southern Ireland, the latter including project worker Roger Mills and Liverpool’s Jimmy McGovern, who later achieved great success writing for film and television.
THAP changed it’s name to Eastside Arts and Books in 1994. One-off sessions and long-term residencies were established in schools and colleges, working alongside enthusiastic teachers to generate lasting excitement around poetry, performance and publishing in schools.
For several years in the mid-1990s, the Eastside Stories award scheme for new novelists gave the winner a measure of financial support and an introduction to a literary agent. Several writing careers, such as Ben Richards – author of Throwing the House Out of the Window, and Episodes of television’s Spooks – were launched in this way.
The Basement Writers
In 1970, young teacher Chris Searle arrived at Sir John Cass School in Stepney, where he urged his pupils to write poems about their lives in East London. Although the Headmaster was initially receptive to the idea of the work being published by the school, the governors found the collection, with stories of abusive parents and slum housing to be ‘unbalanced’.
So Chris Searle set about publishing the anthology Stepney Words himself, incorporating photos of the area and getting copies printed. And for this ‘flagrant disobedience’ he was sacked. Interestingly, it was the only time that the Sun newspaper has run a double-page spread of poetry: ‘The Astonishing World Of These East End Kids’.
In support of their sacked teacher, pupils organised a strike and marched to Trafalgar Square with banners held aloft, also making national headlines. Chris Searle was eventually reinstated in 1973 by the then Education Secretary – Margaret Thatcher!
In October 1973, an evening group was formed on Chris Searle’s suggestion. He met with his ex-pupils to share their writing in a room of the Basement Project beneath St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street. There could be no other name for the group: The Basement Writers. Their first publications were in poster form, plastered up on the corrugated iron sheets of the nearby building sites. Poetry booklets and performances at the local Half Moon Theatre followed.
A book by group members Leslie Mildiner and Bill House, The Gates, about their experience of truancy met with great acclaim and a television film: Doing it for Ourselves, featuring the Basement Writers, appeared in 1976.
Some of those involved, such as school striker and Basement Writer, Alan Gilbey, continued to develop community writing and publishing at THAP.