PEACHY MEETS Jonathan Hoskins

Own De Beauvoir! focusses on moments from the 60s through to the 80s when community action remade this area of North London. Incorporating text and images in its semi-fictional narrative the book explores how collective action can transform a space, and emerged from a yearlong project at Open School East. We talk to author Jonathan Hoskins about how archival processes can be politicised.

Images by Graham Reid

Can you tell Peachy how you came to this subject?

I'd been aware of a recent history of collective action in De Beauvoir for quite a few years. I've lived in the neighbourhood since 2006 and I'd always found it an important part of the folklore - the collective narrative - of the area, as self-reliant, resourceful and broadly concerned with social justice.

This wasn't the starting point of the project, though. I was interested in looking at how archival practices can be mobilised to political ends. All of my projects are prompted by, and take place within, a very specific social moment. In this case, I was interested in how the older generation in the neighbourhood - including some who were involved in this collective action - is now being usurped, if you like, by another that's been moving in for the past decade or so.

This new demographic is arguably more affluent and less collectively minded but there seems to be a lot of pressure for that older narrative to remain. I became interested in the project forming part of a more thoroughgoing reassessment of what kind of political space the neighbourhood is today, and as time went on, it became clear that the collective action that the book focuses on, from 1968 to the early 1980s, would be pivotal to that.

Photographs by Stuart Weir

How much were you influenced by William Lyttle, the Mole Man of Hackney, who was living in De Beauvoir at this time?

There is one allusion to the famous media representations of him in the book. The reference is pretty explicit, but only if you know the story. There are other elements of the book like this, that will be more obvious to anyone personally close to the area. It's hugely important to me that the book finds a readership outside of the area - people with a more general interest in art writing, or spatial politics, or whatever - but I was keen to retain that proximity for any reader who knows the area very well.

The reference is very much to the very high-profile representations that were made of William Lyttle and not the person himself. People I've spoken to who knew him seem to remember him warmly and don't recognise these representations. The whole book is concerned with the disparity between consciously composed, popular representations and the events they describe, and the political spaces that are opened up by that disparity. I would hope that anyone noticing the reference to William Lyttle take it as a reminder that most of us only encountered representations, and not the person.

The area seems to be changing fairly quickly in terms of rapid gentrification, with locals being priced out of the area. Do you think some of the changes in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, such as cleaning up the neighbourhood and adding green spaces, has in fact contributed to this?

Yes, I don't think there's any doubt about that. It's one of the things that made the neighbourhood at this time so interesting for me. The political salience of an aesthetic object is often extremely mutable, and in ways that we can't anticipate, and the changes in De Beauvoir now are a good example of that. So, for instance, one of the reasons it's become such a desirable place to live are the quiet streets, on account of road closures enacted by residents' campaigns in 1970s. At the time, the campaigns were attached to broadly progressive, and even radical, political agendas, with supportive coverage in the Hackney People's Press, for instance. Now, it's an aesthetic associated with extreme wealth and individualistic social conservatism. That's not to say that people in 1970s were mistaken or deluded. The reassessment of the area that I hoped to promote works both ways - why shouldn't liveable space be a reasonable demand for everyone?

You write about protests in 1973 which involved parents and children marching back and forth across Balls Pond Road to demand safer pedestrian crossing. Do you think that this kind of intense collective action would still happen nowadays?

Yes, it certainly does happen today but there are good reasons why very few of us would hear about it, both then and now. Much of the influence gained by the De Beauvoir campaigners came about very early on (in late 1960s), through a few events that demonstrated very clearly their collective power to the council - meetings that were well attended and intimidating for the council's representatives, and public stunts orchestrated to maximise media attention and public support, for instance. Things like this are very time consuming and sometimes involve personal risk, so it makes sense to stop doing them once they've brought the influence that is sought after. The Ball's Pond Road protesters were parents who had to bring their children across the road and into the De Beauvoir primary school every day, so they weren't part of the wider, established De Beauvoir campaigns and so had to demonstrate their collective power in order to be taken seriously by the council.

Off the top of my head, one example today would be a local housing group holding a sit-in at the council's housing office. This is something that small groups do fairly often to demand their council meets its duty of care to a resident who has been made homeless, or suchlike. These sorts of actions can be very successful, but 'success' is for the resident to be housed; if it reaches the newspapers (and wider attention) then it might be because the demand has not been met, and the people involved have to to escalate it further, which can mean taking on much more personal risk and commitment.

Photographs by Stuart Weir

Why did you choose to mix fiction, archival material and oral history?

The book came out of - or rather, the book is a part of - a social project that lasted for 18 months or more. I think the choice to use of all of these different forms of material is a straightforward one when the book is seen in that context. I wanted the book to reconstitute the encounters and material from over the course of the project, and then return them to the neighbourhood, distributed capillary-like into the homes and small institutions of the area, to extend the hopes I'd had for the project more generally, as I've already described. Making a book wasn't just a nice way to cap the project - it was very much a continuation of the project, by different means.

When you read the fictional narrative section I think there's a point when you realise that the mercilessly singular voice is a rouse - to the point of overcompensation, even. Instead, the narration evinces a great many voices, no doubt from all of the many people in the neighbourhood who have contributed to the project. A common response I've heard to this section is that it's hard work at first, but then becomes much more rewarding, and I wonder if the moment this becomes clear is when that shift occurs.

The other reason fiction became so important is the licence that it gave me to foreground, to give attention to, aspects of the period I was looking at that came to seem very important to me, but which just couldn't have appeared otherwise. As I've said, this is about how narrative came to be formed within the area, particularly through collective action that reformed the material of the area - clearing abandoned sites, constructing an adventure playground, founding a community centre, redirecting thoroughfares, and so on. Without giving too much away, this accounts for the narrator's very odd understanding of cause and effect and, particularly, of how one could achieve a totalised understanding of a space, as he seeks to.

I'm a bit uncomfortable with the term oral history, because I don't have the skills of an oral historian, and my hopes for that section feel very distinct from what an oral historian might have wanted. That section is called 'Related Accounts' in the book, and that was intended in both possible senses - they are personal accounts that were related to me, and they are related to the fictional section that precedes them. Each text was edited with the respective speaker and each signed off their final copy, but I was very keen for the accounts to all hang together in a way that would extend - and perhaps confirm - the tension in the fictional section between a collective identity that may appear singular and even monolithic, and between the innumerable voices and artefacts that compose it, which are irreconcilably disparate and distinct. I think these two interests are perfectly complementary - by putting in the work with each person to make their account entirely their own, the irreducibility of each comes through, even as they speak about the same events. The fictional section and the 'related accounts' extend one another in this way - the people who seem to enjoy the book the most are those that will return to one of these sections after reading the other, and so on.

Cover design by Luke Gould

How did you approach the aesthetic of the book with designer Luke Gould?

It involved a great deal of reciprocity between us. To begin with, I would feed Luke content so he could begin to design layout templates. That included both text and images, with everything appearing in a very specific order. I had gathered thousands of images and documents from contributors and archive institutions over the course of the project and it was always the intention for the images to do as much work in the publication as the text. At many points, an image would come first as the anchor, and I would then write around it.

Much of the time, the process just required some very long conversations. For instance, the bulk of the book is a single, linear, narrative told through a fictional resident's journal. When it came to deciding the typeface of this section (which is different to the main typeface used in the rest of the book) we were struggling a little to begin with. The story gives very little personal detail about this narrator, and so Luke began to ask me a lot more about him, to get a sense of what kind of person he is. After that, Luke very quickly came up with something that I thought was ideal.

At other times, that reciprocity was more visual than verbal. The best example is the typeface of the cover and section titles, which Luke drew entirely from scratch, after a long period of us passing materials back and forth. From me, these were things I'd found that spoke of what I thought the typeface needed to present; from Luke, it was his drafts of a typeface that could achieve that. The key references were hand painted signs from two historical moments. One was the collective action in De Beauvoir in 1970s, but the other was the wave of intentional ('utopian') communities that developed in the UK and USA in the early 19th century, which also appear in the book. It was pretty fascinating for me to see Luke put these two historical moments together in a single visual object, because, of course, that's what I'd been trying to do with the book more generally.

What is the future of De Beauvoir?

I think most people who know the neighbourhood see it as a wealthy enclave, and that's going to become more extreme, but there are lots of less visible aspects of the neighbourhood that are not so set in stone. One of the most significant and long-lasting achievements of the 1970s campaigners was a local housing association that bought up about 55 private properties with state funds, to let them at social rents. Many of the buildings were very large and so were subdivided, so the actual number of homes created is much greater. As far as I know, most are still under housing association control, but if central government follows through with its plan to extend Right to Buy to Housing Associations, it's very likely that the properties will go back into private ownership, and the social exclusivity of the neighbourhood will become even more extreme. Better put, the social polarisation will become even more extreme. There is a lot of emergency housing ('temporary accommodation') within De Beauvoir, where whole families usually live in a single room, often with no cooking facilities or enough beds. People are supposed to be there for six weeks, but with the failure of the housing system, they're often there for two or three years. The main site in De Beauvoir is the Metropolitan Hospital building, facing onto Kingsland Road, a few yards from the Victorian terraces De Beauvoir is better known for. It's dystopian.

Cover image is of The Ufton Centre. From De Beaver newsletter no.26, 1976. By The De Beauvoir Association

Own De Beauvoir! by Jonathan Hoskins is self-published with Open School East, June 2017 in English. Softcover, back and white offset printed. 303 pages.

You can purchase it from Antenne Books.