How radical story walks could help us engage with EC1/2

At the weekend I met up with Danny Budzak, who organises fascinating Radical Walks … about which more later, with ideas for walks in EC1 and EC2.

The occasion on Saturday was a celebration of Richard Stubbs’ and Ruth Wareing’s 40th anniversary of their relationship and their recent civil partnership.

It was an amazing event, themed as a Mad Hatter’s tea party, in the former St Luke’s church building in Canning Town. Richard project-managed conversion of the building to a community centre some 20 years ago – and organisation of the party was equally fastidious.

We each had to provide a brief recollection, and fortunately I was able to refer back to an account of the early days of community networks in the UK. I think I met Danny then, when he was a member of Newham Online steering group.

As this contributor note says, Danny has had an extraordinarily interesting set of careers, so a wonderful person to (re) meet in his latest incarnation. The note says:

“By day Danny works in an office within a corporate environment. By night he walks, talks and writes. His previous eight lives have included working in the print industry, being a trade union shop steward in east London and taking part in a year long strike.

“He was a pioneer of community online projects, web development and user focused interface design. He has published a number of technical articles in relation to password management, taxonomies and metadata.

“He is fascinated by the idea of history being a process involving people, classes, technologies and changes in the means of production. He is as interested in the medieval graffiti in Kent churches as in the container ships and oil and chemical tankers which sail through the channel”.

What we mainly talked about was Danny’s Radical Walks – latest here.

Rather than just leading people along a trail of historical sites and hidden gems, Danny aims to tell stories illustrated by historical references. Here’s the latest walks – including Radical Battersea which elected John Archer, London’s first Black Mayor and Shapurji Saklatvala – the first Indian and first Communist MP in England.

Then there’s Radical Bermondsey – the political base of Ada and Alfred Salter who had a vision of Bermondsey as a Garden City.

I talked to Danny about Exploring EC1, ideas for restaging Bartholomew Fair, or just celebrating the fact that there is a lot of good stuff happening in Culture Mile.

There is a wonderful history of Bartholomew Fair written in 1859 by Henry Morley, which describes how the political events of the day were reflected each year in pamphlets and performances at the Fair. This from Chapter XIII available online:

“ENOUGH has been read of the story of the Fair to show that it was as truly as the House of Commons, part of the Representation of the English People ; not, indeed, its Lower, but its Lowest House. When Spain threatened us with an Armada, the monkey of the Fair was taught to show defiance of the King of Spain. When Gunpowder Plot was the topic of the day, it was the great show of the Fair, played to eighteen or twenty penny audiences, nine times in an afternoon. When England broke loose from civil and religious despotism, the Puritan was in the Fair preaching down vanity; and the Cavalier was in the Fair with all the puppets on his side, crying down excesses of religious zeal. From among the excesses there came out at last a quiet mean”.

Smithfield, site of the Fair, has a wealth of historical references and cultural gems … including a plaque about the Peasants’ Revolt. That was the achieved through the efforts of Matthew Bell, local resident, councillor and promoter of a restaged Bartholomew Fair. I’m hoping to get Danny and Matthew together.

The Peasants stormed Clerkenwell Priory and camped out at Clerkenwell Green before marching to Smithfield. The Green has a huge tradition of radicalism, and has been a venue for massive May Day rallies.

There are also plans for a statue of Sylvia Pankhurst – so I’m sure there would be lots to talk about on a walk today.

Over in EC2 I discovered, while researching the history of the Barbican Centre, that there were protracted disputes and delays, recorded in this study by the University of Westminster.

“The workers engaged in the building of the Barbican faced a wide range of problems, including major design flaws; an outdated industrial relations framework; a relatively untried payment system; a weak national trade union leadership; and health and safety hazards. Although engaged in the construction of a celebrated landmark of modern architecture they were subject to the most backward and dangerous of conditions”.

This reference records the significance of strikes:

“The Barbican disputes saw the emergence of the London Joint Sites Committee, which went on to play a central role in the Building Worker Charter, to challenge major problems affecting building workers, and to be involved in the 1972 national building workers’ strike. The significance of the disputes lies in the impetus for change that resulted and in the way that building workers set this in train”.

Barbican Living has Fascinating facts about the Barbican estates construction including:

“When work on the Turriff site started, the toilet for the workers was a hole in the ground with quick lime. The company refused demands for flush toilets. They said they would only install some then the buildings were two storeys high. (This is what passed for incentive arrangements in the 1970s.) So the workforce started walking to St Paul’s Cathedral to use the public toilets there. Very quickly proper flush toilets were provided on site”.

I think some radical walks in EC1 and EC2 would help give both residents and visitors new ways to understand and engage our past and present.

I check a draft of this post with Danny, and he responded with enthusiasm:

“I have realised that an underlying theme to all of the walks is ‘what is happening to London?’ something that anyone who knows London must be asking. And that is a question worth asking because the sense, and the rate of change feels to be accelerating. What might be gained, but what is being lost? As ever, in whose interests?”

I wonder whether the City Corporation might embrace a radical perspective in its new leisure and tourism campaign Destination City. As City policy chief Chris Hayward says:

“What better way to protect the present, than by telling tales of our past and our future?”

Update: Here’s Danny’s for the end of July through to September. Radical Fitzrovia should be fun.

Picture: Dan Atrill from London, England, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons