Anyone can start an archive. My mate Armet has at least fifty boxes of photos in his house spanning fifty years of black cultural heritage. My mate Leon has a decade’s worth of Beta Max videos documenting youth culture in the 1990s in the Ladbroke Grove area (remember YCTV?). And most families I know have a shoe box or two containing photographs, tapes, newspaper cuttings, diaries and certificates that they want to preserve for future generations to see.
Lots of you reading this article will know me already as I have grown up around Ladbroke Grove, Shepherds Bush and Fulham. I went to Holland Park school and my first proper job was at BBC Television Centre White City working on Blue Peter (I am sorry to tell you but the tortoise died a few times). As well as working in the media and arts, over the last twenty years I have worked in Ladbroke Grove and Latimer teaching in schools and supplementary schools and coordinating community arts events that focus both on diverse representation and accessing resources. My community group coordinated The Portobello Young Artist of the Year for three years in a row, which was very popular.
In June 2017 I was a full-time mother weaning myself back into work by volunteering in a local church and updating my professional paperwork. I had recently graduated from a part-time degree at Birkbeck University where my final project had been on ‘the ethical and authentic representation of diverse communities in intercultural theatre and the arts’. I had concluded that diverse intercultural communities can only be authentically represented if they are involved in the process of production, have access to equipment, speak their own version of their language and have the right to edit. I also noticed that the main element in multicultural work that needs to be present for meanings to resonate as authentic with the audience that it claims to represent, is the use of a familiar language. In my work this is an English language heavily influenced by the language of settlers from around the world. Art is also a non-verbal language that multicultural communities develop together. Diverse communities develop unique dialects which make members of that community identifiable to each other in a few words. People tend to retain individual group identities when at home, but on the street a local multicultural identity is co-created and shared primarily through this language. That’s why, when I was sitting in the church reception the day after the Grenfell fire, I knew after a few seconds of conversation whether helpers came from within or outside the local community. And this is also why I think it is really important that projects representing the community are community-led. A language of the inside can only be spoken by those who have lived there in participation and co-creation. So in answer to the headlining question right now of, what makes someone a member of a community? One answer may be…do they participate in the shared language of the streets? Do you?
After Grenfell I went into autopilot. It is a really common response to trauma to focus on the thing that you have been trained to do or that you’re good at doing. People that could cook jerk chicken held fund raising barbecues; people that could knit made knitted hearts for the railings; people who could sing sung; people who could write legal letter helped those who couldn’t; and our local men even started a semi-pro Grenfell football team! The first job I did was to get extra paper cutlery, washing-up liquid and dishwasher tablets for the church and hundreds of glasses for the children to paint for their memorial candles. Then my flat got filled with an overflow of clothes donations, it looked like the whole country had brought their charity bags and spare duvets to Latymer. After that we were hit by a media storm and an endless flow of funerals and memorial events. I was traumatised and so were my children. By what we had witnessed, their friends at nursery didn’t come back, children didn’t come back to school or to church club. My heart fell into a thousand pieces, and I felt a void. My love of the community had always been there but I’d never had to label it before, and I felt a loss in my heart for that community that I had been raised in and had helped to build. As I walked round the streets and looked into the eyes of my generation, I felt that our youth was over. We now had a responsibility to build a legacy for that community and preserve it for the next generation.
So I made videos, I recorded people’s testimonies, I coordinated youth arts workshops, I helped my friends fill in housing forms and funding applications and we sprayed carnival green. I helped out with a range of projects on the ground which claimed to be collecting testimonies for historical purposes. Because of my training I felt prepared, positioned and qualified to develop a project that supported people to represent their diverse identities ethically and authentically. In the hundreds of meetings that took place in the following months (which started to turn into places of disagreement and confrontation) I heard one clear point of agreement: everyone agreed on the importance of grass roots history, produced by the community. At least four hundred people said they needed a community-led archive and contributed to my archive research notes, and within our local network of arts leaders it was agreed that I should take on this job. So I disappeared into an admin cave and reached out for super senior admin support from Birkbeck University. Artists plus admin sometimes equals never. Hundreds of proposed community projects never fully manifested for this reason. Paradox being that we need funding to hire administrators but we need administrators to apply for the funding (someone sort this out please).
There were other archiving projects being pitched and promoted at the same time. Some people had a political agenda, were explicitly anti-council, or were concerned with commemoration – whether preserving memorial objects left at the site or acquiring a building to house a memorial or museum. We wanted to do something different. Because we are all involved in the arts and were leading local arts projects, the material we were producing was art. We believe that art is a really important way of telling a story, and expressing experiences and observations which can’t always be put into words. Art can also help to process trauma and pain, and because of the strength of the local arts community, mass participation in arts projects is a familiar way for us to support each other through difficult times. It was also agreed early on in community arts meetings that if a community archive project was to go ahead it must focus on education, and bring resources and opportunities to young people. These priorities are central to our archiving project. And this is why we decided to work with Ferarts, Birkbeck University and the Bishopsgate Institute. You can find out more about the Bishopsgate Institute where our physical archive will be held, on our website kensingtonnarrators.org.
Although the Grenfell tragedy was the catalyst that gave us the push and collective energy to set up this archive, I have been aware of the need for more community led archiving resources since I was a little girl listening to local elders discussing history and empire at the Tabernacle, around Portobello Road and at local libraries. I gathered that people in the area had rich collections of historically relevant documents and ephemera that they thought should be preserved, including content relating to the first generation Windrush (I am third generation), housing history and carnival history. Locals have also always been very proud of our eclectic young people and want to celebrate their unique identities, languages and perspectives, and we know that archiving is an important and credible way to do this. Bishopsgate Institute already holds locally relevant collections on Black British History and the history of the North Kensington area, including the special collections and archives of the Mangrove Restaurant, Bernie Grant MP, Frank Crichlow and the suffragette movement.
The next generation will have their own narratives that they decide are important to record and preserve. To be honest, growing up I never had enough respect or understanding of the importance of the process of recording history, or of the significance that diverse history making has to so many people. Now I know differently. Witnessing so many people that I care about in their darkest hour, when few things were important to them other than that their family and friends were alive, I saw them find the words to proclaim that it was vital that they told their own stories and preserved them. I also heard an old African proverb quoted again and again - by young and old, rich and poor, and across the different cultural groups and classes - ‘The victors write the history.' An extension of this saying is ‘until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. In Grove and Latimer the victors will paint their own history in rainbow colours, they will rhyme their history and graphic design their history because that is what we do best, it is our autopilot during trauma and it is our common shared language on the streets.
Christina, a Kensington Narrator