Living breathing archives

In this piece, Bethan Fairhurst, a volunteer at the George Padmore Institute in London, reflects on poetry as a peculiar kind of archive drawing from the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jay Bernard and materials from the GPI’s archive on the 1981 New Cross Massacre. Bethan is currently making a series of films about the GPI materials for a project funded by Arts Council England.

Like the practice of archiving, reading poetry moves us through history. Archiving ensures the recording and safeguarding of historical documents; as a noun ‘archive’ suggests a physical repository, or storage. Beyond the image of neatly catalogued records and files lay more expansive horizons: as Jacques Derrida points out, ‘archive’ can also denote ‘the residence of the superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded’.[1] What is included or left outside of the ‘house’ of the archive is inherently political and often subject to the selection process of a select few.

Noticing the inadequate records and exclusion of events is central in the re-imagining of histories, as in Shola von Reinhold’s 2020 novel LOTE. Working in the imaginary archives of the National Portrait Gallery, the mildly anarchic archive trawler Mathilda discovers a photographic trail of the ‘forgotten Black modernist poet’ and member of the Bright Young Things Hermia Druitt. Mathilda’s discovery in the archive is exhilarating and disorienting.

Beyond photographs taken for colonial documentation, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen a photograph of a Black woman or man, from this era, with hair this texture, that hadn’t been ironed or lye-straightened. Certainly never in such a setting.

Shola von Reinhold, LOTE (London: Jacaranda, 2020), p. 28.

Poetry helps uncover and amplify unarchived voices for readers – including those who work in archives and enter into its responsibilities to the past. Poetry challenges more functional perceptions of the archive as mere material repository by offering us an alternative archive of experience and memory. It allows readers to excavate the past and encounter moments in time with a richness and depth that historical records alone may lack.

Since 2020, I have spent time assisting the George Padmore Institute, an archive that is governed by more radical archiving principles, housing material relating to Black communities in post-war Britain. The archive itself resides above New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, Britain’s first Black publisher and book shop. I initially undertook voluntary transcription work there, and since becoming more involved in the community at the GPI, have been creating films about their collections. The ephemeral nature of the source materials in the GPI collection offer an accessible gateway into the archive, particularly for those who may not have encountered archives before.

The documents, notes and letters I have read there resist the restriction of archive study to academic work but are instead remnants of once living, breathing people. This is particularly important because the reality for many marginalized groups is that the archive represents a harmful codification of knowledge – enacts a symbolic violence, even. The archive can symbolize resources that are often quite literally ‘off-limits’ to those without the privilege. of an academic background. Such materials need to be accessible to younger generations, a point which the poet Jay Bernard affirms in their self-identification as someone who ‘had grown up as a Black British Londoner with a piecemeal understanding’ of crucial events in Britain’s Black history like the New Cross Massacre of 1981.[2] Against wider concerns about the lack of awareness among younger generations of community history, poetry enables writers and readers to participate in conscious acts of remembrance.

A flyer that reads: 'New Cross Massacre Inquest: 13 murdered no cover up'
New Cross Massacre Action Committee Flyer, Issued 3 April 1981, George Padmore Institute. Reproduced with permission and thanks.

In 1981 the New Cross fire killed fourteen young Black people and was followed by an inquiry that blamed the disaster on the ‘recklessness’ of the victims. Most of the holdings at the George Padmore Institute on the New Cross Fire consist of scraps of paper stored away in folders, handwritten notes, demonstration flyers, drafts of letters and magazine clippings. The papers of the New Cross Action Committee, a group formed of victims’ parents and local community members who, whilst grieving their losses, campaigned for the victims’ justice, form part of the archive.

The Committee was described by Social Work Today as ‘an informal black group [who were] able to do much more than the official agencies’ to advance the case and the cause of justice.[3] January 2021 marked the forty-year anniversary of the incident; as of yet there have been no prosecutions and the verdict of the inquest remains open. The futility of the inquest, coupled with the destruction of remains at the site is an enactment of the violent historical erasure faced by Black people at the hands of those in power. As one commentator put it at the time:

‘We are still in the dark’.

Race Today, ‘The New Cross Fire’, Black Cultural Archives, MCKENLEY/5/2, August 1984, p. 3.

This statement published in Race Today in 1984 still rings true. It is microcosmic of the government’s neglect of the case and hostility shown to Black communities in mourning.

A poster that reads 'Support Black People's Day of Action'
Black People’s Day of Action Flyer, Issued 1981, George Padmore Institute. Reproduced with permission and thanks.

Dub poetry is one kind of living, breathing – potentially untouchable – archive that has survived both the fossilization of the official archive and the grammars of colonialism. Derived from African oral poetry and Rastafarian reggae culture, Dub is an example of an oral form of poetry with a Black consciousness that has resisted erasure. Connecting readers, listeners, and onlookers together in the relaying of Black history, Dub poetry forms a living archive, a vital lifeline for oppressed voices. At the height of Dub poetry’s popular and commercial success in the 1980s, it provided a means to transform the voices and pain of Black communities in rage.

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s involvement with the New Cross Action Committee is reflected in the archive and in his poetic depiction of the tragedy in the poem/record ‘New Crass Massakah. The poem draws attention to the white disregard towards tragedies affecting the Black population and was criticized by The Spectator in 1982 for encouraging ‘a generation of rioters and illiterates’ – a tone and critique which is consistent with the magazine’s coverage of the fire more generally. [4] The repeated phrase, ‘yu noh remembah’, stages a recurring remembering  and forgetting, while the repeated refrain ‘di movin / an a di groovin’ breaks the silence of the inquest. The rhythm of the dance song draws out the celebratory elements of the party that night, evoking a sense of cultural pride that resists the racially profiled press response.

Contemporary Black, queer writers like Bernard demonstrate how archives facilitate a creative engagement with the past and its injustices. Bernard excavates the archive to make sense of present-day events, challenging the perception of history as a fenced-off area only available to a privileged few, and connecting the past to the present. Bernard realized how little Londoners knew of the New Cross Fire and its consequences while on a residency at the George Padmore Institute in 2016. Their collection Surge rewrites the events of the New Cross fire from a temporal removal that nonetheless vocalizes the sensory experiences of the dead. The poem ‘Songbook’ stages the persistent failure of the state’s response to the fire in its undulating rhythm of the refrain ‘two step fahwahd an ah two step back’, reminding the reader that little no progress or change has taken place in forty years.[5] The refrain – mnemonic, recitational– dramatises a history that passes down the generations. The poem’s attention to details of the house and its interior sheds light on the spaces discounted in police reports. Its focalization through the unnamed ‘gyal’ recenters the lives, subjectivities, and intimacies of those who lost lives and were deemed insignificant in the clinical documentation of the incident.

Throughout Surge, Bernard embarks on a queer archival journey as their own identity forms the core of the collection, exploring their own personal ‘archives’ in the same manner as that of the fire and its aftermath. Aligning their past with the house at New Cross, Bernard states: ‘I am not sure any longer that it is possible to speak about myself without speaking about this’.[6] Like an archivist tending to fragile material, Surge devotes itself with care to the details of a lived personal history. Snapshots of Bernard’s childhood home intersect those of the New Cross archives, sharing an intimate, sensory understanding of these overlapping spaces. The enriching memories that make up Bernard’s identity are written alongside the imagined personal belongings and thoughts of those lost to the fire. The pieced together memories of the massacre become an entry point to revisit parallel events such as the Grenfell fire of 2017, creating a non-linear language which recalls, reimagines, and keeps these moments alive.

The archive performs its own exclusions – certain voices may be carefully preserved while others go unarchived. As a reader, I experienced a heightened visceral awareness when sitting with the Bernard poems and New Cross archive materials in front of me, noticing how the poetry allowed gaps in the historical accounts to be filled. In this sense, the art of literature and the art of archiving share a symbiotic relationship, each aiding an appreciation of the other. Although no poet can ‘deliver justice’, London’s Black history is sustained through writers like Bernard and Kwesi Johnson who take on the role of the archivist, foregrounding voices and events which would otherwise remain silent. [7]

Adapted from ‘Living, breathing archives’: London’s Black Poetry from Dub to Grime, Bethan Fairhurst, undergraduate dissertation, University of Birmingham

You can visit the George Padmore Institute and New Beacon Bookshop at 76 Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park, London. https://www.georgepadmoreinstitute.org/


[1] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. by Eric Prenowitz      (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 2.

[2] Jay Bernard, Surge (London: Chatto & Windus, 2019), p. ix.

[3] Social Work Today, (May 1985), Black Cultural Archives, RC/RF/16/09.

[4] Roy Kerridge, ‘A Poet for Our Time’, Spectator, (April, 1982), <http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/24th-april-1982/12/profile> [accessed 08 May 2020].

[5] Jay Bernard, ‘Songbook’, Surge (London: Chatto & Windus, 2019), p. 7.

[6] Jay Bernard, ‘Stranger in the Archives’, The Poetry Society, <https://poetrysociety.org.uk/manifesto-jay-bernard-stranger-in-the-archives/&gt;

[7] Bernard, ‘Stranger in the Archives’

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