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Literary Location #86: St Ann's

John Baird
Fri 8 Jan, 2021

St Ann's - a history and community in print.

St Ann’s was “situated in a broad valley, bounded to the south by dour Sneinton; to the north by still elegant, affluent Mapperley Park; to the east a no man’s land, suburbs of a suburb, the giant Gedling colliery and a scampi belt of villages – and to the west the city heart,” wrote Ray Gosling in 1967.

The literary heritage of St Ann’s is entangled with its own history. Take the race riots as an example. For it was at the bottom of Robin Hood’s Chase, in the late August and early September of 1958, that modern Britain’s first race riot occurred, and “The whole place was like a slaughterhouse,” according to the Evening Post.

Sonia Davies, a Nottingham-born sessional lecturer in Black Studies, said, “I can remember my dad talking about the 1958 riots. He said that it wasn’t a riot in the immediate sense of the word, it was more like gangs of white men beating on black men.”

At this time, in the midst of the racial tension, and in response to the ‘Keep Britain White’ campaign, a local man, Oswald ‘George’ Powe, wrote ‘Don’t Blame the Blacks’, words to fight racism and industrial inequality. Written for British workers, Powe’s pamphlet aspired to unite them - all races together. With sections on ‘Why we came?’ and ‘Do we cause unemployment?’, the Jamaican born writer explained how political decisions by the ruling class were the real cause of unemployment. His words carried the message, “the working class has been divided, for if it were to become united it might fight back”. Scapegoats were being made of Black immigrants because they stood out, argued Powe, whose pamphlet received orders from as far as America and Africa.

Powe’s links with St Ann’s began in 1952 after he followed his politically minded friends to Nottingham. The Black population at this time was small, with many living four to a room in multi-occupied slum housing that was being rented by racketeers. It was at Pat Jordan’s Dane Street bookshop - the second house of a long, terraced row of three storey houses, off Alfred Street central - that Powe’s ‘Don’t Blame the Blacks’ was printed. Powe knew the radical bookshop to be a place where Black people could meet and chat.

“It was in a street in the heart of the worst of the district that little Pat Jordan kept his shop,” wrote Gosling in his memoir ‘Personal Copy’ (1980). “[His] front room was the shop, with tables piled shoulder-high with Zane Gray and Barbara Cartland.” He added, “Schoolboys would always be in, passing through the dog-eared comic strips, looking for a juicy Nazi tale – not realizing what went on behind the curtained door, in the back room, but knowing something did.”

Sylvia Riley’s memoir of the ’60s, ‘Winter at the Bookshop’ (2019), tells of number 4 Dane Street and what went on in its back room, when the bookshop was a meeting place for politically active revolutionary groups and local movements. Riley, writing as Carol Lake, won the 1989 Guardian Fiction Prize for her short story collection ‘Rosehill: portraits of a Midlands city’. In ‘Winter at the Bookshop’ she writes, “From the front of the shop [Pat Jordan] sold second-hand books and comics, and in the back room he kept his duplicator ever turning, churning out documents and political statements and a weekly news-sheet.”

From 1962 the small International Group, founded by Pat Jordan, Ken Coates and Peter Price, had been based at the shop. Locals knew it as a second-hand bookshop, with books for sale or exchange, but trusted punters were given access to the complete works of Marx, Lenin, Engels, Trotsky and Castro, their books held back and half-wrapped, like pornography.

Dane Street, and most of St Ann’s, was subjected to a huge clearance project in the late 1960s/early '70s, involving the demolition of its houses, shops, churches, pubs and businesses, and the rehousing of some 30,000 people. Most of the old houses had been built in the 1800s and, as such, had no internal toilets, while 85% of homes had no bathroom. There was also problems of poor sanitation and damp but the new housing would come at a heavy cost to the community.

In his booklet, ‘St Ann’s’ (1967), Ray Gosling wrote of how places of “sound construction and cherished homes” were to be pulled down, but also of the City of Nottingham’s proposal to “decant” its inhabitants. Gosling was concerned for the people waiting for improvements and facing large rent increases or having to move to another part of Nottingham.

“Will any councillor move his home into St Ann’s?” asked Gosling, who also feared the new road plan which was “dashing all thoughts of a pleasant new area”. He wrote, “St Ann’s is such a beautiful site and the life so varied – some of the finest shops in variety and quality anywhere in the Midlands – and the people, old and new, with such strength and spirit.” Nottingham should be “treating St Ann’s as the fine natural valley that it is.”

In his hopes for a new, mixed community of rich and poor, Gosling made demands of the council planners. The first of these: “That the people living, working, using St Ann’s, to be told directly of proposals and plans as they progress: that their wish and their need be asked for and met.”

It was from this time that Gosling began his campaigning with the community of St Ann’s, against the city planners that were intent on flattening 340 if its acres. To save the better homes and shops, Gosling wanted selective demolition and he helped set up the St Ann’s Tenants and Residents' Association (SATRA), bringing people together to demand improvements and decent services for the new estate. Between 1967 and 1979 Gosling was chairman of SATRA, working closely with the retired engineer Arthur Leatherland, a Conservative teetotaller who lived on Cromer Road where he had grown up. SATRA was a diverse group of people who initially met for free at St Catherine’s Church Hall, later getting their own premises.

In ‘Personal Copy’, Gosling reflected on these “most radical and amazing times”. He had been reviewing books, broadcasting and drinking, finding his way in the swinging sixties, when St Ann’s began to occupy his mind. He had got to know the area and its 50 pubs, “one of the most fantastic drinking places in the world…”. A few years earlier, Gosling had developed a taste for campaigning having stood as an independent councillor, his “Vote for a Madman” slogan helping him to receive 13% of the vote and inspiring the pop singer David Such to later form his Monster Raving Loony Party.

Gosling’s agent during his 1963 run had been Richard Silburn. Together with Ken Coates, Silburn was running evening classes at the Workers’ Education Centre, about the sociology of the poor: poverty, deprivation and morale. It was in St Ann’s that Gosling, Silburn and Coates had been drinking with Harold Wiltshire, Professor of Adult Education for the University of Nottingham, when the professor granted permission for a series of classes at the WEA. Coates and Silburn, researchers at the university, soon enrolled students to do a social survey conducted in St Ann’s.

Ken Coates and Richard Silburn’s community study of 1966 looked at the living, social and working conditions in St Ann's, and the attitudes of people who lived in such conditions. The study informed two books, ‘St Ann’s – Poverty, deprivation and morale in a Nottingham Community’ (1967) and ‘Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman’ (1970), which gave rise to a film directed by Stephen Frears.

The authors found that “poverty is not so much a simple lack of wealth as a more basic lack of power.” St Ann’s ‘togetherness’ comes across as a mixed blessing, privacy not being easy when living in such close proximity. There are chapters on schools, housing, poverty and expectations.

Gosling may have led the people of St Ann’s but he acknowledged that, “Ken Coates was the intellectual leader”. Coates had founded the monthly trade union paper ‘Union Voice’, which showed how the rich few milked the poor many, and Gosling had much respect for him, however, he never forgave Coates for the way that the St Ann’s survey was done, making poverty the issue.

Coates and Silburn were writing from an outsider’s perspective. In 2015, another writer was to bring the academic world and local community together, this time with an insider’s view. Lisa Mckenzie’s ‘Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain’ was written to tackle prejudice and stereotype, and to explain the complexity of working-class life, and life on council estates. She collected nine years’ worth of stories and narratives from St Ann’s, academic research that complimented her own experience of living on the estate.

Mckenzie tells of working-class families from a working-class perspective. It’s a story of a resilient and creative community, battling for survival against austerity whilst being blamed for society’s ills. McKenzie is the daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of Notts miners. She left school in 1984 during the miners’ strike, a strike that hit her family hard. As the loss of mines and factories devastated her community, she moved to St Ann’s where she had her son.

After finding ‘Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman’ in the library, Mckenzie changed her direction, enrolling on an Access course in 2000. She had discovered that it was possible to study your own area and by 2009 she had her PhD. She’s now a research fellow in the Department of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, working on issues of social inequality and class stratification. She dedicated ‘Getting By…’ to Coates and Silburn.

Peter Richardson’s photobook, ‘St Ann's, End of an Era’ (2020), provides a snapshot of life during the upheaval of 50 years ago. At that time, with many residents living among the demolition work, Richardson was at Derby College of Art on a photojournalism course, and working on the new estate as a summer labourer with Wimpey. The young man was inspired to photograph the site and used his skills to capture the demise of the community, a way of life gone forever. He merely captured what he saw around him, the cobbled streets, the people, pubs, backyards and alleyways, with some residents’ comments and memories featured alongside his 98 images, split into sections such as 'wash day'.

During the redevelopment, Ruth L Johns knew St Ann’s well and, in 2002, she wrote ‘St Ann’s Nottingham: inner city voices’, written together with the people of St Ann’s. The impressive book is a large social history of St Ann’s in living memory, with 940 images and countless contributions. Johns’ earlier book, ‘Life Goes On’ (1982), outlined the philosophy and practice of the first ten years of Family First, a pioneering Nottingham housing association and community self-help organisation that she founded in 1965; while her case study, ‘The Job Makers’ (1984), focused on Nottingham’s working community of small firms.

Established in 1971, the Afro-Caribbean National Artistic (ACNA) Centre, moved to Hungerhill Road, St Ann’s, in 1978, where it became an important community facility for creatives. Among the many groups based there has been a creative and professional writing group, led by the poet Panya Banjoko. Together with the Engagement Curator Bo Olawoye, Banjoko also worked with The Renewal Trust to put together a free publication all about St Ann’s. This involved a series of creative writing workshops run by Banjoko.

Another writer and performance poet associated with St Ann’s is Michelle ‘Mother’ Hubbard, who moved to the area in 1983 and lived on Brewsters Road. There are many sons, daughters and grandchildren of Jamaicans, who arrived in Britain at the time of Windrush, to have lived in St Ann’s. The Nottingham born playwright Jenny McLeod began writing plays in the middle of her A levels after she saw an advert in the ‘Post’. She won the Writing 87 workshop at the Playhouse for ‘Cricket at Camp David’ then wrote ‘Island Life’, a play that began in Nottingham before touring nationally. Other plays and TV work followed, plus a stint as Writer-in-Residence at the Playhouse (1991-92). In 1998, she wrote her first novel, ‘Stuck Up a Tree’. The story’s protagonist is Ella, a successful London caterer who returns to her hometown (a fictional setting) and her larger-than-life Jamaican family.

Nottingham-based Mufaro Makubika wrote a play about St Ann’s, its Caribbean community and their history, entitled ‘Shebeen’. It’s about the Windrush generation, questioning their lives, value, and aspirations against the hostility of the society that had invited them to come to Britain. “The characters in the play are all working class,” said Makubika, “either immigrants or from the local community, but the play’s themes, like having dreams, apply to everyone.”

His central characters George and Pearl hold a shebeen to try to bring relief from the summer heat, from social oppression and from their relationships. Shebeens - later to be known as ‘blues parties’ - were meeting places, usually someone’s house, where people could get together. They often involved music and drink. In ‘A Centenary History of Nottingham', David Beckett records that shebeens existed because the colour bar meant that alcohol licences were not granted to the Caribbean community. For Makubika, “A shebeen is about companionship and relating. Yes, there is partying, but ultimately it’s about people trying to commune.”

‘Shebeen’ was awarded the Alfred Fagon Award for Best New Play in 2017. It was with the support of Nottingham Black Archive that the playwright, who has African heritage, initially researched the race-riots and how St Ann’s became an estate.

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