If the exciting radical past of radical Hackney was the pizza of conventional tourism where I started, then eventually I would always end up with a big long stringy piece of cheese stretched out between it and my face.
This was the future: inextricably linked to today and yesterday and resisting any attempts to separate it from the whole. Whenever I took a bite of the history here, you couldn’t help but see the links to today and then ponder where those narrative roads might be leading.
I started off doing walks about the Dissenters and Nonconformists of Stoke Newington and Newington Green in the 1700s and this year I’m collaborating with the Newington Green Meeting House amongst others. But I soon found myself straying into the contemporary because of all the people I met who were engaged in contemporary activism. I’ve met many a modern day equivalent of Mary Wollstonecraft, saying the unfashionable or the awkward because they can’t just ‘play the game’. Following the regeneration of Hackney Wick for a decade, I’ve shared the fallout their with the discombobulated and the displaced.
I got involved with Antiuniversity, the fantastic festival of self-reliant teaching that was inspired by the original Antiuniversity of Rivington Street, in the world-changing year of 1968. This is a fantastic platform to experience the ‘radical’ politics of today, whatever that means. I say that, because Overton’s Window had shifted so far to the right, pre-Covid, that even proposing moderate reform to an obviously broken system could get you labelled as an ‘extremist’.
Now that change has been forced upon us and we have space for reflection, people are more receptive to ideas like Universal Basic Income than they were. The boat has already been rocked, even if the famous political writer and philosopher Tom Paine might still be ahead of his time if he revisited Newington Green today.
But things can and do change. And fast sometimes. The world is a very different place from how it was a month ago. That’s one thing I picked up from learning London history: things can and do evolve and dramatically. Look at the Industrial Revolution: as you get older, it suddenly doesn’t seem so long ago that London ended its northwards spread at the Euston Road.
Things will change again. Way before the Corona Virus invited us all to think about contemporary issues like social and economic injustice, about precarity in the Zero Hours era, food security and sustainability in the age of globalisation, I was showcasing the Hackney innovators trying to build a better tomorrow.
From energy sustainability to youth inclusion/training to food distribution networks, I’ve had the privilege of sharing inspiring Hackney stories with curious local explorers who want to better appreciate their home, as well as international university students looking for project ideas and real-life examples of coursework themes.
Often they will say things like: “I had no idea this was right on my doorstep,” or “You’ve made me see my own road in a different way.” That’s part of it too. I won’t get all Proustian on you in this piece, but when you can’t travel far – and that’s another blog entry altogether, whether or not the ‘golden age’ of travel has passed – your other choice is to see the familiar with fresh eyes.
So in a nutshell, I invite you to discover hidden corners of what might seem familiar to you already. I encourage you to experience more, travel deeper and slower and get excited about the social enterprise wave of the future that’s bubbling here in Hackney. And I share with you my vision of Hackney – and of us in it – as a continuum that starts with Celtic itinerants and Romans in one direction and stretches into future East London in the other. Sometimes the biggest journeys cover the smallest distances.
Be well. See you on the street post-lockdown.