“I’m a stereotype and that’s not what I want to be!”
“Children should make the rules, When I get in trouble, Telling my mum is not so fun.”
What happens when you mix a dozen nine-to-twelve year olds with an avant-garde sound artist, the composer of Bagpuss, and a few dashes of historical inspiration? After eight one-hour sessions the children of Hackney Quest, assisted by musicians Roshi Nasehi and Sandra Kerr, have produced a polyphonic protest album with minor chords reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City.
The project, organised by A Hackney Autobiography project, asked what would happen if children made the rules, and what would they protest about? The young people’s answers ranged from cyber-bullying, the closure of libraries, older children scaring younger ones, how stereotyping affects older people and young black people (who “both get stink eye” in Tesco’s), right across to ongoing concerns about police brutality in the States.
The seed for this mini-project was planted by Maggie Hewitt, a former worker at Centerprise (co-operative and publisher), who chanced upon protest songs written by rag trade workers from the East End in 1928-9. Her find contradicted the popular portrayal of women in the clothing trade as weak, badly organised, victimised “girls.” She discovered that 600 “singing strikers”, some as young as 14, had stopped work for 12 weeks after the old Rego and Poliakoff factories moved out to Edmonton in 1928. The bosses expected the workers to commute without complaint. Their bus fares increased and their work became harder as new conveyor belts forced a delirious machine-driven pace. Instead of more pay the youngest workers had to survive on around 4 shillings a week (certainly not enough to buy most of the clothes they were making). To raise awareness of their plight the women parodied popular songs of the day.
Folk musician Sandra Kerr, who researched the original melodies by getting her mother to sing inter-war hits, travelled almost 300 miles to teach them to the children. The lyrics were fitted around tunes such as Ramona and Tipperary, lampooning the bosses and exclaiming ‘we are no dirty shirkers!’ Songs written by male trade unionists were full of “solidarity” and dead acronyms, Sandra explained, while the women’s lyrics were witty and irreverent: “we’ll not be an old man’s toy.” The singing strikers marched to the West End, where richer people bought the fashionable clothes they were making, to collect donations, as the Union did not support their strike
Maggie Hewitt said: “For many of these young women, this was their political awakening. It reminds me of the second Iraq war when my daughter Sophie said, ‘if Britain joins the war, I’m going to walk out of school in protest. I’m not asking, mum, I’m just letting you know.’ I agreed with her but it was very much her own independent decision.”
The image of young women singing their hearts out and carrying banners emblazoned with lipstick slogans fired imaginations at Hackney Quest. Many of the young people live in the streets where rag trade workers toiled in factories (before the Second World War) and as home-workers (until much later). “Did men support them?” “Did they get hit round the face with sweet corn like Charlie Chaplin?” asked the young people, who had explored sources on factory life such as Chaplin’s Modern Times and poetry by Sally Flood.
The title song on their album is a Hip-hop R&B cross-over number called Stereotypes featuring lush strings, “a detention rap”, futuristic synths, subtle beat-boxing and a demented fairground organ. The album features a performance poem with a grasp of anaphora worthy of an epic poet and the young people’s renditions of the original strike songs.
All of the young people play an instrument or sing even though most had no musical training. Youth worker Jean Guy Sylvestre said ‘the project was wildly ambitious in scope.’ Psychedelic cover art and the final mix down were completed over half a day in half term.
This project brought three eras into a constellation; the 1920s when the singing strikers declared “we’ll always stick together;” the 1980s when Centerprise, courtesy of Maggie’s and Sandra’s research, republished the strike songs; and 2015, when young people re-imagined them. This is the first of several creative mini-projects, conceived in the spirit of Centerprise, which A Hackney Autobiography will organise.