In 1971 teacher Chris Searle asked his school head to publish a small collection of poetry by his pupils.
He taught at John Cass Foundation and Red Coat School in Stepney. John Cass’ governors, according to Mr Searle, were businessmen, priests and “general philanthropists who thought they were doing working-class children a favour.” Mr Searle’s view was that “Schools must be there for the exercise of power for ordinary people, working-class people and black people, within the inner cities.
“The ways of the school contrasted harshly with the vitality and verve of the students. As drama teacher, I used to do play readings but I found they responded better to poetry, and I was reading William Blake and Isaac Rosenberg to them, both London poets who took inspiration from the streets. So I took the pupils out onto the street and asked them to write about what they saw, and the poems these eleven-year-olds wrote were so beautiful, I was stunned and I thought they should be published. Blake and Rosenberg were published, why not these young writers? We asked the school governors but they said the poems were too gloomy, so they forbade us to publish them.
“I showed the poems to Trevor Huddleston, the Bishop of Stepney, and he loved them. And it became evident that there was a duality in the church, because the chairman of the school governors who was a priest said to me, ‘“Don’t you realise these are fallen children?” in other words, they were of the devil. But Trevor Huddleston read the poems and then, with a profound look, said, “These children are the children of God.” So I should have realised there was going to be a bit of a battle.”
At first the head, Geoffrey Barrell, agreed until he actually saw the poems and then quickly changed his mind.
Not one to be knocked back Mr Searle put out the collection, Stepney Words, with the support of former dockers’ leader Jack Dash (who wrote poetry himself), and by Trevor Huddlestone, then Bishop of Stepney and raised £200 for the publishing.
The horrified governors quickly sacked Chris Searle and over 100 East End headteachers stated that none of them would employ him.
The kids saw it differently and promptly went on strike. They marched to Trafalgar Square in their uniforms demanding that Mr Searle got his job back. “Thank you God from high above, For sending Searle for us to love,” they chanted at the school gates. On the walls, slogans in purple paint proclaimed: “If Mr Searle goes – we go.”
“It was in their blood. It wasn’t an unusual thing for them to march in the streets or to go on strike. It was part of the culture,” Chris Searle said.
Three days later the kids wen back to school but it took two years for Chris Searle to get his job back. Two years, a high court ruling and the suprising intervention of Margaret Thatcher, then the Secretary of State for Education.
The story became front pages news in the national papers. The book sold more than fifteen thousand copies, with the poems published in newspapers, and broadcast on television and read at the Albert Hall. The Sun even ran a double-page spread of poetry: ‘The Astonishing World Of These East End Kids’.
In October 1973, a writing group was suggested by Chris Searle. He met with his ex-pupils to share their writing in a room of the Basement Project beneath St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street and The Basement writers was started, home to the likes of Gladys McGee. Initially they published poems on posters that were stuck up on the corrugated iron around building sites. Books and readings soon followed.
What is it
Dirt? Old buildings?
no-one is sure
The only thing I’m sure about
is that I live there
and have done all my life. . . .
The East End is like
Five parts of the world
put into one place.
Brick Lane is a horrible place
Where everyone has a gloomy face
There isn’t one little space to play football
Everyone plays in the dirt
Filling all their hair with dirt
What a place
I always try to be happy and cheerful
Now I begin to get doubtful.
Chattering, talking, holding up traffic.
Women shopping buying fruit, food
on the lookout for a bargain.
Man on the corner selling stolen purses
one eye on the cashbox
one eye on the cashbox
fruit seller shouting “buncha bananas”,
someone buys some don’t know they’re half rotten
One selling toys made in hong kong
old men under the arch selling broken plates.