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Poetry on the Shop Floor

With strong union backing, the legendary playwright Arnold Wesker fought to bring the arts into workplaces, canteens, and peoples’ daily lives out of a conviction that the labour movement must fight for both cultural and economic change.

British playwright Arnold Wesker (1932-2016) pictured on 24 July 1961. (Evening Standard / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The idea that art should be made by and available to all has been a rallying cry for socialists for decades. Contrary to stereotype, the traditional demands of the labour movement haven’t just been about ensuring people have food on their plates and heat in their homes, but about enabling the beauty and creativity stifled by the market to thrive and be enjoyed by everyone. Sixty years ago, it was this impulse that defined Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42, a radical organisation that sought to forge new bonds between artists and trade unionists.

In the 1960s, the trade union movement had never experienced a greater period of strength and influence. Alongside historically high membership, strong collective bargaining was translating into fairer hours and improved pay. For more and more working people, leisure was suddenly on the agenda. To working-class creatives like Arnold Wesker and Ralph Bond, this meant new opportunities for cultural development.

The cover of the Bristol Trades Union Festival programme, November 1962. (The TUC Library at London Metropolitan University)

Born and raised in an East End Jewish communist family, Arnold Wesker had plied different trades in his life. Unable to afford a place at RADA, he spent time as a plumber, a carpenter, a farm labourer, pastry chef and bookseller before eventually finding success as a playwright, pioneering kitchen-sink drama depicting the milieu of Jewish families and working people in Britain. As his star rose, he didn’t stray far from the political tradition into which he had been born. ‘Socialism is my light,’ he rekindled his family members speechifying at home. ‘People can be beautiful!’

Wesker’s 1957 breakout hit, The Kitchen, was made into a film featuring the politically likeminded Ralph Bond as supervising producer. Born up the road from Wesker in Hackney, Bond had co-founded the London Workers’ Film Society in 1929, which screened films to working-class audiences, and created documentaries and newsreels for the Workers’ Film Movement and the Workers’ Film Association. In his practice, Bond was a vocal proponent of ‘putting the worker on the screen as a positive and vitally important aspect of life as a whole.’

A committed trade unionist, Bond joined the Association of Cine Technicians in 1935 and served as its vice-president for 32 years. It was in this capacity that he attended the 1960 Trade Unions Congress in Douglas on the Isle of Man, and argued for Resolution 42. The aim of Resolution 42, in Bond’s words, was to propel the idea that trade unions had a leading role to play in ensuring ‘all the people have the chance to enjoy the beauty and riches of life in all its forms’, and to reject the notion that ‘culture should be the preserve of an enlightened intelligentsia,’ or that ‘any old rubbish is good enough for the masses’.

The resolution, on the ‘Promotion and Encouragement of the Arts’, stated:

Congress recognises the importance of the arts in the life of the community, especially now when many unions are securing a shorter working week and greater leisure time for their members. It notes that the trade union movement has participated to only a small extent in the direct promotion and encouragement of plays, films, music, literature and other forms of expression including those of value to its beliefs and principles.

Congress considers that much more could be done and accordingly requests the General Council to conduct a special examination and to make proposals to a future Congress to ensure greater participation by the trade union movement in all cultural activities.

Ahead of the conference, Wesker had sent a pamphlet titled ‘THE MODERN PLAYWRIGHT or “O, Mother, is it worth it?”’ to dozens of trade union figures. Bill Holdsworth, a chairman of the Association of the Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen (now Unite the Union), opened it with an endorsement, stating: ‘The responsibility for obtaining a first-rate and exciting cultural environment is ours also… “I’m alright, Jack,” is a sick cultural manifestation as well as a social one, and for this reason, I hope you will respond to what Arnold Wesker has to say.’

The pamphlet laid the ideological planks on which Centre 42 would be built. In it, he appealed for a full life comprised of culture and leisure as well as working and studying. ‘I believe working, playing, laughing, crying, eating, singing, dancing, studying, leisure and creative art, to be not separate aspects of living, for separate people, but natural manifestations of the whole act of living for everyone,’ Wesker wrote. ‘We have managed to organise our society into classes where some of us have time to develop our intelligence and some of us are denied this time.’

Inside page from the Bristol Trades Union Festival programme, November 1962. (The TUC Library at London Metropolitan University)

Historian Lawrence Black notes how even internal opposition to the Resolution served to shore up support. ‘When a speaker backing the motion was interrupted by the Congress President—”I hope delegates will be brief as I want to take the economic section after this”—this served to demonstrate the motion’s critique of dominant materialist outlooks and coalesced support for it.’ Wesker and Bond’s combined efforts saw the resolution pass.

The TUC General Council report on the resolution noted: ‘A more active interest by trade union organisations in such [cultural] affairs, and a more positive encouragement of members to participate in cultural activities, could itself contribute to a change of attitudes on the part of trade unionists.’ This was a mandate to promote a rich cultural life for working people—and the time was ripe for the cadre to combine their art-world clout with unionist zeal.

The Maker and his Tools

Shortly after the 1960 Congress, Arnold Wesker was sent to prison for his part in organising anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons protests. In November 1961, he emerged from HMP Brixton ready to assume the mantle as director of the organisation that had been born from the resolution’s passage: Centre 42. The plan was to open a venue, ideally refurbishing a factory or warehouse—but as Wesker put it, ‘Before we had a chance to set up a base, for Centre 42 itself, we had a request from a tiny, worried Trades Council in Wellingborough asking us to help them start a festival.

Centre 42, or the FortyTwo Movement as they occasionally styled themselves, jumped at this opportunity: the festival would be a testing ground for their plans. Frantically fundraising, marketing, and organising simultaneously, they expended acres of shoe leather to make it a reality. Wesker’s assistant Beba Levrin produced the distinctive publicity materials, and Sister Kit Maynard, secretary of the Wellingborough trades council, worked with Centre 42’s artistic directors to hammer out a programme.

What made the festival unique was its presentation, which combined programming with the spaces of everyday living. Christopher Logue read poetry on the factory floor; canteens became jazz dancehalls; folk singers played in estate pubs; local artists had their works displayed in the town square; a forward-thinking ‘theatre folk ballad’ The Maker and his Tools was performed in a church. Tying the affairs together was a group show of photographs and artworks representing ‘the life of a trade unionist today’, describing ‘the history of the movement that has produced him’ with rousing captions.

Leaflet for the Norwich trade union festival, January 1963. (The TUC Library at London Metropolitan University)

Centre 42 later collectively lamented that it ‘failed to give the festivals a form, a theme—they were simply a collection of events made unique by the channels through which they were mounted’. But it was successful enough to invite editions to be held in Bristol, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham, and the London borough of Hayes and Southall throughout 1962. There were local sideshows, too: Wellingborough saw a ‘prize for the best-dressed lady… not the most expensively dressed’, while Leicester had a draw with a year’s worth of hair perming (first prize), a transistor radio (second), and a ton of coal (third).

Of course, Centre 42’s goals were not without detractors in the art world. Famed critic Bernard Levin said that ‘on political matters’ Wesker ‘has a brain made of apfelstrudel’, taking aim at his scattershot leftist politics, and Noël Coward, who had once played the maitre’d in Wesker’s The Kitchen, bemoaned ‘all those dreary English towns organizing dreary festivals for those dreary people.’

The back cover of the Bristol trades union festival organised by Centre 42 in November 1962. (The TUC Library at London Metropolitan University)

In making declarations like ‘we have decided not to exploit an artistic property beyond the initial costs of its mounting. In other words, we shall never make a profit from any artist’s work,’ was it any wonder that Centre 42 drew ire from the arts establishment? ‘A strange hysteria descends upon the English personality, especially the intelligentsia, when projects affecting “art and the people” are put into motion’, explained Wesker. More serious engagements were made with those reservations held by the trade union movement. Centre 42’s literature pre-emptively refutes ‘being taken for a ride by the long-haired boys’—that is, artists.

To truly ‘destroy the mystique and snobbery associated with the arts’, however, Centre 42 needed a centre of its own: one which would ‘house all the arts under one roof’ and thereby ‘change the method of presenting the arts in this country’. In what would later become Camden’s Roundhouse, Wesker felt he’d found it.

In the Round

The ‘Great Circular Engine House’ designed by seminal Victorian engineer Robert Stephenson had hosted an enormous turntable for redirecting the steam trains leaving Euston, London’s first rail terminal. Made obsolete by newer trains that wouldn’t fit inside, it later became a storage house for Gilbey’s gin distillery. When the company moved their wares to Bow during WWII, fearing it would become a target for German bombers, it was left empty for years, and passed into the ownership of fashion tycoon Louis Mintz. In 1964, Wesker persuaded Mintz to grant him a lease for nineteen years.

Wesker’s omnivorous vision for the centre was a ‘get away from the traditional concept of a theatre, concert hall and art gallery, where we can utilise time and space to the maximum; a space capable of functioning as a cinema in the morning, a dance-hall or theatre in the evening and a nightclub after midnight; and capable of presenting an exhibition and a jive session at the same time.’ It would also, he intended, provide meeting rooms for trade unions, co-ops, and community groups.

Proposal for the design of the Roundhouse auditorium after its refurbisment. (The TUC Library at London Metropolitan University)

By focusing on building up the centre as a driving force for cultural enlightenment, Centre 42 hoped to build its reputation and financial stature, before returning with another festival series later. They believed that establishing a salaried troupe of actors and artists would make future festivals cheaper and more efficient to run.

Schools, factories, and offices would be systematically targeted to bring their occupants to this new hub of culture, and transit services were planned from working-class suburbs like Dagenham and Brentford to deliver people straight to the venue. They would also create a ‘mobile pavilion’ that would bring art shows across the UK between festivals, before setting up brick-and-mortar franchises in the Roundhouse.

These were the planned phases for Centre 42 to grow and create a ‘cultural revolution’, wherein art was revered and free to access, sweeping aside the ‘stultifying’ pursuits the Centre felt working class had cultivated, like TV and bingo. Their efforts were supported by Harold Wilson, who gave Wesker fundraising advisors, and this period also saw more towns requesting Centre 42 festivals, including Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester, Cardiff, Middlesborough, and Boston.

But subsidising the festival series and leasing and redesigning the Roundhouse had exhausted the FortyTwo Movement’s coffers. A generous grant from philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian ran dry and was never successfully topped up; a fundraising drive for £500,000 from everyone from arts organisations to Prince Philip was unable to get the goods. Growing hostilities between Wesker and the TUC’s Vic Feather and George Woodcock eventually led to the cessation of its support, and in 1967 Centre 42 was formally separated from the Roundhouse Trust in 1967, which sought other streams of revenue by hosting separate events.

It was this process which meant the Centre inadvertently hired the Roundhouse out for some of the most critical cultural moments of the era, simply by the serendipity of the cheap rates they offered. Artists like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors carted their amps in and played shows that cut the cloth of pop music to come. Zine International Times was launched there, and the Dialectics of Liberation Congress held while Wesker attended a fundraising tea party in Downing Street.

The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, North London, 15 August 1967. (Mike Barnes / Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

This portrayed a more serious problem: the Roundhouse put on display the growing chasm between the FortyTwo Movement’s intentions and the cultural moment already happening around it. Too often their vision of the arts favoured either ultra-highbrow pursuits or rootsy working-class stereotypes. An early supporter of Centre 42, playwright Shelagh Delaney came to wonder why its founders ‘seem[ed] to think that 100 years ago, everybody was speaking poetry in pubs.’

Before the decade was out, Camden Council revoked their late license, citing the rowdiness of the gigs being held at the venue; a local publican had complained about the noise of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic clubnight UFO. Wesker’s play The Old Ones was staged at the Roundhouse and flopped, its commercial run cut early and replaced with the ‘erotic revue’ Oh! Calcutta! Camden Council’s revocation of its subsidy for the venue was the final nail in the coffin. In 1970 Wesker resigned from the Roundhouse Trust and persuaded the remainder of Centre 42 to dissolve the organisation.

By this point, their supporters had dwindled. Wesker’s brash charisma drew celebrity friends (including John Lennon, J. B. Priestley and Vanessa Redgrave), but made even more opponents. The Chairman of the Arts Council, Arnold Goodman, was personally hostile to Centre 42, while Wesker fell out with Arts Minister (and Tribune founder) Jennie Lee. With the Greater London Council becoming the freeholder, the Roundhouse kept ticking over as a venue in the 1970s and saw various failed attempts at rehabilitation as an arts centre,before reopening in 2006 as the renovated space it is today.

Having turned down a CBE in 1967, Wesker accepted a knighthood in 2006. Following Centre 42, his career never reached the heights of peers like Harold Pinter. Indifference to his later work hurt him. ‘I don’t feel I’m known,’ he once said. ‘I’m frozen in the trilogy of the 1960s.’

Working-Class Arts Today

Like many of the radical intentions of the twentieth century, Centre 42’s dreams never came to pass. In the time since, improved productivity thanks to automation has not translated into the leisure hours it should have for working people, nor offered security for artists to develop their practices. Cultural creation is subject to the stultifying pressures of monopoly capitalism, and workers in cultural institutions are seeing their pay and expertise squeezed or abandoned entirely.

But it’s for those exact reasons that socialists and trade unionists continue to work to make the arts a fairer and more accessible place. Recent documents including the TUC’s ‘Making Culture Ours’ and Public Services International’s ‘Manifesto for Cultural Workers’ show that the cause is anything but lost, demanding better conditions for culture workers and improved access to arts as two sides of the same coin.

For all its limitations and loftiness, it was a true popular, democratic impulse driving the creation of Centre 42. And as we live under a government whose disregard for the arts is clear, its stated aim should remain a core of socialist demands: to ‘wrest the arts away from the commercial boys and the privileged minority, and give them back to the community, where they belong.’