Dropping The Mic

Les Back’s Farewell to Laurie Grove and Emma Jackson’s arrival as the new the Director of CUCR
20 September 2022

We start this time with the sound of the great American sociologist Howard S. Becker playing the blues in Deptford Town Hall during his visit to Goldsmiths in 2007.  I found this live recording on a memory stick that I thought was lost while packing up my office in Laurie Grove Baths. It was one of many wonderful nights in New Cross but more about them later.  

This will be my last episode as presenter of the series.  I would like to take this opportunity to reflect a little on my favourite memories in my long association with Centre for Urban and Community Research before talking to Emma Jackson, who will be taking over as the new director of CUCR in October, 2022, and her plans for what’s next.

The Centre for Urban and Community Research was set up in 1994. Nikolas Rose, who was the first Director, had a vision of it as a place where the traditions of the Chicago School of urban sociology and the Frankfurt School of critical theory would converge on the Southbank of the Thames.  I really loved that provocation and ambition.  I remember the launch conference held in Deptford Town Hall in the summer of 1995.  Paul Gilroy spoke brilliantly about the ‘hybrid city’ and London’s imperial legacy along with Richard Sennett, Geoff Pearson and Francis Heidensohn and historian Roy Porter, who grew up in New Cross.  

Michael Keith, who was the second Director, did more than anyone to weave this promise into a coherent - if sometimes frantic - theoretical and empirical programme.  I learned so much from Michael as his academic sideman.  From the situationist magic of his urban walks London’s psychogeography to the tough political challenges of city governance.  Michael was not only a brilliant urban theoretician, he was also running Tower Hamlet’s Council, one of London’s largest boroughs.  He really gave CUCR a financial foundation and resources but also an intellectual purpose and vision.    

I think what CUCR animated was also an atmosphere of invention and pushing boundaries. Through the work of people like Paul Halliday urban photography and art and visual practice could be woven into conventional social science and urban policy.  CUCR also facilitated dialogues with the local community that would be impossible in the larger institutions of the university of London. I remember Alison Rooke, another former CUCR Director, commenting during an incredible public event with young southeast Londoners - “this kind of thing can only happen here.”  We haven’t been very good at documenting and canonising this approach to urban research, rather we were often just too busy getting on with the actual work. 

I just want to draw out some of those qualities.  CUCR has hosted some pretty amazing events and they are some of my fondest memories. They expanded the terms of what public academic life might sound like.  In the last edition of Streetsigns we heard about Anita Strasser’s amazing launch of Deptford is Changing that was held in Deptford Town Hall and brought the local community on campus.  It was the very same room where Howie Becker played the blues at the end of an extraordinary series of talks on the Chicago school of sociology, research craft and sociological writing.   Another memorable event was the Bass Culture 50/24 event that was held in May 2018, a day event of reggae music, postcolonial walks and presentations from some of the key figures who made reggae in London. 

Perhaps, the highest point for me is the 13 Dead and Nothing Said exhibition of Vron Ware’s photographic portrayal of the Black People’s Day of Action that protested the injustice of the New Cross fire.  The exhibition which included archive campaign documents, press coverage and first-person testimony was shown in the Kingsway corridor at the heart of the college. Nirmal Puwar pioneered using the corridor as an exhibition space and she helped to curate this one presenting the images in a long line like a demonstration.  Thousands of people came including key figures from the black civil rights movement in London like broadcaster Alex Pascal and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.  1981 was the year I came to Goldsmiths as a student.  The college was a white island in a postcolonial sea.  At the time and the custodians of the college like Warden Richard Hoggart were not exactly sensitive to the tragedy of those young black lives cut short. Watching the people most affected by the tragedy at the exhibition and being a bystander to them seeing themselves in this historic moment was the best thing I have been involved in my time at CUCR.   

I will miss being based in Laurie Grove Baths. The old Victorian building was once a swimming baths and washhouse, and the building is now home to the art student’s studios and CUCR.  Watching students preparing for the final year art show each summer passing them in the corridor in overalls covered in paint or plasters always tickles me. My office was the academic residence to Michael Keith and Caroline Knowles.  The creaky hinged door – which was once the entrance to the Bath’s Managers flat - has been a fitting intellectual garret for me.  Over the past five years I have turned the lock so much my key is worn to the point of uselessness. Sometimes I turn it more than a dozen times to gain entry.  It feels some mornings a bit like the sound of my time here running out. 

Next to my office is the Council Room where I have facilitated countless PhD workshops.  Many of my fondest memories are working closely with students helping them realise their projects. The list of brilliant former students is almost endless including Lez Henry, Ben Gidley, Thomas Zaccharias, Aisha Phoenix, Will Davis, Kimberly Keith, Alex Rhys-Taylor, Anamik Saha, Chantelle Lewis and indeed Emma Jackson who we’ll hear from shortly.   All of these brilliant minds are in their own ways defining the course of contemporary scholarship.  Packing up my things I found some photographs of Anamik Saha’s and my quest to find the Theodor Adorno monument in Frankfurt in 2013.  So, Chicago meets Frankfurt in our sociological imaginations after all.  In 2022 during the industrial action the current cohort of Sociology PhDs turned Nirmal Puwar’s and my ‘Live Methods Manifesto’ into a picket-line performance. Their playful genius transformed an academic journal article into a live performance like a Greek chorus.  It was an extraordinary thing to witness and the deepest of all compliments. 

But enough of the past.  I has been my pleasure and honour to be Director of CUCR and I can’t think of a better person than Emma Jackson to take over the role.  As I am clearing out my office of books, audio tapes, records and papers I thought it was a good moment to talk to the incoming resident about her plans for the future.

︎ credit : Les Back

From the beginning of October Professor Les Back will be Head of Sociology at University of Glasgow.

Dr Emma Jackson is Director of CUCR and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.