Real Urban Fiction

Jonathan Hoskins – Own De Beauvoir! (Open School East)

This timely book takes as its starting point De Beauvoir Town, a small area of North East London, bringing together creative fiction, archival photographs and transcribed testimonials of residents past and present to explore questions of value, ownership, authority, community, belonging and identity.

Own De Beauvoir! is the outcome of a two-year research project by Jonathan Hoskins, supported by Open School East. Based in De Beauvoir Town, Open School East is one of a number of alternative art schools forging alternative ways of learning: collectively, informally and apart from the market-driven higher education system.

Questions raised in the book – for example, the merits of local organisation versus central control, how to meet gaps in welfare and services left unfilled by the state, the motivations of those trying to challenge the status quo and provide alternative models, and who benefits from them – are relevant to many spheres of contemporary life, including education and housing.

The first half of Own De Beauvoir! is given over to fictional and somewhat cryptic diary entries by Hoskins, himself resident in De Beauvoir Town, covering a period of just over a year between 2005 and 2006. The resulting journal suggests protest, engagement, direct, guerrilla action of a non-specified nature and a fight against faceless administrators and authorities. Interspersed with these are scans of seldom-seen documents and photographs giving a sense of a prior struggle, that of the 1960s-1980s, when Hackney Council was intent on demolishing the streets and squares of rundown, and in many cases empty, Georgian houses that characterised De Beauvoir Town.

These documents conjure the area’s distinct character: common to both the diary and the archival documents is a sense of creativity, invention and making do – for example, in the pictures of a community centre developed from a former factory site, and community-run adventure playgrounds, or in the posters for self-initiated welfare and advice sessions.

As well as creating a dialogue with the present, this fictional journal – with its crossed out words and disjointed narrative – creates a sense of displacement and fragmentation. It reflects the transience, uncertainty and instability of communities (particularly in areas subject to waves of migration, undergoing gentrification, or where large numbers of people live in accommodation rented by private landlords at inflated costs), of initiatives driven by the goodwill and commitment of small groups of individuals, and of the fabric of the built environment itself as places and facilities are demolished and rebuilt.

For me, much more interesting was the second half of the book, which brings out the driving personalities and stories behind local action and change, both individual and collective, from long-term residents of De Beauvoir Town and an architect who surveyed and reimagined the houses, to community organisers, campaigners and the descendant of a large landowner. The book doesn’t just flip between the 1960s and the present, but creates layers of different eras, including the early nineteenth-century masterplanning project of Garden Squares that De Beauvoir was part of.

Reading Own De Beauvoir!, two thoughts were foremost in my mind. Firstly, that this tale of De Beauvoir Town is just one episode of a story that occurred all over London – and in other towns and cities across the country as part of the post-war programme of slum clearance and rehousing; more recently, there are clear parallels in the ‘Pathfinder’ Housing Market Renewal scheme.

Secondly, it’s easy to see a cycle here: ironically, the past few years have seen several protests in London against the demolition of the types of modernist housing that would have replaced the Georgian streets of De Beauvoir Town. As 1960s (primarily council) estates are demolished, residents have once again fought battles against gentrification and displacement.

The difference is that today land values in London are such that it is hard to imagine whole areas of the city being forgotten about by local authorities, in the way depicted in Own De Beauvoir!, where Hackney is described as an area that has been ‘left behind’; today demolition and rebuilding is often criticised for an overreliance on the private sector, a distinct lack of affordable housing, the dispersal of rooted communities and a form of ‘social cleansing’.

Depressingly, it’s no surprise to read at the end of the book that today De Beauvoir Town has the lowest density and highest value housing in Hackney: those residents that stayed put in the area, and in some cases benefited from right to buy, now seem not just forward-thinking but rather canny.

– Natalie Bradbury

1 thought on “Real Urban Fiction

  1. > The first half of Own De Beauvoir! is given over to fictional and somewhat cryptic diary entries.

    They are so cryptic as to be almost unreadable – certainly the style is not conducive to getting
    the reader to engage with the material. This sadly a missed opportunity.

    > Interspersed with these are scans of seldom-seen documents and photographs giving a sense
    > of a prior struggle, that of the 1960s-1980s.

    These are excellent and the author is to be commended on collating them. However their impact
    is very much reduced by the consequences of the largely impenetrable style.

    > For me, much more interesting was the second half of the book.

    Indeed I would concur BUT a reader focussing on that part would lose the impact of the material
    (NON-fictional) embedded in the first (fictional) part.

    > De Beauvoir Town is just one episode of a story that occurred all over London

    True. To some extent that was recognised in the 1970s but local residents such as myself
    had locus (a sense of identification and knowledge) only with our local area – despite some
    occasional forays into other parts of London to communicate with other community groups.
    That said those at the centre of De Beauvoir involvement did not have a sense of the trend
    in urban development of which they were a part – albeit delayed compared to other areas,
    With hindsight, what we created is not a community (visited in 2012 after more than twenty
    years away) that appeals to me. Already the writing was on the wall in the late 1980s.

    Overall I am saddened that the author has chosen to present the material in this way. My
    hope is that the source material can be made available to others for a readable analysis
    of what happened forty or more years ago and how it was doomed to failure to implement
    the ideas of its initiators. That theme MAY be included in the fictional work but I do wonder
    how many readers would stick with the reading of it. I certainly did not.

    Alan Rayner
    resident of De Beauvoir Town 1972-1989, currently resident on island of El Hierro.


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