Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
If you have been to Hackney Mare Street in the last few years you’ll have noticed a square in front of the Town Hall, a 1930s building, across the road from the old Ocean music venue and what’s now the Hackney Picture House. But dominating the north side is the Hackney Empire, its name emblazoned as an assertion of its presence. Its huge brick lettering announcing itself. And it is a presence due only to the dedication and vision of Roland and Claire Muldoon and a determined collection of people who worked to re-establish the wonderful theatre built by Frank Matcham in 1901. It was their work that saved it from being a decaying bingo hall, with little prospect at the time to ensure a future except that of the grasping hands of real estate sharks who would eventually have cleaned up.
But this is not just a book about a theatre in East London and the work of Roland and Claire. It is an example which all of us wherever we live could have replicated. In a period when local government was at the mercy of a rampant Tory government, determined to unleash monetarist policies, which would attack all areas of public expenditure. A building for the public, which had huge potential, if there was money. And a Labour council that was incapable of responding to such attacks as their party became wedded to the view that in fact there was no alternative, and they had nothing to present as an alternative cultural policy to that of central government. A time when enterprise and ‘loadsofmoney’ culture was unleashed and then lauded; and developers could be found to make money through their thin dreams of gentrification. This, taking place in a working class borough where social problems required not sermons but real investment, and ways of developing services which were creative in meeting the needs of residents with input from them. In an area that needed a big, open door and popular theatre to reflect not just the different populations living there, but cultures and groups that had never had any inclusion in the theatres and venues of Britain. Where was the popular black theatre? Where was the venue that would host the increasingly popular standup and comedy nights? Where was the place which would cater for people wanting a great night out watching opera or a Shakespeare play?
Throughout the book we learn of the ones who were or became the enemy. Local councillors who wanted to incorporate the Empire in their orbit. Whose dreams were of “cultural quarters” and other such identifications of sterile plans. Arts administrators who were suspicious of the whole operation and concerned that proposals for the refurbishing and the plans for the future were too grand and incapable of being met. Members of the board who were persuaded that the city money and the financiers could be the ones who would be able to maintain the financial tightrope for the Empire. That such people would have the vision and commitment to programme the essential diverse and dynamic shows needed to maintain the place.
But there were also aides and supporters suddenly galloping to the rescue – some of those who had ways of accessing money for arts projects, after the rejections from the Arts Council and others. There were those rubbing shoulders with the royals, and old friends committing money to provide necessary safety nets and support from local boys and girls made good – Pinter, Sugar et al. And throughout, the stories of loyal friends and supporters who would turn out to help, and even at times to rescue.
And there was also Roland and Claire Muldoon. Committed socialists who never wavered from their identification with the different struggles of the day – the miners, opponents of the poll tax, supporters of anti racist campaigns, women’s issues, and gay rights. A couple who throughout their lives have worn their hearts on their sleeves. Anti Thatcher, anti New Labour and now anti Coalition (or more accurately anti Tories). But we have all had to face the fact that our history is littered with struggles well fought, but in which we have often been defeated. And yet we also know that the very fight itself has given confidence and experiences, has provided a terrain where many have been drawn in, won to our arguments and have become committed to the issues we have been advocating.
This whole story of the fight for the Hackney Empire and the way it developed will always be an example, in the teeth of an increasingly commercialized and market dominated culture, of much of the best in trying to make real a hope and a vision of a locally based people’s theatre. For Roland and Claire did more than have dreams. They succeeded for a period and have left a legacy of a splendid theatre in the heart of Hackney, but also and in many ways more importantly, have left an example of the way you can campaign for your vision of what ought to be.
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook