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Allowing Brighton’s voices to be heard
It was 1972 and a group had been formed to campaign against plans to turn the Royal Spa buildings in Brighton’s Queen’s Park into a casino. The group won, and out of it was born a community publisher that continues to thrive today, staffed by a devoted army of volunteer writers, researchers and photographers.
The story of QueenSpark is certainly uncommon. But that’s perhaps fitting for an organisation which has spent 40 years publishing tales of lesser documented lives.
The beginnings of QueenSpark lie with Albert Paul, who wrote Poverty: Hardship But Happiness, a memoir of growing up in Brighton at the start of the 20th century, to help raise funds for the original campaign.
“It became quite a phenomenon,” says John Benge, one of QueenSpark’s three directors. “At the time, there were very few first- person memoirs of working-class life out there and Albert’s story was covered all over the country.”
As well as establishing a fledgling publishing company, it provided a direction that continues to inform QueenSpark to the present day – to publish the lesser-heard voices of Brighton and Hove.
The way that theme has been interpreted over the past few decades is telling of the way the city has changed.
From white, working-class histories such as Albert Paul’s, the publisher has in recent years turned its attentions to the Bangladeshi and Sudanese communities, and to the city’s large population of homeless people.
“It can be quite controversial,” Benge admits.
“QueenSpark is seen as one of the definers of Brighton and Hove’s history and the choices we make in terms of what we cover are important – they become part of the history of the city. Some of our titles have been more popular than others.
But we try to cover all facets of local life.”
One hundred books have been published over the years, covering a diverse range of topics; Teatime Tales marked 70 years of memories and meetings at the Pavilion Gardens Café, while Backstage Brighton looked back at our rich theatre history, from the founding of buildings we know today to those such as The Grand in North Road, which have long since disappeared.
Backyard Brighton was important in providing a reminder and wider understanding of the slums that existed in the city centre before the clearance programme of the 1960s, while Backseat Brighton celebrates the romance, grandeur and occasional fleas of our cinemas.
Who Was Harry Cowley? – about the chimney sweep-turned-celebrated social activist – and Tony Diamond’s harrowing Pebble On The Beach have both gone through several print runs.
Whatever the topic, Benge says the focus is always people’s stories.
The organisation recently launched an online photographic collection and that has brought even more out of the woodwork, he says.
“People respond to different things, for some it’s stories, for others it’s visual things. Some amazing stuff has come up since we launched the collection.”
Benge is one of just three permanent, part-time staff. With a background in theatre and community arts education, he came to QueenSpark almost on a whim.
“I knew so little about Brighton’s history then. Now I’ve become a real bore about it! I’ll walk into town with visitors and be able to tell them stuff about pretty much every area of the city.”
He oversees the organisation’s numerous titles, which are written, researched and produced by volunteers.
“One of the things QueenSpark has been really good at over the years is generating goodwill,” he explains. While it has come a long way from its roots as a cooperative, it still attracts people from all walks of life who are happy to give their time and skills for free.
“We’re lucky because we get people from all sorts of fields who want to get involved, meaning we can do a project cheaper than pretty much anyone else. People see it as a good community resource and they want to play their part.”
Its current project draws heavily on this bank of goodwill; the publisher is producing a graphic novel which sees 14 volunteer writers paired with 14 volunteer artists to tell Brighton’s history through stories and images.
It’s a format that hasn’t been attempted before and QueenSpark hopes the interest in graphic novels means it will attract attention not just nationally but internationally.
“I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve been involved in here, but the graphic novel has excited me more than anything. I can’t wait to see what happens with this one.”
* For more information on QueenSpark and details of its special 40th anniversary events, visit www.queensparkbooks.org.uk