Queen Mary University of London professor Nadia Valman and BBC journalist Alan Dein are reuniting Chris Searle – the teacher at the centre of the extraordinary Stepney Words story and subsequent protests across London – with some of the original Stepney Poets. The reunion will mark the significance and legacy of Stepney Words and recognise the continuing radical potential of poetry in east London, as part of the Being Human festival.
‘Stepney Words’ was a book of poetry written by 11 to 15-year-old students that hit the nation’s headlines, and went on to inspire writers, educators and community publishers throughout the country.
In May 1971, Chris Searle, a young English teacher was sacked by the governors of Sir John Cass Foundation School for publishing a collection of his students' poems. Searle had encouraged his classes to write about their lives and their neighbourhoods – poems which were set in the very same streets where his own literary hero, the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg had once lived.
The young poets had responded with writing that vividly described the local East End streets, and their inner thoughts and observations - and in response to Searle’s dismissal, 800 pupils, including those from neighbouring schools, went on strike. With banners aloft they refused to go back to school until their beloved teacher was reinstated. Demanding justice, the strikers marched from Stepney to Trafalgar Square generating national headlines and television coverage.
‘Stepney Words Fifty Years On’ will be on hosted at the People’s Palace, Queen Mary on Sunday 14 November, from 2pm-6:15pm. It also features local writers Alan Gilbey and Tony Harcup, philosopher Judith Suissa, historians Rob Waters and Tom Woodin, and grassroots activists Julie Begum and Ken Worpole.
“Stepney Words and the Stepney school strike was a landmark in the history of the East End,” said Nadia Valman, Professor of Urban Literature at Queen Mary. “Chris Searle empowered working-class children to express their imagination, their compassion, and their frustrations, and insisted that their voices be heard. It’s hard to imagine now what a rumpus that caused in 1971.”
The afternoon will end with a short film documenting Queen Mary’s recent collaboration between Chris Searle and the Stepney Poets, and students from their former school, now renamed Stepney All Saints; performances from young poets Dillon Kalyabe and Becksy Becks and the unveiling of a new painting depicting the 1971 strike by celebrated East End artist Dan Jones.
Those interested in attending can register for the event via Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/stepney-words-fifty-years-on-tickets-167254014259
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