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At the time that I was responsible for the Centre, I wrote the following:

George Moore returned to his home country in 1901 and lived in Dublin for ten years. He became involved in the production of Irish language drama and writing, and these included a group of stories called ‘The Untilled Field’. The Ireland he describes may be a potentially fertile setting for the literary imagination, but it is a place that requires him to confront grinding poverty and an absence of opportunity that feeds a steady migration to America.

In one of the finer tales, Moore tells of ‘a playhouse in the waste’. Faced with a starving rural population, government was reduced to financing programmes of public works. These programmes however could not be allowed to benefit individuals and so pointless tasks were devised such as roads that peter out in the midst of peat bogs. At the heart of the Irish community is the priest, at once a figure of oppression, and hostility to freedom and joy, as well as the only point of wider sensibility learning and potentially useful economic power.

The narrator visits this wild lonely desolate village after travelling through barren and dangerous bog. He sees a road that leads nowhere and discovers that there had been a building at its end, though now in ruins. He is told this was ‘the playhouse in the waste’, and that the villagers had worked over many months to learn a play which was to turn their community into an Irish ‘Oberammagau’. The play was never performed. The ‘spotless’ heroine was found to be pregnant out of wedlock and the wall of the theatre collapsed. The visitor gets a glimpse of the local people and is shocked by their condition. He wonders how the priest manages to live amidst such desolation and poverty, but looks forward to an evening of cultured conversation being encouraged by the library of books in the priest’s home. The priest however, never reads but spends his evenings knitting for the benefit of the community. Books he sees as a danger either because they divert him from the basic needs of his people, or because they prompt ‘all kinds of ideas and notions’.


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There were less conscious under-currents at work. Of course, feelings about racial difference were part of the picture, although the focus on the racial components diverted attention from the group dynamics that are at work in all human relationships. The Centre may well have felt at an emotional level to ‘belong to them’ rather than to ‘us’ for some staff, and the racial differences between the ‘them’ and the ‘us’, though important, are not essential to such feelings. For some staff, the Centre may have been felt to belong more to ‘management’ than to any particular group of staff, and that would be sufficient for some to approach the Centre with scepticism.

I came to feel that there were other emotional dimensions at work however. One involved a mixture of Protestant ethic, suspicion of artistic expression and even hostility to the offenders with whom we worked. The arts were not just treated as if irrelevant, but there was anger about the matter – as in, “that Centre is a waste of money; they should shut it down and spend the money on reducing our caseloads”. There was for some an active aversion to getting close to the Centre, and what could be seen as a Dickensian Gradgrind belief in practical realities such as employment or welfare benefits, a preoccupation with financial and/or moral motives for offending. For them, the arts were the territory for the airy-fairy dreamers as if they were the approach of new age mystics or ‘tree huggers’. The work in the Centre was ‘emotional’ in a way that didn’t feel acceptable to some for whom the work of probation was concerned with social forces, errors of reasoning, attitudes. The wish seemed to be for mainstream probation to be a science, evidence based, concerned with replicable facts of interventions, not an art that could not be pinned down and known, objectified.

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It seemed to me at the time that the Cultural Centre was offering something that was challenging some features of probation both at a rational conscious level and at a less easily accessed unconscious level. No matter how hard we worked to convince people of the rational value of referring cases to the Centre as part of a programme of supervision, somehow nothing happened. There were plenty of apparently rational factors that people drew on to explain a lack of referrals and so there was plenty of material for us to concentrate on that maintained the negotiation at this conscious and not very effective level.

This is not to say that the rationalisations for not referring had no validity. It is not hard to understand that when offenders under supervision had problems with basic survival in the community, learning the trombone seemed not to be a key priority. The relationship between an exhibition of paintings representing dance and the world view of young men whose most vivid experiences had been of school failure,offending and imprisonment was certainly not self evident! Dangling in front of probation officers the success of a black dance group, exciting though this may have been, did little to help them see how to respond to people who were seeking work without basic skills. There was a bit of a vicious circle at work in which the Centre staff then in a way gave up looking for referrals from probation staff and got on with ‘community activities’ that had no real connection with the offending issue, and this in turn made probation officers even more dismissive of the Centre.

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Tackling offending behaviour and creative activities

Putting aside for the moment any question regarding the role of the Centre amongst black communities, a core question that was immediately apparent on my arrival, was whether there could be a convincing link between the day to day work of probation officers with offenders and a Centre focussing on creativity and especially artistic creativity. If such a link could be made, was it more than something on the margin for a few offenders, or could it be transformed into a core part of Probation work.

The Cultural Centre had a sister organisation, the Cave, also founded within Probation to provide a performance space that was not possible in the Cultural Centre. The stated aims of the Cave were to provide:
”a link between probation clients and the local community
educational and recreational opportunities for young people
creative opportunities for unemployed people
a venue for local regional and national artists

Many African-Caribbean and South Asian artists and companies such as Kokuma and Irie! performed at the Cave. The venue was also host to Birmingham’s Black Theatre Festival ‘Kojoyo.’ “

 It is clear from this and from Bob Rhamdanie’s comments referred to above, that the articulated link between these Centres and Probation work was present as an aim but weak as a basis for practical service delivery. Bob Rhamdanie’s own account underlines the difficulty:

Given my propensity to work within the community, I applied for and was appointed as a Senior Probation Officer in 1978, entrusted with the development of a programme for community development. With Urban Aid funding, the Probation Service was able to establish a community based project and I introduced the concept of a Handsworth Cultural Centre (HCC) in Birmingham, insisting that the services to be provided were to be for all in the community who wished to participate. My working philosophy was to ensure that there was no differentiation between ‘clients’ of the Service and ‘non-clients’,especially as the project was geared to meet the needs of the local community. Probation practice however was never conceived in the format that I was proposing and there was always a tension between the HCC and colleagues in the ‘mainstream’ Service. Where, within the Service there was much disquiet about this new community approach rather than the ‘one-to-one’ approach, there was much appreciation from local people for this community arts and resource centre.

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We are not discussing the ‘truth’ here. Most probation staff had little real connection with the Centre and like many aspects of how race was attended to in the Probation Service at that time, perceptions, often untested against real experience, tended to predominate. Some of the basis for the perceptions are apparent in this summary of a film about the Centre, prepared before I arrived:

 Derrick Anderson reading poem: “ … a culture needs a centre…”Birmingham: canal, playground, dancers, murals, street scenes in Handsworth, illustrating the visibility of the black and Asian residents. Sign for the Cultural Centre indicating its link with the Probation Service. Offices, notice-boards, pictures, musicians practising, etc. Bob Ramdhanie saying it’s difficult to explain exactly what he does, being a Probation Officer in a cultural centre. Ramdhanie’s VO talking about the Centre being founded, in 1977, to respond to the needs of young black people (who often have poor self-image because of the way society treats them) to help them channel their energies usefully: pictures on the walls of the Centre, photographs of black people, police, skinheads, headlines about teenage “mob”, poor housing, etc. He talks about the Centre offering the young people something they want as well as making art“a living commodity” and not something outside their reach. Judah talking about how British education fails black people: it teaches them about white history but not about their own: his VO over images of black Africans and over woodwork shop in the Centre; he thinks the Centre helps them establish their own identity. Poster of Bob Marley. Kokuma Dance Company. Pat Donaldson explains its inception, and that it became based at the Cultural Centre as this offered cheap rehearsal space, etc. Angela Samuda talks about having been on probation and finding the Cultural Centre through that. Doreen Forbes points out that local youth centres don’t offer very much: they all want access to music and art, rather than table tennis. All intercut with footage of the company performing.

ACE114.310:10:27 10:20:39 Groups of people, including Yugesh Walia and Bob Ramdhanie, discussing the editing of 8mm film of local people talking about their views of the West Indies in relation to their own lives.More 8mm footage. The back garden of the Centre where people are creating an African village. Ramdhanie emphasises that the Centre works with both “offenders as well as non-offenders” and explains that the village will offer to those in search of identity something “more tangible than music and dance”. Centre workers talking about the design for the garden features – including buildings and sculptures – and its planting. Plans. Construction. Oneness performing Weh Dem Come From over. Ramdhanie’s VO talking about the garden adding to Handsworth’s outdoor facilities as a whole. Children’s ballet class, sign for Open Day, dancers in marquee,ballet class; woman’s VO saying that she uses the facilities she wants and has no problem with the idea that some of the people at the Centre are offenders. Young Centre worker explains that people outside sometimes assume that he is an offender. Dance classes. Ramdhanie receiving an award from the Mayor; Centre activities,dancing, etc. Ramdhanie’s VO says that the Centre’s links with the Probation Service are generally not an issue, but young people can sometimes be worried about television coverage if they think it might wrongly identify them as offenders. The Centre recording studio; Derrick Anderson talks about it as somewhere where anyone can record, and where they can get help from people with arranging their music, etc. Oneness recording Mama Don’t Cry. Errol Whitter talking about helping young people develop their music. Young people dancing.

ACE114.410:20:39 10:31:50 Music continues over street scenes, children in playground, boys playing cricket, etc. Samuda says that, while the Centre may fulfil some of her needs, “the problem is still there”. Photographs of British nationalist march, policeman arresting black woman, house fire, people with bloodies heads, anti-police-brutality placard. Dancers exercising; Ramadhanie’s VO believes that many young people find the Centre’s activities in “giving them a balance … quite rewarding”. Musicians and dancers setting up at outdoor event; shots of event intercut with dance class, rehearsals,and costume making, etc. Ramadhanie says the Centre offers “a positive image for young black people”, but doesn’t pretend to solve their problems.

African Caribbean imagery predominates in this account and the terminology is about ‘black’ people. The idea of how this Centre is related to the function of the Probation Service is not clearly expressed, and indeed Bob Ramdhanie says it is difficult to describe what he does as a probation officer in the Centre. There is just a kind of hope that displaying shared public experiences of disadvantage, celebrating ‘cultural’ expressions and a belief in art as a way of expressing human value will rub off on people who offend and offer an idea of positive crime free living.

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Of course, this territory is complex and there is obviously some truth in a whole range of ways of looking at issues of race and culture. In the context of the Cultural Centre however, this issue acquired some purchase since, although the initial manager was not identifiable as of traditionally African-Caribbean identity, the staff when I arrived were largely seen as reflecting a dominant voice in the local service being African Caribbean. The culture within the Centre was on the whole secular, though there were staff with membership of local black-led Christian churches. Although the reality was complex, the perceptions would have been that the Centre had no connections with the cultural / religious world of the local Muslim communities.

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Serving diverse communities

One of the arguments that was going on when I arrived in Birmingham, to oversimplify, was between those who believed that the priority was to tackle race inequality, as an unequal distribution of power in society, and those who believed that the key issue concerned a respect for diversity of cultural values. The first group tended to believe that a focus on cultural diversity was an evasion of underlying inequalities and injustices. The latter groups tended to believe that a focus on‘political’ power distribution failed to pay respect to their different beliefs and value systems.

This argument had emotional force at the time since the riots in Handsworth in the mid1980s had involved the deaths of two men of south Asian ethnic identity, and was acted out in the Centre which although founded by a man of Asian perceived ethnic identity, had become predominantly staffed by people of African Caribbean ethnic identity, and was seen by some as culturally biased towards those communities. Terminology was a mine field and even now in writing this paragraph, I am conscious that the terms I use may offend some. The term ‘black’ was not accepted by some, since they felt it disregarded their cultural and ethnic heritage. For others, it was key to ensuring that power inequality and discrimination against people of ‘black’ skin colour were understood as the main issues and not a more comfortable preoccupation with differences of cultural patterns. Some rejected terms that hid the truth that they were born and brought up as British.