History, Identity and Young People: Documenting the “Postcode Wars”

This afternoon I went on a short journey. From home, I got on my bike and instead of taking my usual route into central London I turned north, to N15, crossing N16 in the process. This short journey – only 20 minutes – not only took me into areas I’ve never visited before (except perhaps to drive through on the way north, suggesting something about the persistent segregation of London) it was also, I learned, the kind of journey that some of the young people I went to meet would approach with real anxiety. Finding yourself in the wrong ‘end’ is enough, it seems, to cost some young people their lives, particularly in north London’s “postcode wars”.

Determined to address the situation, a group of young people from the Black Experience Archive Trust have been working with filmmakers Ken Fero and Soulyeman Garcia to make a documentary that tells it how it is, from their perspective. It is not, as the school’s headteacher noted solemnly in introducing the screening, always comfortable viewing. The young people interviewed their peers and community elders and leaders (at the 2008 Huntley conference) in order to try to understand what’s happening and what can be done. There are, sadly, no easy answers, although better inter-generational communication has to be one, as one thing that was evident from the film was the limitations of the older generation’s awareness of young people’s problems, but also how little understanding the younger generation has of its elders’ struggles and campaigns.

So what’s all this got to do with archives? In short, three things, it seems to me. The first is that, as the adult filmmakers explained to me before the screening, in documenting their lives the young people are creating an archive. Indeed, they archive their lives all the time, through their myspace pages or other social networking sites, but it’s incredibly important that they should create a record of their own time and place in a form with which they feel comfortable in order for them to have a voice in a public arena and to transmit their experiences to those coming up behind them. What’s interesting to me in this approach is the dissolving distinction between the creation of the record and the archive. Something is happening at the interface between popular understandings of ‘archive’ (e.g. a blog archive) and more conventional notions, particularly when it comes to born-digital material although I’m not quite ready to put my finger on it.

Second, one thing that emerged from the film was the huge need for Black history, and for archives to fulfil that need. One of the young people in the film talked about how “postcode wars” were substituting a code – N15, N22, E5, wherever- for an individual identity, like a prison number. In the discussion afterwards this point was picked up by audience members who situated it in the context of the continual dispossession of people of African origin, even (and indeed especially) down to their names. Whatever the root causes, (poverty, consumer culture, video games, misogyny, who knows) identifying around something as arbitrary as postcodes surely suggests a huge void in terms of understanding where you’ve come from and why you are where you are. Only one girl in the film dismissed the notion of postcode affiliations: she wasn’t going to die for her postcode, it’s not like she chose to live where she does, Haringey council put her there. This level of awareness is, it seems to me, in its own way a kind of post-colonial awareness, rising above the divide-and-rule strategy of the dominant groups (and recognising that strategy for what it is). But the ability to draw these kind of conclusions has to be drawn, at least in part, from an understanding of the past.

And finally, the young people themselves have been working closely with an archive, LMA, and the first films they made as part of a Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Young Roots’ project have been deposited there. They have been to visit the archives, looking for evidence of Black Londoners past, and have also taken responsibility for filming the annual Huntley conference, building their skills and supplementing the LMA’s collections. There is a moment in the film when the young people visit London’s grand and prestigious Guildhall and it feels for them like a journey to another planet (“EC4! Where is that?!”). But almost as extraordinary is the journey LMA has made in the other direction, with staff members attending an event like this afternoon’s as a matter of course.


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One Response to “History, Identity and Young People: Documenting the “Postcode Wars””

  1. Community Archives and Identities » Blog Archive » Reading Les Back’s ‘New Ethnicities’ (1996) Says:

    […] kind of thinking that in some very similar areas has mutated into the ‘postcode wars’ I’ve written about before. In this light I can’t help but find the parochialism Back welcomes as a prefiguring a form […]

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