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25 September: Goldsmiths and its District

Published onJul 09, 2019
25 September: Goldsmiths and its District

Goldsmiths is the closest university to the place where I was born. I studied here as an undergraduate and postgraduate student and have taught at Goldsmiths for most of my professional life. I am sure you’ve already come to the conclusion that I evidently don’t really like the place very much!

Mine is a personal story affectionately written about the place in which it is set. Richard Hoggart was the Warden of the college when I first came to Goldsmiths in 1981. He had taken up this position because for him Goldsmiths still had the trace of what he called the ‘Great Tradition’ of adult education with its roots in the nineteenth-century institutions like the Worker’s Education Association. The college takes its name from a medieval City Guild called the Goldsmiths Company, which established the Goldsmiths Institute in 1891. The gold and silver hallmarking on jewellery is provided for a fee by this ancient guild and it validates Britain’s currency as well for other countries. Almost from its inception The Company gave money to support crafts and educational philanthropy. London’s impoverished southeast corner was a fitting place to concentrate its investment.

Hoggart – the author of the classic study of working-class life The Uses of Literacy – chose Goldsmiths over prestigious offers in more auspicious places. In the late seventies and early eighties New Cross and Deptford on the south bank of the Thames were ruined by de-industrialization, dock closures resulting from containerization and urban decline. As sociologist Dick Hobbs has pointed out, between 1966 and 1976 150,000 jobs were lost in London’s dockland communities. Hoggart wrote in his memoir that the ‘district’ – as he used to refer to the college’s surrounding areas – is commonly known as ‘the arsehole of London’.

The Goldsmiths ethos of openness and accessibility enticed Hoggart to southeast London, which was close to his vision of why education mattered. Hoggart, a working-class scholarship boy himself from Hunslet, Yorkshire, had cut his teeth as an extra-mural teacher in Hull. The combination of degree courses and open access evening classes offered at Goldsmiths was particularly appealing to him. During the day, the college was home to 18–21-year-old students that came from all over Britain, but at night thousands of local students attended adult education classes here. This part of London also provided a home for post-war colonial citizen migrants largely from Jamaica and the small Caribbean islands of St Lucia, Barbados and St Kitts. The same year that I moved to New Cross, over a dozen young black Londoners died in a racist arson attack during a house party.

I think the sense and feel of the place at that time is best captured by Hoggart when he writes:

Goodwill breathed from the bricks of the building . . . all the intense vitality you felt the moment you crossed the threshold in the crowd, saw the tattered linoleum, smelled cheap but largely unattractive food and heard the gabble – all this made Goldsmiths’ a place people either loved or hated . . . If they disliked it they tried to leave soon. If they loved it, if it felt immediately right, they stayed and worked far beyond the call of duty.

I stayed. Today Goldsmiths and its ‘district’ is in some ways a very different place. The ‘congenitally shabby’ main building that Hoggart describes so aptly has been renovated and renamed in his honour. New migrants from West Africa have settled in this part of London along with others from Latin America, transforming its sounds, tastes and smells. The first signs of gentrification have also started to show – unthinkable thirty years ago – as coffee shops, hipster bars and even organic food delis sprout in the midst of the areas’ urban ruins. Suited and booted property sharks appear in online promotional videos extolling ‘unrivalled investment opportunities’ in Deptford as urban grit is transformed into lucrative arty glamour.

The fact that many of the porters and cleaners who work at Goldsmiths can no longer afford to live close to the college is a sign of the times. London’s property boom has priced them out and many commute long distances to work from Medway and the hinterlands of Kent or Croydon and the outer rings of the southeast London suburbs where rents are cheaper and property more affordable.

Goldsmiths has attracted much larger numbers of international students, particularly at postgraduate level, and their presence brings a different texture to student life. The academic fortunes of Goldsmiths have burgeoned and the shabby college in a part of London that time forgot has become a ‘cool brand’. Through all of these changes, as I hope you will see, something of the mystique of the place – its anarchic, uncontainable and congenial vitality – has persisted.

My intention here is not merely offer a personal or local story and I hope there is something in these pages that resonates with the experience of other people in higher education both nationally and internationally. While it is a single voice, I want it to be read as a kind of compendium of the things that I have found useful and shared very often through the experience of others.

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