Aftermaths and futures: still dreaming to change the world

The 1980s were a boom period for New Beacon. They published important books by significant authors, including Roxy Harris, Lorna Goodison, Erna Brodber, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. During this period, John La Rose was closely involved with the New Cross Massacre Action Committee, the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, and the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya. As a result he was increasingly distant from the day-to-day running of New Beacon Books, which continued to depend on the commitment of its staff, Sarah White, Michael La Rose and Janice Durham, and a circle of friends and volunteers (7.11.78, JLR to AS, LRA/01/0698/1 Pt2). 
The 1st International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, 1982. Photograph copyright Julian Stapleton (Archive Ref: GB 2904 BFC/15/02/01)New Beacon’s publishing work has diminished in the 1990s and 2000s, and now faces an uncertain future. The physical space of the bookshop continues to inspire those who visit it, yet Sarah White notes judiciously:

John said […] in a letter to Kamau about the ending of CAM – that organisations flourish, flower, they belong to a certain time, and then they die, and to be quite honest I think we have to begin to think about, you know, how does one come to, as it were, a successful ending, probably.
 
The thriving work of the George Padmore Institute will certainly be part of such a transition. The work of New Beacon’s sister organisation has gone from strength to strength since its launch in 1992. This archive, education and resource centre was first envisaged as the John Jacob Thomas Institute by John La Rose over forty years ago. As he described the project in a letter to Brathwaite:
 
I want to set up a John Jacob Thomas Institute of Afro American Studies, which will function around a complete collection of Caribbeana, as well as the Afro Americana which we will be collecting. As you already know my Afro Americana will not be confined to the United States, but will include the whole of the American continent. All this has to do with my ideas concerning the demystification of the word in publishing, the pursuit of the creative principle within mass conceptions which are so dominant, and demand uniformity all the time, and also the idea of not accepting inhibiting traditions, but being constantly inventive and novel. (24.2.69 JLR to EKB, LRA/01/0143/4)
 
A planning meeting was held in May 1970, to which Andrew Salkey, Ewart Thomas, Waveney Bushell, Ralston Nelson, Susan Craig and Stuart Hall were invited (JLR to SC, 14.4.70, LRA/01/0242/2). Built on the same ethos of independence and located above the New Beacon bookshop in north London, the Institute maintains a dedicated space for meetings, book launches, and for studying the many branches of black radical activism. 
 
Though family-run firms once formed the core of British publishing, the industry has become increasingly corporate in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and is now dominated by a handful of international companies who have bought-out smaller publishers and are able to cater to the global marketplace (Thompson, 2010). The merger of Penguin and Random House in 2013, for example, has left them in control of 25% of the world’s book market. Many independent publishers and bookshops face uncertain futures. Unable to compete on traditional terms, they must find new strategies for attracting authors and marketing their books. This project does not extend to the thorough research that remains to be done on the radical black publishing space from the 1980s to the present day (Squires, 2012). That work would analyse the impact of the corporatisation of publishing and the digital revolution on radical black publishers and the status of politicised art in a global literary marketplace. In turn it would assess and explore the current need for independent publishing spaces. Building on the work of the GAP programme and Independent Black Publishers, which campaigned for adequate representation of BME groups in publishing in the 1980s and 1990s, such research might map the sociology of the publishing industry. It could explore the extent to which the acclaimed “bibliodiversity” of the English-language book market (excluding its paltry proportion of translated books) is supported by an adequately diverse pool of editors and thereby develop a qualitative response to “In Full Colour”, the first survey on Cultural Diversity in Publishing, carried out by the Arts Council and The Bookseller in 2004.
 
The archived correspondence at the GPI, much of which is handwritten on thin blue airmail paper, tracks the development of ideas between La Rose, White and their many interlocutors across America, Europe, and Africa. The letters frame an intricate network of personal and professional relationships. With this network in mind, the question must be raised of what it means for New Beacon, as for Bogle-L’Ouverture, to encourage work in its archive. Who is that archive for? When, why, and how will its contents be used? How does the archival urge to record the past work forward towards a productive idea of continuity as advocated by La Rose? What does it mean to “dream to change the world” in 2013, as opposed to 1967, or 1951, when Martin Carter first wrote that line in his stirring poem “Looking at your hands”? The work of New Beacon, and other radical black publishers, was motivated not by the commodification of art or of cultural difference but by a powerful sense of political and social purpose. The role played by these “publishing maisonettes” was shaped by constant communication and contact with individuals and institutions in the Caribbean throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. New Beacon’s publishing work can be seen both as a continuity of Trinidadian intellectual tradition, and as the expression and catalyst of a key period in the history of radical black politics in Britain. 
 
This brief history re-affirms that creative ideas expressed in writing are always mediated by institutional contexts and the political, cultural, social and economic structures which surround them. The contingent question of change leads us to ask now what can be learnt from the work of New Beacon at a time where traditional publishing is undergoing such rapid transformation. Might the digital platform offer the autonomy and freedom they have advocated for so long? How are the human relationships at the core of New Beacon’s work transformed in this new setting? How to define and achieve freedom of written expression is a more relevant question than ever in the age of digital print. Understanding the relationship between writing, reading, and political activism remains vital on both a local and global scale. 
 
© Ruth Bush, 2013