After starting a small backroom operation four decades ago, Arif Ali has built up one of Britain’s publishing success stories
When Arif Ali arrived Victoria Station in September 1957, he only had a penny in his pocket, having travelled to Britain from Guyana via the Canary Islands, Spain, Italy and France. It was a typically adventurous passage for someone who would go on to head the largest black publishing company in Europe after being almost ruined by his first print venture.
In November Hansib Publications is celebrating its 40th anniversary, having brought out more than 200 books in addition to Westindian Digest and Caribbean Times, two pivotal black publications of the 1970s and ‘80s. Ali himself is a larger than life figure who has been at the forefront of numerous community campaigns and used his publications to further the cause of social and racial justice.
Born in Danielstown on the Essequibo coast the descendant of Indian indentured labourers, he came to Britain with the intention of studying economics but ended up in various menial jobs, including a spell as a porter in a hospital mortuary and a bus driver.
Although like many of his peers he had been politicised by Guyana’s radical independence movement, an incident on the busses that landed him in hospital would have a profound effect on him. ‘One day someone punched me… and called me a black bastard. My conductor said, “But Rif you are not black”, and the idea then came to me that what people describe you as, is [what you are].’ Aware more than ever of the racism of British society, he endeavoured to ‘get on’, rather than ‘get even’ with those who despised him.
A voracious reader and auto-diktat, he eventually got better paid work and by 1966 had saved enough money to buy a grocer’s store in Hornsey, north London. As one of the few shops selling West Indian foods, customers would come from all over London to stock up and it soon became a meeting place where people could socialise and discuss politics.
These were hard times and Ali ran a Caribbean-style money club – in Guyana known as a “box hand” – to enable customers to save their cash. ‘People who were part of the culture gravitated to the shop,’ he says.
His interest in the print media began in his Tottenham Lane grocery: ‘In those days we would bring in newspapers from the Caribbean – from Guyana, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. The newspapers served to connect West Indians in the diaspora with their respective home territories.’
Using an old fashioned Gestetner manual printing machine, he launched into his first publishing venture, The West Indian, which contained reproduced newspaper articles. ‘We sold it for “tuppence” and frankly we couldn’t print enough. It was a primitive effort but people wanted news from the Caribbean and we gave it to them as best we could.’
Ali, by now married with five children, had been bitten by the publishing bug. In 1970 he sold his thriving business and set up Hansib – named after his parents Haniff and Sibby. Its first title, a monthly magazine called Westindian Digest, was launched shortly afterwards with the stated aim of improving community relations.
‘Apart from its significance to a growing Caribbean community in London it was a labour of love for me personally,’ he recalls. ‘I had served as journalist and editor and had helped with the paste up, typesetting and the trimming of the magazine. I couldn’t stop looking at it even though some of our advertisers didn’t think much of the effort.’ Despite a poor reception, Ali ploughed on – losing £6,000 in as many months. ‘I couldn’t pay my electricity bill and my power was cut off. Actually, my first efforts as a publisher ruined me financially.’
Not one to be easily discouraged, Ali picked up the pieces and in 1973 bought the struggling West Indian World newspaper. In the same year, he launched Hansib’s first book, the Who’s Who’s of the black community, West Indians in Britain. Meanwhile, after its initial difficulties, Westindian Digest was turning into a success story, a familiar feature of community get-togethers where it would be sold by enthusiastic volunteers. An organiser of one event at Hornsey Town Hall
complained that too many people were reading the magazine instead of dancing.
In 1981 the company, now based in Hertfordshire, launched Caribbean Times and later its sister papers, Asian Times and African Times. They all became noted for their forthright views on all manner of issues, rather like its publisher. For example, ‘Traitors’ formed the front page banner headline in the November 4 1983 edition of Caribbean Times, referring to those Caribbean countries who had supported the US invasion of Grenada. Root, a glossy style magazine aimed at the ‘buppie’ market, was to also join the Hansib stable.
In 1997 Hansib devoted itself entirely to book publishing, bringing out several editions of Third World Impact and Ethnic Business Directory as well as scores of titles covering biography, history, polemic and culture. Without Hansib it is safe to say that many would not have seen the light of day in Britain’s market-driven publishing industry. The company’s ethos, Ali says, is driven by the need to ‘record’ as well as ‘advance’ the minority contribution to life in Britain.
A Hansib specialty has been a series of opulent coffee table books called “The Nations”, whose titles cover Guyana, Dominica, India and the latest, Jamaica, Jamaica: Absolutely, which was launched in May.
An energetic presence on numerous community campaigns over the decades, Arif Ali played a key role in the push to get the first black MPs elected to Parliament in 1987, including his compatriot Bernie Grant. Ten years later, he was awarded the ‘European Year Against Racism Champion (Individual) Gold Standard Award’. That same year he was also appointed a member of the Caribbean Advisory Group to advise the UK government on issues concerning Britain’s Caribbean communities and those relating to the Caribbean region as a whole.
Now in his 70s, he shows no sign of taking it easy, frequently crossing continents on behalf of Hansib and lighting up gatherings with his trade mark wit and geniality. Next month will see him proudly rise to podium at a lavish gala dinner and dance in London to celebrate Hansib’s 40 years in business. ‘It has been a truly amazing journey,’ he says smiling.
Black History 365/autumn 2010/www.black-history-month.co.uk