Earlier this year a small crowd of people gathered outside a church hall in Islington to witness the unveiling of a plaque commemorating an institution that for two decades blazed a trail of glory in the local community and beyond.
But conspicuous in her absence was the Keskidee’s Centre’s only surviving founding member, Norma Ashe-Watt, who expressed a rare note of discord amidst the fanfare. While press reports hailed it as Britain’s first black arts and cultural centre that helped forge the careers of a new generation of artists like Yvonne Brewster and the dub poet Lynton Kwesi Johnson, Norma insists this is only part of the story.
“Of course the Keskidee should be celebrated for its achievements,” she says, “but not at the expense of distorting the fact that first and foremost it was a community centre. The whole emphasis has been that it was a theatre – but nobody mentions the fact that this created the financial problems that led to the Keskidee’s downfall,” she adds referring to its shock closure in 1991.
Now a busy 80-year-old living in Petherton Rd, Islington, Norma explains how the Keskidee emerged out of the local branch of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination – one of Britain’s early anti-racist pressure groups – after members went in search of larger premises in 1971.
“We were getting involved in more and more activities but only had one room at our disposal in a private house in Barnsbury.”
They came across empty church premises tagged at the end of the only remaining terrace of houses amid the bleak sprawl of a housing estate behind Caledonian Road. A former Boys Brigade mission hall, the dilapidated Victorian building in Gifford St seemed pricey at £9,000. “But Oscar was keen to buy it and I asked him, ‘with what?’ We did not even have enough money for the £480 down payment.”
As luck would have it, a fellow activist lent them the deposit and in November 1971 the Keskidee Centre was born, named after a Caribbean bird. “The building was in a horrible condition and we had to work really hard to bring it back into use, while at the same time trying to raise money to run the place.”
Driving them on was their ambition to turn the Keskidee into a focal point of what one of its early documents describes as a “typical depressed inner city area of poor housing and few social or recreational facilities”. Of particular concern were local black youngsters who, alienated from the values of their migrant parents and shut out from participation in British society, were growing up wild on the streets.
The trustees, who later included Holloway chiropodist Carl Brewster, aimed to establish a wide range of activities for the whole community within a “West Indian cultural setting”, with an emphasis on education.
“We quickly became a hive of activity with a supplementary school, drama, art, football, dance and yoga classes plus trips out, all of them run by volunteer tutors,” recalls Norma, a former accountant who came to London from Trinidad in 1960. “We would stage plays and fund raising galas involving the local children. At one point we had them all round making costumes for carnival.”
Once rowdy teens began to settle down, especially the boys, remembers Norma proudly. “It was wonderful to witness – the Keskidee gave them a real sense of purpose.” Soon the centre began to attract the attention of the wider public. Islington council and other funding bodies stepped in with support and in 1974 a glowing feature appeared in the Evening Standard describing the Keskidee as a “children’s refuge”.
In 1978 Bob Marley used it as the setting for the video of his song Is this love? with a group of children, among them the future model Naomi Campbell, then aged seven, while the Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley was one of the many prominent visitors there.
Then in the late1980s came a shift in direction, with the decision to set up a professional theatre. Soon well healed theatre-goers were negotiating their way through the blocks of flats to watch plays by the likes of Mustapha Matura and Derek Walcott. Tours to New York, Europe and even New Zealand followed as the Keskidee’s star rose, both as a nursery of artistic talent and a cultural hotspot.
But the centre’s modest funding was becoming overstretched and the young people who regarded it as their space felt left out. “They said that the ‘arties’, as they called them, had taken over and they became disruptive. This was not what I signed up for and I handed in my resignation as a trustee.”
Debts mounted and in 1991, with creditors banging on its doors, the Keskidee was forced to close. “It was a huge blow for us all, especially Oscar who had worked tirelessly to keep the place going. But we had been over ambitious. “Leafing through old papers and photographs, Norma adds, “My sadness about what happened went long ago. I remember the times when everyone did and everyone gave – and I loved it.”
Published: 18 August, 2011
The Keskidee in the 1970s