Probably the biggest [publication] was Working Lives, you know, we had Working Lives Volume One and Working Lives Volume Two. And actually if you look at some of the accounts now, I mean I remember one, there’s one with the lightermen, I still remember him talking about rowing barges on the River Thames. It’s just like, what? How on earth could you row a barge on the River Thames? You know. And a lot of those jobs, and the things people have done, you know, they no longer exist, you know, and I do think it’s important that you have a record of that, and that it’s not forgotten. Because actually it does make what we have around us now, it’s really important. And, you know, Working Lives Volume Two was very important for me, because I coordinated that, and it was a big project, you know, it was five photographers, 110 pictures, big book, lots of recordings. And in fact there was a moment when we got the book back when I had a heart attack pretty much, because, one of the accounts is by a mortuary technician, and we had agreement to take the pictures of him at work on the basis that nobody was recognisable, you know, no dead people, you couldn’t see the faces of dead people. And we had cropped the pictures, and the way you would crop them then was, you’d put tracing paper on the print and you would mark it up. Anyway, the 5,000 copies came back, and we were going through it, and there was this face staring at us from the slab. We thought, shit. So we desperately looked to find the mark-up we did, and the mark-up was accurate; the printers had made a mistake. I mean I have to say at that point... Because it would have been disastrous, because we couldn’t possible afford to reprint it. So what they did is, they inserted, they cut out the page by hand and inserted reprints, 5,000 of them.
Neil Martinson grew up in a working class, Jewish family in Stoke Newington and was a teenager when Centerprise opened in 1971. His father was a cabinet maker and his mother worked in a shop. He went to Hackney Downs grammar school, and by the time he was 14 or so some of his teachers there were introducing him to radical ideas: ‘probably they’d be struck off now’. Ken Worpole, later the first Centerprise publishing worker, taught him English and introduced him to jazz, and Margaret Gosley, Centerprise co-founder was the school librarian and talked politics with him in the library.
Neil describes the Hackney of his youth as a ‘cultural desert’, and says that Centerprise helped him ‘open up different ways of thinking’. With a group of friends and support from Centerprise he produced a magazine, Hackney Miscarriage. A photographer, he co-founded the ‘Hackney Flashers’ with Jo Spence and his photographs are featured in many of the Centerprise publications, including Working Lives: Volume Two, an ‘extraordinarily ambitious’ collection of accounts of contemporary working life in Hackney. Neil also designed many of the Centerprise books.
As a schoolboy he worked at Centerprise in the café, and later he joined his old teacher Ken Worpole at the publishing project, working there full time from 1976-1979. He found working as part of the collective with older, more experienced people ‘a fantastic learning experience’.
Neil says that Centerprise created a ‘physical space where different aspects of politics could come together, not necessarily in a planned way’. He explains the enthusiasm and work ethic that drove Centerprise workers and describes the process and the effort that went into creating the publications, especially the Working Lives series. He highly values the capturing of Hackney history in these publications and admires the local working class people (including his own father) who participated in them.
Neil says that Centerprise was his ‘university’. He is still a photographer and works in communications.
Interviewed by Farhana Ghaffar