Where working-class kids are on the shelf

24th November 1995 at 00:00
Colleges which have started up their own cottage industries in publishing have given a voice to students and local people who never dreamed of seeing their work in print. Anat Arkin reports.

Alongside the usual assortment of blockbusters and royal biographies, WH Smith's Woolwich branch in south London displays an account of a working-class childhood between the wars and a collection of stories about life on a local estate.

The reminiscences of Iris Bryce, who wrote Remember Greenwich, and of the 15 residents of the Ferrier Estate who contributed to Voices of Ferrier, may not have interested a big commercial publisher. But they found a ready outlet in Greenwich Community College Press.

The college set up this publishing venture last year to provide a platform for students and other local people who want to write about local issues.

"We call ourselves a community college and I was concerned that what we had to offer should be linked into the community life of the borough," says college principal Terry Powley. "We wanted to give an outlet for students' writing and we wanted to celebrate Greenwich."

This is not to say that the college press will accept any manuscript that comes along. A concern for quality is evident in the fluent and carefully-edited writing and in the professional layout and design - especially of Remember Greenwich and Voices of Ferrier, the most ambitious of the five books the press has published in the first two years of its existence.

Iris Bryce's memoir was joint overall winner of the 1994 National Life Story Awards, and with around 600 copies of the book sold so far, the press is beginning to cover its costs.

But all the staff time that goes into editing and production work means that the press is unlikely to become a money-spinner. It is, however, helping to raise the profile of this local education authority college, which opened in 1992 and offers both vocational and recreational courses.

While a growing number of colleges have begun publishing learning materials, textbooks and research papers since leaving local authority control, the Greenwich Community College Press is part of a much older adult education tradition of publishing students' work.

The current state of mainstream publishing has made this activity more important than ever, according to Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

"The end of the Net Book Agreement is going to lead to high street book sales on smaller and smaller numbers of popular authors," he said. "So, finding ways of releasing the voices of people who are not represented there, is tremendously important to cultural health and diversity."

Some of those contributing to this cultural diversity are former adult learners who, after attending basic education or creative writing courses and contributing to class publications, have gone on to form their own community publishing groups.

One of the oldest of these is Gatehouse Books in Manchester, which has been producing books by and for adult learners since 1977. Funded by Manchester City Council, North West Arts and its own book sales, Gatehouse publishes just two or three books a year, involving the writers themselves in the process of turning a handwritten text into a finished book.

"It gives an incredible boost to their self-confidence. You can see that at book launches when very shy people will read their writing out in front of quite a large crowd," says Gatehouse worker Tom Woodin, who currently chairs the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, a support network for around 50 writing and publishing groups in Britain and abroad.

Most community publishers just about manage to break even and have to make do with very limited desktop publishing equipment. But in Merseyside, which probably has the highest concentration of writers' workshops and community publishers across the country, groups like the Prescot and Whiston Writers are able to use the facilities of the City of Liverpool Community College.

The college offers an access to print course, where tutors take individuals or members of publishing groups through the production process from generating text on computers to printing.

Another community publisher which gives writers control of the whole production process is Pecket Well College. This unusual institution started life after a group of adult basic education students from Halifax took part in a writing development week at Nottingham University. They came back "transformed" by the experience and determined to give others similar opportunities, says Gillian Frost, who gave up her job as education organiser in Halifax to help the group set up a residential college.

It took seven years of fund-raising and running pilot courses before the college opened in a converted Co-op shop in the Pennine village of Pecket Well in 1992. Pecket Well also publishes the work of students, many of whom have reading and writing difficulties.

They include Peter Goode, a founder member of the college. His collection of poetry and prose, The Moon on the Window, has found a wide national and even international readership.

The benefits of community publishing are not confined to the individuals who see their work in print - important as that is for their self-esteem. Gillian Frost says: "They have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share. It's history and it would get lost if they were not given a voice."

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