The Whitley Pump

The view from Katesgrove Hill

Katesgrove councillor Sophia James talks about the future of the Central Club and the Black History Mural

The Black History Mural was ‘livicated‘ in 1990 and concern has been expressed about its future following Reading Borough Council’s (RBC) decision in July to put the Central Club building on the open market for bids.

Most recently, leader of the council Jo Lovelock said in an RBC press release statement:

Importantly, the council… expects any offers received in the next round to include proposals to secure the future of the mural.

At the beginning of August, Katesgrove councillor Sophia James (pictured above) and Glenn Dennis (deputy mayor) posted a blog on the Reading Labour Party website called ‘Spiritual Home for the Black Community‘.

[Whitley Pump] : Why did the post not come from the Labour leadership of the council and did you feel happy with being the voice of Reading Labour party and Reading council?
[Sophia James]: I actually wanted to do the blog when that initial meeting had happened in here [at RISC]; there were some issues that I felt I had to address as a black person and as a black councillor so I wrote the blog.

Do you think that you have the confidence of the Afro-Caribbean community in Reading?
I think it’s always problematic to talk about a community as a homogenous group. I think it’s a difficult issue, a very emotive issue. Certainly with lots of people I will have their confidence, for example I was part of the carnival committee. I have also spoken on racial issues before when Reading University Agricultural Society students blacked up in town. Does that mean that people will agree with me on every issue? Probably not.

As part of your role as a councillor, do you see yourself as somebody who can articulate the problems of the Afro-Caribbean community?
I think being a councillor gives you the opportunity, and sometimes the platform, to be able to articulate issues, and I’m a black woman so, yes. The problems that people in the community have dealt with are the same problems that I have dealt with. I’ve been shouted at in the street, I’ve had issues with job prospects, I’ve had certain expectations of me as a result, so absolutely.

Do people come to you from across Reading, not just Katesgrove with those issues?
There are a couple of instances where that’s happened. I still have more work to do to get out to meet more members of the black community and I really want to do that. Carnival was one of the ways I got the opportunity to meet a lot more people than I had done in the past. Even when things are hard… it’s still worthwhile me being there.

Tell me something about the Reading Carnival which took place for the first time in many years this summer.
I worked with the Reading Caribbean Cultural Group (RCCG), and I’m a member of it. They’re a group of people that spun out of previous efforts [to put on the carnival], largely a group of women and I’m a member of it. We met on a Friday night at ACRE (Alliance for Cohesion and Racial Equality). They secured Lottery funding of £10,000 and every Friday we worked for 5 months. I did a lot of the steward work and the event management plan submitted to the council. It was a wonderful thing to see on the day because it hadn’t happened properly for quite a few years, so [it was] very emotional stewarding the march and watching people line the streets for it.

Do you see the mural as important to Katesgrove?
I like where it is… in a nice cultural area with RISC, South Street, the Rising Sun and the MAPP centre. How it’s secured and managed is something which requires a bit more thought and information. I wouldn’t be arguing or advocating for it to be put in an obscure part of town.

How easy is it to get potential developers, the planning department and groups who have an interest in the building together to come up with something suitable, and could you broker that?
The planning team are always on hand. Developers and groups with an interest in the building, particularly bidders, might be difficult to get in a room together because they are in competition with one another.

People will have to be innovative to get this building back into use. I’m sure there’s a way to do it but it will take a little bit of thinking outside the box.

Do you know anything about why the building is now in the desperate state it is?
I’m going to assume… that there was always the intention that something was going to happen. Even before I was here [living in Reading] there were efforts made by various groups to try to procure the building. I’m sure everybody was thinking “next year we’ll get this sorted”.

Do you think there is any way that this can stopped from becoming a racial issue and dividing the community?
I think racism is always present. I often joke that people of colour are never that surprised by racism. It’s always a feature of our lives, so I’m not that surprised by it. I have had to take issue with racism on the bus and racism as I’ve been walking home from a bar. It doesn’t happen here as much as some places I’ve lived but it does happen. In terms of this particular issue and racism. I think its very emotive; there are lots of interacting things in play. I think sometimes with this whole process certain people have tried to whip up tensions and I don’t think that’s a good thing. Racism is something that will affect every person of colour at some point and it is quite irresponsible to stir that up.

People will say that institutions like the police and the council haven’t always done their best for the black community, and that is probably true. It doesn’t mean that there is anything negative going on now.

We need to do something with the building… There’s no intention to take it away from the black community or make sure the black community doesn’t have a home.

Do you think a home or cultural centre of some sort is required, and ideally where should that be?
People want a home but there has to be some discussion about what that looks like and what services that provides.

The home could be somewhere where we could play dominoes on the weekend or it could be somewhere where people could get health checks for diabetes and sickle cell, or where a part time youth worker could be funded… It could just be a cultural centre. It’s not clear what everybody wants. What we haven’t done as a black community is give ourselves the time and the space to actually think about what we want and how we might get it.

Is that something you see yourself leading on?
I would love to help facilitate it. If there was anyway I could get involved and offer a space or offer a listening ear or call people who might be able to help in a room I would do that. It would be a pleasure to do that… I think anger stops you thinking about things properly. People do need to calm down a bit.

It’s all very well having a protest, and that’s people’s right to do, but you can always have a conversation first as well and I’m not sure that’s happened in many cases, and I think that’s a shame.

Do you think the council as a whole would like that sort of dialogue and if an individual councillor didn’t take the lead, where would it come from?
It’s going to span across quite a few areas culture, neighbourhoods, planning, licensing… but I’m sure you could get the right councillors and officers in the room. I don’t think that’s too difficult to arrange at all.

Who would kick off the process so that there is a productive rather than a negative outcome?
The easiest thing; book a room and host a meeting. My worry with that is I wouldn’t want the meeting to become very angsty so it would need some serious facilitation… When I was in that room before I was not really getting the chance to speak… I was given a minute and shouted over after 15-20 seconds.

There’s lots of misinformation now. People will say the council want to destroy the mural and use real emotive language. No one has ever said that.

Mill Lane mural livication

  1. Reading Borough Council policy committee 17 July 2017 papers and webcast
  2. Voluntary Sector Can Still Bid for Central Club Building
  3. Spiritual Home for the Black Community – Reading & District Labour Party
  4. University of Reading Students’ night out was “racism, xenophobia and religious hatred” says councillor
  5. Reading Caribbean groups ‘demand their birthright’ with the Central Club
  6. Reading Caribbean Cultural Group – Facebook
  7. Alliance for Cohesion and Racial Equality (ACRE)
  8. The MAP Partnership – Facebook

1 comment

  1. It’s a shame that Cllr James is so vague in her answers here.

    The mural is an absolutely beautiful and arresting work of art.

    Unfortunately it is attached to a derelict building that has no value to a developer unless demolished.

    What needs to be discussed – in public – is what “saving the mural” actually means. Because this mural *will* have to come down. Either carefully, in pieces, for preservation while the Central Club is demolished and something built in its place. Or it will come down under attack from the weather, the vibrations of the traffic, and so forth.

    Worst of all would be if a commercial developer, with no interest in the building’s heritage or the mural’s significance, bought the land, and then – mysteriously – a fire destroyed the building.

    To avoid those outcomes, the community in Reading must come together and form a coherent plan to save the mural by preserving it and/or relocating it. Personally I think it should stay where it is, where thousands see it as they sit in the choking traffic on the IDR. But there are equally busy places where it might attract high passing footfall.

    But nothing this constructive will happen for as long as the mysterious Aspire CIC keep the source and nature of their “ten million pounds” claim secret. And I don’t think it helps that Cllr James appears to avoid taking a strong position on accepting the challenging realities surrounding this mural.

    It is absurd to insist that the mural be “saved” while the building to which it is fixed rots and eventually collapses or burns down. If you cannot save the building, you cannot save the mural. So the mural must be relocated or remade but it must – for the sake of its future – be removed as soon as possible.

    I hope the mural will be there for decades to come. With things as they are the moment, I doubt it will last to the end of this decade.

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