Professor Les Back has been at Goldsmiths, University of London for over 20 years, and his research has investigated everything from racism and anti-racism in football to the sociology of water.
He has recently become Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research, replacing Professor Caroline Knowles in the position.
I spoke to him about his upcoming research, plans for the Centre, and the 'urban regeneration' of his native South East London.
Chris Smith: What is the Centre for Urban and Community Research?
Les Back: CUCR was set up in 1994 by Nikolas Rose who was Professor of Sociology at the time. We are based in Sociology but open to inter-disciplinary collaborations. For more than 20 years we have worked on a diverse range of topics from critical evaluations of urban regeneration to social life in bowling alleys. We research and write about relevant contemporary issues, for example Michaela Benson’s project on the impact of Brexit on Britons living abroad. Also, the research extends the formats that social research can take from podcasting to photography and filmmaking.
CS: As its new Director, what are your plans for the Centre?
LB: I want to develop new collaborations and link up with research across Goldsmiths and develop new ideas for research, carrying on the great work done by the previous Director Professor Caroline Knowles. I also want to try and do something interesting with our home in Laurie Grove Baths and make it a real hub for activities, meeting and ideas. We have a small space where we exhibit artworks that are linked to urban life that include Tim Cousins’ paintings of the Eltham bus stop where Stephen Lawrence was murdered, and also one of David Howe’s Manhattan street corner portraits.
The other thing that I want to foster and cherish is the network of local links that have been developed at CUCR over the past two decades. That is something that is very distinctive about Goldsmiths. No other urban studies centre that I know of is embedding in its locality in quite the same way. The fact that we are part of South East London is really important because it shapes the ethos of what we do and the ‘down to earth’ lack of pretentiousness that I recognise in many of my colleagues.
CS: The emotive issue of 'urban regeneration' is one that continues to effect areas local to Goldsmiths like Deptford and New Cross. What is your take on the so-called 'gentrification' of South East London?
LB: I feel very strongly about this because Lewisham is my home. I moved to Deptford in the autumn of 1981 and in many ways have watched the transformation of London from a port city and industrial economy to a neoliberal one based on information, finance and the industries of culture. London is the ground zero of neoliberal economics and urban policy. There was no Canary Wharf when I was growing up, no Gherkin, no Cheese Grater. London’s skyline looked very, very different and many local streets bore the wreckage of Luftwaffe bombs.
The changes of the last 35 years have carved deep wounds in the life of our city – huge discrepancies in wealth, housing crises and a situation where for many it hard to imagine a future here. I think we need to do much more work to develop a precise social diagnosis of what is happening. London seems to becoming more like French and European cities where the poor are shipped out to the suburbs at the edges of the city. Much of the work I admire in urban studies is both interpreting those changes and speaking out against their social consequences.
CS: What is your next research focus?
LB: This summer I was involved with the Urban Water Cultures project at CUCR and we had a great event in Laurie Grove Baths on how thinking with water sociologically – everything from hygiene to washing to swimming - makes you understand city life differently. Also, I have just finished a new book called Migrant City with my friend Shamser Sinha. The book is the story of contemporary London through 30 adult migrant lives. We worked alongside the participants for ten years and I have learned so much from working with people rather than doing research on them. The book will be published next year.
I have also got involved in a project with one of my musical heroes Mykaell Riley - of Steel Pulse fame – called Bass Culture, which is an oral history of reggae music in Britain. We’ll be hosting a big conference at Goldsmiths in May next year.
CS: Outside of your research and running the Centre, what is next on your agenda?
LB: One of the wonderful things about CUCR is that artists, photographers and filmmakers work alongside social researchers and ethnographers. Sometimes they are same people too, which is very inspiring. We have a screening of Emma Jackson and Andy Lee’s extraordinary film Bowling Together coming up soon. This is based on a study of urban change and multicultural life in a bowling alley in Finsbury Park. The film is part of Emma’s research project on city life and the event around the screening will include visiting speakers.
Then from 12th November we have a festival of urban photography called Urban Photofest 2017. This includes an incredible series of events across London. My friend and colleague Paul Halliday and I will be doing a walk to commemorate the life and work of photographer Peter Marlow who documented the Battle of Lewisham on 13th August, 1977 when the National Front march was opposed by thousands of people on the streets of New Cross. So, it’s an exciting time.