History: Newington Green’s West Indian World was first national black newspaper in UK
- Credit: Archant
A star photographer reflects on his expectations of England, industrial action, and how he flourished while working at the UK’s first national black newspaper in Newington Green.
Neil Kenlock, 68, snapped the British Black Panthers, co-founded Choice FM and is now curating his collection, Expectations: The Untold Story of Black Community Leaders in the 1960s and 1970s, at Islington’s Central Library, in Fieldway Crescent.
But his career took off at the West Indian World newspaper, in Matthias Road, which has since gone out of print.
“I couldn’t get a job then,” said Neil. “For instance I was attached [interning] with PA to get to know how a photographer works.
“But I noticed when they were going to Buckingham Palace or Downing Street they kept saying ‘sorry you can’t come today’.”
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Neil knew he had to go elsewhere if he was to challenge himself and make it as a top photographer.
That’s how he got involved with The West Indian World Newspaper, which was edited by Russell Pierre and owned by Arif Ali.
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“It was the UK’s first real black newspaper and it was a big decision for me,” he said.
“Basically I saw the images in their paper and I thought ‘I can do better than that’.
“Obviously there weren’t paying me at first because they didn’t have any money – that was really shocking for me.
“When I arrived Jim Bailey was a gentleman who wanted to open things up to the black community.
“Another reason I couldn’t be paid was I wasn’t a member of the union, and Jim said if the workers found out they would strike.”
But Jim eventually arranged for him to be discretely paid, cash-in-hand, once a week.
“I was sent to the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s conference to photograph the heads of state.
“For a working class guy from Brixton to go there and see all those magnificent people was very special.
“I was standing in the centre of the room and all the world leaders were standing around me.
“I was shaking. It was a really incredible experience for me.”
Neil said the West Indian World’s office was a special place but has since “been knocked down to build posh apartments”.
Asked why the paper folded, he said it was losing revenue, even before the internet.
“I don’t think they were getting enough sales,” he said. “Because our community was not that strong to support a publication like that.
“Unfortunately it was a minority publication and there was not enough numbers at the time to keep it up.
“It was difficult in those days but through working there [at the paper] I was exposed to a lot of important people and that opened doors for me.”
His current exhibition, which overlaps with Black History month, is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
He said: “It’s for the people, maybe they came here on Windrush, maybe they came here by themselves – it’s about what their expectations would have been like.
“I had great expectations myself because I came here from Jamaica when I was 12 years old.”
Neil arrived in England before his siblings, expecting a “big house with a cricket court.”
He added: “So when I arrived and saw this little terrace thing it was shocking.
“And, of course, it was cold, so we had one little lamp which we moved around the rooms.”
Neil hopes his collection, which celebrates the black British community and its leaders, will inspire Islington’s young people.
“The one thing they need to do is know themselves,” he said.
“I was blessed because if someone said ‘follow me down that road and let’s do this’, I was say ‘nah’.”
He added: “Do positive things, follow yourself and stay away from trouble.”
“I was always in Islington using my camera to tell the story,”
He reminisced about snapping Islington mayors, MPs and hunkering down outside Highbury Corner Magistrates’ Court.
The conversation turned to race relations in London and beyond.
“I think there has been some progress but we as a community are still not getting our fair share of what we should be getting.
“The black community is at the back of the housing crisis que.
“When people have ownership they become a loyal capitalist, when this doesn’t happen they have no interest in society.”