The Importance of Making Space: In Conversation with Emma Warren


For as long as we've walked this planet, we've gathered in places and spaces with people with whom we share common values with. These spaces have helped birth communities, provided us with opportunities to collaborate and to learn, and perhaps most importantly, they have given us a sense of belonging. 

Total Refreshment Centre, a multi-use building just off the Kingsland Road in east London was a complete embodiment of these qualities. Originally a chocolate factory turned Caribbean social club, it became the breeding ground for the new London jazz scene, a space for collaboration and community, kept afloat by the family of passionate people who surrounded it.  

Earlier this year journalist and radio presenter Emma Warren decided to document the venue, a space that had been incredibly important for her and for many others, and what she found was a rich multi-layered history that was impossible to ignore. Originally intended to be a pamphlet, 'Making Some Space: Tuning Into Total Refreshment Centre' soon snowballed into a book and now an audio book, which also features music from musicians, namely Lunch Money, Chestnutt of Snapped Ankles and Angel Bat Dawid, who all had close relationships with the space we know as TRC.

Ahead of the launch of her audio book on 5th September, Emma talks to us about the importance of having these spaces available to us, the opportunities for community and collaboration that they provide and how she is encouraging people across the UK to share their own cultural stories to advocate for the communities that they are part of.

Rather than just recount the stories in the book which I’m sure people will read for themselves, I wanted to ask what were your spaces when you were growing up?

My Total Refreshment Centre? I think I had a few little tasters before I found my first proper one. Things like The Civic near Orpington station when I was growing up. It wasn’t really an underage disco, it was a Friday night high quality music thing you could go to in some weird Roman villa that I think was also run by the UK Judo Olympic champion, Brian Jacks. The thing about it was people would come from all different places, so it was my first experience of being in a kind of musical environment with lots of people I don’t know who came from different backgrounds to me. I noticed something about that, and I noticed liking it.

But the first time I got exactly the same feeling that I had when I first walked into TRC was when I went to Heaven in Charing Cross which in itself has a storied history. It was the first purpose built gay club in the UK, it used to be a roller disco, it's been used for lots of different things over time. It has got that quality of having a lot of layers to it. For me at the age of 16 years old, getting in and finding myself in that musical environment. Colin Faver and Trevor Fung were DJing, this is before Fabio and Grooverider moved from the upstairs bar to the downstairs bar. It was just amazing so I’d say my TRC is a little bit of The Civic on a Friday night and a lot of Heaven under the arches.

You also talked about Plastic People as well and how that gave you a similar feeling to TRC, can you expand on that? You said you were actively involved with the club, in what way?

I think Plastic People is the archetypal basement club because it had been built by people who understood how these places are at their best. So Ade who ran Plastic People understood what needed to be done and did it. The dance floor was made of chestnut or something; it was made from really good quality wood. The soundystem was famously brilliant but experiencing it you knew why it was famously brilliant because you felt it and it never hurt your ears, but you felt it the way you needed to feel it. So Plastic People had everything; a heavy back curtain that was drawn between the rooms; you could go any night of the week and it would be high quality music, and if you dug into one particular night, which for me was FWD>>, you could experience what it's like for culture to generate itself week by week. You would see someone DJing for the first time, like when someone would make that move from the Forum to behind the decks at Plastic People, people like Ben UFO or Ramadanman. You would see people who'd already been in that world but you'd also see new people joining the ranks and you'd hear the music evolve. You would hear a tune that became a really big tune, something like Benga and Coki's Night, and you would hear it become something much more than just a tune in the mix, and you would know, we would all know on the dance floor when that was happening.

Moving on to TRC, broadly speaking what was special about the space and the community it's created, that made you want to chart its history?

As I started to dig into the story of TRC – bear in mind I was initially only going to make a fanzine, it wasn't intended to be a book at all – I knew that I was going to have to go back in time because I knew that Mellow Mix had existed and I knew that I couldn't tell the story of TRC without Mellow Mix. TRC was obviously birthed from the work of the people of Mellow Mix, even if we're just talking about the fact that they built the bar and built some of the structures that TRC later used, let alone the quality of the foundations that they laid. 

I also knew that there was this idea that the building had once been used as a sugar factory and as soon as I knew that I knew that this takes you immediately to histories of colonialism and the trade in people, and so I also knew that I couldn't ignore that. So I just tried to find out, and it took my quite a long time to, but eventually I did find out what the building was used for and how it was originally used, and the name of the company that operated there. And because the name of the company is so shocking to us now it allowed me to broach some of these subjects that are still difficult for us to talk about. When you find out that the company who operated from the building you were so invested in was called the Black Boy Chocolate Company Limited it becomes impossible to look away. That was also useful for me from a story point of view as it meant that the reader couldn't look away and had to stay with me for a page and a half while I tried to explain why this is relevant and why we should look at it. 

Why do you think that TRC managed to thrive a lot longer than other spaces in London? 

One of the qualities which protected it was the people generated aspect of it. The fact that there were a whole heap of people, over and above the people whose supposed job it was, who were invested in making it work. So rather than there being employees per se, there would be people who loved it who would come along. That informal quality would have certainly helped in some way.

In terms of having these spaces, you talk about people needing these spaces where they belong, places where they feel accepted, where they can be their true selves, what other things do you think we miss out on by not having them?

I think we miss out on the kind of comedy of being involved in things. If we think of these things as a village green, a great big multi-layered village green, then in those environments that maybe our ancestors had in this country and elsewhere, you would have just got stuck into things. If something needed to be built, everybody would just get together and build it. You might be asked to be involved with certain tasks that were outside of the things you knew you were good at, so you might be asked to build a maypole, or a bar, or be asked to join a band of musicians who were providing some entertainment for people coming to the village green. Obviously I'm using this idea of the village green in a really general imaginative way, but it's places in which we would always always have gathered with people with whom we have something in common, and that might be with people who live in the same village or it might be that we identify in some shape or form, but people who have something in common have always found reasons to gather together on the village green, so to speak. I think in those situations you're asked to contribute and your enjoyment of it is partly based on the fact that you helped build it. So it's the idea of investing your time or your energy or your flair for colour, or your musicaility to a thing and you enjoy it more because you see the fruits of your labour.

Aside from TRC do you think that there are other venues and spaces within London that are providing these opportunities for community? 

Yes, on a very small scale I feel very hopeful about the resourceful and generous people who are making things happen despite the situation that we find ourselves in. I'm thinking of Matchstick Piehouse in Deptford. That's volunteer run, the people who've made it happen have made it viable even though it's completely unviable. And it continues to open even though it's unviable through sheer willpower and graft; so there's a huge amount of graft from a few key people and then an additional amount of graft from people who just get involved to do a shift beind the bar, or to help with setting up or breaking down. It opens because we are collectively insuring that it opens and stays open. There are places like that up and down the country. 

I also have huge admiration for the people that are managing to put on events in a peripatetic kind of way because there aren't really single places which provide them with longevity, where they can keep coming back and doing the same thing. On the ground I see a lot of resourcefulness and a lot of creativity and that will get us through this somewhat tricky phase that we're faced with.

What do you think our roles are in helping these places to stay afloat? How do you think we can advocate for existing spaces?

I think it's partly about explaining it because the culture I'm involved with and you're involved with isn't seen as being inherently valuable, and it's no surprise that the things that are seen as inherently valuable like ballet and opera evolved in the courts, they didn't evolve on the village green. The music we're involved with generally is citizen generated, it's community generated, it's people generated, so the systems which dictate what is valuable don't really recognise it, and they will see each iteration of it as separate as opposed to linked, so I think what we can do is treat this stuff as we would treat ballet and opera.

I remember thinking once when we're writing about jungle or garage or grime or dancehall, we should be treating this job with the same seriousness and commitment to the histories as we would if we were a ballet correspondent on The Times. That means knowing, that means doing your research, that means understanding where we come from, where the music comes from, and also where the limit of our knowledge is. For example I don't know about you but I didn't grow up in a household where dancehall or soca or garage was being played in my family, I grew up in a mock tudor semi-detached house in the suburbs of Bromley, yet I've found myself in this situation where I am often the person who is both making a job for myself to write about these things, but is also being given a job by official publications to write about these things, certainly in the past that was true, so I have to know what I don't know.

I'm thinking of a really good quote now from Theo Parrish, where he said "people who say that the dancefloor is about losing yourself, that's the outsider view, the dancefloor is about solidarity" and I feel greatful for having understood that, that actually my view is almost certainly the outsider view, and at least if I know that then I'm in a better position to not mangle the story and not perpetuate some of the inaccuracies and unfairness, which often exists in the telling of culture which is predominantly made by high melanin, lower resourced communities – lower resourced because of structural racism – and is often documented by families that are lower melanin and often wealthy enough to afford a private education. That's not my experience but that's the experience of a lot of the gatekeepers of our publications, lots of our editors are those people who don't neccessarily know even what we know through our experience of being part of something, even if that's not our background. 

I've been thinking about this a lot recently and I've just written something for the Quietus which is quite explicit, but I think that those of us who are documenting culture that we didn't experience firsthand need to be aware of that. We need to do the work basically to make sure that that gap in our lived experience doesn't cause us to perpetuate the same old stereotypes or to look in the wrong place and to encourage as much as we can for the right person to tell the right story. So sometimes as a journalist we should step away from a commission and say, you know what I'm not actually the right person to do this, have you thought about X? And it's not just white people should only write about white things, and people who might be described as black should only write about things that might me described as black, it's not as simple as that but we need to be aware of what we don't know. 

You're asking people to document their own stories right? And your hosting some workshops too, when are they taking place?

I'm doing them as the opportunity arises, I've probably done about six now in a variety of environments. The very first one I did was round the back of the skate shop on Kingsland Road, which is weird because the building appears in the book. In the book I talk about Henry Davenport who owned a sweet shop on the Kingsland Road. He's the person that somehow got factory money and ended up being the first leaseholder of the new confectionary factory, which is the building that we know as Total Refreshment Centre. Now it's a skate shop and it's a social enterprise, and so the very first 'How To Document Your Culture' workshop I did round the back of that building with a group of young people who were doing some job readiness training because they were facing certain barriers getting into work. That really pleased me from a slightly cosmic point of view that my idea that I was paying to the story could be repaid in the building that appeared in the book.

I've done them all over the country; Liverpool, in a pub in Todmorten in West Yorkshire. Often these have come from people who've contacted me about the book, so people have messaged me and said I really like the book and I'd say do you know anyone or are you connected to any groups, youth groups, communities that might want one of these free workshops.

What do the workshops involve?

Telling people that their stories matter. And explaining how telling your own story is useful, generally but it's also useful specifically, how telling the story of a place or community you're part of helps to advocate for it, how we can protect the communities and spaces that we value through storytelling, and then some practical ways in working out the stories that we have at our fingertips, and then how we might tell them. Whether or not it's making a simple A5 fanzine or making an Instagram feed or something else. Just a way in which you can tell a story that you're part of with the resources you have and not worry about it being perfect or definitive, but that every bit helps.

I'm doing one in Brighton and I'm also talking about doing one in Pentonville prison, but I'm not sure if that will happen or not. It doesn't have to always be people who are living super frontline lives, you know the one I did in Liverpool was just a bunch of people from across different age groups, from across the region who just wanted to understand a bit more about how they might tell their cultural stories.

I wanted to talk a bit about your new publishing company Sweet Machine, what's the objective with it? What else have you got coming up?

Sweet Machine is an entity with about 15 books floating around on it, none of which have landed yet, actually they're all pamphlets. The original idea was to publish pamphlets but then the Total Refreshment Centre one got a bit out of control. There are four or five pamphlets that are unfinished, a couple by me, a couple by other people, which are just circling me, at one point either one of them will land or I will decide that one of them needs to land and I will make it land.

The intention is to firstly to signal that it is possible just to do a thing, no one has to give you permission. So no one told me that I could set up a publishing house, I just decided to and I think that's quite useful. I'm just interested in publishing people who want to tell us something that we don't necessarily know, but we know deep down. I have got some specific things coming out that are hilarious, there's some juice; some funny, valuable and important things which might come out. That's also why I wanted to do the audio book because I want people to have access to some of these ideas which all of us know but I've been able to synthesise. I've surfaced them, all I've done is kind of take this accumulated knowledge and synthesise it into a way that we can understand. Any of us that have been involved in these cultures seem to recognise what I'm saying.

The point of the audio book was to make sure that people who don't read, because loads of people don't read, might also take a minute to have a listen. The whole thing was designed really for people that don't read; the font, the design, the look and feel of it was aimed to make people who don’t read feel included and feel welcome. I’ve had people come up to me and say "I’m dyslexic, I don’t read but I read your book in a day" and "I never read any books but I’ve read this". I certainly feel like I’m serving the story and the decisions I’m making are helping to serve the story. 

Can you tell us a bit more about the launch you’re doing at Rough Trade East?

The launch is for the audio book. I’ve never recorded an audio book before, I’ve done radio before so I know bit about how to say things on mic but I’m certainly not a voice over artist in any shape or form. I’m really proud of it and I really loved working with Will LV and I loved that I got to record it above Transition which made me laugh. I was doing side eye to the camera like I’m going to get my dubs cut at Transition. I’m not I’m going upstairs to Will’s studio but Jason Goz who runs Transition has become a kind of pal over the years so we went out to the cafe and in my head I’m partly recording my audio book, and I’m partly walking behind Mala and Coki and Loefah as they’re going into Transition to get their dubs cut.

It’s also really enjoyable to ask musicians who I really love and respect to make some new music for it. To have Angel Bat Dawid A) agree to do it and B) to have read the book and then, in her words, to have meditated on the places that were like that for her and then to improvise this amazing piece of music. It’s just incredible, I'm hearing like shades of Timmy Thomas “Why Can’t We Live Together” and her beautiful play, and this lineage of Chicago free jazz that she represents flowing through the music. Chestnutt from Snapped Ankles aswell, for him to respond to the words, to respond to his relationship with TRC, and to make this music for the audio book felt like this beautiful act of collaboration and community and us all expressing our hilarious and brilliant and funny and, sometimes, annoying relationships with these places, and TRC specifically. 

But that doesn't really answer your question about the event! It will be me Ruby Savage, who is a brilliant interviewer and excellent person, interviewing me, Lex from TRC, Alabaster dePlume who is one of the musicians who was very much a part of the people that made up Total Refreshment Centre talking and sharing our stories…

Find out more about the Rough Trade East audio book launch HERE. Listen and download the audio book HERE.