The battles of Barnet
PUBLISHED: 12:33 11 March 2014 | UPDATED: 12:33 11 March 2014
Barnet has its feet in London, but, for many, its head in Herts. Sandra Deeble talks to three activists whose mission is to keep alive spaces for creativity, learning and joy
‘I’m a dancer and a choreographer,’ says Jane Judd, sitting in her office in the former stables, at the back of The Bull Theatre, a vibrant blue building that is a well-known Barnet landmark.
‘I love this building. You see it as you come up the hill. I grew up in St Albans but I’ve lived in Barnet for 25 years. Dance is my thing, and promoting live music. When I was 15 years old I put on a music event in Colney Heath Village Hall and I charged people three pence to come.’
After leaving school, Jane did a stint in the musical Hair, and continuing the music theme went on to promote leading artists including Wishbone Ash, Lindisfarne and Elkie Brooks.
Today, Jane loves working at the theatre, which is run by a charity called Dare to Dream. The building is also where the Susi Earnshaw Theatre School is based, with its many famous alumni, including Outnumbered star Daniel Roche.
‘Barnet is a very creative place,’ Jane says. ‘And a lot of performers live here.’
Her involvement with theatre started when her three sons were at Foulds School and she helped out with music events. ‘Lee Thompson of Madness was a parent there and in 2003 we put on Oliver. Lee was Fagin and quite a few of the parents were actors and they were in it. We toured with it. It was one of the first theatre productions I did.’
A few years later, Jane’s youngest son auditioned for a part in Rockford’s Rock Opera, created by Matthew Sweetapple, who lives in Barnet, and Steve Punt.
‘The auditions were here in the Bull and I got chatting to Susi,’ explains Jane. ‘After that I got involved.’
Jane does a lot of outreach events, doing workshops in schools in Barnet and across Hertfordshire. She also runs the Elders Dance Company at the Bull. ‘It’s all ladies at the moment. It gives them a buzz. My eldest lady is 82. I do a bit of ballet with them, a bit of contemporary dance, and lots of stretching. The choreography I do is very simple. I don’t expect them to spin or drop to the floor but some of them can do turns.’
The theatre is also a hub for all kinds of other activities, from poetry readings and open mic events to meetings for local groups. Janet explains it is a circle of creativity and essential for keeping the Bull going, ‘Whatever we bring in pays for the building. Small theatres survive by opening up to the community.’
The music producer.
Roger Tichborne is a music and film producer who runs the Mill Hill Music Complex, a business he started in a lock up garage in 1979 and now has 18 studios. He also produced a film, A Tale of Two Barnets, which was shown in the House of Commons and is a prolific blogger, using his page to address important local and general issues.
Sipping green tea in the music complex café, surrounded by guitars, drums and ukuleles, Roger says, ‘We have 1,000 musicians through here every week.
‘The first time Amy Winehouse was on TV, we sold her the guitar she was playing. It was a blue Fender Strat.’
The Lighthouse Family, the Damned, Morrissey, London Grammar and Kate Nash and filmmaker Charles Honderick are just some of the artists who have worked in Rogers’ studios.
‘I tend to get chatting to people,’ he explains, which is how a conversation with Honderick sparked the idea for the film A Tale of Two Barnets.
Roger explains the inspiration came from Charles Dickens, who described Barnet as ‘A pretty and still tolerably rural suburb’, while Barnet Workhouse may have been the inspiration for the nightmarish workhouse in Oliver Twist.
The film looks at inequality and gives a voice to residents whose lives have been affected by the closure of day centres and libraries.
‘The council is pushing to cut taxes,’ says Roger. ‘That means that disabled people who go to day centres are losing their services so that people like me who are relatively well off can have another £2 a week to spend at Starbucks. Is that right? I don’t think so. It is wrong to hit people who can’t look after themselves.’
Roger continues to raise awareness about issues in the area – and the wider world – in his blog barneteye.blogspot.co.uk, read, he says, ‘by a few people’. The Barnet Eye has had more than a million hits.
Keith Martin is the author of The Library That Refused to Close, an account of how the Friern Barnet community came together to save a much-loved building.
‘If you want thrillers, this is the place,’ says Keith Martin, sitting comfortably in the library that was purpose-built in 1934, a space flooded with natural light, where volunteers offer you chocolate cake and tea.
The story of the Friern Barnet People’s Library is a tale of derring-do. A sit-in by angry protesters, pizzas lobbed in through library windows, the press, squatters, the British Legion and a pop-up library are just some of the elements of this compelling campaign that has been lauded nationally.
‘I was one of the 15 who sat in,’ remembers Keith, a retired chartered accountant who gained experience of publishing while working for Faber & Faber.
‘The press were outside. People fed us with pizzas through these high windows and the support we had demonstrated how much the community wanted the library to remain open.’
Despite these efforts, Barnet Council closed the library in April 2012. Keith explains that quite often councils use low borrowing statistics as a reason to shut a library but this, he says, misses the point. A library does more than lend books. It’s essential for people who need a warm place to go that doesn’t involve spending money, who might be looking for jobs and who need a computer to work on. He adds there are children in the local community who also don’t have a computer at home.
Unthwarted, and inspired by Roger Tichborn who wrote a post calling for action on his Barnet Eye blog, a group got together to start the People’s Library. Meeting on Saturdays on the green next to the library, and with assistance from the British Legion, residents donated and borrowed books. They had a library, but it was the pop-up, outdoor kind. This continued while they waited to see what would happen to the library building. There were rumours it might be bought by Tesco. . Barnet Library Ltd. An unexpected twist of fortune came when a bill was passed that made squatting in residential properties illegal. Overnight, there were squatters looking for a new home, and word went out that a window was open in the empty library.
‘Some people thought, “Oh, no, squatters”, remembers Keith. ‘But a civilised, very intelligent, coherent group of people moved in.’
Waiting for a court hearing on squatter eviction, campaigners worked on a business plan demonstrating how running the library with volunteers and one librarian could save the council around £70,000 each year.
With a court decision giving the squatters six weeks to leave, the group formed a company, Friern Barnet Community Library Limited, with Keith as director.
After negotiations, the council agreed to the plan. Now run as a charity, the library is well supported by the community, although Keith and other members are still in negotiations with the council for more professional support. ‘We still do need expertise and guidance,’ he says.