There’s just a few weeks left to catch a unique exhibition celebrating the history of Housmans bookshop and 5 Caledonian Road, a building in King’s Cross which has been at the centre of social change activism for more than 60 years.
Reverberations is an immersive sound installation, produced by sound artist Wajid Yaseen, that uses transducer speakers to resonate oral history interviews, atmospheric sound and the music of anarcho-punk band Crass through the bookshelves of one of London’s oldest radical bookshops. The voices you discover while browsing the shelves share memories of marching against nuclear bombs, seeking sanctuary, and fighting for gay liberation.
Rewind over six decades and 5 Caledonian Road was bought by Peace News, the long running pacifist newspaper, in 1958, with Housmans officially opening in 1959. In the early 1960s the building was part of the burgeoning nuclear disarmament movement that saw the Committee of 100 and other groups use civil disobedience to demand the abolition of nuclear weapons.
In the 1970s, 5 Cally Road hosted the office of the Gay Liberation Front, who organised the UK’s first Pride marches. The helpline London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard – now Switchboard – went on to have a home at 5 Cally Road for nearly 20 years.
When members of the environmentalist group London Greenpeace were sued by McDonalds for libel in 1990, the ‘McLibel’ defence campaign was based here. The campaign supported Helen Steel and David Morris, the two defendants, as they took on McDonalds in what would become the UK’s longest ever running libel case.
The building’s trustees refused to sell it to developers when there were plans to demolish their stretch of Caledonian Road, a decision that was instrumental in preserving the small business and residential character of the area.
“Housmans just looks like any other bookstore,” says anarchist publisher Ramsey Kanaan. “What made it vibrant was being part of something bigger. Housmans remains a gateway to a whole world of radical ideas, radical histories, radical potentialities.”
To accompany the exhibition, a pretty hi-tech immersive website uses sound recorded at Housmans and a collage aesthetic inspired by Peter Kennard to allow visitors to virtually explore the building.
It premieres creative responses produced by young people aged 18-25 with support from professional sound artists, musicians, animators and theatre-makers. Visitors are encouraged to rummage through the works created, led by curiosity and chance, evoking the experience of browsing in a bookshop. The website holds an extensive digital archive of more than 200 documents, photographs and sound recordings, all connected to its fascinating history.
Reverberations runs until Friday 1st October, 11am – 6.30 pm, Monday – Saturday, Housmans bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, N1 9DX
Main image: Andrew Whitehead