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Free Word Centre

  • Date: 30 September 2009
  • Artform: Literature
  • Area: London
The Free Word Centre in Farringdon, London The Free Word Centre in Farringdon, London, (Free Word Centre)

September 2009 marked the launch of the Free Word Centre in Farringdon - a venue, meeting place and office space, and a place for thinking, risk taking and debate. Its director, Shreela Ghosh, tells us why this is a landmark moment for literature and free expression in England.

What is the Free Word Centre?

It is an international centre for literature, literacy and free expression - we aim to promote and protect the power of the written and spoken word - to protect creativity and free expression. Amongst other things, we will offer unique events, activities and facilities in a new landmark building in Farringdon, London. The Centre is funded by the Arts Council's London office and run by the charity Free Word.

You've just launched - so tell us how the centre came about?

Yes, to celebrate our launch we opened our doors to the public for the Free Word Festival, which started on 16 September and runs until 9 October. There's still time to get involved in numerous lively events and offerings, all of which are free.

The centre was founded by eight literature and free expression organisations that formed a very effective lobby to unlock a significant level of funding to realise their ambition. I believe that the centre will succeed because it's a bottom up project driven by a powerful collective vision. The parallel conversations that happened over the past five years demonstrate their commitment - it was the right time for something like this to happen.

One champion of the idea was Ursula Owen, the project director - she was very much a driving force behind the centre and worked with the project managers Virginia Barry and Penny Mayes. In 2007 Fritt Ord, a Norwegian foundation was persuaded by their vision and purchased the premises.

What makes Free Word different from other existing literary organisations?

England doesn't have a literature house. People often remark that this is the land of Shakespeare or Wordsworth, yet there isn't a centre for contemporary writers where this type of activity can go on all the time - so in many ways Free Word is a 21st century response to the classic European literature house. What makes it different is that it brings together literacy, literature and free expression under one roof and that's never happened before.

What does Free Word hope to achieve?

Many of the companies that have come together to form Free Word are small organisations, some receive regular arts council support, but all are led by dynamic individuals who understand that together they can be a bigger force. We hope to bring about a transformation in the way that ideas are generated and a means for them to be presented - to be a home for ideas.

Is this where the Concept Lab fits in?

Yes - one of our primary aims is focusing on innovation. The Concept Lab is a place to tap into the collective wisdom of participants. It will be a place for bouncing around exciting new ideas, spotting trends, taking risks, finding links and inventing models.

What is your background?

I've been an artist and practitioner. I trained as a dancer, and began my career as a performer in both television (Shreela was in Eastenders from 1984-87) and in theatre, before going on to make documentaries. I've also worked in arts strategy and funding, including a stint at the Arts Council when the Capital Programme was launched in 1994.

I was Head of Arts at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and then Programme Director for Arts & Heritage at Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, before working with Iniva to help launch Rivington Place.

So what made you get involved with Free Word?

I'm interested in the power of culture. Where I sit in relation to that is irrelevant. Freedom of expression is fundamental to creativity and culture. I also like start ups - I like being in on the ground floor at the beginning of something.

What would you say about the state of 'free expression' in literature in our society today?

We live in a liberal democracy and take a lot of things for granted - there are still writers imprisoned for just thinking the wrong things. We mustn't forget the UK has become the most surveyed place on the planet - there are more CCTV cameras here than anywhere else - this tendency is definitely a cause for concern when it comes to free expression.

Of course in literature, what's produced is mostly driven by market demands and one of the things I ask time and time again is, whose voice is getting heard? Certain things simply don't see the light of day - publishing is becoming very narrow. There are also important things to consider - for instance the digital revolution has yet to happen - what will be the impact of this on the literature sector? But this is just one of the many issues and I am glad that Free Word can allow people to have these debates.

Find out more about the Free Word Centre and events during the Free Word Festival.

Free Word Centre is one of our regularly funded organisations, receiving investment of £200,000 in 2009/10. We also provide regular funding to seven of the nine literature organisations resident at the Centre: Apples & Snakes, Arvon Foundation, Booktrust, English PEN, Index on Censorship, the Literary Consultancy, and the Reading Agency. The other two non-regular funded organisations resident at the Free Word Centre are Article 19 and Dalkey Archive.