Hackney People: Eleanor Wilson
Founder of Passing Clouds talks about why she wanted to open 'a space where everyone is welcome'
"I DISCOVERED Dalston by accident,” laughs Eleanor Wilson, founder of Passing Clouds, the Richmond Road live music venue and community arts centre that celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, while fearing imminent closure.
“I had been studying in Berlin and the friend I was flat hunting with was desperate to move to Islington. Finally, we found the one flat we could afford with an N1 postcode. It definitely wasn’t Islington, but I was glad: that wasn’t my scene and I fell in love with Dalston immediately," she says.
She has never really looked back. Even today, she talks passionately about the ‘economic vibrancy,’ she discovered in the area.
Eleanor says: “There was this electric atmosphere of shops, businesses and people from all over the world all doing business with each other. And it’s such a multicultural place, but I realised there wasn’t really anywhere for all these different groups to socialise under one roof. They were all interacting economically, but not socially.”
So the idea of Passing Clouds was born: ‘a space where everyone is welcome’. Eleanor says: “Our vision was unique and there was no model for what we were doing. On a business level, though, we were stepping into the unknown.”
Nevertheless, she began to look for premises, finding nothing affordable, until one day she noticed an empty building and called the number listed on the security notice outside.
She recalls: “It all happened so fast. Suddenly, I had signed the lease and had the keys. It was the beginning of an incredibly steep learning curve.”
Together with a dedicated crew of local artists and musicians, Eleanor opened the building in June 2006. She says: “I was so used to London bars where, as soon as you walked in, you were made to feel fat, old, or unfashionable.
“Passing Clouds was the antidote of all that. It didn’t matter if you were an 80-year-old Kurdish shopkeeper or an 18-year-old Nigerian musician, as long as you had an open and humble attitude. We wanted to celebrate everyone’s uniqueness.”
Accordingly, one of the first decisions was to put on music events that showcased the many global musical traditions that were to be found within Hackney.
Passing Clouds was busy from the moment it opened its doors. Not that it was easy. Eleanor recalls: “We had to learn the financial, legal, and health and safety requirements from scratch, and juggle all those concerns while keeping the space open and flexible.
“It was unbelievably tough at times. I think we only really found our feet in the last couple of years.”
Eleanor is especially proud of the People’s Kitchen that occurred every Sunday for five years. She explains: “We would collect all the organic food that local shops would otherwise throw away and put on a huge vegetarian banquet that people could eat for free, or just for a donation. The space would be filled with trestle tables and afterwards, we would screen a film and then there would be a jam session.
“A whole evening of food, film and music. All free. It was an enormous endeavour and took a lot of love, but it was a magnificent thing.”
Passing Cloud’s tenth birthday party looks set to be a big one. Internationally renowned artists like Lee Scratch Perry and the Sun Ra Arkestra have already played and others like Osibisa and Linton Kwesi Johnson are all lined up to mark the occasion.
But there is a shadow hanging over proceedings. The building has been sold to a developer and Eleanor and the team have been given until August to vacate. But the new owners have recently changed the locks, shutting venue staff out.
As a result, campaigners decided to take back possession of the arts hub, and have temporarily moved in.
“I am not daunted,” Eleanor says. “Over the decade, we have gone from being the black sheep, to being cherished by the community. We have never had a violent crime incident in our 10 years. We’re a model of how the night time economy can function without attracting antisocial behaviour. There’s so much more we want to do and we want to do it here.”