In the late 60s, a baby boy was born to a Nigerian woman living in a Hackney council flat. It was her fourth child, her third son; and her husband left soon after for another London woman. With her father’s help, she and the children eventually flew back to Lagos.
Her little boy played on the streets, bonding with cousins and the neighbours’ children, while she went to work and the older children to school, to which he eventually followed. Lagos was mainly decent back then, the beach still clean, and they were an aspirational, well-connected family. The boy, who could sing in tune, joined the church choir with his brother. Then, aged 13, he fell seriously ill. He recovered, but his hearing was gone. He was completely deaf.
His schooling finished, for three years he kicked a ball about the streets and bits of waste land, weekdays and weekends in the company of ever younger and rougher children. By the age of 15, he had forgotten most of what he had once learned. His speech had virtually disappeared, his reading ability contracted. He could follow only the most basic written English, no Yoruba at all.
But he was biddable, on the occasions anyone took trouble with him; good-natured, with a ready smile. His family came up with a solution; he learned carpentry, helped out in Lagos workshops for a year or three, then packed up his modest toolbox to join his elder brother in London. He still had a British passport, and they’d have facilities there, his mother reasoned, social workers and so on. When it came to a young man’s ability to focus on the important things in life, with the grace of God, deaf-mutism just might be an advantage. It was the early 1980s, and he was not yet 20.
I always wanted to make a fairy story come true; to be, if not a fairy princess, then a fairy godmother, a little condescending though that seems to me now. By 2004, I had waited long enough.
He had his own business by then, been a sole trader turned limited company via a spell at Furniture college, with a rented workshop in a rapidly gentrifying part of southern Hackney. He’d moved from a hostel, to a condemned council flat, into a newly-built one, on the ground floor of a smart low-rise, with a neat patch of garden out the back. He was slow off the mark for Right To Buy, he was aware, but his business turnover was too irregular to commit to a monthly mortgage, and Hackney workshop rents increasingly punitive. But he kept an old estate car on the road to transport his handmade tables, wardrobes and chests into the attractive homes of liberally-minded, white-middle-class clientele. He fitted them, quietly and competently, attracting a certain amount of housewifely flirtation as he worked, of which he rarely took advantage.
Most importantly of all, two decades of total silence had been broken by the insertion of a cochlear implant, courtesy of the unbelievable NHS. It had been the best 30th birthday present ever. Against all odds, he could hear again.
It’s not perfect. He still needs to lip-read, and group conversations in noisy settings, like pubs, is still out of the question, or any group conversations at all, really, are still way beyond him. But he can follow some radio and TV programmes, without subtitles. Best of all, he can hear music again.
He traded in his weekly martial arts in for social dancing. He took up salsa and tango, and became a regular at city clubs. Gentle and unthreatening, he was quickly popular with mainly-white ladies, especially the larger or more mature ones. He was looking for love, of course, like most of us there were. But like all of us, he also loved music and dance, and he had talent, rhythm, and good manners. He didn’t grope. He didn’t show off. He was simply, quietly competent.
I invited him to move in with me. He bought his flat off the council at last, smartened it up, and let it to cover the mortgage. And then I got pregnant.
His workshop rent, meanwhile, kept rising. With my consent, he went site hunting across south London. Eventually, he found the ideal unit, high ceilinged, just south of the river. We entered into a bidding war and finally acquired it for a sum which seemed a lot to me, but he was adamant it was the space for him. I got my well-off siblings to buy my share out of our parents’ old family home, and made his down payment. There was enough left over to build a mezzanine floor with office and install shelving and equipment. He had his dream workshop. We had another mortgage, and soon, a gorgeous baby boy.
That boy is now seven, still gorgeous; bright and talented. His dad observes his privileges with a mixture of pride and envy, for already, the boy’s state-primary education outstrips much of his own. A proper middle-class kid, he takes violin, piano, and swimming lessons. It’s not fair, his father thinks ruefully, even as he tries to keep pace with all three.
Business, in the meantime, has weathered the recession. An impressive woodwork portfolio has accumulated from over 30 years in the trade. He has employees, a pool of loyal customers and a solid reputation. Our combined ages are 100-plus now, and neither he nor I have a pension, but our massive personal investment, in that workshop, in his business, will, we hope, pay us off.
But now it’s under threat. Developers are circling over what are probably the last small-industry sites in inner London. They are offering silly sums – less that we paid for the freehold nearly ten years ago – to buy up that dream site, and all the other sites on the estate, waving the threat of the council’s Compulsory Purchase Orders at us all. The piddling sums they are offering would make resettling anywhere, really, but especially inside the M25, out of the question, and effectively close us all down.
We all know there are vast amounts of money to be made from land and property speculation in inner London. It’s mad and it’s wrong when tiny, pokey flats and garages in places like Earls Court sell for half a million. But, given that they do – who, legally, morally and actually, should be drawing that profit? The modest local people who invested, fortuitously or otherwise, in the places before the madness took hold – or the developers, swooping in now to exploit as best they can what they hope is local fear and ignorance?
We and other businesses and residents don’t actually want the cash, not yet. We want to be able to carry on doing what we do, where we do it. If we cannot keep our spaces, then we want access to others, not too far away. In our case, we know the developers have new work spaces planned. We should be top of the list to receive one; to exchange one prime-inner-London-freehold site for another. Why ever not?
Versions of this story are happening all over town, it’s happening to local residents and small businesses, like ours. Each victim has a story behind them, as we do. Someone needs to make a big stink about it. This is my small contribution.