I don’t really write about my own life in my books, with the exception of my verse novel ‘Lara’, which was based on my family history. I do have a blog, though, so I suppose that counts although you won’t find anything intimate or confessional in it. In our current climate the boundaries between public and private have become increasingly blurred, especially with the latest craze of Twitter with millions of people declaring to the world such inanities as ‘I have just eaten a cheese roll’ or ‘It’s sunny outside today’. Although I have resisted this madness, I am on Facebook indulging in public conversations. Writing about myself in a short memoir piece is part of this climate of self-exposure, I think. A desire to show who I am; to reveal the real person behind the ‘writer’. That said, writing can change the maker too and this piece deepened my understanding of where I came from. Not an epiphany but the past brought to life.
I grew up in a draughty, creaking, ramshackle detached Victorian house in Woolwich, then a garrison town in south-east London. Woolwich borders the Thames and is famous for the Royal Arsenal armaments factory, which, unfortunately, obscures the view of the river. Until the Arsenal closed in 1967, it was responsible for producing most of the military weaponry for most of the British wars over a 300-year period. And that’s as interesting as it gets. It’s a dingy little town really and I’ve long had a hate-hate relationship with it, not because it’s a terrible place, but simply because it was so boring. In my younger, (slightly) more pretentious days, I used to declare that Woolwich was my home town, but Notting Hill was my spiritual homeland. With hindsight I now think that living in a boring place and enduring those long, lukewarm summers where I went nowhere and did little was one of the ingredients that made me a writer – someone who escapes into the weird and wonderful territory of the imagination.
There were eight kids in my family, which was a bit over the top, don’t you think? My English mother was a devout Catholic and so wanted as many souls as possible to be saved in heaven, and as an only child she’d always dreamed of having a large family of her own. My Nigerian father went along with it. We were, after all, proof of his manhood. And so over ten years we skidded, slipped, struggled and bawled our way into the world: girl, girl, boy, girl (me), boy, girl, boy, boy. I like to think I suffer from middle child syndrome. (Notice me! Notice me! Why, oh why, does everyone else get all the attention. It’s NOT fair … sulk.)
Heck, you know what? I’m so over it.
No. 173 Eglinton Road was next door to Notre Dame Convent School and it had once been used as part of the school. It had four floors, twelve rooms, a sizeable front garden and a terraced back garden 150 feet long. If it sounds amazing, don’t be fooled: it was a dump. A great big, falling-apart monstrosity which stood out like a carbuncle from all the other smaller, well-kept houses on our suburban street. Jesus! There wasn’t even a high wall or trees to obscure it. Tell a lie, there was a tree in the early days, but my father chopped it down for some reason. My father was fond of chopping down trees and other objects. I think he had a man-against-nature thing going on.
My parents bought No. 173 for £1900 in 1960 and it needed work but they couldn’t afford it. Then, when they could have applied to Greenwich Council for a home improvement grant, my pathologically suspicious father decided he wasn’t going to let some cowboy builder rip us off, and insisted on renovating the property himself. This he did badly, if at all. He poured concrete on to the front garden to make it more manageable, except that big cracks soon appeared, giving it a certain post-earthquake vibe. One summer he built a garage next to the house, which we were all excited about, except the end product resembled a corrugated shack from the shanty towns of Brazil. Instead of parking his newly purchased old banger of a Vauxhall Victor in the garage, however, he kept it outside, preferring to show it off as a status symbol. He drove it, even though he didn’t have a licence and had never taken a lesson or a test. Then it just sat there for years and got progressively crusty until bits started falling off.
Our imposing but dilapidated front door had two church-like windows. In 1975 my father blowtorched the door prior to painting it. Scarred and streaked, it looked a right state and was to remain thus for the rest of its natural life – another twenty years or so. It was, like everything else to do with the house, embarrassing. Mr Futter the builder, who lived directly opposite us in a pristine white house, never once said hello in all the decades we were neighbours. Fucking Futter, I called him, although not to his face and never in front of my parents. Swearing was not allowed. Looking back, I guess we did halve the market value of his own property.
The back garden was wild before the concept became fashionable. On one side was the convent’s vegetable garden, separated by a fence, and on the other side ran a long alleyway with wide steps. Indeed the back of the house stood on top of a very steep hill and the bottom of the garden merged into some hilly woodland. Well, perhaps woodland is a slight exaggeration. It wasn’t Epping Forest exactly, but the woods were a strange no man’s land which seemed to belong to no one. We kids didn’t venture too far into it. It was always dark in there, slippery, precipitous and home to dangerous wildlife like hooting owls and foxes. At night the woods were a creepy, malevolent presence.
My father built a wall down the alley side of the garden, but the workmanship was such that the brickwork soon crumbled and it looked as if someone had gone at it with a sledgehammer. And so it was to remain.
We had a garden full of trees: sycamores, oaks and pairs of apple, cherry and pear trees, which at some stage my father chopped down intending to do ‘something’ with the land. He always had plans. The garden was left treeless and looking like an abandoned airfield. I still grieve for those trees, and the swings attached to them. One of my sisters once dropped a brick on me from up a cherry tree, cutting my head open. I was five at the time and wearing a cowboy hat, which she cited, rather disingenuously, as her defence. She thought the hat would protect me. Oh, really?
Every summer we were ordered out into the garden with machetes to chop down the grass, which grew above our heads. We loathed having to spend summer days in manual labour, muttering that we were being treated like the slaves in the new telly series Roots. What was the point when it was all going to quickly grow back and be left to wilt? But we never dared question our father’s authority. His was a military dictatorship.
The Woolwich I grew up in had a majority white population. Today it could be called be called Little Lagos. The transformation is astonishing. Back then there was only one other family of colour in our street, and our house was an easy target for racist kids who were always throwing rocks at our back windows from the alleyway. I spent my childhood waiting for missiles to be hurled into the room whilst watching Ironside or Top of the Pops. My father would chase the little bastards, haul one or even two of them (he was strong) by the scruff of their necks (it was allowed) and drag them to their homes for punishment and recompense. The parents were usually apologetic and even if not my father made them cough up or threatened to go to the police, which he sometimes did. To his dying day my father slept with a hammer at his side.
One Sunday morning, before the wall was built, my parents woke up to find some boys stripping the wooden fence which ran down by the alley. They said it was firewood for Bonfire Night. My father called the police, who made their parents come out and hammer back the wooden slats that very day. The boys in blue weren’t always so sympathetic.
I guess we were the bogey family in the neighbourhood.
My father was a mighty little African, an amateur boxer back in Nigeria, and at five foot five much shorter than me or his six-footer sons. He was slim, muscular, and even in old age had the kind of tiny waist most women would die for. He ate vast amounts of porridge directly out of a saucepan for breakfast, nothing but a cup of tea for lunch, and at night a big meal which he cooked himself – meat and potatoes mashed together like baby food. He never ate desserts and never snacked. He also never drank the water we’re supposed to throw down our gullets in copious amounts every day. That explains why he never had a day’s illness, then.
He was a quick, jaunty walker and seen from behind you’d easily knock fifteen years off his age. But he was fierce to us kids, a devotee of the cult of corporal punishment; we were terrified of him. To the outside world, however, he was charismatic, gregarious, a bit of a joker, an active socialist and a local councillor who was always willing to help people. In eighteen years of living in the same house I never once had a proper conversation with him. He only spoke to reprimand us, and that usually involved hour-long lectures where we had to stand still and look suitably remorseful. We weren’t allowed out on to the street to play, and visits to see friends were severely restricted. If I wanted to go to a party I’d have to ask him about three weeks in advance, listen with my heart thumping to a lecture about the perils of this or that, and then hear him say no. It was easier not to ask. No. 173 was his fiefdom and it sometimes felt like my prison. I realize now that he had to be a disciplinarian in order to keep his tribe out of trouble, that his parenting skills were the best he had to offer, and that he was frightened for us. The England he’d sailed into in 1949 was a hostile place for black people, and the London of the seventies could be treacherous for black children, especially boys. It was only as an adult that I was able to communicate with him, and yes, love him.
As antidote to my father, my mother was warm, cuddly, chatty, accessible and loving. If she made it to sit down and watch telly with us in the evenings, we’d fight each other over who would scratch her back with a special backscratcher, or massage her tired feet. As a compromise we’d take a foot each. She pleaded with our father to be softer on us, which sometimes had the desired effect. I escaped to the local youth theatre every Friday night aged twelve, allowed because only ‘nice’ kids went there. It was my saviour.
The kitchen was in the dungeon-like basement, which had a passage leading on to the back garden. The basement and kitchen walls were made of concrete and so damp that water trickled down them; the floor was gritty concrete. Both were to remain ever thus. How my mother managed without disposable nappies, a washing machine, a fridge, or any of the mod cons we take for granted today, is beyond me. My father earned little as a welder and my mother, a teacher, did not resume work until the youngest was old enough for school. They were, in a word, brassic. In spite of this my mother made sure we were well fed, counting out the lettuce leaves, fruit and vegetables so that it all went round. We grew strong, healthy and were rarely ill.
The dank coal cellar in the basement served as the household fridge for milk, birthday jellies and the meat my father bought in Woolwich on a Saturday. The bathroom was also in the basement, a nice spacious room which could have contained about eight baths – only it never had a door and it never had a bath. My father did buy one, but it stood upended against a wall for a couple of decades.
The house was blessed with a wide central staircase with wooden banisters which were perfect for almost breaking your neck on when you slid down and flew off the end, landing splat on the hard floor. The house was a great playground and in our younger years we were all playmates.
None of the hallways were wallpapered or painted, a difficult task in itself when the main hall was some thirty feet high, nor were the splintery wooden stairs carpeted, at a time when this was de rigueur in suburbia. I went to sleep dreaming of formica and linoleum and pebble-dash and a whole bicycle for myself rather than an eighth of one. As soon as we were old enough, pairs of Evaristo children had to take it in turns to clean the communal areas every Saturday. The house, for all its defects, was always very clean. As were we: my mother made sure her children were always nicely turned out.
On the first floor was the large ‘Best Room’, which in most households would be called the living room. This was where we gathered every night to watch telly, while my mother was invariably downstairs in the basement boiling, like, a hundred nappies in a huge pail on the stove. The Best Room had a gas fire, marble mantelpiece and carpet. It was cosy but often claustrophobic, what with eight kids squashed up on the sofa, and four boys who wore their flatulence like a badge of pride, trying to outdo each other. Not funny, especially when it goes on every day for years. The décor of the Best Room was the pièce de résistance of No. 173. My genius sister was allowed to act on a brainwave one summer and decorate the room. This she did by cutting up thousands of colourful women’s magazines into tiny squares and pasting them on to the walls. The end result was a colourful collage which covered the entire room. We all approved. It looked amazing.
Next to the Best Room was the even larger but abandoned ‘Front Room’, which was the dumping ground for the household junk. It, too, was without a door and as it was dark, spooky and cavernous at night, I used to rush past it in order to go upstairs to bed, afraid that unspeakable creatures would lurch out and get me. The Front Room had two antique pianos, one with fanciful brass candlestick holders attached. None of us played the piano but we liked to tinker with it occasionally. One year my father decided that they too had to be chopped down, so he lugged those lovely pianos into the garden, hacked away and burnt them in a bonfire. Why? Don’t ask. Maybe he just got fed up of hearing a one-finger rendition of ‘Frère Jacques’ played for the zillionth time.
The only toilet was on this floor too. You had to queue, and then when it was your turn, you had to be quick because someone else would be waiting outside. To this day people comment on my ability to pee at speed. I can be in and out of the loo in a minute.
Next floor up were three of the bedrooms. When we were old enough we were paired off according to age and gender. On this floor the four boys had two bedrooms and my parents had theirs. My three sisters and I had the two sloping attic rooms at the top, where there was also a washroom, and an unconverted attic space which had rafters but no floorboards. One day my father was doing ‘something’ in the attic when his foot slipped and he fell through to the floor below. A gaping hole was left in the ceiling. It was never repaired. Of course it wasn’t.
Aged five I began to share a bedroom with my younger sister. As we got older we didn’t get on and were always rushing downstairs in tears to complain to our mother about the other one. As a teenager I tormented her by reading aloud every night, loving the sound of my own booming, melodramatic voice reciting poetry or speeches from plays. It wasn’t my problem that she wanted to sleep. It was only when we left home that we became friends. The two sisters next door put a piece of string down the room dividing their space.
We hardly ever had visitors. My mother’s friends had all emigrated to that exotic place called Abroad, and most of her family didn’t want anything to do with her when she married someone from the lowest form of humanity, an African. My mother’s mother, who did everything in her power to stop my parents’ marriage, was too upset at how we lived to visit often. She had raised herself above her working-class Irish-English origins and become a homeowner and dressmaker, and fancied herself a bit middle class. (How, exactly, when her husband was a milkman is beyond me.) She’d had high hopes that my mother, her only child, who had received a scholarship to a private school, would become a fully paid-up member of the middle classes. She never got over her disappointment. My grandmother had only one photo of a grandchild in her house: of my eldest sister when she was a tiny tot. She loved us, her only grandchildren, but she was ashamed of our colour.
We did, however, have lodgers when I was very young. My parents threw out one young woman when they discovered she was sedating her baby with whisky so that she could go play with the soldiers in Woolwich. Another lodger, male, got into a fight with my father, and was evicted. Then there was the family from India. My parents had arranged to lodge this Goan family, assuming there would be only one or two kids. They turned up in the middle of the night, having disembarked from a boat at Southampton, and my parents could not believe it when thirteen children, plus Mum and Dad, trooped one by one into the hallway. Hail to my parents, because they let all of them stay for weeks until the older ones found work and lodgings elsewhere. Seven of them remained with us for two years.
The only friend I invited home was my best friend Jenny, still a great friend, who lived in what seemed to my child’s eyes to be a mini Moorish palace up a winding private drive in salubrious Blackheath – the poshest part of south-east London. Her gorgeous house had a beautiful parquet floor so polished it was as slippery as an ice rink. Even today I cringe at what she thought of my neo-Munster abode.
My mother tried her best to get my father to improve our home, but he was the stubborn patriarch and his will prevailed. It was, to a certain extent, a clash of cultures. She was from a country which believed that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, and he was from a country that wasn’t England. A lot of life is lived outside in tropical Nigeria, and people have more pressing concerns than cultivating the perfect rose bush or painting the house every few years. I only realized this when I visited Nigeria for the first time in 1991 and discovered that some of my father’s behaviour wasn’t specific to him, but cultural. As a child I’d known nothing about his culture or traditions, although in some respect I now thank God for small mercies. To have to kneel or prostrate myself in front of my elders would have made me want to kill myself.
No. 173 doesn’t exist now. It was sold off in the early nineties to a developer who demolished it and built a block of flats on the land.
Given the choice, would I have changed my childhood? Different house? Different father? Fewer siblings? At the time – you betcha!