My parents moved from Woolwich, London, to Harlow in the late 1950s. My father was a carpenter by trade, serving his apprenticeship on the restoration of the Cutty Sark when it came into dry dock in Greenwich. Upon moving to Harlow he became a lorry driver for the British Oxygen Company. I was born in 1965. Unofficially, as the hospital hadn’t officially been opened, my mother gave birth to the first set of twins at the Princess Alexandra Hospital. Tragically, due to complications, my twin sister died just days later.
Growing up in the area of Spencers Croft was great. I would be out all day; my parents hardly saw me. When they did I was usually filthy dirty – having developed a knack of searching out all manner of mud and filth in my neighbourhood. In my early teens my parents split up. I was the youngest of three boys and last to find out, because my father wanted to protect me from finding out that my mother was having an affair. If it wasn’t for me earwigging and confronting my mother, I don’t know when I would have been told. Obviously the news upset me, but it didn’t stop my mother from telling me off for listening to her phone call. Now it was all out in the open, my mother left – my father having sole responsibility to raise us.
The breakdown of my parents’ marriage didn’t change me – I was always a nightmare. At larking about I excelled; learning, not so much – I hated school. I was forever bunking off and at the age of fifteen left school with nothing to my name. But I can honestly say I’ve never been without a job. In the early 1980s Margaret Thatcher introduced the Youth Training Scheme (YTS) – work experience for sixteen- to seventeen-year-olds in order to learn various trades. It lasted for six months with a wage of £25 a week – half of which my father took for board and keep. I trained in various trades, none of which suited me. Instead I applied for and got a job as a paint-sprayer. All through my life I’ve set myself targets. Through damn hard work and perseverance I worked my way up through various companies, literally spray-painting everything from planes and trains to automobiles until I reached my goal of working for British Aerospace.
However, a lack of workplace banter finally got the better of me. I worked with a fella for five years who just wouldn’t talk to me – it drove me mad! To this day I don’t know what his problem was. Maybe it was just a clash of personalities, but I’m not the kind of person to change – what you see is what you get. If you don’t like what you see (clearly he didn’t) don’t talk to me – but at least understand who I am first.
A prime example was while I worked in Ilford for a company who employed a number of Asian women. Without exception they all blanked me. One day I just couldn’t leave it any more; I had to ask why they wouldn’t talk to me. Timidly, they explained that due to my confident ‘say what you think’ attitude and the way I looked (shaven head, goatee beard, white jeans, T-shirt and Dr Martens) they assumed I was in all likelihood a racist. I said, ‘You’ve got to understand that I’m not a racist, I just choose this look. Besides, I’m married to a woman from Burma.’ They were shocked as I proudly showed them photos of my wife and kids – after that we got on just fine.
My attitude to race isn’t something new. The Harlow of my youth was made up predominantly of white British. Kids that weren’t I didn’t treat any different – racism never entered into it. A mate was a mate, whatever their colour.
I met Tonia (my wife) in Whispers nightclub, Harlow. She was a barmaid and, seeing as I’m not shy in coming forward, we got chatting; none of this ‘hiding behind a screen’ lark kids do these days – face-to-face conversation. Her parents fled Burma; they settled and rebuilt their lives in England.
Harlow was safer when I was young; well, at least it felt that way. Maybe it’s down to things being whipped up in the newspapers? We had problems, but not on the scale we have now. Yes, gangs existed, but carrying a weapon just wasn’t heard of. I’m not saying it’s right, but if you can’t have a fight with your fists, what’s the point in having it in the first place? That’s how we used to settle our differences. Despite my feelings on how Harlow has changed, there are no immediate plans for us to leave. I still speak about the town in a positive way; talking it down helps no one. Even if people don’t know me by name, they’ve likely seen my beach buggy. Despite having owned dozens of cars, it was something I’d wanted since childhood. Again, by setting and achieving goals I made it happen; and if I can do it, anyone can. Whatever your goal, put your mind to it, stop moaning, focus and do something about it.