‘How come I never get invited round to your house for tea?’ my friend Jane asked one day as we embarked upon another epic game of French skipping in the school playground.
It was a question the ten-year-old me had been dreading. I’d been round to Jane’s house many times. It was beautiful and huge and so different from mine it was like visiting an enchanted palace. There was a swimming pool in the back garden and a kitten-soft, leather three-piece suite in the living room and a phone on the wall in the kitchen (back then, having more than one phone in your house was a very big deal and having one mounted to the wall was the height of extravagance). They even had an entire store room devoted to food. Jane’s parents travelled a lot and they always brought back exotic edibles from their adventures. Delicate, wafer-thin biscuits from Belgium, brightly packaged breakfast cereals from America and squeezy candy in tubes from France. All of this overseas food was stored in a small room next to the kitchen – a room Jane and I would raid regularly for midnight feasts.
In contrast, my terraced house was small and two-adults-plus-four-kids-messy and, even worse to ten-year-old me, it was on a council estate (think the projects, US readers).
The council estate I lived on was called James Bedford Close. I never did find out who James Bedford was but I’m not sure he’d have been all that happy with this tribute to him.
Although the estate was pristine and cheery when it was first built and we moved in – with playgrounds for the kids and brightly painted front doors (ours was canary yellow) and even had it’s own on-site caretaker – things soon went downhill.
The flats on the estate became a dumping ground for troubled people, the caretaker was axed and the brightly painted doors began to chip and peel.
Our childhood games reflected the changes. As well as playing hide and seek and knock down ginger we also started playing ‘spot the junkie’ – spying through the grimy windows of the local druggies’ flats. It was terrifying and exciting in equal measure. You got bonus points every time you spotted a prone body sprawled amongst the carnage inside.
One family on the estate owned four dogs, named Tyson, Rocky, Rambo and Teddy, who they let roam free, day and night, providing a regular source of terror throughout my childhood and teenage years. My dad became my lifelong hero when he kicked Teddy after it went for me on the way to Brownies one night. Such bravery!
How could I invite my friend Jane from her enchanted palace, with its wall-mounted phones and rooms devoted to food into this world?
The answer was, I couldn’t and I didn’t. I was too embarrassed.
So I came up with ever more elaborate excuses as to why she couldn’t come round. ‘My dad has lots of work to do.’ ‘My mum isn’t very well.’ ‘I’m being punished for not feeding the goldfish.’ My parents ended up being over-worked and sick and punishing me for most of my childhood.
Fast forward to a few years ago and I’m at a lunch with a group of publishing folk.
In my experience, publishing folk are very nice folk but they’re also very white and middle class folk and I’ve yet to meet one who grew up on a council estate.
At some point during our lunch the conversation turned to council estates and more specifically, the type of people who live on them.
The conversation became patronising and sneery and ‘ho-ho-ho aren’t working class people so frightfully gross‘.
I felt a rage in my belly, ‘fuck you’ thought-bubbles over my head.
These privately educated, privileged people had no idea of the hardships endured by those living on a council estate. To them, the poor were just peasants, there to be mocked over a nice glass of prosecco.
They knew nothing about the decent, hard-working people who live on estates. The people who are forced to live in the bleakest of conditions, often in property that ought to be condemned.
They knew nothing about the stress this can cause.
They knew nothing about what it’s like to be so poor you have to choose between feeding your kids or yourself.
They knew nothing about the way poverty and powerlessness can sap your will and kill your dreams. But I did.
One night, when I was about sixteen, a local gang set fire to a car outside my bedroom window. It was to prove a turning point for me.
I’d spent the previous two years skiving off school, drinking and taking drugs. I’d begun giving up hope that things could get better.
But as I watched that car burn, I realised I had a choice: I either carried on down that path and ended up condemned to an eternity of living in fear … or I worked my butt off to get to university so I’d be able to leave.
The next two years were like the training montage in a Rocky movie. I stopped drinking and getting stoned and started studying and running, all the while listening to a soundtrack of angry rock music and hip-hop to motivate me.
I made it to uni … and two years later I dropped out of uni as I couldn’t stand being so in debt.
But something inside of me had shifted. I believed in the power of dreams. I had proof of the power of determination and grit.
I kept working and dreaming until I’d achieved my dream of becoming a writer … and ended up at the publishing lunch.
And when the publishing folk at that lunch started mocking the people who live on council estates I didn’t feel embarrassed, like I did back when I was a kid, I felt proud.
Proud that no silver spoon or private education or networking or nepotism had bought me a place at that table – hard graft and dreams had.
And so I told them in no uncertain terms that they were talking crap. That most people who live on council estates are decent and hard-working and have just been dealt a worse hand in life than them.
I told them that I grew up on an estate and I was proud of that fact.
I told them that they ought to think more before they sneered and mocked.
And then there was silence – of the tumbleweed kind.
I went home that day feeling really upset. I liked everyone at that table – it was just their incorrect preconceived ideas that I hated. What if they didn’t want to work with me any more? What if, having worked so hard to get a place at their table, they turned their backs on me?
But that night I got an email from one of the woman present at the lunch, apologising profusely. ‘My parents didn’t bring me up to talk like that,’ she told me. ‘They would have been ashamed to hear what I said. I’ll never talk like that again.’
As I read her words I cried – and I learned another important lesson: we should always be proud of where we come from … and never be afraid to voice that pride.
Last week, I went back to James Bedford Close.
I walked through the flats where we used to play ‘spot the junkie’.
I saw the ghost of my childhood past clambering over the remnants of the climbing frames.
I looked up at the bedroom window I used to gaze from and dream of better.
And I felt incredibly grateful.
Grateful for the start in life growing up on a council estate gave me.
Grateful for the street-smarts and the savvy and the endless adventures.
Grateful for the lesson that anything is possible with the right amount of grit and the determination to dream.