Diann Gerson has lived in Reginald House for over 30 years. She moved in when her daughter Kerry was just a baby, and a few years after she had her son Brian. Now, Diann is a triple grandmother with two more grandkids on the way, and in 2009, Diann won first prize of the glam gran award. She is in full-time employment.
Diann grew up in the countryside of Bedfordshire and first came to London when she was 17. She lived in various boroughs, lived in Hazelwood House in Deptford for a while, and when she was expecting Kerry, friends living on the Pepys Estate (Lanyard House) put her up as she was waiting to be housed. “This was the time when people with babies were given council properties”, Diann remembers, so when Kerry was born, Diann was offered this flat in Reginald House where she has lived ever since. “When I came to Deptford I knew this was my place to live. Everybody gave it such a bad name, but everybody was so friendly. I immediately became a customer at Johnny Price’s and I still shop there today. It was him and his family who first got displaced from Reginald Road after the war. I actually went into labour in Johnny Price’s shop – I’d just done some shopping. I absolutely love Deptford, it’s so multicultural, everyone mingles, it’s one place and we’re all in it together.”
Kerry with their dog on the balcony of Reginald House in the early 90s (Diann in the background)
Diann was very poor when she came to Deptford and remembers sleeping on a mattress in the living room when she first moved into Reginald House. There was no heating at that time and as the only gas fire was in the living room it was convenient to sleep there. “During the first nights in winter, me and my daughter had to go to bed in full gear – fully clothed from top to bottom it was so cold. There was inch-thick ice inside the windows. But the attitude at the time was to just get on with it!” But what has always been special about living at Reginald House for Diann is the relationship with neighbours and the strong community they have built up. The community here has experienced good days and bad days, births and deaths, celebrations and conflicts – all of which have made the community stronger over the years. Diann narrates her memories:
“Everybody here was so friendly when we moved in. In No 18, there was was a lady called Dolly, and next door were Jim and Sue, and we all got along. Dolly was a very old lady and struggled up the stairs. Although she could have lived on the coast with her daughters, she refused as she didn’t want to leave Reginald House. We all looked out for her. Jim’s son often knocked asking whether she needed something from the shop, but all she seemed to be living on was eggs and a Mars Bar. When we hadn’t seen her for a while, we knew she wasn’t okay so we knocked a few times but she always said “I’m alright” and didn’t want anything. She was one of the old-fashioned ones who don’t want to admit they need help. We knew she wasn’t alright so we kicked down the door and found her lying on the floor. We called the ambulance… she never came home again. Dolly was the first one to go. Then there was Stephanie, and we’re still in two minds whether she was murdered or not. The police did investigate it because things didn’t really add up, but at the time we were all in denial. She was diabetic and was said to just have died, but when you thought about it years later and the things that were said, it all seemed a bit dodgy. The funeral was weird too – the husband refused to do anything for it and me and Sonia organised the wake in Reginald House. It was very strange. Then there was Mummy Comfort – that’s what we used to call her as she was the oldest in the block. She was an elderly lady from Africa and couldn’t read so she used to bring me letters to read out to her; she trusted me. One particular summer, Marcel came and knocked on my door telling me Mummy Comfort’s old cousin was here saying he was concerned. He brought the guy in here and we told him that she hadn’t gone away (she used to go away a lot) but that we hadn’t seen her for a while, so we went to her flat and knocked and knocked and knocked. Sonia has skinny arms and tried putting her arm through the gap between the door and the wall to open the door but it was locked. I then stupidly opened the letterbox to see what’s going on, and the smell coming from there knocked me sick, I threw up straight away! We rang the police and had to wait for special police to kick open the door. Two officers rushed back out to vomit – obviously she had passed. I was in touch with Mummy Comfort’s daughter in Canada and we retrieved everything worth saving to send to Canada before the council would throw everything away. We were invited to the funeral as special guests and had to wear all the tribal gear. The funeral was conducted in a different language but when they were talking about us all we heard was ‘good neighbour’, ‘good neighbour’.”
Diann comments on the fact that through these experiences of death it can be seen just how much the community here support each other. “We all look out for each other, we are like family here!”, she says, and remembers when Jim from No 20 saved her ex-husband’s life. He had cut a main artery on his arm after punching a window, and Jim put his fingers on the cut to stop the bleeding until the ambulance came. And of course, there are a lot of happy memories of living in Reginald House. Diann remembers the good old days when they all used to sit outside, had a glass of wine, kids playing outside, celebrating all the kids’ birthdays together and sharing food and drink. “They were also the days when you washed down your balcony and took pride in your place, scrubbing down your side”, Diann reminisces.
Despite some people having died or moved out, the remaining community is still very strong, also with people that moved in years after Diann arrived. Diann and Sonia have become very close friends and been through a lot together. “People always used to call us Bench an Batty because we were always together”. They are friends with each other’s families, their kids are the same age and so are their grandkids. “Recently, me and Sonia decided to have a BBQ because she’s got a little griller. So we went shopping, got the BBQ going on the balcony, were getting the food ready, and the intercom went. Sonia just hung up because she thought it was her grandkids’ father mucking about. But the intercom rang again, so she picked up and her face just turned! It was the fire brigade! They told her off because you’re not allowed to hang up on emergency services. They then said: “There’s a fire on your balcony.” Sonia said: “No, we’re just having a BBQ” to which the fire brigade replied: “You’re not allowed to have a BBQ on the balcony”. So, the fire brigade came and put out the fire. It was a Saturday and there were two fire engines blocking the whole road to sort out our BBQ; so we caused quite a bit of a commotion round here”, Diann laughs. Another story Diann remembers involves her neighbour Marcel, who’s really chilled and always as cool as a cucumber. “So, I’m sitting in my house, minding my own business, kids were still here so this is quite a few years ago, and somebody frantically knocking on my door. It’s Marcel and he tells me in the coolest manner: “Diann, your kitchen is on fire!” He came in, grabbed a wet towel and put in on top of the chip pan. I had clearly forgotten about it and the fact that the children needed feeding – there was probably a good soap on the telly (hahaha). I would have been screaming but he told me in such a calm manner, I never did. He saved me.”
Diann loves the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden too and has often taken her grandkids to spend time there. For people living in the area, especially those living in flats, Diann says, the garden is perfect, as it gets the kids out of the house. Recently, she had a BBQ in the garden with family and friends (after the event on the balcony), and as there were some extra people around, she fed them too. Diann’s kids went to that original Tidemill School, and Diann shows me a picture of her son Brian wearing the school T-shirt at that time (ca. 2000). “Brian recently went to the garden to have his bike fixed and he became all nostalgic; he’ll be sorry to see it go.” For Diann, going into the garden is like stepping off the madness; it’s a little oasis for people living in flats. It is her extended community. “If you need space, take the basketball court, but leave the garden for people to sit in and reminisce.” Beginning of August this year, Diann, with friends and garden volunteers, organised an amazing Jamaican Independence Party, which was a huge success with people asking whether Diann would repeat it next year. But with the imminent closure of the garden and without any spaces left where locals can organize their own cultural activities, this won’t be possible. To help save the garden, please donate here.
Bottom image: Diann’s granddaughter at the Jamaican Independence Party in Tidemill Garden
When I ask Diann how she would define community, she associates it with one word only: family. “My community is my neighbours, and my extended community is with people in the garden. My immediate community are people I can depend and rely on at all costs, no matter what it is, what time of the day it is. If someone doesn’t have money or food, they are always welcome to come and eat with me, I always have food to share. There is a sense of trust in each other, that we’ve got each other’s backs. It is this underlying thing that you can’t put your finger on. For example, I haven’t seen Marcel for ages because he’s busy but if I ring him today to say that I need help, he’ll find time to help me straight away. Marcel has been an absolute star over the years – he’s fixed this and that – electrics, plumbing and things like that. He also put in the cooker in my daughter’s flat in Forest Hill – he’s seen them grow up so we’re like family. Community is someone to talk to if you want to get things off your chest; it’s like having lots of best friends. I can go and ask anything of anyone. It’s like family.”
And there is Sonia, of course. “We’ve done a lot of growing up together. I don’t know what I would have done without her. Her living here and being here has made my life much better, otherwise I might have felt lonely and cut off. Especially with this indecision about the demolition – this has been going on for 10 years! It’s emotionally very difficult and we understand each other because we are going through the same. Other people might not understand what we are going through with these development plans. If it weren’t for her, I would have fallen into a depression. I actually developed agoraphobia – I’m so tense because we don’t know, is it another 6 months, 9 months, a few years? The planned demolition of your home has so many repercussions. For instance, I have accumulated so much stuff over the years and I know it’s sentimental but I’ll have to make decisions of what I can keep or not. Losing my home will turn my life and kids’ life upside down; this is my and their family home. I do try my hardest not to think about it because I just want to go to the council and shout at them. What you see on the outside is not what is going on on the inside. They don’t understand how it tears you up! What we’ve had to go through! Do I decorate? No, it’s not worth it. Do I get this? No, I’d better wait, you don’t know what’s going to happen. The council keep changing ideas and making false promises they shouldn’t be making in something called ‘consultation’. They want this and that from us – at one point they wanted our birth certificates – and we just don’t know what’s going on. You feel like giving up – you don’t know what to do.”
At first, Diann was offered a like-for-like arrangement which in her case would mean a 2-bedroom flat. “Then they came round to assess my housing needs, which in my case would probably mean a 1-bedroom flat, considering my children are grown up.” But where would that leave her? Her son often needs a place to sleep as he’s currently between places and her 3, soon to be 5, grandkids often visit and stay over. Where would they sleep? Now it seems residents are being offered like-for-like again, but will that really be the case? Same size? Same rates? Same conditions? Nobody really knows. Also, Diann has recently spent nearly £1,000 on the walk-in wardrobe she has dreamed of for years. Is that going to go to waste? And Diann really doesn’t like open-plan flats. She cooks a lot and everything would become greasy if the living room and kitchen were one place. Finally, the dream of having a ground-floor flat with a garden seems off the cards as it appears they will be reserved for those who can afford to pay to have a garden!
Diann in front of her walk-in wardrobe
Diann is an active campaigner in the Save Reginald! Save Tidemill! campaign and has spoken publicly about the impact losing her home would have on her. She started campaigning to save Reginald House and Tidemill Garden when she first heard about the demolition plans 10 years ago. “At first, the plans included 2 blocks on Giffin Street and we sent petition after petition which the council never responded to. When it was decided that Giffin Street would remain, we again sent petitions with recorded delivery. We also wanted to get a solicitor involved as we didn’t know how to go about saving our homes, but we couldn’t afford it. We put a lot of effort into it the first few years…and then we hit a brick wall, we hit despondency because you start asking yourself what am I doing this for? It was like sitting down and waiting for the inevitable.” This was the time when Diann developed agoraphobia, insomnia and nearly hit depression. She would just sit on the sofa on her days off and dwell on it, toss and turn every night, unable to sleep. “I might not show it outwardly, but inwardly, I was a mess. It does take its toll on you.” Then Pauline, another Reginald House resident, came to see Diann in June 2018, when the final decision to demolish Reginald House and Tidemill Garden was made and objections rejected by the GLA. Pauline informed Diann of this and persuaded her to come down to the garden and join the campaign again. Diann hasn’t looked back since. “I’ve gone from one extreme to the next. It’s given me purpose – I doubt we’ll win but I will try my best and at least I won’t have left it untried. It’s given me hope. It’s rejuvenated me because I’m not resigned now waiting for them to knock. I feel stronger because there are so many other people fighting with us.”
Banner on Reginald House
But other neighbours are not so full of hope, Diann tells me. “Some are so beaten down, they are resigned to it. It’s so sad. One neighbour recently told me that there is probably a dead mouse behind their fridge (due to the bad smell), but that it’s ok, it’s only one and the first after a long time. We are forced to have this attitude, to simply accept this, because repairs aren’t being done. We have been totally neglected here for a long time. I used to have to clean the oven each time before cooking for my kids in case there was mouse poo somewhere. I also used to have a lot of books and a few years back there was a really bad smell coming from the bookshelf. I found a dead mouse that had started decomposing behind my books, and there was mouse poo and urine all over. I had to throw away my whole collection, a life-time collection of old books. You’d notice a bad smell and you’d have to turn everything around to search for the dead mouse – it was disgusting. The council did nothing about it – we shouldn’t have to live like this! My house has now been mouse-proofed, but if I had been on my own with all this, without the community we have here, I wouldn’t have been able to cope, it was horrific.”
Diann does not want to lose her family home. The building and the flats are in need of repair, but there is no need to demolish Reginald House. Diann loves the building and her flat; it is the place where her life and her kids’ and grandkids’ lives have unfolded; it is the place where their memories live, where everything reminds them of the events that have occurred in their lives.
Diann’s Fairy collection
Diann is now standing by the window, one of her favourite places in the flat. She tells me about things she has witnessed from here, she tells me about the people who live across the road and the things they get up to. “You see the world go by from here”, she says, “you see people who you recognize.” Another sanctuary of her flat is her balcony where she grows herbs such as chives, rosemary, mint and her favourite: horseradish. She can’t bear to think about losing it all.