Ashley works at the café Rough & Ready on 311 Evelyn Street where all pensioners get free tea and coffee. Rough & Ready was set up by Sharon Haward in 2015 and is a café that works in connection with the pensioners charity DAGE (Deptford Action Group for the Elderly), which was founded by Sharon and her late husband Harry Haward. Ashely has worked in Rough & Ready for a couple of years and absolutely loves it here. Ashley is actually a trained book-keeper and accountant and could very easily work in an accountancy firm earning much more money. But she’s not interested – she’d rather work at Rough & Ready where she looks forward to going to work every day, where she can actively contribute to the local community and where she experiences a sense of belonging and membership.
Ashley grew up on an estate in Forest Hill and remembers the local family-run pub which hosted all the local birthday parties and other celebrations, and where her family and friends met every Thursday. “This pub and everything else, has now become flats and has turned a community where everybody once knew each other into strangers where no-one knows each other anymore”, she says. Community life plays an essential role in Ashley’s life and in Rough & Ready, and she tells me how she feels about the regeneration of Deptford:
“The regeneration is taking the heart out of the community. Building flats everywhere and taking away little shops takes away the heart of the community. Having pubs and little shops, little places that are run by ‘ordinary’ people whose names you know is what brings people together. Over the years you build a rapport with each other and people become like friends who pick you up when you’re having a bad day just by having a little chat with you. I think that being in one place brings the community together, like DAGE where you find the elderly generation together with the younger generation; with Scott [Sharon’s son] and with all the younger people coming in, helping out with the van and other work. And yet, they want to knock everything down and big corporations build flats and commercial units where no-one speaks to or acknowledges each other. I mean in 10 years’ time, if this carries on and all the little shops that are run by little single people are gone, no-one will be kind to each other anymore. We have no more pubs where people used to socialise, and there won’t be any more common places where to socialise for people living in flats. People pass each other on the stairs, walk past each other, not knowing each other. Knowing each other and being kind is a massive part of humanity and community but there are no places where people can get to know each other. And a lot of people who move in only stay a couple of years so you can’t build a relationship anyway. And this is what all this building flats everywhere is doing, it’s killing community.”
Ashley mentions how surprised people are when they are being served and spoken to so kindly by such a young person. Ashley is 26, has just given birth to her second child, and often people seem amazed by the fact that a young person is so interested in talking to them. “Young people today have not been brought up with the same kind of sense of community as older generations and they don’t know how to talk to people. No-one wants to go into a shop today and speak to people, they just want to get their things and that’s it. But they also don’t know how to act when somebody starts talking to them because they haven’t had that sort of upbringing.” Ashely says that her nan, who brought her up, always taught her to say Hello to other people and show respect to them, and she now wants to pass on those values to her children as well. “Sometimes when you speak to kids now, they don’t know how to respond to you because they aren’t used to that because we’ve lost that sense of community. There used to be a youth club on our road where we all used to go and where we learnt so much by being there. There were older peers as well and we learnt so much there. Kids today don’t have that sort of club anymore because all the little things, built by single people, are being knocked down to build flats and to earn money. But life shouldn’t be about money and when we get to the age of 80 or 90, what’s going to be there for us?”
It’s quite obvious what a community hub Rough & Ready is and how Ashley and Sharon contribute to this atmosphere. During my visits to Rough & Ready, I have often overheard Ashley and Sharon speaking to customers, whose names, life stories and personal circumstances they seem acquainted with, and have often watched them going out of their way to help customers and treat them kindly, no matter what their background is. You can tell they enjoy what they’re doing and that they live to serve the community. “Working in Rough & Ready makes me feel a lot happier than being somewhere where I could earn more money but where I would be just a number”, Ashley says. “Going into work every day, having people around me that want to talk to me, people that are friendly, kind, that have stories to tell, being around the pensioners that come in, seeing how you can help a person simply by them coming out to see you, makes me happy.”
Ashley mentions Aileen, a lady who comes in regularly and has nobody to share her life and stories with. Ashley once asked her why she comes to Rough & Ready and she replied: ‘to be sociable; to get me out; I feel myself being panicky being indoors on my own every day.’ So, to come out and to talk to Ashley has a really positive impact on Aileen’s life. “You don’t realise you’re having such a massive impact on someone’s life just by talking to them”, Ashley states. “Me speaking to her has changed her days so much; putting a smile on the face of someone that’s probably had a hard life, and this gives me something back that money can’t buy. She only comes in an hour a day but it is something that she looks forward to a lot. Of course I don’t always have time to talk but if I do I’ll talk to her and she’s obviously so touched by it – she’s brought me Christmas presents, and a small box of chocolates or gifts for the kids and you’re thinking, ‘Gosh, she’s that appreciative of what we’re doing’. And she knows about my life like I know about hers – she knows my son’s name and when he’s here he speaks to her and shows her everything on his ipad. We’re like a little family here.”
The people who come into Rough & Ready come from all sorts of backgrounds – builders (e.g. Clive, a builder at the Timberyard), elderly couples who come in for coffee and cake, people with health issues who need to get out a bit and come in daily for a bit to socialise, and George – a bipolar gentleman, who comes in daily and leaves money with Sharon and Ashley to make sure he doesn’t go overboard with his coffee orders. “He gets a weekly allowance from a relative”, they tell me, ”and in order not to spend it all at once, he leaves some behind the counter. But he does like to go to the betting shop and sometimes runs out of money as he finds it difficult to stop, but he knows he will always get food and drink at Rough & Ready. He currently owes us £25, but we know George will pay up eventually. If it weren’t for us, George wouldn’t eat or drink sometimes.”
“Then there’s this gentleman who recently had a stroke, and who comes in every day for his breakfast, which Sharon or I cut up for him to make it easier for him to eat it. Sometimes he is unable to pay on the day and we allow him to pay us back another day. And there is Winston, a young man at the age of 20 who has Down-Syndrome and comes in every Wednesday and sits in the same chair which we keep vacant for him for when he comes. When certain regulars don’t come in on their usual days, we are immediately aware of their absence and feel relieved when we see them again well and happy the next day. At Rough & Ready, nobody makes judgements about people regardless of how they behave, look or dress.”
Ashley says she has never felt so rewarded anywhere else than she has here at Rough & Ready. She feels appreciated and is just as touched by her customers’ kindness as they are by hers. She feels like she has a family here, particularly after her nan’s death, and working with Sharon is wonderful and she feels a great sense of loyalty to her and the café.