“We tenants, we are not going to win”

DSC_2497Bernard is a pensioner who lives on the 2nd floor in Austin House on Achilles Street, which is up for demolition. Until his retirement in September 2017, Bernard was a Drugs and Alcohol Worker, helping young drug users find a way back into normal life. It was not something he had planned; he had done a moulding apprenticeship in a factory in Charlton in the 70s and became a skilled moulder/core maker for making ship propellers. When the Propeller section moved to Birkenhead in the mid 70s, he didn’t know what to do, so he went to Oxford Street to look for work, where he met a blind man from South Africa. Bernard told him about himself and that he didn’t know what to do and the man said: “It sounds like you like working with people. Why don’t you try working with young people?” Bernard was intrigued and then it all fell into place.

Bernard found voluntary work in north London to help troubled young adults, where he was taught everything from the ground up. And through some coincidences, one of the managers there, Karl, was to play a big part in Bernard’s long-term future. When Bernard took a paid job in a mental support office in Brixton, Karl was Bernard’s manager again, and after Bernard was diagnosed with sickle cell disease after coming out of a 7-week coma after falling ill at a family party, Karl offered him a job in Newham as soon as he was getting better. “Do you want a job working with young Class A drug users?”, he asked Bernard. This is how he became an Alcohol and Drugs Worker.

After being diagnosed, Bernard needed to be rehoused into more suitable accommodation. He was living in Forest Hill at the time and then he was offered this council flat in Austin House. At first, he didn’t realise where Achilles Street was, despite the fact that he grew up in New Cross, but when he arrived in 2005, he immediately went down Memory Lane. “I came to the UK in the early 1960s when I was 9 years old and grew up not far from Achilles Street”, he tells me. “I used to live in Batavia Road, went to Childeric Primary and attended the doctor’s surgery at Clifton Rise where now the new flats stand. What is now Fordham Park used to be all houses and what is now the underpass by New Cross Station and McMillan Park used to a road that would take you all the way from Pagnell Street to the Albany”, Bernard remembers. “It has changed so much; my past is all but a memory now.” Later his family moved to Brockley and Bernard has moved around London a fair bit, but he has always stayed closely connected to New Cross through school, music and friends. Sickle cell disease has brought him back to New Cross for good.

Bernard remembers Moonshot (when it was still in its original location) and Sybil Phoenix, a Caribbean woman who put her heart and soul into looking after the black community, organising youth and community projects that kept young people off the streets. Bernard was one of those kids, and all the events organised at Moonshot kept him out of trouble. “At that time, there were lots of gangs in the area and there was the Lewisham Gang who invited me to become a member. At first I said yes but then I asked them what they do. When they said they steal, rob and break into people’s houses I declined. My parents had brought me up to never steal and always tell the truth, so I said no. Unfortunately, that made me the enemy of the gang. I remember there was a fight one day between my friend George, a local guy who was part of our community, and another gang. There was a lot of territorial rivalry between Jamaicans and this gang was on our turf in the Childeric playground. It got nasty and George stabbed someone in the side; I was holding George’s coat. To this day I can hear the blade going into the guy’s body and it will stay with me forever. The fight stopped – the guys hadn’t expected to be beaten. I just ran home.”

Life in the 70s was tough for a Jamaican living in New Cross, and Bernard was part of the British Black Power Movement. He remembers his first experience of racism. “I was 12 and walking home from School in my school uniform and then three white women walking past said to me: ‘You have dirty black knees!’ I ran home and asked my parents to buy me long pants!” Later, when he was a young adult, he had a friend living close to the Millwall Den and they used to watch the games together but afterwards “I could never walk her home, I had to leave straight after the game because otherwise I wouldn’t have made it home in peace.”  Bernard was nearly killed at Dartford Train Station, when a group of skinheads who’d been drinking in the Railway Tavern, beat him up really badly. He only survived because a white girl shouted: “You’re going to kill him!” and then they stopped. The train guard put him and another badly beaten black guy onto the train. “I have no recollection of that train journey but luckily the other guy also got off at New Cross and somehow I made it home.”

Bernard is clear that racism still exists today and that we need to recognise it’s there; that parents need to make their children aware. “My parents always taught me to do the right thing, so I’m not bitter. But sometimes there is no cohesion within families, the way some kids talk to their parents! There was a difference in my upbringing, in the values I was taught, to always be honest and respectful. And there were other people that looked after me and influenced me a lot – three in particular. The first was the milkman I used to do the milk round with. He was the sweetest man I’ve ever met. He couldn’t care less that I was black; he took me under his wing. Then there was Mr Laws, an English Teacher at Samuel Pepys Primary School, which doesn’t exist anymore. He would teach us black kids how to pronounce difficult words. And there was one of my mentors when I started up my apprenticeship in Charlton – I learnt a lot from him. ‘What people say is a measure of who they are’ – is really what I have learnt. Children are not bad by default – it really depends on what they’re taught and told when they grow up. But I had a choice and I made something of my life, and if I could do it then others can do it too. People can choose to be good people.”

Bernard went to school with Jah Shaka (or Nev Powell as he was called before), the well-known DJ whose sound system, the Shaka Sound, became well-known across the country for promoting roots music and a spiritually charged atmosphere*. Before Shaka became famous, he used to DJ in Moonshot using the sound system Freddie Cloudburst. Bernard has always loved music and was part of that scene at the time and it was through a strange coincidence that he became a DJ himself. “Shaka was the DJ that night but was not known by that name at that time. We were in Sybil’s house before with Shaka getting ready. We were in different rooms and Shaka asked me to put a record on to check that the equipment was working. I was so nervous my hands were shaking. I’d never put on a record before. My hand was shaking so hard I dropped the needle onto the record. I looked up and then the strangest thing happened. All the people in the room were looking at me and I became aware how much I loved the attention I was getting. It was magic. It was then that I decided to become a DJ.”

Music became Bernard’s No 1 love. Bernard used to DJ in a club on Peckham High Street called Bouncing Ball (later Mr Bees) but he also recalls a night where he was DJ-ing in Ram Jam in Brixton. “You have to understand that people who used to go to Ram Jam knew their music; resident artists there were mostly Jamaicans and so expectations were high. If you didn’t hit the mark with the music, people would not move. There was no-one on the dance floor at first when I started but I remember that after I started playing music the dance floor filled up. It was this power of music that was greater than I. Music was the love of my life”, he says, “music, liquor and weed, this was the life. It was rough and at times dangerous, but life was good!”

His DJ career ended when the smoking of weed became so much that he lost focus. “There are times when your senses are heightened or slowed down and if you’re not mindful, the music will draw you in and distract you from focus. It was a very competitive scene so there was someone ready straight away to take over from me.” But Bernard has no regrets. This love for music is now gone and has been replaced by the love for God; Bernard became a born-again Christian. He first had doubts, but it was God that told him he would blind him to music, and this is what happened. Bernard stopped DJ-ing. But music has taken on another role in Bernard’s life: he’s learning to play the guitar. Now that he is retired, he’s bought himself a guitar and is taking lessons at home.

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Bernard likes living in Austin House because he’s back where he grew up. Living on the 2nd floor is convenient because of his illness. As Bernard can fall ill any time, the ambulance need to be able to get to him quickly so he can’t live higher than on the 2nd floor. Bernard also knows some neighbours who are there for him if he needs them. “There’s Bill obviously – he’s been living here for a long time. He also helped me out once when I locked myself out. Since then I always have a set of keys in my pocket. And there are some other people I know, but the community here has changed a heck of a lot. Many of our former neighbours have moved on or died. Goldsmiths has enlarged its territory and students aren’t mixing very well. They’re here for a bit and then go off again. You can talk to the older folks but the younger ones aren’t interested.”

Bernard would rather he didn’t have to move and he’s not happy about the demolition plans. “I first got wind of the demolition plans was when the council came round telling me they are making provisions for the homeless. I’m not saying no to that, of course we need to house the homeless, but it’s the way the council goes about it. They just steamroll over people’s views, and will the flats really be for the homeless? The council need to put more thought into this and think about how it will affect us. I’ve seen the full implications for our community in the past and now we’re going through the same again. All the community spirit of people living here, and the effort people have put into it over the years, that’s all going to be lost again. There’s one woman who used to live here but her rent went up so much (it’s a privately-rented flat), she’s had to move to Catford. But I can still phone her up and tell her I’m sick or without money and she’ll be here to help. Such relationships take years to build up. But everything has already changed so much. I grew up with certain things in my mind, buildings and places in the area, and they are only distant memories now. Some people call it progress; I don’t think it’s progress if all community centres and council homes are being knocked down. And if you don’t know what was there before, you won’t understand. At least my memories can’t be erased, when I walk through the area, through Fordham Park, I walk through people’s houses because that was there when I grew up. But when I’m gone, my memories will go with me and my history will be erased. But the way the whole area is changing, the local communities will also be erased.”

Bernard is a council tenant and has been promised to be rehoused. He has informed the council that he cannot live higher up than the 2nd floor but hasn’t heard back. According to him, it is only a matter of waiting now. “We tenants, we are not going to win but please treat us right, treat us fairly! We need better regeneration and think about all people. They want to build a car park on Clifton Rise and have Achilles Street free from parked cars. But I am registered as disabled; sometimes I cannot walk as far as Clifton Rise, especially on days when I’m not too well. I need close access to my car and need to be able to get home quickly. At the same time, I need to keep fit and do exercise to manage my illness but on days when I feel dizzy or weak, I cannot walk to Wavelengths to do exercise, I need somewhere closer and cheap to use a gym. I’m a pensioner now and I know what it means to live on a state pension. I used to go on holiday once a year and never worry about money, but now that I’m retired, things have changed a lot. So, I’m limited, physically and financially. I can take sick at any time and I’m very aware of that; the first sign of back pain and I need to stop everything right away and go home. So, it’s good to have people around me that I know and can trust, but I don’t know where these people are going to be housed after that. I hope I’ll be fine.”

*Reference: Anim-Addo, J. (1995) Longest Journey: A History of Black Lewisham. Deptford Forum Publishing

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