INDEPENDENCE: A new arrival to Britain in the 1950s is turned away after inquiring about a room
IT IS because of people like the buy-to-let tycoon Fergus Wilson that I decided a long time ago that I would never allow anybody to have power over my right to live.
He is the bloke who told estate agents instructed to rent out his thousand-odd homes that he didn't want no "coloured" tenants because of the smell of curry that they leave behind. He said that he didn't mind "negroes" as much as he minded "coloureds". Good. Great. Fantastic. Brilliant.
Me and Martha/Were standing upstairs/I heard the white man say/I don't want no ni*gas up there/Tell all the black folk to listen to me/Don't try to buy a home in Washington DC/Cos it's a bourgeois town...."
Bourgeois Blues (Leadbelly)
If that isn't motivation enough for 'negroes' and 'coloureds' to secure their own tenancies by way of buying their own homes, or even become property tycoons in their own right, then we've got ourselves to blame for everything that is coming to us in terms of discriminating landlords. And it won't be pretty, I can assure you. Cos don't it happen to we and the Asians dem already?
At the moment, landlords just want our money. And you know cash has no colour bars. But five or ten years from now, if the Brexit bullet hasn't started biting and, on the contrary, the country is awash with wealthy tenants, then the discriminating will start. Trust me. It won't be the colour of your money, but the colour of your face which will take precedence.
SIGN OF THE TIMES: Housing discrimination led many black people to become home owners
Is there any tenant or landlord who really believes that if there are enough white tenants that black tenants would not be discriminated against? That's the way to cloud cuckoo land. I'll tell you why.
My own experience stems from when I was seventeen years old at the end of the seventies and I was thrown out of home (as you are) and I had nowhere to sleep but on park benches over the rec (Finsbury Park). There was no Childline to protect me back in 'them' days and I didn't know that the local council had a statutory duty to look after children like myself and to provide them with sheltered accommodation for the night.
I tell you what, when you're on your own and it's just you and the elements, you become pretty resilient pretty quickly. Your mind starts thinking and you start working hard towards that goal of a warm bed for the night and a pillow on which to rest your weary head.
So two-twos, I got myself a job and then I got myself another job and then got myself a third job, which allowed me to have three incomes and a broom cupboard in which to sleep in.
My day started with my cleaning job at a West End Theatre (The Regent Theatre, now reabsorbed into the University of Westminster complex on Upper Regent Street) at 5am (cleaning the detritus that had been left by the audience during the performance of Let My People Come, the nude musical, the night before. My shift ended at 10am. I would arrange with the drunken Scottish woman who was in charge of cleaning that I would start at 4.45am and work until 9.45am instead, which enabled me to run half a mile up Oxford Street to start my 10.00 o'clock shift washing dishes at the Top of The House restaurant on the 4th floor of Selfridges. That shift ended at 6pm. After which I would dash back to the Regent Theatre to start a 6.30pm shift as an usher at the theatre. A shift which ended at about 11pm. Then I would literally stay in the theatre overnight and kip in the broom cupboard until just before my shift started at 5am.
EXPOSED: Property tycoon Fergus Wilson
I did this for a month and earned about 120 quid a week all in (a small fortune for a seventeen year old in 1977 - yes, nobody ever thought to ask why a seventeen year old was working as an usher in a theatre with a sex musical that you needed to be eighteen to go in and see).
With my sizeable deposit I went looking for somewhere to live.
In those days, rooms for rent were advertised through the London Evening Standard classifieds.
I tell you no lie, I was so organised that, to secure a tenancy, I would go down to Fleet Street where the newspaper was printed to get the edition hot off the press and then I'd go in a phone booth (mobile phones? You're having a laugh) armed with two pence pieces and start calling the landlords.
I remember going up to see a room in Archway, north London, and when the landlord opened the door to me, he took one look at me and said, "The room has already gone," even though I had jumped on the tube there as soon as I spoke to him on the phone from Fleet Street and it was virtually impossible for someone to have got there before me.
We all know 'the look'. That look. Show me any white man and I can tell you if he's racist by just looking in his eye. Most of us can. Most of us know, if we just look inna him yeye. So don't ask me 'how do I know'. That look that bloke gave me has haunted me these last 40 years. I was so humiliated that I resolved there and then to never give a man that racist power over me.
That's why the first thing I ever did when I left university was to buy my own flat. It wasn't easy. It took a lot of juggling.
But the moment I got on the property market was the moment I realised what it meant to be an Englishman. I was not just the master of my destiny but a king in my own castle.
Nobody, but nobody would ever make me homeless again. I may have been forced to sleep in the coal shute whilst I rented out the other rooms to pay the mortgage, but I was still king.
That experience shaped me so much that I continually impress on my daughters the importance of a room of one's own. Particularly for black girls who don't have time to wait for discrimination to end, some of whom have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.
Dotun Adebayo is Britain’s most listened-to black radio talk show host. He presents Up All Night on BBC Radio 5 live Thursdays through Sundays on 909/693 MW, The Sunday Night Special on BBC 94.9FM and Reggae Time on BBC London 94.9FM on Saturday evenings. Tune in if you’re ranking!
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