27 February 2024

Land of a thousand cockroaches : 1986-1987 : Deptford Housing Co-operative, London

 “Gimme your money!” he shouted, pointing a pistol at me. He had jumped out from behind some bushes. It was a dark winter evening. I was alone. Nobody was about. I was ten metres from the entrance to New Cross railway station, about to return home, having walked my girlfriend to her train after an evening together. Street lighting beyond the railway was abysmal. I jumped with surprise. It was my first mugging. It was my first year living in London. I was aware of the advice: hand over your wallet and do not argue. I knew the fate of Thomas Wayne.

Except that I had no wallet to give. I had a five-pound note in the left pocket of my black Levi 501’s and some loose change. That was it. No credit cards. In London, I knew to carry as little as possible. I had not carried a wallet since an embarrassing incident in 1978 when I had parked my little yellow Datsun at the end of Upper Gordon Road, opposite Elmhurst Ballet school, and walked into the town centre. Within the hour, I returned to the car and drove home, only to receive a phone call from Camberley police station. Somebody had picked up my wallet from the gutter and handed it in. It must have fallen from the side pocket of my jacket as I stooped to enter the car. I had no idea it was missing. I collected the wallet and found it intact. I have never forgotten that anonymous ‘good Samaritan’. After that, I gave up carrying a wallet.

Later that same year, I had robbed myself through carelessness as a twenty-year old student union vice-president. Following an extensive survey of the photocopier market, having used such machines since the 1960’s, I decided that the Rank Xerox 3600 was the most modern and robust to rent and install on the mezzanine level of the student building in Durham. Once the company’s technicians had set it up and departed, I was so keen to test it that I wanted to make the first copy. However, I had not been carrying any papers so I reached into my pocket and pulled out the only banknote I had. It was £50 because, in the pre-debit card era, I would withdraw £100 monthly from Lloyds Bank’s cash machine opposite Dunelm House. I put the note on the platen, pressed the button and out came a perfect monochrome copy which I then rushed off to let my peers admire. Minutes later, I realised I had left the £50 note in the machine and returned to find it … gone. The copier’s first student user must have been delighted!

Now, accosted in the shadow of South London 24-storey high-rises, within seconds I had to decide how to react. I had no wallet. If I were to offer my meagre five-pound note, this highwayman might become angry and violent. It was never a good idea to argue with a man pointing a gun at you. I stared at my mugger, his face mostly hidden by a blue bandana. He was barely five feet tall. Was he even an adult? 1981’s ‘Stand and Deliver’ music video flickered in my head (no relation). I recalled childhood streets that encompassed Gibbet Lane where, times past, robbers like him on the main road to London had been hanged. I took the rash decision to simply turn and walk away … briskly. I might be shot in the back. I might be attacked from behind. My heart was beating so fast but I knew not to break into a run. And, incredibly luckily, nothing at all happened.

Home was five minutes’ walk away. On the payphone inside the front door, I immediately called 999 to report the incident. While I was sat waiting in the kitchen for a police officer to arrive and take my statement, one of my female co-tenants arrived. I explained breathlessly what had just happened. She quietly recounted that she had suffered the same experience in precisely the same place, a few days previously, and had been relieved of her handbag. Had she reported the robbery? No. I was aghast. Why not? I waited several hours, no police arrived. In the weeks and months that followed, my crime report was never followed up. I lost my faith in ‘the Met’ that night.

What the hell was I doing living in this rundown, sometime scary part of London? It was desperation. In January 1986, I had taken my first job in London, managing a job creation scheme at ‘Radio Thamesmead’. The daily commute by coach and multiple trains from my mother’s home in west Surrey to southeast London was hellish, consuming four to six hours per day. My government pay was too low to afford private rented accommodation in London. Neither could I register for council housing because I was not already dwelling in a London borough. I consulted ‘Yellow Pages’ directories in Camberley library and typed individual letters to every housing co-operative in London, enquiring whether I could rent a room. There was only one encouraging reply, from ‘Deptford Housing Cooperative’, telling me it would contact me when a place became available.

Months passed without a word. I wrote again. I was invited to a meeting. I was eventually offered a three-metre by three-metre room in a ten-person house at a reasonable rent. I took it. My travel-to-work time was cut from hours to minutes and my cost to very little as I was journeying the opposite direction to suburban commuters. The morning trains I was now taking to work were almost empty, whereas I would never forget my first day at Radio Thamesmead when, changing trains at London Bridge station, I had been knocked down the staircase of platform six by a hard briefcase wielded like a battering ram by a descending bowler-hatted gentleman. It had been my first lesson in commuter rage.

Some of my nine new housemates were lovely, some not quite so. Before my arrival, they had jointly decided at a ‘house meeting’ to rent a colour television from ‘Radio Rentals’ but, within weeks, it had disappeared one night from the living room, allegedly stolen and fenced by housemate Knollys. There were characters. One young bearded dropout seemed to model himself on ‘Citizen Smith’, railing against capitalism whilst living on benefits, wearing a denim jacket covered in badges and smoking roll-your-owns. One young woman attended a friend’s Berber wedding in the mountains of Algeria and returned with amazing photos and stories.

My room in the house was thankfully dry and secure, though somewhat noisy as it was adjacent to the railway line. However, I quickly learned never to use the ground-floor kitchen. Switching on the kitchen light triggered a loud sound like the noise of a receding wave washing pebbles down a beach. I learned it was made by cockroaches scuttling to hide from the light, a phenomenon new to me. Not dozens of them. Hundreds! We contacted the housing manager who ordered a pest control specialist to come and fumigate the kitchen. Days later, the noise was still occurring. If you opened any kitchen drawer, you could watch them scatter.

A further visit by pest control was organised. This time, the kitchen and adjoining living room were fumigated simultaneously and cordoned off-limits for a whole day. We were more hopeful. But hope proved not enough to kill the vermin. Within days, the expert had to be recalled to examine our evidence that bugs were still present in massive numbers. He looked. He saw. He told us: “the only way to get rid of so many of them would be to demolish the building”.

Demolition was not going to happen. Our house was in the middle of a terrace of eight three-story units on Rochdale Way that had only been constructed in 1978. Yet already our unit should have been condemned as unsanitary. But notification to health inspectors would have made all ten of us homeless. Instead, we suffered the bugs and I saw some housemates continue to use the kitchen for preparing meals, despite the evident health risk.

Filth and crime quickly became my initial impressions of London living. When my cassette deck developed a fault, I returned it to the closest branch of ‘Comet’ in nearby Lewisham which agreed to repair it under guarantee and return it within a fortnight. A month later, I was still waiting. The shop stonewalled me for a few weeks more before admitting that its lorry, with my equipment inside, had been stolen. Would I accept a brand-new replacement? Yes, I would and selected a top-of-the-range model that would substitute perfectly for my vanished bottom-of-the-range purchase.

After having started work in Thamesmead in January 1986, it had taken until September for me to be offered this room in Deptford, six miles away. However, my one-year work contract there ended in December, after which I took a seasonal job at ‘Capital Radio’ in central London. Then, in the new year, I started a long commute three days a week to work at ‘Ace Records’ in Harlesden, twice as far away on the opposite side of the city. Once again, most of my earnings were being spent on travelling to work. I would have saved more money if I could have used my house’s kitchen, rather than having to buy takeaway meals every evening.

It was time to find somewhere to live nearer my new workplace, hopefully a self-contained flat rather than another house share. My one year in Deptford had proven interesting – Deptford High Street market, Pearlie kings and queens, Jamaican patties, second-hand record shops, pirate radio, nearby Greenwich Sunday market – but it would be nice to sleep soundly without worrying whether thousands of cockroaches could climb the staircase overnight to invade my bedroom. I started buying the weekly ‘Willesden Chronicle’ local newspaper from the stand outside Harlesden station to scan the small ads. Presently, my house was not a home.

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