Her family moved from a town in Surrey to Portland Road in Croydon at the back end of the 1960s, where they lived above the fruit and vegetable shop they ran. She recalls the area as bustling and thriving: there was a toy shop next door, a jeweller the other side, a doctor’s surgery on one corner, a launderette on another, a newsagent and lots of pubs. They owned the property, back when London housing could be cheap. It was a four-bedroom terraced place not far from Norwood Junction station. Her mum and dad had one of the bedrooms. She and her older sister shared another. Four of her eight little brothers fitted into each of the other two. Her dad used scaffold poles to rig up bunks.
“Downstairs at the back was a sitting room with two long sofas and lots of bookshelves, which became filled up by my sister, who picked up wonderful books for us all from everywhere,” she recalls. “There was also a Bible. And at some point we got given an incredibly out-of-date encyclopedia. Our school teachers had to keep telling us, ‘That country doesn’t exist anymore’. We always had Radio 4 on. We read the Guardian. Conversations about current affairs were invariably about Northern Ireland.”
There was a small dining room with a table which had a bench down either side – five children to each, not much elbow room. “Meal times would vary, depending on what mood Daddy was in. There was always plenty of food but also a hierarchy about who got what. While we were all eating mince, Daddy would have lamb chops. For pudding, there would be a packet of biscuits. Daddy would get two and we would all get one.”
At Christmas, gifts were mostly practical: underwear, socks and a satsuma. But there was excitement too. “Daddy would tie the sitting room door shut with string so we couldn’t sneak in and we had our presents together after mass”. Charitable food parcels were delivered. “It was one of the best things. There would be a knock at the door and everything was all wrapped up and looked lovely. There would always be some kind of tinned meat from the Co-op, but what you really hoped for was that someone had put some chocolate or some biscuits in. I was very interested by what the parcels contained. It was very nice of people to do this, but the fact was that if you gave one tin of peaches to a family of twelve, it wasn’t enough. For everyone to have tinned peaches, you needed four tins at least.”
There was a practical problem with schooling. The nearest Roman Catholic primary didn’t have a spare place in every year, which was what the family required, and the parents didn’t want the children going to different schools. St Joseph’s at Crown Dale did have room for all of them, but going there meant a daily bus ride. After her older sister moved up to secondary school, it became her job alone, age ten, to supervise the commute, with five or six younger brothers in tow. “I was pretty good at it until the day I got run over. I climbed off the Routemaster before a stop to reduce the length of the walk back, and a bicycle knocked me down. I woke up on the side of the road, covered in blood. I walked the boys the rest of the way, then I was walked up to the Cottage Hospital at Crystal Palace to get my stitches put in.”
Things got better after her dad gave up drink. He could be in a bad mood, but there was far more stability. That said: “The Troubles were always in the ether. Like all Irish families, we were convinced our phone was tapped. We had nothing to do with the IRA or anything like that, but I can remember the Special Branch coming round one day, and Daddy running out of the house and them chasing him down the road and me standing on the pavement thinking, “Why don’t they catch him and take him away?’”
By then, they’d leased the fruit and veg shop to a double-glazing firm. Her mother found work as a waitress: “Mummy was never going to let herself be dependent on anyone for money, so she always worked, right up until they went back to Ireland. He always wanted her to stop, but she was always preparing for the day in case she might need her own money again.”
There was work for the daughters too. “Bizarrely, from the age of 13 I was better off than all my friends from better off homes. I might go waitressing with Mummy in Purley on a Saturday night then go and meet my friends with £15 in my pocket. The boys would wash up breakfast things at the Queen’s Hotel. The double-glazing people would pay us to deliver leaflets through letterboxes. We used to push them round Crystal Palace on the family pram. People probably thought we were gypsies.”
The parents, though, were at pains to persuade their brood of their good fortune in the world. “We only ever had Rich Tea biscuits, but we were told they were the kings of the biscuit world.” Other people went to Spain on package holidays. Such a cruel thing to endure. “’Imagine having to stay in a hotel and not have your own bed or your own place to play in,’ they would say. I used to think ‘How awful’. They convinced me that all these things that other people had were signs of deprivation and poor taste. Tomato ketchup was the work of the Devil – those poor people having tomato ketchup on a fish and chip supper on a tray in front of the telly. Dear God, how low can you go?”
Ireland is often called a land of saints and scholars. Her father beat the demon drink and as she grew up she grew to love him, just as she had always loved her miraculous mum. It might have helped that when she was small her dad had let her gnaw the lamb chop bones when he was finished. All ten of the children got degrees.
Earlier this month, she returned to Portland Road to do some canvassing for Labour’s Sarah Jones. “It’s strange going back to the place where you grew up. To me it felt really gloomy, like a scar running through Woodside ward.” Most of the old shop fronts had been poorly converted for residential use and several pubs were boarded up, buddleia sprouting from the brickwork. There were bits she recalled as looking deprived that had perked up: a new library by the station and a bit of market there too. “But mostly you thought, this is an area that needs some help.”
A former painting and decorating shop had become a second hand furniture place. “It was full to the ceiling with things you would very happily have in your home. Someone came in while I was there and said ‘my mother’s died and there’s all this teak and mahogany and I don’t know where to put it’. You felt that if there had been more gentrification in the area there would have been more local people buying it, realizing it was valuable and sort of vintage.
“Then this couple came in, who were big Brexiteers. They bought stuff from the man in the shop and were going to take it into town to sell it. They started going on about taking back control. The man who ran the shop was a middle-aged black man. I asked him who he thought he’d vote for. He said, ‘Well, Boris seems nice’.”
Woodside ward was part of the Croydon North East constituency until that seat’s abolition in 1997. It was always represented by Conservatives, mostly notably Bernard Weatherill, who became Speaker. It is now part of the marginal Croydon Central, which Jones took from the Tories in 2017. “Most of the people whose doors I knocked were Remainers and Labour voters and said they always voted Labour,” she says of her return to her old neighbourhood. “Some of them were old BAME people, who were anxious because they hadn’t received a polling card and were worried they had fallen off the roll. There were quite a few young couples too, and I was thinking, ‘these are people who couldn’t afford to buy in Penge so they’ve come to South Norwood instead. They are going to change the area again’.
The Brexiteer couple came past a couple of times in their van, hooting and shouting “vote for Boris”. Sarah Jones retained Croydon Central with an improved majority. Boris Johnson became Prime Minister.
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