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House & Home


A. John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, spent his childhood in a slum near Paddington
I grew up in St Stephen's Gardens in Paddington, West London, in a late-Victorian town house. It was built in the 1890s for the "carriage folk" - the posh people who could afford carriages - and there were lots of stables in the surrounding mews. It had five storeys and a basement and was built of London brick with a portico in stucco. Alas, the carriage folk decided they didn't want to live there and at the turn of the century the houses were sub-divided. By the First World War it was a slum. Later the notorious developer Rachman bought the whole street.

We lived in two big rooms on the ground floor with high ceilings and cornice work.

The decor and furniture were grimy. My two brothers and I slept in the corner of the large front room - I slept between two armchairs. One of my clearest memories is trying to sleep while my parents, relatives and their friends sat drinking and talking and listening to the wireless. Later we moved into the kitchen and my parents, who had slept in the kitchen up to then, moved into the front room.

We didn't have a garden but there was a kind of communal dirt patch out the back surrounded by the four backs of high terraces. In the middle was a bricked-up bomb shelter. The yard was always full of children and old women dressed in black.

My favourite room was the kitchen. It was always full of people and had an old-fashioned oven and stove with tea always on the boil. We had lots of visitors, my dad's London family and my mother's Irish family. The atmosphere was great except when there were arguments. It was damp and dirty but I was happy there.

The area was, by that time, a notorious slum. In the 1930s, Lady Cecil, the housing reformer, stayed round the corner for a while to write a book called I lived in a slum. There were mews full of stables, horses aplenty but very few cars.

I was born in 1946 and there were bombed buildings all around us including the pub on the corner. But we knew everyone who lived there. The street and area were full of our extended family, plus honorary members. Everyone knew everyone.

I came home from school one day in 1951 and all our worldly goods were on the pavement. We were evicted for non-payment of rent. My father was working - he was a milkman at that time - and my mother cleaned in the local pub as well as bringing us up, but they didn't have much enthusiasm for spending their money on rent.

We moved around the corner to my grandmother's mews flat above a stables. We lived there for a year, the whole family in one room. We slept on one bed, parents at one end, us three boys at the other and my new baby brother in a drawer on the floor.

The street was pulled down in the 1970s and a council estate built over it.

Now I live in a leafy part of North London in a rented flat. I'll be here a few months more, then I don't know. For me, my home is somewhere I sleep and work - I don't have an enormous emotional attachment to it, nor many worldly goods that need a home - and I move around quite a lot.

The flat is clean and light. It is light years away from my childhood home although geographically it is only about four miles away.