‘My hope is to replace Tottenham’s notoriety with compassion and insight’

Broadwater by Jac Shreeves-Lee seeks to tell different stories about a once troubled part of London

Jac Shreeves-Lee: “in Broadwater, I take readers to the top of tower blocks so they might feel the pulse and rhythm of a real and living London and breathe London in a different way.”

Jac Shreeves-Lee: “in Broadwater, I take readers to the top of tower blocks so they might feel the pulse and rhythm of a real and living London and breathe London in a different way.”

 

Very early on I learned that the world is made up of stories; most nights my mum brought a clutch of them home from the glue factory in Tottenham Hale where she worked. Mine was a home of gossip and tightly-terraced lives.

My writing journey began with my pretending I could read and write when I couldn’t do either. I would have been about four years old and I’d regularly group together other small children and pretend to read stories from picture books. I also pretended to write, because I knew there was power in squiggles on pages.

My parents’ lives seemed to hang on official, brown envelopes that came through the door and blue air-mail letters that flew across the sky from Jamaica, bringing Montego Bay into our living room. The terrible power of words and language to threaten and throttle was also shown in my parents’ volatile relationship. However, volatility apart, my dad invested in a set of Arthur Mee’s encyclopaedias and forever banged on about education. He believed literature had the power to stop wars and start revolutions and despite his 12-hour shifts he found the time to take me to the local library each week.

Our Tottenham house was filled with a constant troupe of lodgers who were unable to find lodgings in 1950s-1960s London when No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs posters regularly glared back from windows. My mother was white and my father black and they understood the prejudice and hardship experienced by others. Hence my family included Vivien from Ireland, George from Glasgow and Sonny, a Nigerian medical student.

Tottenham was a place where newcomers to London shared meanings, forged new identities grafted onto their former ways of being and together survived in a new but often hostile city. At that time Tottenham had a solid base of industry, trade and manufacturing. My relatives worked in factories that produced fizzy drinks, furniture and chocolate. I remember their “clocking in” cards, their long shifts and tired faces. There were bloody noses and hard-won fights but they battled on and, come Christmas, our home rocked with whooping and celebration. Each lodger brought his or her own experiences and I quietly absorbed their stories while holding tea-parties with my dolls under the dining table.

My Aunty Maureen’s stories were specially reserved for me; she was married to my mother’s brother. By the time I was eight years old, I had a collection of six china leprechauns on the living-room mantelpiece each with a cherry-red hat and a cheeky-chappy grin. With a grave face, Aunty Maureen told me about the púca, a strange, supernatural creature, who took the form of a horse and tricked Aunty Maureen’s brother by taking him on a devilish ride before dumping him outside the family home in Doolin.

Uncle Darragh swore blind this kidnapping happened but Aunty Maureen said it was probably the poitin talking. When my sister married into the Redican and Brosnan families from Tralee, more tales were spun. There is an Irishness in my writing that comes from the cadence, turns of phrase and story-telling I internalised during my formative years. The marriage of Irish and Caribbean oral tradition is fertile ground for rich language, humour and imagination.

The land of Broadwater Farm (the Farm) was originally used as allotments and was close to a recreation ground where children played. The construction of the Broadwater Farm on the site of the allotments began in 1967. The estate contained 1,063 flats and provided homes for 3,000-4,000 people. Some of the residents were my school friends from the local comprehensive and when I visited the Farm, I thought it was the best place in the world. There was nothing more exciting to my 13-year-old self than a home in the sky with views of Ally Pally.

The Farm ceased to be perceived as a utopia as it was first described when problems with the estate became apparent; water leakages, pest infestations and electrical faults. By 1985 some progress was made in solving the Farm’s issues. Significant funding for improvements was secured and even the late Princess Diana paid a visit to the estate in February 1985.

However, in October 1985, riots erupted on Broadwater Farm and Tottenham, following the tragic death of Cynthia Jarrett. The Brixton and Handsworth riots had also happened in the previous week.

Further tragedy struck with the death of PC Keith Blakelock. In 2011, the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan sparked further unrest and the spotlight was once again on Broadwater Farm and Tottenham.

Much has changed since this time and the Farm has become the focus for an intensive £33 million regeneration programme. Since these developments the numbers of people leaving the estate has reduced to a trickle, there is now a lengthy waiting list for housing and Broadwater Farm now has one of the lowest crime rates of any urban area in the world.

When I was a teenager there were constant stories from the Farm but they weren’t stories about crime and drugs. My Aunty Babs lived near the Farm and her stories were about passion and “love-gone-wrong”. My stories are about “life-gone-wrong”, sinkholes and air-pockets.

I accept that life is messy, all is not well with the world (especially in the year when we face a global pandemic and uneasy truths have been bared by the brutal slaying of George Floyd), answers are few and happy endings scarce. This recognition informs my writing and gives my stories honesty and realism. Perhaps the real art of the short story lies in incorporating constraint, concealment and silences without allowing minimalism to create a writing texture that is all economy, character uniformity and of little mystery.

Like all of us, the characters described in Broadwater are complex and vulnerable, sometimes off-kilter and quirky; they are aspects of myself and the person I could be. I’ve come to know my “internal white woman” and my “internal man” but I also recognise the inherent struggle in using a language that is embedded with hidden assumptions and references to ethnic superiority, the “othering” of people and cultural dominance. Core identity is relatively stable, yet at its fringes, identity can be fluid and slippery. Change changes us.

In Broadwater, ordinary people are united by their shared humanity and the emotional terrain we all travel – it is this connectedness that matters rather than the demographic tags that can keep us apart. The Farm and Tottenham are living characters in and of themselves – and in Broadwater, I take readers to the top of tower blocks so they might feel the pulse and rhythm of a real and living London and breathe London in a different way. My hope is to replace Tottenham’s notoriety with compassion and insight.

Good writing should shake and stir. I want a story to leave me changed in some way, or lead me to re-think something I thought I knew and understood. Okay...Game up, I want to change the world.
Broadwater by Jac Shreeves-Lee is published by Fairlight

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