Television presenter Jay Blades hasn’t had an easy upbringing. The 51-year-old furniture restorer, who is best known for appearing on The Repair Shop and Money for Nothing, has had to struggle through poverty, racism and a lack of education to get to where he is.
But he hasn’t let his humble background hold him back. Here, in The Big Issue’s Letter To My Younger Self, he talks about The Repair Shop’s role in repairing communities, working in factories as a young man and how a ‘magical’ memory came flooding back.
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School for me was quite tough. I suffered racism and a lot of fighting and I got caned a lot. I didn’t know it then but I have dyslexia and of course that didn’t help. People with dyslexia have a way of processing things. They sometimes don’t take well to authority. They’re very creative and they’re very good with emotional intelligence, they can read people very well. But I didn’t know I was dyslexic in school, I was just told I was dumb. I still remember my session with the careers teacher. Everybody went in, one after another, and they’d say, I want to be a fireman, and the teacher would say, get this qualification and get your fitness levels up, stuff like that. I sat down and my teacher said, there’s no point you sitting here Blades, because really, truly, you’re going to amount to nothing. And that was it.
I suffered a lot of racism in secondary school. I went to a school that was predominantly white, and I was one of the first wave of black kids. I got called loads of different names and I didn’t know what they meant. I grew up in Hackney, and I didn’t see racism there at all. We had black, white, Asian, everything. What we had in common was that we were poor, and that was it. So when I went to school and got these names I thought they were names of endearment. I would go back to my community and use those names and the older people said, why are you calling me that? And I said, well, that’s what they call me at school. And they said, no, no, that’s a bad name, that’s a racist name. They’re taking the piss out of you. Then one of the elders came to school, I pointed out some of the people that were calling me names, he beat them up, and then he left.
I was an upbeat kind of kid. I loved being around people who were OK with me. Even though I was caned, I was racially abused, I actually had a great time at school. I’ve got some great memories and some friends that I would not change for the world. I’ve always been upbeat. I understood that those people just didn’t like me because of the colour of my skin and there was nothing I could do about that, so there was no point getting angry. Why should I return that hate with hate? You return hate with what’s really inside you and what’s really inside you is love. You are a special person, and as soon as you start to believe that, no external force can influence it.
Girls when I was a teenager? How long have you got? Don’t get me started on girls. I always suffered heartbreak because I fell in love all the time. I’m one of these ever-romantics; this is the one. No, there’s another one. She’s the one. She’s the one. She’s the one. I was a little bit free with my love.
I didn’t really know my dad much but I didn’t feel I was missing out because there were a lot of single parents where I was growing up. I think I knew three couples that were together. I don’t remember seeing too many men in my estate. I call him the man that contributed towards my birth, I don’t call him my father. I have a very vague memory of him coming to pick me up one weekend – I must have been about three or four – and I met an older sister. He came back into my life when I was 21 and I asked him about my siblings. And he said, you’ve just got this group that I’m living with now. Then later on I found out I’ve got loads of brothers and sisters [he has 25 half-siblings]. But recently my older sister Samantha has got in contact with me, which is absolutely beautiful. And once the government say we’re allowed out to play, I will be going down and seeing her face to face.
When we repair it, they go into a childlike state, back to the time they remember that person holding it or giving it to them
The younger me would laugh at the idea he would be on TV or famous, but he wouldn’t be scared because I’m the kind of guy who will always just give it a go. After I left school I worked in a frozen sausage factory, a bottle factory, a peanut factory, a Christmas card factory, you name it. When I got to the age of 29 I said, I want to do something that scares me – I’m going to go back to school. So I rang up the university and they told me about criminology, the study of crime and why people do it. I said, wow, you can study that? OK, let me find out why people in my area do crime. Then when I went to uni I had a philosophy module and my philosophy teacher opened my brain. He made me realise that the person that knows everything is the person that knows nothing. We are constantly learning. And that to me was the best concept I could ever get.
I think the community work I’ve done with the homeless and children in care has made me a better person to talk to people in The Repair Shop. I can sympathise with what can be quite a raw history – people are coming in with an item that’s just so wrapped up in their child who passed away just three months ago it’s like the item is their child. The Repair Shop repairs things but it also repairs families and communities. Sometimes you can see the people who bring their objects in feel disappointed with what they’ve done to it, letting it go, like they’ve let a family member down. So when we repair it and give it back to them, they go into a childlike state, back to the time they remember that person holding it or giving it to them. It is a real honour to be standing at that bench and see someone become a child again. And when they say, you brought it back to life, they mean you brought the person back to life.
There is one moment I’d like to go back to and tell myself, things are going to get better. I was 19 and living in Luton. And I remember saying to myself, OK, I’ve got five tomatoes, they’re gonna last me for the whole week. I can have quarter a tomato for breakfast, a quarter for lunch, and a full half for dinner. On the fourth day that week I got a job in McDonald’s. But I got sacked after about three days, because I ate too many burgers while I was working. That was a really low point. I’d like to go back and tell myself it’ll get better than that.
If I could go back and re-live any moment in my life, I would go back to blackberry picking with my friends when I was about 15… no wait. Oh wow, a memory has just flooded back to me. Give me a second to digest this. OK, I’m about seven or eight. There’s a house in Stamford Hill. We had friends round the corner but it was mainly a Jewish area and the Jewish community didn’t get on too well with the black community. But there was a garden that had the most beautiful plum tree. I mean unbelievable. We used to pick the stray plums off the street but one day I was brave enough to knock on this guy’s door and say please sir, can we get some plums from your tree, because they’ve just fallen off into your garden. And he said, if you can climb on the wall you can pick the plums straight off the tree. There was about four of us, and I remember us all sitting on the wall, swinging our legs, eating these plums, the sun shining on us. We weren’t even talking, just looking at each other eating these sweet, sweet plums, the juice running down our chins. And I looked up and the Jewish man was looking out of his window at these four little kids, and he actually smiled at me. Like he was seeing a beautiful sight, like that was what the tree was there for.
I’ll enjoy seeing this interview in the magazine but it’s given me something that’s even more magical. It’s created a memory I didn’t know I had. You made me live it again, and I’m holding my hands together, and thanking you for that.
Making It by Jay Blades is released on May 13 (Bluebird, £16.99). The Repair Shop is on BBC iPlayer