John Bird: A beautiful memory in a place of misery

How families survive such suffering is always likely to bring a tear to one’s eye, and there weren’t many dry eyes last week

Goldhawk Road in West London, above Hammersmith and below Latimer Road where the tragedy of Grenfell Tower took place, is a grim-looking street. I have known it for much of my life and was even banged up on this grim Goldhawk Road aged 13,14,15 and 16.

It was a cage of a place with vast chain fencing seeming to go into the sky itself. It was difficult to get out of, and you were penned in because it was believed you might want to get out.

My spirit drops when I go to Goldhawk Road, even though the politely named ‘Stamford House’, the pen, has gone. Incidentally, if you did escape from the pen you ended up in a plant-hire yard, emphasising that life went on without you.

When I reflect, I can’t think of a single good thing about my time around Goldhawk Road. And last week I was there for something that seemed to add to my sense of misery when, getting off the Hammersmith and City tube at the station. It was the death of a Big Issue vendor.

Darren James died in December 2017 in a small alley not far from the station. He had been in and out of homelessness and struggled to pull his life together. The death of his girlfriend in Bournemouth some time before led to a renewed bout of falling, yet he always struggled to get back up.

I met Darren, as I did many vendors, over the years but did not get to know him. But whatever mark he made on the world, his death set his sister, Jenny Roberts, alight and caused her to reject the sense that the world was all just bad news.

She formed a non-profit called Homeless Worldwide and began campaigning to raise money for other charities that helped get people off the streets and avoid the plight of her own loving brother.

Monday morning last, in the unseasonal sun, I met with Jenny and a group of her supporters at Goldhawk Road. With the blessing of The Hollies, they have taken one of their songs – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – to make a record for fundraising purposes. And there, on the corner of the Wells Road bus garage and Goldhawk Road itself, outside Costa, they sang it. Supporters joined in with singers like Patti Boulaye, great voices rendered to the passing crowd this internationally renowned song of care and love.

Goldhawk Road needs more of this. Imagine how you could transform the grimmest of places by getting fine singers to combine with the public, and render music that breaks down the painful barriers often put up by suffering?

Jenny was being interviewed for TV news and laid a collection of red roses in the alley where her brother breathed his last. It was an incredibly moving and significant moment. How families survive such suffering is always likely to bring a tear to one’s eye, and there weren’t many dry eyes last week.

Jenny’s idea is to sell, sell and sell even more of this record for her brother, so that this tragedy can be turned to something better than death. And for this, the crew of friends and singers made a splendid show of their commitment as Goldhawk Road went about its busy working day.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue is a multi award-winning magazine, edited by the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) current Editor of the Year.

It’s always a sense of great privilege when a family member lets you into their grief. You know they are finding ways to cope, and you don’t want them to take their mind off their objective. But Jenny engaged us that came to remember and help in whatever way we could.

Jenny has identified Shelter and the Salvation Army as the two most prominent providers of exit from the streets that need support. She wishes to funnel whatever income she makes into these frontline groups, as well as others. And so, by buying the record – which you can do online via bit.ly/2VuppmP – you put money on the frontline.

Of course, Goldhawk Road is itself going through the trauma of having little housing available to those in need. The whole of London seems to have turned into an even more tortured cityscape than when I was a child. At least back then you could get cheap places to lay your head.

Imagine how you could transform the grimmest of places by getting fine singers to combine with the public, and render music that breaks down the painful barriers often put up by suffering

But now Goldhawk and other parts of the desirable real estate of Hammersmith are so outpriced that you feel you might as well be walking through streets of gold. But not the gold from the poems of William Blake. Rather, the gold loved and promoted by estate agents, property developers and landowners who make more than a pretty penny through their investments.

I never thought in my wildest dreams there would come a time when the grim streets of Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush would look so wretched, and yet hide millions in their brickwork and roofs. Poverty rubbing shoulders with overstretched locals, all weighed down with the bubble of vast mortgages.

Yes, there is local social housing and housing associations properties. But they cannot provide all the support for people in need because they themselves are stymied by the highly geared cost of property.

Darren sold The Big Issue among this social conundrum and was a part of it himself. But his sister, Jenny, is determined to keep a flame of remembrance and hope going for him,.

We should feel blessed that she is doing something to stop other Darrens falling and staying down.