What makes a home? Is it the building? Is it the people who live in it? Is it the memories it contains? Or is it something else? Something more difficult to define. Perhaps it only becomes clear when some of these things are missing. When there is no permanent place to reside and no sense of belonging.
There are events in life that are either so important or so traumatic that they become impossible to recall. I cannot remember the day that we lost the place we called home. One minute we were living in a damp overcrowded flat above an off licence in Leicester and the next we were not. It was accommodation tied to a job. My Dad lost his job as manager of the off licence. We lost our home. It was that quick.
It had happened before. Two years previously we were living above a public house in Derby. My Dad was the manager. When he lost that job we had to move out. It was 1963. The coldest winter in living memory. Fortunately my Dad found a house to rent and we moved in almost immediately. It was in very poor condition. The weather was so cold that the damp on the walls had turned to ice and it took some days to defrost the pipes and the boiler. We stayed there for six months until we moved into the off licence in Leicester.
As a family we were accustomed to moving home. During the four years I spent at various junior schools between 1959 and 1963 we moved 7 times. We lived in two council houses, three public houses, one privately rented house and finally the flat over the off licence. These were spread over two cities, Leicester and Derby. Moving was almost a way of life. Each time we moved we carried with us the familiar trappings that made up our home.
When we were evicted from the off licence we shared a council house witth my Dad’s eldest sister. There were five of us sharing a two bedroom house with my aunt and her two sons. We did not stay long. What happened next is a blur as we surfed around the council estates of Leicester staying with one relative after another.
It was Easter 1965. I was in the 2nd year at secondary school. I remember spending the Easter holidays walking the streets of Leicester. I now know that this was to reduce the tension of sharing an overcrowded house with relatives who were almost strangers. What began as a big adventure soon became a monotonous chore. Each day we would leave the house of the relative we were staying with and return at night. Sometimes to the same house, sometimes to a different one. I think we stayed with at least four or five different relatives before we finally settled, if settled is the correct word, at the house of my eldest sister. We lived with her for the next 8 months.
During our period of homelessness all of our familiar things were missing which reinforced the feeling of insecurity. All we carried with us were our clothes and a few other vital or treasured possessions. I carried with me a transistor radio which my Mam and Dad had given me for my 13th Birthday. It was my lifeline to the music of the 1960s. Something that is still important to me. Small things like this were vital in such a turbulent period
My sister had a three bedroom house for her family of five. There were four of us as my younger sister insisted on staying with friends. In total nine people were sharing a council house on the outskirts of Leicester. I cannot remember exactly how or where we slept. Rooms were divided by curtains to give some privacy for the adults and my sister’s young children. I shared as usual with my younger brother.
Though I did not know it at the time the only stable thing in my life was school. My sister’s house was about seven miles from my secondary modern school. I cycled to it daily in all weathers. I had an old rubberised cycle cape which kept off the rain. However it was lethal in heavy winds as it acted like a sail. I travelled because I liked my school and because all of my friends were there and because I did not want to lose my place in the football and cricket teams. My younger brother moved schools during this time and he still cites this as one of the causes of his mental health issues.
My Dad quickly found another job. Jobs were easy to find in the 1960s. Homes were more difficult. It was left to my Mam to manage the day-to-day problems of not having a permanent home. I do not know how she coped. I have one vivid memory of spending the day with her on a local park. I could tell she was upset. She was often upset during this period. It must have been difficult for her. Though she would rarely show it. There was tension and arguments between her and my Dad and between them and my sister and her husband. I think my Dad felt that he had let us down. He came from a tradition that said that it was a man’s job to provide. During that time he felt that he had failed to provide a basic necessity of life, a home.
Throughout our travels my Dad kept our name on the Leicester Council waiting list. He visited the housing department every day to argue our case. In 1965 the council had no statutory duty to help. My Dad felt that if he continued to remind them of our plight they would eventually provide a new home. Their first offer was of hostel accommodation. My Dad would not have this as it would mean splitting up the family. I remember watching Cathy Come Home in the following year. This showed the profound effect of this policy upon a young family which was not much different from ours. Finally his perseverance paid off. We were given the keys to a council house on Goodwood Estate in Leicester. Again I have no recollection of moving in. I do remember that we spent Christmas 1965 in our new home
It is only in recent years that I have begun to describe this time as my homeless period. Even now I am not sure it is the correct term. We did not talk about it in this way in my family. In fact we rarely talked about it at all. I have looked in my Mam’s diary for that year and there is no mention of it. True we did not have a permanent place to live but because of the efforts of my Mam and Dad we stayed together as a family and for me that is home. Throughout their lives they protected and supported us even in the most difficult of circumstances. This was just another example of that.
The new home marked the beginning of a happy time for me. We were still living there when I left school at 16, to start work as a trainee accountant. I was 18 when my Dad’s wandering soul returned and we moved to a new council home on yet another estate in Leicester. By this time I had returned to further education to do my A Levels. I left this home in 1972 to go to Goldsmiths College. In 1973 I left it for the final time to marry my wife Vishva .
I never lived with my Mam and Dad again after that. They moved another four times before living out their retirement years in a council bungalow in the next street to the house that had provided a haven for a homeless family. They both died in that bungalow. When it came to clearing it out with my brother it was still full of the trappings that had always made our home. Except of course, them.
In the Irish tradition, a home is a place of belonging and can take many forms. Some people are rooted in one place. Others have the need to travel. In my early life my Dad was a traveller and we travelled with him. It did not seem unusual. It was just what we did. I have also travelled in pursuit of my housing career. Since my birth I have lived in 20 places that I have called home. I now live in a barn on the banks of the River Arrow with my wife. We have lived here for 12 years. It is the longest time that I have ever spent in one place. Maybe I have finally found the place of my belonging, my true spiritual home.