View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
10 December 2020

The photo that shaped me: Jason Okundaye on his childhood home

My council flat became a source of shame – but the boy in this photograph knows nothing of that feeling.

By Jason Okundaye

As a hyperactive child there were, according to my mother, two things that would calm me down: the family’s collection of Alphabets books – a series of 26 books from Albert’s Special Day to Ziggy and the Zig-Zag Race – and the prized yellow armchair I would read them in, patterned with teddies, numbers and letters.

The living room, where my chair was kept, is captured in this photograph – it is within our council flat in Battersea, south London, which we moved to in May 1998, 14 months after my birth, following a nightmare ordeal with homelessness and insecure housing. The cot kept my baby brother, Zachary, who was born five months after we moved in.

As I grew older, the location, the peeling wallpaper, the cracked walls, the drab colourlessness and the lack of furnishing in the household became a source of shame. I never had friends over, and when class assignments asked us to draw or write descriptions of our housing, I would lie. The late 1990s and the 2000s were not a time when one was made to feel proud of living in social housing, or within estates. It was a time when relying on local government accommodation was seen as a personal moral failure; it meant your parents must have declined the opportunity to “work hard” and live decently, instead raising their children among benefit scroungers, hooded youths, Asbo kids, chavs.

I carried this shame around with me for a long time – the idea that boys like me, who lived in quarters like mine, represented an outrage of national standards and were destined for unemployment, prison, or early death. It is not until recent years that I have been able to view photographs of the original rooms of this flat and feel pride, even joy.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

The boy in this photograph knows nothing of shame. His imaginative mind takes in the colours of the toys, chairs and books all around him. The youngest children are often the best at grace and dignity, viewing their environments as a fun challenge for the imagination. The chair becomes a throne. The walls become canvases. I always wondered why my parents did not intervene when I drew on the walls: perhaps they concluded that our artwork was more about hope and creativity than naughtiness.

Last year, the Ikea Christmas advert addressed “home shame” and I was, initially, moved to see this feeling represented, particularly during the festive period. We never had Christmas trees, lights, tinsel. But the advert simply encouraged renovating with Ikea products – a possibility not so readily presented to many of us who experienced this phenomenon. Home shame for me was not overcome by the introduction of brushstroke vases, brass sculptures or oils on canvas. It was overcome when I began to look proudly on this photograph and see a happy child, who turned his grey home into his playground. 

This article is from our “Photo that shaped me” series

Content from our partners
Labour's health reforms can put patients first
Data science can help developers design future-proof infrastructure
How to tackle the UK's plastic pollution problem – with Coca-Cola

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU