This July, I spent a hot and sticky week with friends in Italy, gorging on spaghetti alle vongole and lemon granitas. But summer holidays didn’t always come so easily to me. In fact, for the first 17 years of my life, I didn’t have one. For most of my youth, as July approached and the teachers replaced lessons with games, and my classmates talked about sandcastles, ice-creams, donkey rides on the beach or driving to France, my stomach filled with dread. For me, summer holidays meant six long, hot, boring weeks on my estate in north London, avoiding menacing boys and interfering adults.
I grew up in Camden in the 1990s, after arriving in Britain as a child refugee, aged nine, from Somalia’s civil war. I had a lot to learn and quickly: how to cross the road, how to pronounce the word “congratulations”, the rules of queueing and the most important words in English – sorry and thank you. I went to school for the first time, and was thrilled to have a routine, to learn a new way to be in the world. As I turned 10, living with my mother and three siblings in a three-bed flat, I felt just how different my life was going to be – and I embraced it all.
But when the bell rang on that last day of term, there was no plan. We could not afford Butlins and didn’t even consider trips to the seaside. We survived on social benefits and free school meals. The little money my family had was usually sent back to Somali relatives.
And anyway, holidays were culturally unfamiliar to us; people we knew never went on holiday. My estate, a brick city crammed with families with up to seven children sharing two- to three-bedroom flats, was an island of poverty tucked up next to pretty tree-lined streets of Edwardian terraced houses. I lived with fellow Somalis, Turks, Afghanis, Ethiopians, and while multiculturalism was the political term of the moment, there were clear lines: white working-class kids on one side, us Muslim Africans on the other. When the adults weren’t watching, it became a hostile environment; there was an invisible map of where not to sit, and these borders were zealously policed by the older boys.
Summer holidays amplified the tensions, because everyone was bored. I would watch from my flat as a fight started over something innocuous and quickly escalated; on more than one occasion, young white boys would run into our estate with sticks and rocks, and the sound of shouting and bike tyres screeching would fill the air when the police arrived. They knocked on doors, but there was always a collective silence. If pushed, our mothers would shrug and conveniently forget how to speak English.
My aunts called me softie because I sought refuge in the local library. I became friends with the librarians, who were mostly older white women, and spent hours reading about places I’d like to go: Patagonia, New York, Amsterdam. I read Orwell, Dickens and books on astronomy. I also helped my mother or aunts fill in forms, go to the job centre or make appointments with the council. Some mornings, I’d get up early to queue outside the Citizens Advice Bureau for help with benefits or housing.
I was different from the other boys. I was fat, I spoke softly and I was starting to sound like my teachers, with an educated English accent. The older boys called me Pammie (it was the mid 1990s and everyone loved Baywatch) because I had man-boobs: when I ran across the estate with a bag full of shopping, my chest would sway, inviting laughter and shouts of, “Go, Pammie!”. But there was affection between us, too: a kind of code of honour existed – you protect the kids on your own estate. If anyone ever bothered me from outside, the boys would stand up for me.
My favourite summer days were spent beside my mother in the kitchen, watching her roast the right mix of cumin, pepper and coriander to make lamb curry, served with fried raisins, onions and chapatis. We had a lot of visitors: my cousins would come to stay for several weeks at time, and we squeezed in, playing, eating, watching kids’ TV in the morning and MTV at night. My mother preferred Keeping Up Appearances, even though her life could not have been much further removed. I helped her prepare the big family meals, chopping onions and garlic, using enormous steel pots to cook enough for everyone. The memory of my mother’s tripe curry, cooked in spices, tomatoes and onions, still makes my mouth water.
As the summer days wore on, I became tired and irritable. There was little structure to our days beyond: wake up to a flat full of people, microwave some cornflakes, squabble over the PlayStation, go to the supermarket. I forgot everything we were learning at school.
Now I see that those were more innocent days, before knife crime escalated and my friends were attacked. By the time I was 16, the groups of boys who waited on street corners had a more sinister edge. My friend Mahir was stabbed to death outside Camden Town tube station, just two days shy of his 19th birthday. I was heartbroken. I had fond memories of the boy we all called “Smiley”, and who had attended the same Madrassa.
Finally, at 17, I went on my first holiday. A group of school friends planned to celebrate our AS-levels by going to Dublin and Galway. I had saved several hundred pounds stacking shelves at Poundstretcher three days a week after school, and I got up every Saturday at 5am to help a woman called Linda sell Kentish apples at Belgravia farmers’ market. My family thought it was odd that I would willingly spend my hard-earned cash on a frivolous holiday. “But what will you do?” my uncle asked. “Why don’t you send the money back to your relatives in Somalia?” I felt selfish.
But off we went, on a long journey via coach and boat. In Galway, we met a trio of English oddballs camping just outside the city centre, on a field overlooked by cows. We sat with them around a makeshift campfire. They looked at me and said: “You remind me of that guy… you know, Will Smith’s mate.”
It wasn’t the first time I had been told I looked like Carlton from the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. To be fair, I did rock an African taxi driver look, complete with suit jacket, oversized trousers and brown sandals. It wasn’t entirely my choice: my mother took me shopping at BHS or C&A, and she favoured the oversized shirts and jackets the men in my family wore to weddings. By the time I headed to Ireland, I was also starting to make some of my own fashion choices: sweaters over shirts, vintage brown brogues, and a semi-high top fade.
In Galway, a woman sat next to me because, she said, she’d never spoken to a black person before. My white London friends looked horrified, but I didn’t mind her curiosity. After our chat, she told me, “You know, dear, you’re all right”, a relief for me and all black people, past, present and future.
Much of that holiday involved making my fleeting cash last, listening to earnest Americans talk about their Irish roots, and getting used to being the only black face in the pub. I was confused: was this what I had been missing? To sleep so little, to overdrink, gorge on cheap food, and in the end come home and tell people, “Mate, it was sick, the banter I swear”?
My life has changed a lot since then. I got a place at Cambridge University, and now work as a journalist – work that takes me around the world. But when I get on a plane to Istanbul, Rome or New York in the summer, I often think of those years when August meant weeks of boredom in a single square mile, as well as time to read, and cook, to be with my family and friends. Was it really worse? My mother and little brother still live on the estate, and at 15, Hamza is facing many of the things I did: the claustrophobia, the older boys, the tedium (although he happens to be tall, slim and popular). The youth clubs near the estate have all faced cuts. When school broke up, I asked Hamza what his plans were. “Nothing,” he said.
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