I climbed down once into a corrugated iron tunnel the size of a dog kennel in the slums of Freetown, and came out the other side into a ballroom among the stars, with strobe lights and glitter-ball, an escapist disco full of stoned revellers. Being young, being me, being there, I had a good night flying past Mars and on to Venus. But when I came out in the morning, I saw children with sores standing up to their ankles in the puddle of a river clogged with human effluent. I was back in the slum I'd left behind, shivering like a dog.
Among the images of childhood you don't forget, this one reminded me that I also had grown up in a slum. I only realised that when bulldozers came to clear us out of our sub-standard, immigrant housing, and my childhood ended. Until then, I had lived in a palace of unknowing, alongside my brothers and sisters, given the freedom to run in the streets, and facing only the daily adventure of what would happen next. The imaginative powers and possibilities of that childhood are recreated in my novel, VAUXHALL (Telegram books, 2013), juxtaposing the realities of the street with a world seen through the eyes of children. We were black in a white society, poor in a class-divided one, rich in comparison to the weary, downtrodden grind of adult life. Stories poured out of us, from Jamaica, south Asia, Ireland, west Africa, all the places we were from, onto the streets of Vauxhall in south London where we woke up telling ourselves stories about where we were.
Where are we now? Decades later, the barbed-wire, front-line racism has gone off the streets, but inter-generational distrust, too many cars and gang violence have forced children off the streets too. In place of Vauxhall's slums, a gleaming glass wall of high rise developments is going up, with the secret, enclosed MI6 spy building at its centre; palaces of paranoia strung out in a ribbon along the Thames. I look at children larking along the mud banks a low tide, as we used to, picking through debris for the smell of something real. I hope they find it, and that they have fun; but I also hope it isn't dangerous, and that it doesn't make them ill.