Jay Blades looks back: ‘The boy in that photo would be amazed if he knew what my life was like today’ | Family
Born in London in 1970, Jay Blades is the furniture restorer and TV presenter best known for The Repair Shop. His childhood in Hackney was blighted by racism and fighting, until a career in community and social work changed the course of his life. It wasn’t until Blades was 40 and working for a charity which encouraged young people to repair furniture that he discovered he had a skill for crafting and fixing objects. Before finding fame on screen, he got a degree in criminology and philosophy from Buckinghamshire New University, where he is now chancellor. Blades opened the first physical shop for his online brand Jay & Co in Poole, Dorset, earlier this month.
The car in this photo was parked somewhere on Clapton High Street in east London, and I was on my way to a wedding – probably of one of my cousins. I was 13 and looking properly grown-up. I was always tall – 6ft by the time I was 11! But being in that tux, even though I had cheap white sports socks on underneath, made me feel like the governor. Hence why I am posing like that: “Bosh! Here I am!”
Dressing up gives you a nice feeling. I get to do it all the time now, but I feel it still. From the age of 12 I really cared about the clothes I was wearing. There was a guy from the area who was like an uncle, and he’d come round and sell shoes and shirts to me and my friends. I bought a cashmere jumper that I loved, and Mum put it in a hot wash and it turned out like something an Action Man might wear. I asked her not to wash my stuff again, and from that point I was washing and ironing all my clothes. In fact, I was so good at it that Mum got me to iron her pleated skirts. That was a real challenge.
Living in Hackney in the 80s, you could dress a certain way to command respect. My biggest inspiration was someone that my mum was with at the time, a man called Lloyd McFarlane. Lloyd held the room in a way that was different from the other men in my area. Before then, I had looked up to naughty people; they got the type of admiration I wanted. They weren’t necessarily doing good things to get that kind of respect: in fact, it was because the people in the room were afraid of them – they were respectful because they didn’t want to get hurt. Lloyd, meanwhile, was immaculate, and people liked him because of that. He looked like a destination – somewhere you wanted to go. Like he had his own postcode. He was like the black version of Simon Templar: lots of polo necks, slacks, and hunter jackets. I wanted to emulate that.
I was living in a council house in Hackney when this photo was taken. My mum was very houseproud, but the decor was pretty out-there. She had this brass wallpaper with a velvet damask, which was vulgar, but I couldn’t tell her that! At the time it was probably cutting-edge. Everyone I knew was poor, so we never went to furniture shops – we couldn’t buy wardrobes, so we made do with milk crates stacked together. You get resourceful when you have no money.
All I really aspired to back then was to be happy, as there were a lot of people in my area who weren’t. I didn’t want to be rich because I never knew what that looked like – there was no example of success around me so I couldn’t aim for it. School was rough as well. I got kicked out at 15 for fighting. There was a lot of racism in my school and I would defend people who had been bullied or racially abused by students. Mum wasn’t really bothered. She wasn’t and isn’t that maternal. I was allowed to go out to parties when I was 11. I didn’t have a dad. So I became my own entity.
I started going out to the West End when I was 16 and it totally opened up my horizons. I’d go to Limelight, Busby’s, the Wag Club and soak in all this new culture. There was a market called Hyper Hyper on Kensington High Street and they sold some really funky stuff. At the time, I was dressing in 1920s suits – these big trousers and braces. Or I’d wear bomber jackets, dungarees and Dr Martens. I loved clothes and even did a fashion show – getting the guys at Hyper Hyper to lend me a bunch of skirts and shoes and tops for it. They didn’t know me from Adam, but they gave me a chance. To be fair, the whole fashion show thing was mainly to get introduced to girls. We did auditions and they turned up in their droves!
I stopped fighting once I left Hackney when I was 19 or 20. But what’s important to understand is that I was growing up in an area with a lot of desperate people – a bit like now, with the cost of living. We all needed a way out, and you did whatever you had to do to survive, we were like crabs in a bucket crawling over each other. When I was 21, I started working in a homeless shelter and it totally changed my perspective. I realised I had empathy and enjoyed connecting with people who had nothing material but still had everything they needed. The people in the homeless shelter taught me lots about life and how to treat others: that there is no point in returning anger with anger, resentment with resentment.
After that, I did community work for 20 years. I enjoyed the job, but during that period, nobody wanted to hear from me – professionals or society in general. People would clutch their handbags, cross the road or lock their car doors when they saw me. There was no interest from anyone in what I had to say. These days, I get strangers coming up to me to ask for a selfie. A lot of people know my name, a lot of people are influenced by what I say and do. But because of that massive shift, from being avoided and ignored to where I am now, fame could never go to my head.
The Jay in that photo would be shocked and amazed if he knew what my life was like today. He’d say: “You’re bullshitting me! You’ve never worked with the king did you?” He’d probably be surprised that I wasn’t even nervous [Blades hosted The Repair Shop: A Royal Visit with King Charles III in 2022]. We had dinner together too, and I got to wear a tux, which was great. That being said, the food was very posh and there was a lot of cutlery on the table to figure out. I just watched what everyone else did and copied them.
The 13-year-old Jay would definitely be surprised that I left Hackney for Wolverhampton. For me, London has lost its soul. It’s going to sound weird, but I like to be in an environment where there are poor people, because I know there will be a real sense of community and everyone will club together.
Despite all those changes, I’ve got the same confidence and naivety that I had when I was young. I still only really want to be happy – it’s all about maintaining that. I don’t wake up every day feeling good, but I am always striving for it, and right now, I’m over the moon!