The lights hit me on stage in Birmingham, I’ve been invited to speak at a housing conference.
Not a drum in sight. At last!
“Summertime. I’m kneeling on thick pile carpet, opening a small door in the bedroom wall and feeling like I’m about to enter Wonderland. My mum is nearby, hoovering the landing of our big house. I’m four years old and all is well.
I say ‘our big house’ because that’s what we call it, but we actually live in a damp bungalow up a dirt road two miles away. My Mum cleans houses every morning. It’s 1958 and everyone still remembers the war, including me, and I wasn’t even there. It’s in the air though. It can’t be hoovered up or dusted away, it’s staring at us from lovingly framed photos. Husbands and sons lost in action. Wives and daughters no longer with us.
But life must go on and it’s okay to bring your child to work in this new coastal town of Peacehaven. Consequently I’m growing up seeing how the other half live. Behind this ‘secret’ bedroom door is a vast collection of toys that I’m somehow allowed to play with while my Mum scrubs the kitchen floor. There’s no judgement on my part, no ‘man the barricades’ class consciousness that I develop later at art school. Just sheer delight.
My Mum seems happy here too, maybe because every appliance works and she can breathe easy for a few hours. Maintenance.
In our bungalow everything needs fixing, including my Dad who’s still addicted to the Dexedrine they gave him to stay awake on bombing missions in WW2. My three elder brothers, a tree-climbing, knee-grazing, den-building gang have gone feral, maintaining themselves out in the fresh air with Boy Scout zeal. I join them sometimes but me and my Mum prefer to stay inside where we can ‘do drawing’.
My Grandad, who lives nearby with my Gran, is a builder. He trains my Dad to be a surveyor, but my Dad is always turning up late onsite, so he gets him an office job as a quantity surveyor. There aren’t many perks to this job other than the glossy architectural magazines he brings home when they’re out of date. Once again I get to see how the other half live, marvelling over these futuristic buildings that prophesy the coming of Kraftwerk and their technically perfect beats. Maintenance.
As our family grows in size my Grandad has saved enough money to build us a house. This is THE most exciting news in the world. We all go to see the plot of land he’s bought in neighbouring Saltdean and leap around it like monkeys who’ve just discovered an orchard full of apples. Several months later we discover that, in the ‘must make ends meet’ spirit of the fifties, his team have built two semi-detached bungalows on the land. Not only do we have to cram ourselves into one of them, we have to keep the noise down because the party wall is only one brick thick.
Leaping ahead I open that same toy box cupboard door in 2022 and discover Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In a nutshell, the theory goes that none of us can concentrate properly on spiritual things, which could be as simple as listening to music or icing a cake, until we’re confident we have a roof over our heads. A dry roof.
You’ll have heard the story of President John F Kennedy visiting NASA and asking a cleaner, mopping the floor, “So, what do YOU do here?” The guy looks up proudly and says, “Mister President I’m helping put a man on the moon”. Maintenance.
In your job, providing well maintained housing to struggling families, you’re helping thousands of people express themselves. Giving us space to be inventive, giving us permission to dream. Young and old. Maybe we’ll walk on the moon next year, but right now you’re helping us keep our feet on the ground. Because of you we can dance today. Because of you we can sing today. Because of you we can even stay in and do drawing today. You’re keeping our hearts safe so our imaginations can take flight.
That’s Maslow’s theory anyway, let’s see if it works in practice. Look, behind this curtain we’ve got two hundred drums and permission to play them. I’ve promised we won’t blow the roof off but if we do, don’t worry, my grandad left you instructions how to fix it. I say “YOU” because I can build teams but you’re the experts at building homes. It says in your programme, ‘Tom Morley, Keynote Speaker’, but as our bungalow neighbours will confirm, I’m really just a drummer.”