Between 1995 and 1997 I lived and worked in central London in three homeless hostels run by the Shaftesbury Society. I spent the longest time at Lena Fox House (LFH) on Crimscott Street in Bermondsey and not long after we opened I worked alongside a lovely Welshman called Dave Smith.
We didn’t work long together but our friendship and trust went deep quickly and his is a friendship that I still value today. Two memories stick in my mind about Dave.
At the time, many of the hostel workers lived in two adjoining properties, 43 and 44 Grange Road. The back door to number 44 backed into the LFH garden which made their commute to work very quick.
On one memorable occasion, shortly after Dave and his new flatmate Colin had begun, they were on a training course at our Latimer Centre property in north London, and had asked me to wake them and make them a packed lunch. So at 7:00am, I wandered out of the shift office, banged on the door and gave them a shout before heading to the kitchen to rustle up some sandwiches and snacks for their day.
I held open the front door with my foot and stood in the entrance hall clasping two lunch bags as Dave and Colin came in through the garden looking bleary-eyed and newly showered.
I handed one bag to Colin.
“Thanks Dad!” he said.
“You’re welcome son,” I said as I leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
I handed the next bag to Dave.
“Thanks Dad!” he said.
“You’re welcome son,” I said and again leaned forward and kissed my co-worker on the cheek.
“Have you got your pennies for the bus?” I said.
“Be safe. Don’t talk to strangers. Have a lovely day you two!”
And I waved them off, all three of us giggling uncontrollably.
A month or so later, Dave’s brother was visiting London from Wales. He was at college in Wales and his class were going to be on some kind of field trip, staying within walking distance of us, in Lambeth.
“My brother’s class is having a party on Friday night in the accommodation they’re staying at. Do you want to come with me?” asked Dave.
I agreed and on our walk over to Lambeth I started to talk in a Welsh accent.
“Oh, your accent is pretty good,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. “My mum’s cousin is married to a Welsh woman so I’ve grown up listening to Welsh accents and er… obviously, my name is Gareth so I kind of feel like I need to live up to the name.”
Anyway, before we reached the party we had come up with a plan. Obviously, it is easier to talk with a particular accent if everyone else in the room is also talking in that way. So Dave gave me a Welsh backstory, a history—he told me where in Neath I had been born, my father was Welsh but my mother was Scottish (just in case any of my Scottish pronunciations leaked out, that would cover that eventuality); he told me where I had gone to school, a few of my favourite Welsh landmarks and the names of some small and relatively unknown villages where my wider family lived in order to give my backstory an illusion of depth.
And that was me for the evening. I went in, met everybody, recited some of my newly learned ‘facts’ about myself and that was it. I was Welsh and accepted. We had a great evening—dancing, drinking (although just Coke for me), chatting with pretty Welsh girls and some pretty interesting Welsh blokes.
Listening to the lilting Welsh accents around me, I spoke with the melody of their accents and nobody suspected a thing. Until the very end of the party. As the clock rolled past 11pm, the college lecturers began to wind the party down. The lights came up, the bin liners and brooms came out and Dave and I fetched our coats and began to say our goodbyes.
I stood at the door, turned and said in my deepest, thickest Scottish accent, “Awwwright, that wiz an’ awfy braw party! Thanks very much now. Oo’d better be gawn noo…”
My new Welsh friends stood and looked at me quite confused.
“Wha… what’s happened to your accent?” one lad asked.
“Och, I’m no Welsh. I’m frae Scotland. Thanks fur the pairty though. Bye!”
I waved and Dave and I disappeared through the door, laughing all our way back to Bermondsey.