The Repair Shop's Jay Blades on his memoir Making It and his mission to help others
TV presenter Jay Blades chuckles at the notion that he could so easily have been drawn into a life of crime had he not found his true calling – to help others turn their lives around.
“The reason I ended up on the right side of the law is because I’m destined for something,” he declares in his East End brogue, “to do something, to achieve something, to then inspire people to go out there and do it themselves.”
His earlier foray with his (now ex) wife Jade into buying old furniture, teaching youngsters from poor communities how to do it up and sell it on, stood him in good stead for his presenting job in the hit BBC series The Repair Shop, where experts pool their talents to restore family heirlooms.
But reading Blades’ memoir, Making It, in which he charts his childhood in Hackney and the bullying and racism that he was subjected to during his teenage years, it’s clear that his road to success could have so easily forked in a very different direction, as he developed a notorious reputation for fighting.
The pent-up anger of his youth may in some way be explained by the racist taunts he was bombarded with while at secondary school, having come from a primary school which had shielded him from such behaviour.
Blades, 51, is also dyslexic, which made him more of a target, and even now confesses that he still has the reading ability of an 11-year-old.
“I don’t read scripts and the beauty of doing shows like Money For Nothing and The Repair Shop is that there is no script,” he reveals.
“It’s just two people having a conversation, which has been a joy for me, because if they put a script in front of me I’d probably get the tin tack (Cockney rhyming slang for sack).
He was born in Brent to single mother Barbara, a Barbadian who had come to the UK aged 13 to join her mother.
Growing up, Blades had nothing to do with his Jamaican father, whom he calls The Man Who Contributed To My Birth (TMWCTMB).
He was happy as a young child on a Hackney council estate but when his mother sent him to a secondary school closer to Islington, where she’d heard the teaching was good, the troubles began. Gangs of older white boys would call him racist names, and would kick and punch him.
He says: “It was weird to experience racism when you’ve never experienced it before. I never knew the racist names they were calling me were racist names, until I brought them back to my community. Then the elders told me.”
He turned to violence to beat the bullies.
“It was like a light switch,” the presenter recalls. “I was very aggressive back in the day.”
He would fight at any opportunity, even if you looked at him in the wrong way, once whacked someone with a rounders bat in a scuffle and became involved in the youth gang culture, he reveals in the book.
“We didn’t get on with the police and the police didn’t like us. It was the 80s, things were different.”
He left school at 15 with no qualifications and the family later moved to Luton for a fresh start, but racism was rife there too, he recalls, and his capacity for fighting gained him a local reputation.
By the age of 21 he was living in a Salvation Army hostel for the homeless.
The cycle of violence only subsided when, through a trustee at the hostel, he got an opportunity to work as a volunteer at a homeless centre in Oxford, which opened his eyes to human tragedy. So many residents had sunk to the bottom of the barrel, yet were still able to laugh, he recalls.
“I had a beautiful awakening of people who have every right to be angry at society – and they were happy. They turned my life around and made me realise that I didn’t need to be angry. I looked after people who had all their possessions in a plastic bag – and the plastic bag wasn’t full.
“Yet they continued to laugh and enjoy life and reflect and I thought, I’m fortunate that I’m not strung out on drugs, I’m not in prison, I’m not dead. I’m still here in this world and I’m able to give it a go.”
He went on to work on a community scheme to help people with mental health issues reintegrate into society, and later joined Youth At Risk, helping troubled delinquents. Having so much in common with them, he could easily relate to the kids.
“I realised I had a knack of supporting the people who are less supported in our society. They connected with me, allowing me to see what I needed to see to stop being what I was being.”
After completing further community enterprise projects, he and his then wife, Jade, a textiles graduate, ventured into furniture restoration by setting up a charitable social enterprise restoring salvaged furniture as a means of training young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Media interest at a trade fair kick-started his TV career, leading to shows Money For Nothing and The Repair Shop, but the pressure of work and collapse of his marriage led to a breakdown, he confesses. He just got in the car one day and drove away from his home and his family.
He felt a failure – and ended up in a near-deserted retail park car park in Wolverhampton, where he remained for five days, until he drove to a nearby hotel to clean himself up.
Jade had reported him missing and the police and a psychiatric nurse arrived at his door, followed by an old friend who ended up being his lifeline, setting him up with work and a place to stay.
“It was a big-time breakdown because I was unable to see tomorrow or see myself in tomorrow. I couldn’t actually reflect on who I was,” he says. “It took me about a week to come out of the other side, with the help of community.
“It’s still hard now because you’ve got to maintain this level of acceptance that you’re vulnerable, of communicating to people that you might need their help.”
He had counselling, which helped enormously, he says.
Today, he’s in a much happier place. He acknowledges that relationships have come and gone – he has two sons from previous relationships and a daughter with Jade – but he speaks to Jade regularly and says that they have a better relationship now. He has been with his current partner, Christine, for five years.
Blades wants to do more shows based around community and bringing people together. The next show is Jay’s Workshop on BBC2, which will see him and a group of volunteers build beautiful furniture for deserving local people.
“I’m a glorified community worker who they put in front of the camera. Now I have the opportunity to make shows that celebrate the unsung heroes in our society.”
Making It by Jay Blades with Ian Gittins is published by Bluebird, priced £16.99. Available now.