What is the most important lesson life has taught me? To survive.
Jerry Gardiner works for the Putting Down Roots project run by the homeless charity St Mungo’s. The project trains St Mungo’s clients in gardening skills and they gain practical experience by volunteering to tend green spaces all over London. Jerry has been involved for over four years, before which he was homeless for several months. “I lost my mum and my dad and I turned to drink to block it out,” he says. Among many gardens all over the capital he works on, Jerry is part of the team at the Melior Street allotment in SE1, which hosts its annual Back Yard Dinner on Thursday evening (ticket details at end).
When were you happiest?
I’m happy when I wake up at about 6am ’cause I can be busy and out, with my mind occupied.
Where would you like to live in south London?
Around the Thames. I like the river and the boats and the scenery of it.
What is your favourite London smell?
In Brick Lane you can smell the fruit and veg as you’re going through the market.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
What is your earliest London memory?
When I was young they used to bring the coal by horse and I’d to jump on the back of the wagon and get a lift.
What’s your favourite south London landmark?
The houseboats on the Thames, like the ones in Battersea. The people in them are happy-go-lucky, like me.
Your favourite London secret?
Cockney rhyming slang. The cockneys are good people, you can have a chat and a craic with them. I like ‘Doing the Lambeth Walk’.
What makes you unhappy?
To tell you the truth, death. We’ve had a lot of it lately – I was at a neighbour’s funeral just last week. And losing your mum and dad…
What simple thing would improve your quality of life?
I just take it day by day. But if I won the Lottery I wouldn’t mind.
What is your most unappealing habit?
I haven’t got one.
Where do you hang out?
I don’t hang out much. I just get indoors. I used to drink with the drinkers in the park but I don’t go near them any more.
Who or what do you dislike and why?
What I don’t like is people ordering me around. I’m 52. I think I know what to do. But people get too busy and try to take over. I’ve got a very bossy sister: she tells me what to do and I tell her to calm down.
Best south London day or evening out?
There was a St Mungo’s river walk that cut through the boroughs along the southside of the river – from the London Eye to Lambeth Park. You got to meet lots of people and at the end we had a nice picnic.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
When I don’t shave for a couple of weeks. I don’t like a big beard on me, don’t like being scruffy.
What’s the worst thing anyone’s said to you?
In the hospital when I lost my mum and the doctor explained to me that she’d gone.
What has your career taught you?
I knew nothing about gardening. Now I know quite a lot – I’ve passed two exams so far already. When I left school I started learning the butcher’s trade, then worked for Westminster Council as a dustman. But I had to pack it in when my mum and dad died. I couldn’t take it no more.
The house I live in is…
A one-bedroomed council flat. I call it my palace.
What is your greatest life achievement?
Helping my mum and dad when they were ill. I looked after them for 27 years. My dad worked for 40 years on Paddington Station and my mum was an ordinary cleaner. They worked very hard and looked after us. I wanted to do the same for them, I wouldn’t put them in an old people’s home.
Describe yourself as an animal
I’m a happy-go-lucky person, but there is a bit of an animal in me, I can have a bit of a temper. So I’d say a snake, because I get on with anyone – I’m smooth.
Interview: Kate Burt