Photos by Jemima Yong
“If you can feel the house, you can feel the man.“
A few years back, on assignment for OkayAfrica, I visited 575 Wandsworth Road where Kenyan poet Khadambi Asalache lived. I met his partner Susie Thompson who told me about the revival of the house through Asalache’s handcrafted fretwork and their lives together.
“There wasn’t a cliched bone in his body. Wherever in the world he was, he was himself.“
ST … and he wasn’t thinking of doing any of this. And it was only when he bought the house in 1981, um it uh
JY Is that what the house looked like?
ST No, no, what it looked like was that it had squatters in it and it was in a really dreadful state. I mean really, really bad; it probably hadn’t really been touched except putting in the most grotty bathroom and kitchen ever which is now gone…. It was as original as it could get from when it was built in 1815 but it had just got very unloved and then the squatters, they had a horse and a pig and chickens living in the garden… so the neighbours I think were deeply pleased to get rid of the pig particularly. (Lovely though pigs are) And I’d say he arrived and he wasn’t planning to do any of this he just thought he’d do the house up, get the bus, because there’s a direct bus to Whitehall… and the problem was the damp. And he got builders in, and the builders couldn’t sort the damp and it turns out they could have never sorted the damp because there was a commercial launderette next door and so after a little while he was walking around and with his wonderful, natural creativity he had, he found floorboards in a skip – because a lot of houses were being done up around here – it was a real time of gentrification…
JY When he passed away, was it finished? Is this finished?
ST Yes, he finished a bit before he was diagnosed being ill… about 6 months before, about 2004, early 2005. That was it, it was finished. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he then did do, on the ceiling in the sitting room, he actually started increasing the amount of… and he didn’t finish that but I think that was more an act of ‘I’m going to…’ He knew he couldn’t have been cured but I think he’d hoped to live with the illness. In fact, he refused to recognise how bad things were. And so he started doing a bit more fretwork but then he couldn’t. Effectively, it’d been a good year, eighteen months before then he’d already said the house was finished.
ST Sometimes I go round and I can remember him.
I’d come round if I hadn’t seen him for a couple of days, because he was working hard and I’d come back and he’d say ‘you won’t see what I’ve done.’ And I always did, for starters, but I have to say that I sometimes do go round thinking gosh I can remember, because you can put it in context, ‘we’d just done this or about to do that’ or ‘we ate lunch after supper that night’ or something like that. The place is heaving in memories basically.
JY What do you remember from first stepping into the one room that was done when you first met. Because it must tell you so much about a person.
ST I remember walking in to the party. It was a friend of mine and he had asked if he could have a dinner party here and she’d say she’d wanted to show off his garden because everyone had a very vague interest in gardens and so I walked in and glanced through the hallway which was you know, nothing… could just a little bit of the fretwork in the sitting room downstairs and thought ‘gosh’.
She said he had this extraordinary house but I couldn’t envisage it… I remember going downstairs and thinking ‘oh my goodness’. I was actually feeling very ill by the way, I tried to get out of the dinner party because I had the most terrible cold and I said to Caroline… ‘I’m sorry I’m really not feeling well’ and she said ‘I don’t care, you’re coming.’
JY Were you with him at that point?
S T No, it was the first time I’d met him. I was enchanted.