I still play semi-pro football. I’ve been lucky to play in different countries, but if you’d told me a few years ago I’d mainly be doing gardening, I’d have laughed. From a very young age, I was in academies and it was always my ambition to play football. There was always a ball at my feet, I’d go to parties in football shirts – all that sort of thing. But maybe there’s a link between gardening and football. I grew up playing in parks all the time, so I guess I was immersed in nature in this way too – trees as goalposts, having to climb into bushes to get your ball back. There are some big-name footballers who are now into gardening, like Eric Dier and Hector Bellerin. And the way football can capture an audience, gardening can certainly learn from that.
From about the time I was 12, my mum had cancer. She was on her own with us, but she’d never let it get her down. She was always positive and one of the things she’d always revert back to was nature. She had a very holistic perspective on the world – always pointing out beautiful sunsets or plants that had grown. There were never moments when we’d all be, like, right – let’s go out and garden! But, looking back, it helped us be in the moment, and I think that’s had a massive influence on me.
I live in north Kensington, close to Grenfell Tower. When the fire happened in 2017, the whole community went into shock. Whether we knew them well or not, we lost 72 neighbours – 72 people who you knew to say hello to in the street, who you’d interacted with. They were also people’s aunts, uncles and kids. No one really knew how to react, but I guess I instinctively turned to gardening. I started doing some guerrilla gardening in the community. I didn’t know what it was back then – I thought people were calling me a ‘gorilla’. Basically, though, I got into greening up public spaces as a way of healing, and that was my first experience of gardening. Eventually we created the Grenfell Garden of Peace. I saw how powerful it can be in bringing people together. As well as engaging with nature, I was interacting with people in a way I hadn’t done before.