At Paul Kirby’s Foam Shop
Near the top of Brick Lane, where it peters out into Bethnal Green, stands a lone house of mystery – accompanied by the gnarled stump of an old plane tree. Entirely at odds with the bland redevelopment that surrounds it, this edifice is unapologetic in its utilitarian idiosyncrasy and, when the windows glow at dusk on a rainy night, it possesses a magical allure which fascinates me. This is Paul Kirby’s foam shop.
For years, Paul Kirby has held out bravely against the “regeneration” that razed every other building in sight, and has emerged triumphant as the proud custodian of the last weaver’s house in the neighbourhood – built in the eighteenth century and incorporating a ship’s window into the frontage. “There’s been quite a lot of pressure to knock it down, but I took the council to court and won the case!” declared Paul in jubilant satisfaction, clasping his hands as he rocked back and forth in his easy chair.
You walk right in off the street into Paul’s workshop which occupies the entire ground floor of 74 Swanfield St, and is crammed with foam of every colour and description. On the left of this foam-lover’s paradise is the well-worn cutting board and, on the right, the tethered rolls of foam wait eager to spring into spongy life, while the space between is stacked with foam cushions – including a cherished Charles & Diana wedding souvenir foam cushion which, in astonishing testimony to Paul’s foam shop, has kept its bounce far longer than the ill-fated marriage ever did. And at the centre of all this foam sits Paul in his pork pie hat, a proud Englishman at home in his castle.
“I wouldn’t ever leave the East End now,” confided Paul, whose origins are in Mauritius, “I’ve got used to living in the bustling of Bethnal Green with all the cosmopolitans here. They looked down on foreigners when I first came to London in 1953 and it was hard to get a job or a room. Those were the darkest days, but I had some Jewish friends round here. It was a nice place to live, I loved it. It was elegant. I got a room in Code St off Brick Lane for fifty pence a week, from there I bought a lorry and started my own transport business.
Paul was conscripted into the British Army at eighteen years old from his home in Mauritius in 1950. When his mother died unexpectedly while he was in the forces, Paul was adopted by his commanding officer, who subsequently became Brigadier Kirby, and he returned to live in Britain with his new stepfather.
“I stayed with them in Hastings but it was difficult to get a job there, so he wrote me a letter which I took to a company in London and I got a job right away. Then he retired to St Austell in Cornwall and bought a Tudor house, where I used to visit at weekends. Although I was the only black man in St Austell, I had a lovely time. How people treated me there – it was unbelievable! When I got on the bus, they wouldn’t take money off me. They said, ‘Soldiers don’t pay!’
When I first came from Mauritius I was very fascinated by English furniture, especially Chesterfields, and I thought, ‘I’d like to make one of those.’ I’ve always been interested in furniture, so I studied upholstery. Since 1958 until now, I have been involved with upholstery, mostly lounge suites and I’ve made many Chesterfields.
In the sixties, I worked for the owner of this place. They manufactured reproduction furniture and I was their driver. There were scraps of fabric left over and they gave them to me. I asked the two machinists to make up cushion covers which I filled with scrap foam from the floor. And I took them down the market in Brick Lane on a Sunday and sold them for fifty pence each. And I made £20 each weekend and we shared it between us, which was pretty good when you realise that wages were only £8 a week.
I bought a two up/two down house in Bethnal Green, with no bathroom and an outside toilet, for £300. Then, in 1968, the furniture business moved to bigger premises so the boss asked me to run the shop for £8 a week. To start with, I sold secondhand furniture, wardrobes and things, and I just opened on Sunday because that was the only day people were walking about.
In the nineteen-seventies, we had a lot of problems with the National Front. Every weekend, there’d be marches and so on. I used to open up my house for the police to use the toilet because there’d be six bus loads of them waiting outside in case of trouble. I was in the middle of it because I was selling Union Jack cushions and some people asked me to stop selling them as it was a symbol adopted by the National Front, but I am an ex-army man and proud to be a citizen of the United Kingdom. It was not a nice time.
Around 1976, I started repairing furniture, recovering old three piece suites and reselling them, then in 1988 I took the place over and moved in and stayed ever since – but now I can’t compete with the big furniture warehouses, so I just do a bit of repair and sell foam, cushions and suchlike to local people. I have another home but I often stay here when I am working late, and most of my neighbours know me by my first name.”
Actively employed at eighty-three, Paul Kirby is now among the few who remember when Bethnal Green and Shoreditch were full of cabinet and furniture makers. And Paul has such a relaxed nature that his foam shop is an attractive place to linger to enjoy the peace and quiet, as if the very fabric of the building has now absorbed his personality – or as if the vast amount of foam insulates against the outer world, absorbing discord.
The recipient of kindness, Paul greets everyone who comes through the threshold with an equal generosity of spirit. You can be guaranteed of a welcome and a smile, as long as you have not come to knock down this venerable weaver’s house in the name of “regeneration” – because, after half a century, Paul and his building are one.
The mysterious allure of Paul Kirby’s foam shop at dusk
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