Estimated reading time:5 minutes, 37 seconds
Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. If class, career and cancer can make or break a life then the experiences of furniture maker and shop owner Roy Griffiths shows how to turn adversity into advantage. Plus quick detours around the swinging ‘60s, art and Zen Buddhism. Interview by Nicola Baird
“I was a war baby, born in 1939. My family were all servants looking after the posh people. They were chauffeurs or chambermaids. My mum was a milliner and my Dad a postman,” says Roy Griffiths, now 73, with matter-of-fact pride sitting on one of a comfy pair of sofas in his massive 9,000 square foot shop at 137-139 Essex Road. It’s been a furniture or kitchen shop for the past 10 years but Roy now has plans to sell bespoke kitchen cabinets at an affordable price (£5,000 instead of £20,000).
There are a couple of show kitchens on the shop floor plus some eccentric furniture (a Pacific island coffee table) and some stylish oil paintings, done by Roy during his art school days.
The building also boasts an art studio, a carpentry shop and a penthouse. Roy offered to do this interview spontaneously (despite never meeting me before) and is clearly busy – his mobile buzzes often and there’s a fitter working on the other side of the shop who needs supervision.
Roy began life in Islington. He was born in St Mary’s Hospital and then went home to 124 Northchurch Road, N1 which the family rented. He was evacuated to Torquay “later my sister bought a hotel there, well more of a boarding house,” but then the family moved back to Wood Green. When Roy was 14 – and at a grammar school -they moved out to Hertfordshire. It’s a slow northerly route that many Islington families follow, even now. In the 1960s Roy was back in London to attend Hornsey Art School, he then taught art for three years in Norfolk, before taking up a place at the Slade (a famous art college). It was a heady time in the art world – think David Hockney, Derek Jarman, Lucien Freud and sculptor Allen Jones. “Look, I’m an artist by trade,” says Roy explaining how he left the Slade at 27 and became an antique dealer. “I didn’t think I could do art and feed my family.” That’s another fascinating story… Roy “married Mimi, a girl from the circus – well her dad was a high diver. I chased her around Europe!” Successfully chased as the pair have now been married 50 years.
ROY’S TIMELINE 1939 – born in Islington 1960s – art school (and worked as a teacher) 1967-1993 – ran an antique shop in Fulham with many famous customers (eg, Paul McCartney). The shop was closed when Mimi became paraplegic. 1976 – set up Cross Keys Joinery which specialised in painted furniture– Ray sold it in 2007 to retire in France 1996 – bought 137-139 Essex Road building which was run as a furniture shop 2009 – Set up Green & Fay (named after his daughters Polly, 49, and Lucy, 44 who both live in London still) 2011 – Diagnosed with neck cancer, had chemotherapy and also rekindled his interest in Zen Buddhism 2013 – September – plans to run Green & Fay as a kitchen shop which sells furniture.
Seize the moment
So now he’s 72 and retired to France at least once, what is going on? “People say ‘You don’t need money, why do you do it?’ But artists don’t retire. They drop dead in their boots,” explains Roy. “In 2011 I was diagnosed with neck cancer. Cancer’s been the best thing that happened to me. When you get it, you know nothing about it. Then you read up what the Macmillan nurses say and find that something very odd happens – many people disappear and people at work start leaving. They either think cancer is catching or terrifying. They run for it. They can’t talk! It creates tremendous pressure. It nearly broke up my marriage. It made me come out of the closet as a Zen Buddhist – but Zen Buddhism helps you be calm and happy and appreciate nature.”
“Cancer makes you concentrate your mind on the quality of your life – not on your wife or children or employees. You ask ‘What do I want to do?’ And I realised I just love making furniture. I made a fantastic living with carpentry. I went out and bought £5,000, maybe £10,000 of kit and started making furniture again. I’ve done my tour of duty – and it was a tour of duty. I’ve got a lovely family and over the years I’ve employed 200 to 300 staff and helped them feed their families. Now all of a sudden I’m doing what I love doing, making furniture.”
And he’s doing it back in Islington – a place clearly dear to his heart. “Well my wife doesn’t like suburbia. And Islington has a very mixed alternative society. There’s something special about Essex Road – Upper Street is incredibly posh, it’s where Blair went for lunch – but Essex Road is full of immigrants who work hard and run their own shops. Essex Road is cosmopolitan. It’s one of the last streets with a butcher, baker and fishmonger.
Supermarkets have taken over the high street with their express and metro stores and killed off small businesses, but not in Essex Road. Here’s a culture that’s very attractive to artists and creative people.”
Roy Griffiths’ story shows how to embrace change and craft them into the life you want to lead. Right now his shop is open from 11.30am-2.30pm on Saturday, so you can go and find out more for yourself. Make sure you ask to see the chocolate joints – Roy’s brand new carpentry technique.
Green & Fay is open on Saturdays from 11.30am-2.30pm – go see Roy’s lovely art works and find out about the cupboards he makes. From September 2013 the hours will be longer. See http://greenandfaykitchens.co.uk/handmade-kitchen-units.php
Over to you
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.
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