In an unassuming garage on Cremer Street just minutes from Hoxton station, 56-year-old Errol McKellar has been fixing cars for 26 years.
“We do what we do here for the people of the community,” he says.
“We run a bike shop that’s been organised by a young man from the community… It’s keeping him on the straight and narrow, getting him back on his feet. It’s just about helping, putting back into something really.”
Sitting in his office in the middle of the Cremer St Garage, desk piled high with stacks of paper, Errol somehow manages to make the cramped and slightly chilly space feel welcoming.
A registered youth mentor for Hackney, he considers himself something of a father figure to the young people that he works alongside – and even to those he meets only in passing. In a world that so often demands that everything be done yesterday, Errol’s willingness to give up his time for others is refreshing.
“My main motto is to try and keep the youngsters out of trouble by keeping them occupied. Even just helping them with their education is important. Sometimes kids just need to speak to somebody outside of the remit. I consider myself to be a parent to all of them, and they’re great kids.”
Among such “kids,” you will find the likes of David Beckham, Ashley Cole and Germaine Defoe, all of whom Errol has trained in his work as a coach at Leyton Orient Football Club. Like a proud parent, he speaks of them with fondness, admiration and great humility.
“They were great youngsters, they’ve been great adults, and I’m personally proud every time I see them or I hear their names…If I’ve spent five minutes doing something in their life to help them then I’ve done something.”
Last year, Errol was nominated by residents of Hackney to carry the torch in the Olympic Relay. “There weren’t no running, there was lots of walking I can tell you,” he laughs.
When he stepped off the bus at Stoke Newington rail station he was greeted by 20,000 people lining the route down to Rectory Road, he says: “The day was quite special you know because I didn’t realise there were so many people who were going to come out and cheer for me.”
Surprisingly modest for a man who keeps an Olympic torch on his mantelpiece, Errol expresses little personal pride in his achievement: “It belongs to the community – they chose me to represent them.”
He has since taken the torch to local schools and nurseries, even to Great Ormond Street, and it is currently on display at the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch.
For Errol, the nomination was about more than the recognition of his years of hard work: it marked the beginning of his recovery after life-saving surgery.
In 2010, he gave into his wife’s insistence that he do something about his snoring and went to the doctors:
“While I was waiting in the surgery for some reason I picked up a leaflet and started reading. I thought – ok – let me speak to the receptionist and find out how long it takes to do this test. She said, ‘We can do it for you straight away. It only takes ten minutes.’ Little did I know that those ten minutes were going to change my life.”
Four weeks later, Errol was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“When someone tells you that you’ve got cancer it’s a very, very difficult thing to take on board. It actually reduced me to tears which was difficult because I’m a very proud person but as I said you know the word cancer does make you weak.”
Not one to be overcome by trials, Errol resolved to “turn that negative into a positive.” He now uses his experience to campaign to raise awareness about prostate cancer.
“It’s still a taboo subject – men don’t want to talk about it. And I suppose the difference where I’m concerned is I’m not frightened to talk about it… I consider myself personally as an ambassador because unless someone talks about these things then it’s not going to get solved. Because you know I found this out by luck, so my statement to everybody now is ‘don’t wait for luck.’”
To date, Errol has raised £15,000 for Prostate Cancer UK and offers discounts to his customers at the garage if they get tested. He dedicated his Olympic torch to those suffering from prostate cancer.
As the conversation draws to a close, Errol laughs off a question about why he loves living and working in East London: “You know what, I don’t think I’ve got enough time to tell you about Hackney. If I had to pick one single thing out it would be the people…I mean they talk about ‘people power’ but I actually live it.”
It is not hard to appreciate how he has so touched the heart of Hackney.