Hamza Taouzzale was about six years old when he crept into Buckingham Palace late one evening to collect some keys that his grandfather, a royal porter, had left behind in the staff quarters.
Moving quietly along carpeted corridors, he was awestruck by the artwork and architecture as the pair made their way through Queen Elizabeth II’s London residence.
“I still remember it quite vividly,” Taouzzale tells The National 16 years later. “We went in at night. You see all these old paintings. It lasted around 20 minutes.”
No stranger to the social issues that blight many of the capital’s working-class neighbourhoods, young Hamza grew up on a London council estate without reason to believe he would ever become “first citizen” of his borough.
But, at the age of 22, he took up the prestigious title of The Right Worshipful Lord Mayor of Westminster – the first Muslim, first person of a minority ethnicity and youngest councillor to do so.
Less than a fortnight after donning the gold chain of office, the politician returned, with a little less stealth, to Buckingham Palace for a second visit – only to find himself intercepted early on.
“Don’t move. Stop right there,” an official said when Taouzzale was introduced at a reception marking the queen’s 70 years of service.
“I got really scared,” he recalls with a self-conscious grin. “I thought ‘what have I done?’”
Before Taouzzale could long ponder what sort of trouble he was in, it became clear that the instruction was to allow the heir to the British throne to navigate towards his guest of honour.
Of the moment that the Prince of Wales shook his hand in welcome, he says: “I couldn’t believe what was happening, talking to a future king of the country. I never once thought I’d ever go back to the palace again and I have – as lord mayor now, which is crazy.”
After their chat, Taouzzale was bemused to discover he had been “bumped up” in the seating order at the Platinum Party at the palace later that evening.
There was to be no fading into the background for the civic official directed to the centre of the second row at the outdoor gathering. The seat in front had a tag with “HRH Prince George” on it, in the middle of a line of royals including the seven-year-old’s sister, Charlotte, 9, and parents Prince William and Kate.
Among those immediately behind Taouzzale were British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his wife, Carrie, and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
“Princess Charlotte kept turning around to stare at my chain,” he says.
Her father, too, repeatedly swivelled in his seat to converse about the goings-on during the two-and-half-hour show featuring stars from stage, screen, sport, music and dance.
“This is so cool, isn’t it?” the Duke of Cambridge asked him several times.
Although Taouzzale’s plus-one for the night was Iman Less, the newly elected Labour councillor for Maida Vale is not among the lord mayor’s official consorts.
That honour falls to his aunt, Jasmine, and mother, Soud, who attended his civic service in Westminster Abbey, scene of so many royal weddings and coronations past. This time, however, it was Soud's eldest child for whom the bells of the ancient cathedral tolled.
“For me and my mother, these were not places that we ever expected to be in or people we expected to meet, so it was a huge privilege,” he says.
Although, he playfully points out that the royal family “are my residents”, given that many of them, not least the queen – “Westminster’s most famous and, at 96 years old, one of our most long-standing” – live in his borough.
Among Taouzzale's lord mayoral duties is presiding over weekly citizenship ceremonies at Marylebone Town Hall in the very room where his grandmother, Fatima, once received her own certificate, and the same building in which Soud registered the birth of baby Hamza.
His grandparents emigrated from Morocco to the UK in the Seventies in search of a better life, settling in the Queen’s Park ward that was created in 1875 and named after Victoria.
Taouzzale still lives with his two brothers and sister in that original family home on Lisson Green Estate, where Fatima and her husband, Mokhtar, raised Soud and her two siblings.
Fatima, who found work as a chamber maid in a hotel, recently became a septuagenarian, which her precocious grandson finds amusing given that there are, he says, “a lot of councillors who are 70”.
Mokhtar, now 72, something of a “language man” fluent in Italian, Spanish, French, English and Arabic, worked as a chef in restaurants in the capital. Later, he landed the job as a porter at Buckingham Palace, a post he held for 30 years.
The couple’s love for North African culture and cuisine was instilled in the burgeoning family, with Taouzzale admitting a preference for tagines, couscous and the meat or seafood pies called bastilla, and having a sweet tooth for Arabic pastries.
“My Moroccan heritage is such a key and vital point to who I am,” he says. “I’m proud to be able to represent my culture, my heritage.”
Throughout his time in local state schools and studying for a degree in politics at Goldsmith University and a masters in global affairs at King’s College London, Taouzzale always tried to namecheck where he lived in his essays.
"I felt it was that important. It’s home,” he says. “If I move out, I wouldn’t want to move anywhere else apart from Church Street [the very heart of Westminster] or Lisson Green.”
But in spite of Taouzzale’s pride at being from a “proper Westminster family” and his enduring affection for the multicultural community, there was something sorely amiss.
“I saw lots of inequalities that I didn’t like,” he says, “anti-social behaviour, high levels of crime, poverty, inequality. I didn’t think it was fair. I didn’t like the way things were in my area and thought: ‘What’s the best way for me to make a change? What’s the best way for me to actually get involved and make a difference?’”
So, at the age of 16, he joined Westminster’s youth council and won a place as an MP in the UK Youth Parliament the following year. By 18, he was a Labour councillor representing the ward to which his grandparents moved five decades earlier.
His refusal to be daunted by the wealth of experience possessed by fellow members on the council is testament to his perseverance against the stacking up of odds.
“I have lived my whole life in a city that I now represent. Very few people can say that. And I’ve lived in a modern time. I grew up with all of this technology, all these smart phones, Twitter. That’s my life, which means I’m able to bring something that’s completely different to the role.”
Touching on the scepticism of some colleagues at the idea of an 18-year-old on the council, he says he soon “converted them”.
“I had to get up to speed pretty quickly. I showed them that I do know what I’m doing, I’m a serious person, I know how things work, I know how to handle myself on different occasions.
"Other councillors now see me and it’s not a surprise any more. It was: ‘Hamza, are you sure you’ll be able to do that?’, and now it’s: ‘Hamza, here’s more responsibility, go and do this’.”
His many qualities stood him in good stead after the Labour Party’s historic victory in local elections in May, when the Conservatives lost control of Westminster for the first time in 60 years.
Recovering his surprise at being appointed lord mayor, Taouzzale, in another first for the council, chose as his chaplain an imam, Kabir Uddin, who runs an Islamic school and has provided spiritual guidance to inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs for nearly 20 years.
“It was important to show people that your faith never holds you back,” he explains. “If anything, it helps propel you forward, shows who you are, makes you more of a person.”
These many points of difference inform his determined bid to “keep to my roots”, set an example as a role model, and be a catalyst to improve the lives of others, especially the young.
It explains why he chose the Young Westminster Foundation, an initiative that allocates funding to groups and projects helping the area’s youth, as the lord mayor’s charity, and why his first engagement was a visit to his old primary school, Gateway Academy.
There is no doubt that Taouzzale has also made it his mission to become the most visible lord mayor ever, planning on attending as many official events and community activities as possible in his 12-month tenure.
Ninety-three or so days in, the tally stands at almost 300, including a ceremony for the anniversary of the deadly Grenfell Tower inferno, unveiling a blue plaque for Jimi Hendrix at the Hard Rock Cafe in Mayfair, and spending the afternoon of his 23rd birthday last week at the Queen’s Park Summer Festival.
The future holds such novelties as flying to Norway to choose the spruce tree that the city of Oslo sends each Christmas to stand in Trafalgar Square as a token of gratitude to London for assistance in the Second World War.
Ultimately, although there are “so many bucket-list things” Taouzzale wants to tick off, the focus of what he calls a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is social progress.
“I want them to remember me for all the barriers that I’ve been able to break down and all the changes that I’ve been able to make,” he asserts.
The self-appointed responsibilities are big but Taouzzale’s shoulders are, it has to be said, broad. In his grey suit, red tie and blingtastic civic regalia, he looks at ease moving through the neighbourhood, seeming to know everyone and they him.
Those to whom he was once knee-high are accustomed to receiving his respectful greetings of “auntie” or “uncle”, albeit these days from a young man of imposing physical stature.
“We’re proud of him,” the owner of the cafe where we meet over coffee says, pleased to have seen coverage of Taouzzale’s appointment in the Moroccan press.
When he is not working, he loves a lie-in as much as any other 20-something, is into martial arts (Muay Thai) and indulges a passion for music. As a teenager, he appeared in a crowd of extras on grime and hip-hop artist Stormzy’s music video for Blinded By Your Grace Pt.2, and he has the British rapper Dave and singer/songwriter Adele among the home-grown artists on his eclectic play list.
When time affords, he can be found playing football with his friends in the park, and dreams – as perks of office – of one day wearing the gold mayoral chain and a pair of high-top Air Jordan trainers inscribed with his official title to go watch his beloved Chelsea FC at Stamford Bridge.
Fostering a lively social life alongside the jam-packed work schedule is proof, Taouzzale says, that young people do not have to forgo the fun of their formative years if they step into politics at an early age. “You can have both,” he insists.
Sometimes, though, the balancing act is no walk in the park. He has been stopped and searched on five or six occasions by Metropolitan Police officers in recent years. His ethnicity, age and location were the main factors, he says, noting that “they didn’t believe I was who I was saying I was”.
The humiliation of the first time has never left him. The fact that his friends were blase, having been stopped often before, merely fuelled Taouzzale’s anger at what he saw as the sort of injustice that propelled him into politics in the first place.
Again, he says, he brings to the lord mayoralty a unique lived experience to which no other councillor can lay claim.
There has been no further stopping and searching of Taouzzale since his “Mayor Making”, and long may that continue, he hopes.
But “all the stereotypes kick in” when a person from an ethnic minority background takes up a role previously held only by white people, evidenced by the unfavourable reactions among the messages of congratulations that poured in from around the world.
“He’s got a beard, he’s Muslim, he can’t do this properly,” he says, reeling off examples of the perhaps less-unsavoury discriminatory remarks received. Although undeterred, he admits the negativity is nonetheless “a little bit annoying”.
As he looks back on that day when the leader of Westminster City Council offered him the hitherto undreamed of promotion to Lord Mayor of Westminster, Taouzzale can’t help but laugh.
“I said to him: ‘No, you’re joking. There’s no way! Are you sure?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
He promptly went around the corner to call his mum, close to tears at the feeling of holding the winning ticket for a jackpot.
Now, though, there is a sense about Taouzzale that he no longer views his appointment as random or in any way a stroke of luck.
“I have to remember that I’ve earned my place,” he says with conviction. “If I’m somewhere, I deserve to be there. I haven’t just won a lottery.”