Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Autobiography of Joan Hughes
The story of one person's nests


In 1980 I was working well at Central Books. David Wynn was very pleased with my work; I kept the export orders up to date at all times. Ann had left, but her sister Brandy was quite friendly towards me. Brandy's husband also worked part-time at Central Books, and he was a pleasant man. The young man who was the accountant for Central Books worked at the opposite end of the room. When there was some query over an invoice which I had typed, I had to go to see him. He remained friendly towards me during the whole of my employment with Central Books.

There were some older women working at Central Books. Rosa was about 68 years of age when I first met her, and she continued to be employed there until she was over seventy years of age. She was the switch-board operator. Besides this, she spent most of the day filling envelopes. She talked incessantly throughout the day, and smoked many cigarettes. She was rather wearing company; I had to concentrate on my work, answer the phone and make many calls to publishers, so found the noisy atmosphere rather disturbing. Anna was 65 and a friend of Rosa's. She worked at the opposite end of the room in the magazine section. She was rather astringent.

Mary was 60 years of age and was the person who was nicest to me. She worked as an accountancy assistant to Rodney, the accountant. She was a quiet lady who did not smoke. The accountancy section at Central Books appeared to employ the most sensible staff.

Though this was a left-wing bookshop, not many of the staff had much time for politics. Farouk worked near me, and was rather unfriendly. Unfortunately when there was no work in the export section, I had to work assisting him. This I found very difficult. It was a boring routine part of the work. Dockets for books sold were issued in Farouk's hand-writing and I had to cross them off a list. Farouk's handwriting was almost impossible to read.

One day Farouk found out that I was a Catholic, and every day after this he pestered me with Muslim prayer-books. These I put in my drawer and did not read. The export section was very busy and I would not have had any time for reading in any event. But I would not give Farouk the satisfaction of reading his book. Farouk came from Mauritius. His friend Bob also came from this island and worked in the accountancy section. He was much less excitable than Farouk.

During 1980 Andrew was organising many WEA classes in Hackney. Often he was also the convener. But not always, as he would organise three or more classes lasting ten weeks or more, at which there was a wide selection of speakers. These were evening classes held between 7 pm and 9 pm. Usually the venue was Centerprise, but there were other public rooms on offer either free like Centerprise or with very low hire charges. The capitation fee from students had to be enough to cover expenses. At this time the classes did not cost much more than 50p per evening. Students were encouraged to pay for the whole course, when they attended the first evening session. Those who could not afford this paid weekly. I was collector of fees at many of these evening courses and took a box with me, in which cash could be deposited. I filled in standard forms from WEA Head Office. Half this money was sent to the WEA head office. The lecturer collected the rest, but as this amount of money was so low, the lecturers were dedicated people with other sources of income, either employed or retired people. If two or three students paid a cheque for £5 at the start of the course, we thought we were lucky.

One of the evening WEA courses I attended in 1980 was a course on literature. This was not one of Andrew's courses and I don't think he attended as a student. Valerie came and she brought Felicity. Felicity wanted to act as collector of fees for this course, and as I had done this job before, I tried to show Felicity what to do. However Felicity did not want to be told what to do, and told me she was quite capable. She often invited me in for tea, and made quite a fuss of me, but was most apt to tell me what to do in my life. Unfortunately her advice was not very helpful.

Felicity had decided to give up her work as a civil servant and take a degree course in economics. She was 38 years of age at this time, but could well afford this, as she told me that her job in the Civil Service had been preserved for her return.

While Felicity was studying economics she had considerable spare time, and as I often passed her house on my way home from work, if I knocked she would usually invite me in for tea. Sometimes on Sunday mornings I had coffee with Felicity after I had been to the small Catholic Church in Blurton Road. Felicity lived in Glenarm Road, the same road where I lived. Blurton Road was the adjacent parallel street to Glenarm Road, so the church was most convenient. Fr.Tonna, the Maltese priest was often to be seen walking down local streets and was a most friendly person. Some Catholic priests were never seen outside their church talking to local people. But Fr. Tonna rode a bicycle often accompanied by his teen-age boys from the training scheme in interior decorating and repairs which he ran.

[February 1980 Open University Social Science Foundation Course]

In February I started the social science foundation course. This was a change from any of the subjects I had studied in previous life. Though interesting I was never quite sure how it could be "scientific." There were so many variables and social science depended on statistics much more than any of the hard sciences.

In August I was due to attend a summer school in Cardiff and took a week's holiday from Central Books. Unfortunately I caught a severe chest cold and could hardly speak. I was very weak when I set out for the summer school and I remarked to Valerie that I did not think I was well enough to go. She replied that probably I would not have to do much work and could get by "sitting on the campus for a week." When I arrived on Saturday night, I felt I could hardly walk down the long corridor to the enrolment office. There was the usual wine and cheese party, and in addition on Saturday evening there was a mock examination lasting three hours. This was voluntary, so after enroling I went to my room and got into bed missing both the party and the examination.

On Sunday morning I excused myself to attend Mass so that it was not until Sunday afternoon that I first appeared for a class. By this time I felt slightly stronger but had throat pain and felt very tired. One of the exercises involved "taking decisions." I think a battle between two opposing countries was involved. Each group was divided into two teams. We were asked whether we wanted to take a leading role, such as being the King or the general or whether we did not want to take much part. Social science staff did not press people to work too hard. I opted to take a minor role as an observer. Not taking much part meant that I could sit and listen to the other people in the team talking, for which I was very grateful, as I was too tired to speak much. This exercise was quite interesting even as an observer. The people in my team got quite excited about winning the battle and beating the other country. I cannot remember which side won, or whether it was a draw. I felt that doing well at summer school was not crucial to fulfilling examination requirements, as at this summer school, no marks were awarded for the work done. It was much more relaxed than a technology course, where I had to work hard and produce some definite results.

By Friday my cold was better and I enjoyed a trip into Cardiff, where we toured areas of "Housing Blight." I had never heard this term before. A passer-by asked me what we doing and I said I was studying the housing in Cardiff. He answered "Oh, they are just University people patronising us," and I felt quite offended, especially as there were several people from Hackney taking the course, and housing in Hackney was probably inferior to the housing we observed in Cardiff. "Housing Blight" did not mean that the homes were sub-standard. It meant that a road-widening scheme was being considered; so people living in the houses adjoining this area were not bothering to keep their properties in tip-top condition. It probably meant that they were owners whose property had lost value because they were in danger of being demolished, or alternatively having a busy road almost adjacent.

My interest in this state of affairs was rather minor. In Hackney, as a tenant of a housing association, we were having difficulty in getting the association to keep our house in good repair. The roof was very leaky and was repaired two or three times while I was living there. The end result was far from successful. Leaks continued for several years. I do not think I would have minded a group of social science students walking round and enquiring into this state of affairs in Hackney. Probably without my knowledge they were already doing it. It would not have helped us directly, but at least it would mean that the housing situation was being discussed.

With the engineering students in York last year I had occupied a quiet room, my sleep only broken by the raucous crowing of geese at dawn, but with the social science students there was hardly any opportunity to sleep on any night. A noisy party appeared to be going on over my head. Most of the students went home on Friday and Friday night was quiet. As was my usual practice I had opted to stay an extra night in order to spend a day at leisure in Cardiff. On Friday evening I shared fish and chips out of paper with another student, as an evening meal for those who stayed was not supplied. This lady told me she had been retired as a nurse though she was only forty years of age. She told me she had a brain tumour which could kill her at any moment and there was no cure for it.

"You seem very well," I remarked. Cheerily she answered, "I could live for another twenty years or more. The brain tumour may never burst. On the other hand it might."

She was determined to keep occupied and remain cheerful, and I admired her courage. I asked why she could not continue working as a nurse. She told me that the hospital would not employ anyone with her condition. I was mystified as I had never met anyone like this before.

"My neighbours have been very kind to me," she said. "On my street, they collected £20 to provide me with some spending money for this week." "You're lucky to have such kind neighbours," I replied. She was a quiet woman. We decided to visit the museums in Cardiff before returning home, and deposited our luggage for the day at the station. In Cardiff we had to pay an entrance fee to the main civic museum and I was quite surprised by this. London museums were still free. Mrs. Thatcher was a new arrival and her most damaging policies were still a future shadow, not yet a fact.

After a pleasant day in Cardiff with tea in the museum cafe, I said good- bye to the ex-nurse and arrived home at 177 Glenarm Road late in the evening. I told Valerie that I had enjoyed my week and that social science was quite fun. As she had told me, I had not been expected to work very hard at this summer school.

[February? 1980 Open University Introductory electronics. First attempt]

In addition to the foundation course in social science, I studied "Introductory electronics." This was a half-unit course. Most people studied one unit per year, if like me, they were in full-time employment. In 1980 I was doing one and a half units. This was too much for me. After the summer school in Cardiff, I attended a second summer school in Bath. I enjoyed this, but failed the course. Electronics was one of the hardest courses in the Open University syllabus. There was a low percentage of Grade One passes in electronics, whereas in pure mathematics the number of Grade One passes was higher than in any of the Arts subjects. Electronics appeared to have the difficulties of mathematics together with the unpredictabilities of arts subjects. Bath University was a more tranquil place than Cardiff. The electronics students were quiet, mostly men younger than me, who were very serious-minded in their approach to the work. The high jinks of the technology foundation course did not exist. I had a good night's sleep, a lonely week, and a day out in Bath, the Cathedral city on the Saturday following the conclusion of the course.

I packed so many spare-time activities into 1980 and remained in the best of health, apart from the usual coughs and colds; so it was a good year for me. The Open University was the most interesting part of my year, as the work at Central Books was somewhat boring, especially when I was used to it. But I never had a spare moment at Central Books. Orders were flowing in from Hungary and China, and I was thankful for this.

The first sad note in 1980 was the fact that Andrew told me that Brigid Gifford had died from an overdose. The image of Brigid Gifford the last time I saw her in 1975 sitting in the large common room in Mayola Road and talking to Andrew, Valerie and me remains in my mind. She was a National Cyrenian worker. The Cyrenians ran homes for the homeless in urban areas and did this very successfully. Brigid had always looked the picture of confidence. She found time to support the work at Mayola Road and had been a founder member of the Mental Patients Union.

Shortly afterwards, Matthew O'Hara became seriously ill. He had been a very active member of the Mental Patients Union and for about three years successfully organised a large house in Woodford, on the same lines as Mayola Road. On the folding up of the short life properties he had moved to Ickburgh Road together with some other ex-MPU residents. This was a large house owned by Newlon Housing Trust which also owned 177 Glenarm Road. Matthew had successfully worked at a local firm as a caretaker and handyman for several years, besides trying to assist with the needs of the other tenants in Ickburgh Road. By February 1980 there were financial difficulties at Ickburgh Road. The burden fell on Matthew as the house was in his name and he was taken to Pentonville Prison after a dispute over the payment of rates. He was very badly treated in prison and told Andrew that he had been kicked about. His diabetes was neglected, and he fell into a coma. Eventually he was taken to hospital where he remained for many weeks, barely able to talk.

He left the Royal Northern Hospital and stayed one night at Mayola Road during March. He was in such a bad state that he could barely walk a few steps, and on the next day asked to be taken to Hackney Hospital. Andrew or Valerie visited nearly every day, and on a few days when they were unable to visit I saw him on my way home from work at Central Books. By the time I saw him he appeared to be improving as he was able to talk to me briefly and occasionally I took him small items like bananas. But I was worried by the large red spots on his arms and legs and wondered whether they would ever get better.

Matthew eventually appeared to get better and in April he was back at home in Ickburgh Road and I saw him on one occasion riding his bike. I was crossing the road at the time and the typical comment was, "Well, Joan it was hard to avoid knocking you down!" This made me think he was better. Andrew, with help from others who were concerned with prisons had started an enquiry into what had happened to Matthew in Pentonville Prison. We last saw Matthew in mid-May. It was a shock when he was found dead at Ickburgh Road on June 26th. I have a cutting from the Hackney Gazette dated August 1980 which states that his body was found in June and it was thought that he had been dead for five weeks.

Andrew decided to go ahead with the extensive enquiries concerning Matthew's treatment in prison. It would no longer help Matthew but would benefit others in prison. The group called "Inquest" was formed by getting together with others in similar situations. Blair Peach who was killed by a policeman while on a demonstration had friends who joined with us, and eventually half a dozen other groups of friends joined in, and had a large meeting chaired by Michael Meacher MP at the House of Commons. Andrew asked for an Ombudsman report about Matthew's treatment. This meant that Andrew had to write lengthy reports in the knowledge that the result might not be available for several years. In fact it was 1983 before the Ombudsman's report was received and by this time "Inquest" was a very active group.

Andrew arranged Matthew's funeral. His family from Ireland whom he had not seen for about ten years came over to attend the Catholic funeral. I did not go, as my father needed me to go to Manningtree that week-end to give him some help. Before I went to Manningtree, I bought a wreath for Matthew.

The rest of the year was fairly routine. I took the Open University examination in November. In technology I had gained a distinction. In social science I gained only a pass but was quite content with this.

Andrew put on some WEA classes in the autumn and when my O.U. work was running down I was able to attend these and usually acted as collector of class fees. I think we may have had classes in mental health policies in Hackney as one WEA class. There was also a class in alternative technologies at which Dave Elliot, the acknowledged expert was the speaker. This encouraged me to think of going to Machynlleth in Wales for a holiday next year. At Machynlleth is the innovative "Alternative Technology Centre", which generates its own electricity from wind and solar power sources.

At Christmas I spent a few days with my father, went to the local shops and played chess. We listened to the Queen's speech on Christmas Day. This was the subject of Dad's critical remarks, as usual. I went to Mass in Manningtree. The Church of England had agreed to share with the Catholics following the closure of the Catholic Church in Manningtree, which for a congregation of about 25 people had proved to be non-viable.

before after


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.