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


In September 1978 I had been engaged for a feasibility study entitled "The Influence of salts of organic acids on the crystallinity of partly hydrolysed polyvinylacetate polymers."

I wrote a report which presented our case very well and Dr. Pritchard submitted an application for a grant for further work to the appropriate authorities.

Most of the work was finished by March 1979 and I employed the following two months to write the report, doing most of the work at home. Though when I started I had not much enthusiasm for this project, I found some of the work to be interesting and soon became engrossed with it. I was using gel filtration chromatography to prepare samples of polyvinylacetate free from sodium and potassium ions. This was a method described in Skoog and West, a book written for analytical chemists by colleagues of Professor Belcher from my old department at Birmingham University. It is more difficult to use chromatography to prepare quantities of pure chemicals than to use it for analysis of samples. We soon found that it was better to shake the impure sample with the gel in suspension and leave it stand in a flask overnight. In this way we prepared our samples in amounts up to 2.5 grams. This was sufficient to form a thin film suitable to examine by means of a geological microscope. We were looking to see if light was scattered by the samples differently in different planes. This resulted in colours being shown which could be photographed. I have some interesting photographs in my report.

Impure PVA products containing sodium or potassium acetate show birefringence. Polarised light of a fixed band of wavelengths travels through the solid more slowly in one direction than in another, producing varying colour effects. This indicates that the molecules in the polymer are oriented in a preferred direction.

The work can best be described by giving the objectives of the study and the conclusion reached, as follows: Objective of the study

1. To investigate and understand crystallinity in partly hydrolysed polyvinyl acetate polymers.

2. To determine whether crystallinity can be observed in partly hydrolysed polyvinyl acetate polymers independently of the presence of salts of organic acids present as impurities or deliberately introduced.

Summary of report and conclusions

A review of the physical aspects of polymer crystallinity is given. Partly hydrolysed polyvinyl acetate polymers with 90 mole-% of hydroxyl units have been prepared, analyzed chemically and examined with a polarising microscope.

A method has been devised for separating salt from the polymers. It has been demonstrated that these polymers exhibit their partial crystallinity independently of the presence of up to 7% of sodium or potassium acetate.

The presence of up to 7% of acetate salts has been demonstrated to enhance the film forming properties of the polymers by the prevention of bubble formation.

Hydrolysed polyvinyl acetate polymers which are partly crystalline and compatible with organic salts may be useful commercially in the form of transparent films with special optical properties (which might be used, for example, in eye lenses).

This report looks very dry to non-technical readers, but the practical work on the bench was my favourite kind of work and what I was always happiest doing. By May 1979 the report was complete and Dr. Pritchard had applied for funding for further work on this project. Unfortunately his application was turned down. I was heartbroken in June 1979 as I was told the chemistry department was going to be scaled down and no new projects started.

Meanwhile Joy had just completed her work on lead in hair from dentists and had been engaged by London Hospital as a medical technician. She had had experience in this field before marriage. I knew there was no chance for me in this field. As I had failed to gain employment in chemistry after my last period at North East London Polytechnic, I doubted whether I would be successful now. I was feeling very tired.

Just before going home from the Polytechnic for the last time Joy took me out to lunch at the Co-operative Store in Stratford. At this time they had two eateries, a self-service cafe on the ground floor and a restaurant with waitress service on the first floor. On this occasion we went to the restaurant and had a delicious curry. I said good-bye to Joy and doubted that I would keep in touch. I was short of money and would have to sign on unemployed until I found a job.

I sent away a few applications for work in laboratories, but I was now 51 years of age and my CV did not look very good. There were too many gaps. Even though I had done successful laboratory work at the polytechnic it looked very unlikely that I would find employment in chemistry. I was very disappointed, but did not regret working at the polytechnic even though it did not lead to further work. I became resigned to the idea of working in an office again. There were still a few such jobs available. Mrs. Margaret Thatcher had just won the General Election. Unemployment stood at just over a million. Unfortunately Mrs. Thatcher was proceeding to cut funds from many educational establishments which might have employed me. When Charles Hill, a friend of Andrew's visited 177 Glenarm Road and told me that he was working at Central Books and a job in the office had just become vacant, he asked me to apply for it and said he would give me a recommendation. There did not seem to be any other work in view so I took this chance.

Four applicants were interviewed. Andrew's daughter, Lily answered the phone when Dave Wynn, Manger of Central Books called. Lily was about 12 years of age, and I wondered whether this would give him a favourable impression or otherwise. I don't think it mattered. I was the one who got this job. I started this work about September 1979.

When I arrived in the office, a young woman of about 20 started to teach me the job. She was leaving in three weeks time to start university. I believe she intended to take a degree in English as in her spare time she was reading "Ulysses" by James Joyce. I found this book too difficult to read when I tried it. I've forgotten her name so shall call her Ann. Ann had very red, dyed hair. I believe this was a "punk" style. Her sister, Brandy, worked part-time. She was about five years older than Ann and a married woman. Ann was surprised at how quickly I learned the work, which was concerned with the export of books in English to Eastern Europe and China. There was a book of instructions prepared by Brandy and I found this very useful. At Central Books I was moderately happy during the first year. The pay was £60 per week, not high but my expenses were low, so I was able to save money.

I found the work fairly routine, so started an Open University course as a spare-time hobby. My first foundation course was in technology. The tutor was Mr. Elias, and I had a meeting with him once per month. He was extremely conscientious. There were about ten students in our group. It could hardly be called a class, because we met so rarely, about 8 times during the year, for three hours in the evening.

I had the opportunity to attend a Summer School at very low cost. At this time Open University fees were very low, about £50 per unit. A government-supported scheme made these entirely free to unemployed people. Unfortunately this help for the unemployed lasted only about three years.

Six units were required for the degree, and most people completed one unit or two half-units per year. However it was possible to enrol for a maximum of two units per year. During one year I enrolled for one and a half units and found this too heavy a load for me.

After taking six units for an ordinary degree, it was possible to take two more units at third or fourth level for an honours degree.

In late September I went to my first Open University Summer School at York University. It was a beautiful campus. All the summer school students stayed in rooms vacated by the ordinary students for the holidays. There was a lake running through the middle of the grounds, over which there was a bridge. Many of the walkways leading from one building to another were covered, offering a shield from rain. Near the lake was a flock of geese. These huge birds woke us at about six each morning with their raucous crowing. I enjoyed listening to this sound, though it annoyed some people. The days were packed; we arrived on Saturday evening when registration and allocation took place. There was a free wine and cheese party on Saturday evening, arranged by the Open University Students' Association.

The first day of study was Sunday, and it was unfortunate that I had to excuse myself from the first session in order to go to church in York. This was a short bus ride. Sunday was a full day, as sessions were held in the afternoon and evening. During the practical session we had to make a set of traffic lights. My fingers were fumbling and I did not do this exercise very well. Most of the exercises involved wiring up simple electronic gear. Twelve volt isolators protected us from receiving electric shocks when we tested our equipment.

Some of the work was mechanical. Each group had to make a model to demonstrate at the closing session which took place the following Saturday morning. I remember that one group made a doll which emitted fake urine on pressing a button. Our group chose something more conventional. It could have been a model of a house with pipe-work showing, but I forget the details. I enjoyed this course very much and found the examination which I took in November quite easy. Only about 10% of the students were female. I was delighted to receive a first-class pass and was congratulated by Mr. Elias.

My work at Central Books was pronounced very satisfactory by David Wynn. I received a steady succession of orders for books from Hungary. Often the title only was given and I had to track down the price and publisher using a copy of the booksellers bible called "Books in Print." We ordered from publishers, receiving a thirty percent discount on the retail sale price. This was the way we made our profit.

The books had to be dispatched from the large ware-house under the office. Sometimes I went to the warehouse and checked that the correct books were there for dispatch. Goods for export were kept on separate shelves from the main stocks.

About this time, I started to take walks along the banks of the River Lea as a spare-time occupation. The "Save the Marshes Campaign" had recently been successful in preventing Walthamstow Marshes from being taken over by a gravel extraction company. At present a large range of wild flowers, reeds, grasses and shrubs grew on the marshes. Jane and John Nash, local school-teachers had prepared a book giving details. This couple often brought their two young sons to open air meetings, fund-raising activities and nature walks through the marshes. I enjoyed attending some of these.

On Sundays I usually attended the small Catholic Church in Rushmore Road. From the outside this church looked like a warehouse. It was a small square building. From records, it appeared that it was originally owned by a strict Protestant group called the Brethren. These were most unlikely to have sold it to Roman Catholics in the early part of the twentieth Century. However there may have been an intermediate owner. The incumbent priest found it very hard to make the building look like a church. Most priests did not try very hard, being content to keep the building in good repair and free from leaky roofs. Inside, the altar with a suitable flower arrangement was all that received attention.

A new priest, originating from Malta arrived about 1979 and he had much more energy. He ran a youth training scheme, helped by government funds, and did extensive re-decorations to the inside of the church. Some of these were not to my taste. Victorians often used a huge picture of an eye as a representation of "the eye of God always watching you," often as a picture in their own homes. Victorian children often found this frightening. Father Tonna had this inserted in mosaic work on the wall above the altar. Boys from the youth training scheme did the work very cheaply. The whole of the brick wall behind the altar was decorated with mosaics in garish colours. The main feature was a rainbow. This sign may represent the "many colours of God." I am not sure; it has never been properly explained to me. I was never very keen on the over-decoration popular in many pre-war Catholic Churches. Much of this was Italian in style but adopted by the modern Irish. The Celtic cross of ancient Irish art appeals to me far more.

After the mosaic work was completed, four stained glass windows were inserted, two on the left and two on the right walls of the church near the back wall containing the mosaic work. I did not like the windows when I first saw them. They represented "The four strange creatures from the book of revelation." As far as I remember there was a lion, an eagle, a young man carrying a scroll and some other animal. Father Tonna in a sermon told us what these windows were meant to represent. It was not immediately obvious and not like the traditional pictures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and popular saints like St. Anthony which are usually the subjects of stained glass windows.

I did not like the stained glass windows when I first saw them. When I had got used to them, I had to admit that they brightened up a very dull church.

My father living in Lawford had been viewing Open University programmes on Saturday and Sunday mornings. At this time I was visiting him for the week- end about once per month. He encouraged me to do the Open University course in technology as a spare-time hobby. I was thinking that I had quite enough qualifications, and it would not help me in any way with work. However once I started I got very interested, and it enabled me to mix with a wide variety of people. The people came from different parts of London, and at summer school from different parts of the country, but I cannot say I made any permanent friends.

At summer school a middle-aged woman who worked in the Open University Office and in addition looked after her mother who was housebound told me that she made time to study and had enjoyed doing the Open University course in technology. On Friday night most of the students went home, but this lady and myself had decided to stay overnight and spend Saturday exploring York after leaving our luggage at the station. I enjoyed a happy day with her and said good-bye after sharing a piece of fish and chips in the newspaper which we bought from a take-away and ate in the open air. This lady lived in Milton Keynes. She told me that it was a lovely place with a beautiful town centre and very convenient food supermarkets. The Open University centre was located there.

As usual I spent Christmas with my father and we enjoyed a game of chess lasting through three days. Dad had become a chess addict. I had been living in Andrew and Valerie's house at 177 Glenarm Road since the middle of 1976 in a large room at the top of the house. I found this room quiet and was able to pursue my hobby of Open University study quite well in the evenings. I was glad that by this time Andrew had started work as a part-time lecturer at Enfield college. This was the place where he had studied and gained a first-class degree in earlier years. Valerie also obtained a good degree at Enfield and at this time was proceeding to study for an M.A. She was very interested in the Health Service, and I think her M.A. which she did very well was connected with this.

Additionally Andrew was interested in the Workers Education Association and put on some very interesting classes at Centerprise in Hackney. I attended a few of his classes. Some of these were connected with mental health, and in later years diversified into general politics. The last WEA class I remember attending dealt with the ideology of political parties.

before after


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.