Cosy Corners in Depression and War
Early in 1981 life at Central books deteriorated. David Wynn was replaced by Alan Brooks as manager. David Wynn was a non-smoker; during his term of office the atmosphere at Central Books had been quiet; although several people smoked, the windows were kept open and the office did not feel as if it was filled with smoke. Moreover David Wynn maintained good relations with all the staff, whether their work was skilled or unskilled. He was comparatively uninterested in politics; I never heard much about all the disputes between political factions, while he was manager.
Unfortunately Alan Brooks was a chain-smoker. This encouraged other smokers in the office, and I began to find the air in the office becoming thick with smoke. I insisted in having the small window above my desk opened up. I turned the radiator off, as the heat was unbearable, even in the winter.
Work was not so easy. Though I had over a year's experience, Alan Brooks was continually walking over to my desk to tell me what to do. He did not know much about the export section, which meant that his interference slowed my work down. I had become very confident with the work and David Wynn was always satisfied and had never told me how to do the details of the job. I could not do the job in the way Alan suggested and told him so.
Alan went down to the stores sometimes to superintend the work there. When I chatted to the stores people, they told me that they found Alan difficult as a manager. Eventually Alan tired of walking round and retired to his main desk near the entrance to the office.
We belonged to the USDAW Union; the meetings were held once per month after working hours at the Students' Union offices in Malet Street in Euston. USDAW was the shop-workers' union and was very passive. Increasingly during Alan's term as manager our branch of the union became the scene of Communist-Trotskyist disputes, which seemed absurd to me. This was a very unimportant union branch; the members were mainly staff of London bookshops. It hardly mattered to me which side won an "intellectual- ideological" dispute. What I wondered was whether this union would speak up for us if an unfair dismissal occurred. To my surprise Alan was most concerned that the Communist side won during the absurd ideological disputes and though he was the manager of Central Books he sometimes attended the meetings himself. There were only two management staff at Central Books, the general manager and the accountant. It had never been the tradition for either of these people to attend a union meeting. David Wynn never attended and Rod the accountant never attended, and did not change his habits when Alan arrived.
The atmosphere in the office became much more tense. People in the warehouse were confronting Alan with demands almost daily. New people had been engaged just before Alan arrived. Billy was manager in the warehouse; this was a position like that of a foreman, not like that of an senior office manager. Billy demanded that Central Books pay for thermal underwear for his staff, because in winter the warehouse was cold. This was an absurd demand, but Alan's attitudes encouraged absurd demands. Eventually one of the staff called Tom was dismissed. Tom was not very bright. I do not know what his deficiencies were. It may have been bad time-keeping. However Tom was a Trotskyist and was much disliked by Alan. Tom called a Union meeting and demanded that Central Books staff go on strike over his dismissal. The warehouse staff were a minority and the office staff did not want to support a strike. Tom left but continued to attend union meetings.
A new lady called Robyn was employed in the stores; the first woman on the staff downstairs. She was very friendly towards me, and in fact was one of the only people I could have a relaxed chat with, apart from Rod the accountant who was always polite and friendly.
Unfortunately a series of thefts in the stores had just started and some of the books I had ordered for export disappeared. Alan blamed the warehouse staff. These people had been working there for some time. I began to lose money. I left my bag on the chair every time I left the office to visit the stores. This made me convinced that someone in the office was stealing and I told Alan this. He did not believe me.
Rod had engaged a new assistant in the accounts section. I forget her name but she was taken on in one of the government's "Youth Training Schemes". Rod spent much time teaching her accountancy and was very good to her. He allowed her to take money to the bank. After she had been there three months Rod discovered serious losses from the accounts. About œ500 had been taken.
It was now Autumn 1981 and I was beginning to feel unwell. The atmosphere at Central Books had become very smoky. I noticed that when I went out of the building I felt better, and always took lunch in a nearby cafe. I had always been subject to colds and chest infections. Though I did not have any definite illness, I began to feel more tired as the year wore on.
It was late Autumn when the young woman in the accounts section was dismissed. Before these losses had occurred I had told Alan that books were being stolen and money had been missing from my handbag. It was not until Rod discovered the money missing from Central Books receipts that Alan believed me. No action was taken against the young woman.
About this time staff at Central Books decided they were not getting enough money and at an internal staff meeting voted for a 50% increase. It was also felt that paying everyone the same was unfair because this policy included young trainees. The old Central Books had an idealistic approach and tried to put into practice some of the ideas of a worker's co- operative.
This policy was abandoned in order to give senior employees an increase from œ60 per week to œ90 per week. The vote was passed and the policy was adopted. It was due to begin at the end of 1981. At the same time Alan decided to dismiss some of the staff. Rosa who was 70 was requested to retire. Anna at 65 was cut down to half-time. Anna felt quite resentful. Frank's hours were cut to half-time. He did not mind too much. He was also 65.
My hours were also cut to half-time. I could not manage like this, felt sick and took three weeks off. I felt utterly depressed. The increased wages were never received by me. Because of my reduction in hours, my pay fell.
It was apparent that Central Books' business was declining and my export orders from Hungary and China were falling rapidly. There was nothing I could do about this. I did not know that this was the beginning of the end for Central Books in its present form. Charles Hill, the friend of Andrews who I had known as a member of the MPU was still working as a salesman. I believe he was looking for other employment, because there were whispers among the office staff that an outside representative could be dispensed with. Farouk was often saying that he could get orders over the phone quite adequately, and that there was no need for personal calls.
Life at Central Books was beginning to be unpleasant for me, so I turned to outside interests whenever I could.
In January I decided to repeat "Introductory Electronics" with the Open University because I had failed to pass this course last year. I also took another half-credit course "Instrumentation" which was complementary to this course.
I wish I could remember now something of what I learnt. However it was interesting to do Boolean logic problems which was part of the electronics course. Maybe it has helped me to understand the workings of this rudimentary word-processor and personal computer which I am now using.
Taking two practical half-credit courses meant that I had to spend two separate weeks at Summer School. I chose Warwick University to take Instrumentation and spent a pleasant week there. The campus was not green; the buildings were mainly set in concrete surroundings. There was never too much time for walking, so this did not bother me too much; the students were mainly men and younger than me, so I was rather lonely, and decided not to stay over Friday night, so did not explore Warwick. I visited York University again for the electronics course. The geese were still there lounging around the lakeside, and I loved it. This was the last summer school I attended with the Open University. In those days the costs were very low, and I was still earning. By 1982, I had fallen out of work, had poor health and the full cost of summer school had to be paid by Open University students. For this reason, I continued with the University on a reduced scale. In most future years, I did half-credit courses, which did not require summer school. In 1982, I enrolled to do a third-level half- credit course called "Crime and Society."
In the Spring of 1981, I met a young woman called Sylvia Jeffares at one of the WEA classes on mental health held at Centerprise. We became very friendly. Sylvia had become acquainted with Janet Cresswell in Broadmoor Hospital. Soon Sylvia was visiting her almost every week-end. Sylvia came to see me in my room at 177 Glenarm Road. She knew Andrew and Valerie, because they had run the WEA course on mental health. Sylvia was particularly interested in Janet. I went to see Sylvia in her flat on a nearby council estate where she lived with her young daughter, who attended school. Sylvia had a job at an electronics factory.
In April I enrolled for a weekly electronics class and Sylvia came with me. I was glad to have her company. We were two woman among a class of young men and we took our tea-break together. Sylvia was a feminist. (That does not mean she talked about abortion. I never heard her mention the subject, and I do not know what her views were. Some of my relations believe that feminists are women who talk exclusively about the "right to choose" meaning abortion, which is why I mention it here.) Sylvia was interested in the rights of women prisoners and the rights of women at work, when I knew her. At the electronics class Sylvia thought the older male teacher was patronising. He was about my age, about 50. Sylvia was only 25 and full of energy. She wanted to learn about electronics to improve her work prospects. I do not think the class was very helpful. I found the method of teaching arithmetic confusing and far too elementary to be of much use. The boys were quite skilled at constructing electronics projects on motherboard but hopeless at mathematics; so the classes were geared to their needs. I had had a good opportunity at becoming good at maths in the past, but wanted to study the practical aspects of electronic. Likewise Sylvia wanted this. There was not much equipment provided by the class, and we were urged to buy things. Neither Sylvia nor I had much money available for this.
Sylva used a push-bike to get to work each day. Nearly every week-end she visited Janet in Broadmoor. Twice I went with her, as I had started visiting Janet occasionally before meeting Sylvia. We were driven by her friend. She told me he was an anarchist before I met him. I was a little nervous about meeting an anarchist, as I was not sure what was meant by this. She took me to his flat one Saturday morning. This was a privately rented furnished flat. I noticed that the stuffing was coming out of the old sofa on which we sat. The man seemed quite nice, but said that he could hardly pay the rent of the flat on what he earned. I thought "That means we are all in the same boat." We set off to see Janet. I felt rather nervous in the car, as I thought this man drove too fast. But we reached Crowthorne safely. It is an attractive village. Usually when visiting Janet I used to walk from the bus-stop about a mile through the village, but this time the journey was easy. We arrived in style in a car. The man did not want to see Janet. He walked round the village while we had an hour's visit, and then drove us home. As he mentioned he was short of money, I offered to pay something towards the petrol for the car ride, but he refused to take the money.
Sylvia seemed very devoted to Janet. When she could not get a lift from her anarchist friend she took the train. One week-end she visited Janet and accepted a lift from a woman who had been visiting her man friend on the male side. This was a mistake. Shortly afterwards this woman who was previously unknown to Sylvia became involved with the police. Her boy- friend a "Maoist political activist" escaped and went to Holland. He was not recaptured. But because Sylvia had accepted a lift from the woman friend, some police visited her in her flat on the Council estate. This frightened Sylvia who I knew was quite innocent of any involvement with the male escapee. Neither Sylvia or I wanted to visit anyone on the male side. But she did not want the police to look at her private correspondence and newspaper cuttings about Janet so brought them round to my room in Glenarm Road, where I agreed to keep them until the fuss blew over.
Janet knew nothing about this man from the male side. None of us knew anything about him. It was a pure co-incidence that Sylvia had accepted a lift from his girl-friend. I was sad to see how much this frightened Sylvia. But it did not stop her from continuing to visit Janet. I remarked that perhaps she was tiring herself too much, by visiting every week-end.
I was gradually coming to know Sylvia and thought she might be a good friend. She invited me again to visit her council flat, which she said had been disturbed by the police in their searches, which greatly upset her. When I visited the flat it looked untidy, but not too disturbed. I guessed that Sylva who had to go to work, look after her daughter and visit Janet was very busy. It did not occur to me to ask who was looking after her daughter while Sylvia was going out so much, but she was very friendly with the woman next door who had children, so maybe this woman was helping Sylvia.
We had a break from the electronics evening class during August but re- enrolled in September. In the late evenings walking from the class to the bus-stop, I was glad of Sylvia's company. One week-end at the beginning of October, Sylvia decided that the police were not likely to bother her again and asked me to return the papers about Janet. It was a Saturday morning and Sylvia had decided to take a rest that week-end and not visit Janet. She looked tired when I saw her. I had a pleasant afternoon with Sylvia in her flat and she walked to Upper Clapton Road with me. She had been reading "The Morning Star" and thought that it was a good paper, as she said the news was set out very clearly, better than in the commercial tabloids and as it was not such a heavy paper as the broadsheets, Sylvia, who was busy, found it easy to read. I agreed that I would like to buy this paper occasionally but no longer knew where to buy it. She told me that she bought it from an Asian shop-keeper in Upper Clapton Road. She showed me the shop. I said good-bye, bought the Morning Star from this shop and waited at the bus the bus stop. This was the last time I saw Sylvia. Tragically she died the next day while riding her bike in Upper Clapton Road. She had an accident and was crushed by a lorry. On Sunday Andrew brought me the news. I felt very sad.
I did not know the relations and did not attend the funeral. But I placed an advertisement in the "Morning Star". I phoned the paper from my work at Central Books.
This is what I put in the "Morning Star" to remember Sylvia on December 1st, 1981.
JEFFARES, Sylvia. Died suddenly in Oct. 1981, aged 32. Courageous fighter for women's liberation and for human rights for all prisoners. Remembered as dear friend and comrade - Joan.
I felt very fond of Sylvia.
In the Spring of 1981 I first met John and Jane Nash. They were two young school-teachers. Each had a part-time teaching post and shared looking after their young sons, who were under school-age. Additionally Jane and John devoted a large part of their energies to a Campaign To Save Hackney Marshes. The council had been thinking of giving planning permission for gravel extraction in this area.
Jane and John held several public meetings and fund-raising events in a green field adjoining the marsh area which was full of reeds, unusual grasses and flowers and was thought to contain a large number of rare species. Wild yellow irises were an attractive feature. The first time I remember seeing Jane conducting the Marshes campaign was when she stood behind a large stall covered with oranges. Valerie and Andrew had walked down to the marshes on this day to help Jane. The vivid orange of the piled fruit is an image which remains with me. Later I was to learn that visitors from abroad often admired our outdoor market-stalls. A visitor from Canada remarked that in Canada they had no outdoor fruit stalls. He thought they were very attractive and took many photographs of them together with the sellers.
Of course the people who bought oranges on that Saturday on the marshes had no need to walk down to the marshes and buy Jane's oranges. They were doing so in order to show support for the "Save the Marshes" campaign. After the speeches and later in the afternoon the stall was packed up and we had a walk through the marshes ending at Coppermill stream. John Nash had become an expert on describing the native plants on the marsh. This campaign ran for two or three years, and eventually Jane and John gained the support of David Bellamy, the well-known botanist. It was agreed to designate the marshes as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and abandon the idea of using them for gravel extraction. In spite of several accidents with flooding during the development of the area as part of the Lea Valley National Park, the marshes remain in their wild state to-day, in 1997 as I am writing this.
John Bagge had been visiting me from time to time during the years when I lived at 177 Glenarm Road. I first heard of him when he wrote to the MPU. The writing paper he used was impressive. On it was an ambiguous message, "You have to take the rough with the smooth." I interpreted it that he supported us, and sent a form for him to become an MPU member. John told me that he had visited Mayola Road several times during 1974 and 1975, but I had never met him. I had always been out, and he told me that he had met Andrew and Mary. He had found that Mary had been difficult to talk to.
John was an inveterate talker. His main interest was printing and from November 1979 until December 1983 he produced a magazine called the Lawletter. He started with a single sheet. By Spring 1981 he was producing a 12-page booklet and the final issue dated Dec. 1983 is a 28- page booklet. Some of the material was gathered when he attended law- courts in the public gallery. Andrew took the opportunity to write a few items about hostels for ex-patients. At 177 Glenarm Road there were often phone calls from ex-MPU members though this society had formally ended with the closure of the Mayola Road house in the Spring of 1976. After MPU had run down, it was useful to publish items in Lawletter. John Bagge was trying to get people to pay œ2 for a year's subscription. It was a well produced magazine with items of local interest and there were usually six issues per year. If bought individually the copies were 20p each. Ruth Gee, a local councillor took out a subscription in order to encourage John in this work. When Andrew visited Ruth one day, he told me that she was found reading the Lawletter. I began to write book reviews for the Lawletter. These reviews were not about the latest books published, but about books on psychology and psychiatry by Laing, Szacz, Cooper and other well-known authors; some books on prisons, nursing-homes and other institutions and were usually available from Hackney library. In addition John occasionally reprinted an article on the abuse of animals and added a page or two of his own comments on the lives of people prominent in the media. An article on anti-apartheid by a local vicar also appeared, and a reply to my book review on Szacz, by Douglas Kepper.
We met Douglas Kepper in the local Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless, which was hosted by David Rhodes, the Vicar of St. John's Church in Mare Street, Hackney. This church had a tradition of helping homeless people. Often this was tea and sandwiches for some of the drunk men who sat on the benches in St. John's churchyard. There was also a drop-in centre. I do not know when this was founded but it is still running today, 1997. Douglas Kepper was ill with cancer when I first met him but still very active in the local claimants' union and other societies for the less well- off. He was a genuine caring person and had for some years ran a house called Walnut Cottage for recovering ex-drug addicts. This was run on informal lines and had been very successful. Douglas had had to give this up owing to illness by the time I met him.
Douglas wrote an interesting article for Lawletter in 1983 on Crime and Punishment, and on Colney Hatch (Friern Hospital). We received articles from Janet Cresswell in Broadmoor, and Andrew continued to give reports of the Community Health Council, the Workers Educational Association and the Campaign for the Homeless in Hackney, all with very active meetings in Hackney. John continued to write an occasional piece on animal abuse.
Douglas also contributed to readers' letters on the 5 o'clock pm news and comments programme on Radio Four. He was a traditional socialist but at the same time an intelligent thinker and his comments on current events were always interesting. It was reassuring to hear a letter from someone I knew being read on a radio programme which was my favourite listening when I was alone in my flat.
I have a letter from Douglas written shortly before he died. It is dated Yuletide 1984, but thought it could usefully be included here.
Yuletide Greetings to you! I'm sorry this is a duplicated letter but ill- health and laziness dictates it. Sadly, my cat Ho-chi, who lived with me 13 years was put to sleep in October due to old age and ill-health. One of her daughters, 12 year-old Scatty disappeared at about the same time and has not been seen since. I have been in hospital four times in the last two years and on one occasion had a cataract operation and on another a quite serious operation on cancer of the bowel. During the rest of the last two years I have been ill at home.
I have been fairly active in the local claimants union and also in its national activities. I have played a small part in Radical Alternatives to Prison and in Hackney Passenger Transport Action Committee which campaigns to save our buses, tubes and trains. I am an active member of Hackney Branch of C.H.A.R. (Campaign for the Single Homeless). I am still totally opposed to war but I have given little support to CND for several reasons. Although I am myself Gay and very much a man's man, I don't like the modern trend of "women's only" and "men's only" demonstrations on issues that concern us all.
I am, as you know, an animal lover, but I am opposed to the activities of the A.L.F. whose actions lately have been violent and dangerous. I have supported the miner's strike from its beginning, although I thought it ill-timed, ill-conceived and psychologically wrong. I am not happy at some of their actions and condemn the violence that appears to be happening. I know the police have themselves been violent and provocative but the miners should set a better example. However, the Thatcher Government stands condemned before the whole world, as a woman with no feelings, no heart, and a woman who is ruthless and dominating. I am still a socialist and believe in a genuine socialist society. However I don't wish to make this into a pamphlet. If you have written to me and I have not replied, I apologise. Please bear with me. You will hear after the Yuletide festivities. Best wishes, socialist greetings, Douglas Kepper.
At the same time Douglas sent me a copy of his report of a Hackney CHAR Meeting on "Houses in Multiple Occupation." It was very well written but one of the last of Douglas's writings. Shortly afterwards he was taken into Hackney Hospital. I did not see him again. As my own father was in poor health at this time, I was otherwise occupied, and knew that Douglas had many friends to visit him in Hackney Hospital, including the local Vicar of St. John's Church, David Rhodes. Though Douglas was not a church-goer, the Vicar admired his activities for the homeless and rootless.
After about six weeks in Hackney Hospital, Douglas went into St. Joseph's Hospice. This is run by Catholic nuns and has the respect of the whole community, be they Christians, atheists or people of other faiths. There is no discrimination. The treatment given enables each person to die in peace and dignity. They have expertise in the alleviation of pain due to cancer, so were particularly suitable for helping Douglas. He died after a few weeks at St. Joseph's. I was able to go to his funeral which was a cremation attended by about two hundred people. David Rhodes the Vicar attended at this wholly secular celebration of Douglas' life, at which his partner, a much younger man, spoke very movingly about Douglas' life. This funeral took place in the Spring of 1985.
In 1981 my father was about 84 years of age. He was still tending his large garden growing tomatoes, onions and cauliflowers and visiting the local pubs. His favourite pub was called the Waggon and Horses. I do not think I've ever been inside this pub, but have often waited outside for a bus.
On the infrequent occasions when I went into a pub with Dad, it was usually in the main street of Manningtree, where there was a pub covered in wisteria with a lovely outside garden with seats for summer drinkers. Otherwise we walked to Mistley which has a High Street continuous with Manningtree High Street and went to the Swan. Outside the Swan in the main street was a public fountain, consisting of three marble swans, with water pouring from their mouths.
In his later years these pubs became fashionable with young drinkers, so my father gave them up and went to the old-fashioned "Waggon" which was nearer to his house. Even in his eighties he often walked down there and caught a bus back. One day when he was tired he waited for a bus to the "Waggon". In his bag were a dozen empty beer bottles. In those days twopence on the bottle was still paid for returns. A car drew up and the driver stopped and opened the door. "Would you like a lift?" he said, and my Dad handed the bag inside. To his surprise the car driver closed the door and drove off. He had stolen the old shopping bag. My Dad laughed when he told me this story, for the bag contained only a dozen empty beer-bottles. I thought that it would have been very unwise to accept a lift from strangers even in a village like Lawford, but if I had said so, Dad would not have taken any notice. At Christmas I spent several days playing chess with Dad.