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

1984

In 1984 I was unemployed. My unemployment benefit had run out and savings were just over the limit for claiming social security support. I continued to receive housing benefit. By the summer of 1984, my savings had fallen and I was able to claim social security benefit. This year I enrolled for "Instrumentation" a technology second-level course at the Open University. Though only a half-unit, a summer school was necessary. This was to take place at York. I was pleased about this, especially as the summer school fees were remitted for the unemployed that year. My health had improved sufficiently for me to spend a week away from home confidently.

Another activity were the monthly meetings at the Rector of St. John's house, of CHAR, the campaign for the homeless and rootless. It was here that I met Douglas Kepper. Douglas had run a house where he had welcomed the homeless until recently. He had since become an invalid, as he termed it. Nevertheless he attended many meetings on cold winter evenings and used his bus pass to visit many parts of London. David Rhodes was the Rector of St John's Church in Mare street. This is one of the most active C. of E. churches in this area. Besides Andrew, Douglas and myself, several young people from the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless attended the CHAR meetings and planned some demonstrations outside unsatisfactory hostels and "common lodging houses."

I visited a so-called "Hotel" in Hackney and took some photographs of the outside of the building and spoke to two of the men residing there. It was privately run and reputed to be rather unsatisfactory. CHAR was fighting for improvements such as fire escapes, better food and heating.

During 1984 Douglas' health deteriorated and eventually he had to enter Hackney Hospital with cancer.

I have a letter from Douglas written shortly before he died. It is dated Yuletide 1984.

"Dear Joan,

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 for 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 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. His funeral which was a cremation was attended by about two hundred people. David Rhodes the Vicar attended at this wholly secular celebration of Douglas's life, at which his partner, a much younger man, spoke very movingly about Douglas's life. This funeral took place in the Spring of 1985.

Andrew was running Workers Education Association (WEA) courses at Centerprise. When meeting rooms became unavailable at Centerprise he transferred to the Urban Studies Centre in Mare street, Hackney. The subject was often mental health. Some psychiatrists from Hackney Hospital were invited to give lectures and questioned afterwards by the students. Felicity attended some of these lectures. She had taken a three year break from her work in the Civil Service and was studying for a degree in economics as a mature student about this time. One evening after a lecture I arranged with Felicity to run a stall for the City and Hackney Association for Mental Health at the Hackney Show. This was an informal society which encouraged patient participation mainly from ex-patients or out-patients. The Hackney Show was taking place at the beginning of July in the open air on Hackney Downs. My father phoned that week-end and asked me to come down as he had been taken ill. So I had to cancel my attendance at that event.

Apparently he had recovered from the rupture operation. Last winter he had spent about eight weeks in Myland Court. This was an annexe to the psychiatric hospital in Colchester which accommodated mild cases of depression and people like my father recovering from operations. After spending January and February at Myland Court he had returned home feeling fairly well. But he started to suffer from some pain and narcosis. Narcosis meant that he was falling asleep at various times in the day. As I was now unemployed I was able to spend a week with him and we played chess. I left him at the end of July getting on fairly well and starting to visit the public house again. On May 8th that year he had had his 87th birthday. In the Spring he grew one tomato plant near the house. The rest of the garden had been neglected but while I was there I used the "Fly-Mo" to cut the long grass. Every Friday a travelling fish seller delivered fish to the house. The local grocery shop was ten minutes walk away. Dad seemed to be doing fairly well.

He knew I was short of money and often gave me 10 that summer. Unfortunately my chest trouble kept returning and often I could do very little and could hardly get down to the Employment Office to sign on, and had not enough strength to look for work. Then someone suggested going on the Community Work Programme. I agreed to this provided I could work in a smoke-free environment. The interviewers told me that the people in the office did not smoke. They were liars. I was treated horribly and made to work in a smoke-filled unventilated office where money was handled. Within two days I collapsed with acute pains in my chest. I phoned the employers and was subjected to abuse on the phone. I ignored them. They did not pay me for the two days work. I returned to sign on unemployed again when I got better, having lost a week's money.

There was much unemployment and I was not being urged to work by the staff of the unemployment office. The rules had changed and it was now difficult for non-employed people to get a medical certificate for illness. Unfortunately I suffered from much weakness and decided to continue signing on, hoping my health would improve. I did not look for work, as I felt I should have been on the sick list. My doctor was very unhelpful.

In September I visited my father for a week-end. He seemed to be managing fairly well. He told me that he had applied to spend a few weeks in Myland Court shortly.

By October he was in Myland Court but I was told that they could not keep him there. I was sorry about that because Dad always enjoyed being in Myland Court. He was able to play chess with other patients and staff and that was his abiding passion. It was suggested that I should find a nursing home for him.

I visited Myland Court in October, staying for three nights at Gordona. It was a long journey to Colchester, and then by bus to Myland Court on the outskirts of the town. There was a long avenue of trees in the drive way to Myland Court, which was situated in separate grounds to the main hospital. The leaves were starting to fall and making a delightful pattern on the lawns. As I still had a childish delight in the practice, I walked among the dead leaves listening to the sound they made when I shuffled my feet in them. When I reached Myland Court Dad seemed quite happy. He showed me the room where a game called Pool was played. He had made friends with some of the younger men who were playing the game. Unfortunately they were discharging him that week-end.

Frantically I phoned various nursing homes and the Council Home at Dovercourt seemed the most satisfactory. I could not look after Dad, as my chest was too weak. I was always afraid when out walking in the cold weather that my breathing troubles would suddenly erupt when I was in an isolated spot, such as the bus-stop outside Myland Court.

Unfortunately Dad refused to go to Lime Court, the Council Nursing Home at Dovercourt, after being taken to inspect it by the authorities at Myland Court. They then said they were going to send him home to "Gordona." In desperation I phoned several private nursing homes in Colchester. Some of the fees were far too much to afford on my father's income and I feared that Social Security would be unlikely to help him. Eventually Dad agreed to stay in a private nursing home in Colchester. I spoke to two elderly ladies staying there, and they seemed quite happy. Unfortunately Dad had to sit in a sitting-room where the television was turned on throughout the day and he did not like this. When I visited him he said he was unhappy and that the scarf and gloves which I had knitted for him had disappeared. I was too tired to worry about the scarf and gloves. I suggested the nursing home at Dovercourt. Either that or he would have to go home and the house was too cold either for my father in his old age or even for myself in winter while I had chest trouble. So eventually he agreed to go to Dovercourt.

I managed to visit Dad at Dovercourt just before Christmas. He had settled down very happily there. The facilities were far better than in the private home. A trolley selling sweets and chocolates visited the sitting rooms each day, so patients were able to spend their personal money. There was one smoking sitting room and one which was non smoking. There was also a bar serving alcoholic drinks.

Dad had a private room and was still able to climb the one flight of stairs to reach this whenever he needed to be quiet. He complained that no-one there was interested in playing chess but I could not help that. When I visited I took him the "Guardian" newspaper. He was still interested in politics and while I was there started talking about the iniquities of Mrs. Thatcher's government.

I was quite pleased that he seemed to be enjoying life at Lime Court nursing home in Dovercourt, because I knew that in the winter it was unlikely that I would be able to visit. In February 1985 I was asked to visit. My chest trouble was still quite severe and I was unable to venture out during the cold weather. I felt sad about this but unlike most families with relations there, I was alone and had no car. The authorities wanted me to discuss the treatment plan for my father. I was quite unable to go to the meeting at the arranged time.

Whenever I visited Dad, he was talking and drinking tea and always seemed quite happy. In the winter Teresa and Leonard visited him in their car and took some photographs. These are the last photographs I have of him.

I spent Christmas alone in the flat at Saratoga Road. This was my first Christmas spent alone. I stayed indoors only venturing out to church, as my chest trouble was aggravated when going out in the cold weather. I saved my energy for necessary shopping. On Christmas Day I went to Mass. It was snowing. No-one was on the streets. I had an unhappy experience. A man asked me the time just as I was nearing home. He grabbed my hand-bag and ran off. I was so shocked that I knocked at the door of the house near where I was standing. Luckily they were nice people, an older married couple who invited me in for a cup of tea. Later the man walked with me back to my flat as I felt afraid to walk home. Luckily my house-keys were not in the hand-bag. I had developed a habit of always carrying them in a separate pocket. I had lost about 10, but unfortunately a Post Office Savings Account book was also lost. I should not have left this in the bag. It had to be replaced, but I lost no money from the account. There was also a special screw-driver in the bag, used for testing for electric faults. It was an odd thing to keep in the bag. I had not used it and I did not replace this.

I phoned Andrew and Valerie and visited them on Boxing Day where I had some mince pies and tea.

It was very cold weather but so far I had been able to go out and about. It was after Christmas when I had a severe attack of bronchitis and was glad to stay indoors.

Lily had got married just over two years ago and had had a baby boy, now eighteen months of age and a toddler. Andrew brought him to see me in Saratoga Road. The toddler was interested in a device for filling a rubber mattress with air. This was meant as a beach bed, but I had used it occasionally as an overlay when my usual mattress had felt uncomfortable.

Andrew let him examine it, and I puffed a gentle current of air through the device, which tickled his hand making him laugh.


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Copyright Joan Hughes 1993-1997. Published with permission.