The Way the Roses Smelled, for John Wiggett

From the life of John Wiggett

By Sam Dodd

I had the pleasure of talking to John, a lifelong East Londoner, and a mine of information on what this amazing community used to look and feel like. He paints a vivid picture of life in the last half of the twentieth century. He led me down Memory Lane, and I could almost smell the fishmongers, markets, canals and roses he talked lovingly about. Here is John’s story, in his own words.

I was born in 1950, in St Andrew’s Hospital, Bow. Used to live down Monteith Road, off Old Ford, and opposite our place there was a house that had been bombed in the war. No idea what happened to the family. My mates and I used to play in there, in the rubble. The bottom of our road went onto the canal, and on the other side of it was Victoria Park. We used to go and kick a ball around, play a bit of footie. My older brother Alan was the goalie, and very good he was, too. Then there’s that big boating lake, where you can hire rowing boats. Sixpence back then; much more expensive now, of course. We used to love puttering around on one of them.

You could walk along Roman Road on your Saturday shopping day, and you’d see a load of people you knew. Everyone would talk to everyone. My mum would stop to natter constantly, but of course, as a boy, I just wanted to get to the sweet shop. I loved orange jubblies – these little triangle iced dessert sweets, pineapple chunks, sherbet dib dabs – oh, you name it, I loved it.

On a Sunday, we had the Salvation Army musicians who’d come down the street playing their instruments. They’d stop and sing the old-time religious tunes in the middle of the road, and we’d all stand and listen respectfully. There was another chap who’d come down on a bike and knock on doors, sharpening knives and scissors. For all of us – the whole road.

In the winter, we’d go over to Hackney Marshes to do cross-country, running around in the cold. It was bleak, ever so bleak, but it kept you fit alright. All these boys running around, trying to keep warm. You’d rub dubbin onto your footie boots, stinky stuff, to keep the water out. I can smell it now. Oh and the footballs – they were made from real leather in those days of course – and when it rained, they’d get heavy. It was like kicking a lump of lead around.

But you could leave your doors open with impunity. You’d never dream of anyone coming into your house and taking anything. At Christmas and birthdays people would come round to visit; your mum would push the furniture over to the side of the room, roll up the carpet, and pop some music on. People would dance and sing. And everyone would come – in and out, all day long. I look back fondly at those days. Because everyone knew everyone, it meant we were always dancing! We had a Dansette record player, all the 45s and 78s. Those were the days. Beautiful music.

There was much more of a community than there is now. No one stops to talk now. No one knows each other anymore. Everyone seems to want to just stay inside. That’s why I come to Age UK, to the stroke survivor group and on other days, too. It means you’re not alone. They do so much for us here; I can’t even begin to tell you. They really care about us.

I knew a lovely elderly lady, back then, when I was a young one. When they pulled the terraced housing down they replaced it all with these huge high-rise blocks. They put her on the seventeenth floor. Most depressing place ever. You’d go into the lift, which smelled of urine, and my goodness the hallways were so dark. No windows. Her front door was behind a big metal gate; it looked like a prison. Absolutely diabolical. How can you expect a person to live like that? A prisoner in her own home? I went to visit her, and she wasn’t herself at all. She didn’t live for long, after that. They were changing our community, changing the space in which we lived and gathered and organised, changing our ability to interact with and look out for each other.

I worked for the Corporation of London. Sounds posher than what it was. I was a cleaner and receptionist. You’d get in about 6am, clean the toilets, lifts and landings, and then sit on reception. I’d get sent all over London to different big buildings. At Christmas time, they’d bring in these huge trees – real ones. Very pretty, but the decorations would play Christmas carols. On a loop. All bleedin’ day. After a while it’d drive you up the wall. I feel for people nowadays who work in those stores that play music non-stop. Hold music, you know, what you hear when you call the bank and whatnot. Tinny stuff. Awful.

I used to work for the Civil Aviation Authority too. Loved planes, didn’t I. Once went to the Channel Islands as a lad; I was ever so excited – pointing at all the huge majestic airplanes saying “Ooh, we’ll go on that one, no, maybe that one…” and then this little thing putters up. I thought ‘God forbid we go on that tiny plane,’ but oh yes, we did. It was an Islander. So light that we had to sit in certain seats, evenly weighted out, all the kids and adults – otherwise it would have toppled over.

Anyway, at the CAA there was a book, The Air Pilot, which was the flying manual. My job was to keep that up to date. The other duty there was to keep the licences updated for private pilots. Small jobs, but crucial.

Then, when I was twenty-four years old, I was helping my brother move a bed. All of a sudden I just keeled over. I’d suffered a double aneurysm. You can be born with these sorts of things, and it just so happened that it caught up with me when I was still quite young. I was in a coma for months, in Royal London Hospital down Whitechapel. The doctors told my family that they should still talk to me, even though I was unresponsive. They did, kept talking away to me, and never gave in. After some months, I woke up. I was under for a good long while. So they moved me to the recuperation unit at Homerton Hospital. The old hospital – they’ve rebuilt it now – was ancient. Talk about Dickensian. At night-time, there would be cockroaches running around on the floor. Beggars belief! Honestly, I kid you not – massive things, they were. There was a young chap, about nineteen years of age, in one of the beds. He’d been a passenger in some car, and he’d gone straight through the windscreen. There were no seatbelts in those days. He was a goner for the rest of his life. I always wear my seatbelt. Always. I knew then that I was really lucky to still be alive.

So that left me with complete paralysis down my right side, which I had physiotherapy for. Used to go to the old Hackney Hospital for hydrotherapy, too. They were great, the NHS, back then. They ain’t got the money to be great these days.

My mother remarried once, to a guy who was the Head Chauffeur for the Bryant & May Matchmakers, the factory, up in Bow. Used to drive the Top Dogs around, the bosses. I was a young man by then, still living at home, but before my illness. We lived in the flats nearby – before they got converted into so-called ‘luxury’ flats. We each had a strip of garden allocated, all the neighbours. My mother was a wonderful gardener; perhaps that’s where I get my love for it from, even though I haven’t got green fingers. I get frustrated – I expect it to have grown into a big beautiful flower the day after I’ve planted the bleedin’ thing. Anyhow, she grew all sorts in that little strip. Salmon camellia, one of them. Beautiful vivid pink flower. The colour was incredible. We had a neighbour called Gareth, lived with his male partner. They grew hydrangea. Lots of little pot plants too. Gorgeous. I’d help them out in the summer time. They need plenty of water, especially when it’s hot – so I’d have this great big watering can. The whole thing would go into this one container. I used to prune the Queen Elizabeth roses, too. The building was gorgeous – red brick, built in 1874. On the windows, everyone had the flowerboxes, with mostly geraniums. They’d glow, almost, a beautiful red colour. And nicotiana, the tobacco plant.

Of an evening time, the scent was incredible, it carried through the air. I love that memory.

I can still almost smell it now.

I’m part of a thing called The Geezer’s Club now. We meet here on a Tuesday, about eighteen of us. We put a couple of quid in each week, and have outings. Ray, he’s such a nice man, organises all of them. One of the things the lads are running right now is a campaign called ‘Save Our Boozers’. Down the Roman Road there used to be at least five. There’s now only one. And the Roman Road market, when I was young, was thriving. Butchers, chemists, greengrocers, everything. It’s all gone bust. It’s mostly the supermarkets done that, I reckon. Breaks a community up, that sort of thing. On a Wednesday I do a quiz group – they ask me to set the questions, multiple choice. I write them down all week and then we use them on a Wednesday. Then in the afternoon I go to a health group; we do exercises and talk about healthy food. This place, Age UK, organises all these other trips too – picnics, museums, Eastbourne, Hastings, Kew Gardens. Oh, the flowerbeds at Kew are absolutely magnificent. I love gardening, but that is something else entirely. Beautiful. And the hanging baskets, geraniums and all sorts: wonderful. My favourite flower is a rose. Some of those scents… something man could never replicate.

That’s why I like coming here. Gives me something to look forward to. I’ve met so many nice people here, and done so many nice things. It gives you a goal; something to get up for.

If my grandparents came back today, they’d recognise nothing. Nothing at all.

I still leave my front door open these days, even though no one else does. Got a gate across it, so no one can come in, but I like to have it open. I placed my two-seater settee so I can see outside onto the street. I like to feel like I’m part of the outside world. My neighbour’s cat walks past my door. Looks at me, but doesn’t come in. I can smell the flowers outside, drifting in.