The old folk who stayed at home

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The Independent Culture
Cities are transient places. The young move in to make their money, their names and to enjoy the furious pace. And when they tire of the smoke, they move out to greener pastures. But there are those born in cities who choose to remain in old age. Jo Kearney speaks to London pensioners about the changes they have witnessed Bill and Annie Kilgour Ann Kilgour, 69, and her husband Bill, 80, have spent their lives in the Isle of Dogs, once the heartland of the east London docks. They live in a two-bedroomed 1960s council house, and have one daughter who lives locally and two grandchildren. Bill was a docker and Annie a civil servant.

I was working in a sack factory when I met Bill in 1945, at a dance after he returned home from fighting abroad.

The war resulted in massive damage and eventual slum clearance and rebuilding, which split up the neighbourhood and was followed by the migration of labour to Dagenham, in Essex. Friends you had known all your life just left, it was terrible.

The island used to be an unknown place. Few outsiders visited. That's all changed with the decline of the docks and the building of Canary Wharf and the new offices. They haven't done anything for people here, though. Companies brought their own skilled workers with them. Our docks are turned into marinas with expensive yachts.

It's not just the warehouse luxury flat conversions, but the entrepreneurs from the island buying up council flats and selling them for profit. The Asians also contributed to the split-up of the community. Instead of dispersing them, they were put in segregated blocks which didn't serve to integrate them. We don't have a great deal to do with the new people, although some I know from church and I'll nod to them in Asda.

But the heart of the community hasn't altered. You can't walk along the street without meeting someone you know. I meet people who still call me Boss's girl. Boss was my dad's nickname.

We don't have cinemas and theatres here, but there's plenty to do. Bill and I are members of most of the social clubs. You go along and meet people and have a cup of tea. We all put a pound aside each week for outings to Brick Lane or Margate.

I normally get up at 8.30am and buy the newspapers. I also get my neighbour's as she can't walk far. Later I pop into Asda where I chat to lots of people. I've always done my shopping here; I've never been to Oxford Street or seen Green Park or the Serpentine. I've never wanted to discover London.

I feel very safe on the island. You read about crime in other areas, but I've never felt threatened here. I'd hate to live in sheltered accommodation; I wouldn't be independent.

Fred and Gladys Hunt Fred Hunt, 70, and his wife Gladys, 68, live in a flat in Fulham, west London, five streets away from the house where he was born. They have one daughter, who lives in Kent, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Fred worked asa university technician.

Fulham used to be a working-class area. Everyone knew each other. We'd all play in the alley outside and on a summer's evening, Mum would bring the piano out and we'd sing. It was the war that led to the dispersal of the community. There was extensive bomb damage and whole streets were razed to make way for the new housing estates. People who had been neighbours were rehoused in estates throughout London.

Our street was demolished and my family moved to Wimbledon. I stayed and married Gladys, a local girl. She lived with her parents five streets away. Her father was a builder and divided the house into two flats so Gladys and I moved upstairs, where we live today.

The post-war building programmes broke up the communities. But it was in the early Eighties that Fulham reallychanged. Landlords took advantage of rising house prices and sold off properties. The roads were packed with skips as builders divided houses into flats and sold them for high prices to yuppies. Today only five of our original neighboursremain in the street.

The newcomers are pleasant but keep themselves to themselves, although in summer the gardens are filled with barbecue smoke and chatter. Most of the old pubs have been turned into wine bars and restaurants, but some of the locals still exist.

It's difficult finding a chippie as most of the restaurants are Chinese, Indian and Italian. The shops are full of antiques. With the area going up in the world it is an expensive place to live. My council tax - at £80 a month - takes a hefty chunk out of my pension. My children and grandchildren can't afford to live here.

The good thing about living in a city is that the bus system is good and, for a pensioner, it's free. There's so much to do in the way of socialising. I run a pensioners' club and we play bingo and cards and drink tea and talk about the old days. We organise holidays to Devon and day trips to the South Coast.

Crime-wise, the city is not a place for old people. When you watch the news you become afraid. Whenever there's a headline about a mugging or murder my wife gets scared and she won't walk out at night alone unless I collect her. You have to be alert. Most of the old people I know walk in threes and fours when they go to the bingo at night.

My wife had her pension stolen while out shopping. Someone slashed open her carrier bag and her purse fell out without her realising. We have locks, bolts and chains on our flat door. If my wife is alone in the house she won't open the door unless she isexpecting someone.

Pearl Anglin Pearl Anglin, 63, was a first generation Afro-Caribbean who settled in Brixton, south London, in 1955. She was widowed 11 years ago, and lives in her own three-bedroomed semi-detached house in nearby Streatham. Her daughter works as a secretary and lives in Bristol; her son is a heatingengineer and lives in Greenford, Middlesex. Pearl initially worked in factories, but later trained as a social worker.

In 1955 Brixton was much smarter than today. There was even a Bon Marche department store. There's a lot less pride nowadays. The streets are dirty and the shops more scruffy.

Today people don't work as hard as they did. In the Fifties people would send money home and they were prepared to work all hours.

In those days it was almost impossible to buy Caribbean food. Brixton market sold only potatoes, potatoes and potatoes. There was one shop, the Atlantic Road supermarket, that had rice. When that ran out you'd make do with semolina. Nowadays you can buy anything - yams, peppers, chillies, green bananas. I continue to shop in Brixton even though I now live in Streatham. The prices are cheaper and I always see people I know.

Both my children have married white spouses and have moved out of London. I am sometimes torn between staying or returning to Jamaica where my mother and family live. But my children are in this country and I have spent more years here than there.

I feel safe and happy in London. I'm never lonely. Friends pop in for tea and end up staying for supper. I still have friends from early days in Brixton, although some have died. But I have made a lot of new ones.

I like to get up late, around 10am. I usually get the bus to Brixton and do some shopping, and then I may go to a church or community meeting or visit friends. I tend to stay in south London and rarely venture to the West End.

I do get scared when I read about the muggings and shootings in the local newspapers. A policeman was killed close to my church. But I feel that God is my protector.

Recently in Brixton market I spotted a youth pinching apurse from a woman's handbag. I marched up to him and said: "Would you do that to your own mother?" He admitted that he wouldn't and fled. I was shaking like a leaf.

Since then I've been much more careful with my bag. And if I ever walk from afriend's at night I always telephone to say I have arrived home safely.

I don't think that you can worry about crime too much. It can happen anywhere, not just in cities. If you worried too much you'd spend your whole time living behind locked doors.

Pensioned off There are 1,085,847 pensioners in Greater London - 16.8 % of the population. Overall, Britain has 10,621,000 - 18.31% of the population.

The basic state pension is £57.60 (single), £92.10 (couple).

Over 27% lack central heating.

In a recent survey, 22% of Londoners said poverty was damaging their health.

67% do not have a car.

Of the 50 local authority areas in England with the highest numbers of pensioners, six are cities. Of the 50 areas with the poorest conditions, 41 include cities.

Source: Age Concern