Deep roots


Wanstead resident Jean Medcalf has published her first poetry book at the age of 89. To Everything There is a Season is a collection of lyrical, spiritual poems about nature. In the second of a series of articles, Jean introduces Network, a poem with an apt Christmas message

I came to live in Wanstead just before Christmas 1960. I remember my very first Christmas as a newly-wed. I carefully prepared the turkey, put it into my shiny new oven. Myself and my husband went visiting, planning to return to a delicious dinner. Unluckily, I wasn’t used to the new oven. I forgot to switch it on and we returned to raw turkey! 

Winters were much colder then and, of course, we had no central heating, just coal fires and oil heaters. Hot water was provided by a 1930s cast-iron boiler in the kitchen, which had to be stoked each day with coke. I used to get up at 6am to light the coal fire. The children got dressed in the living room as it was the only warm room, and I put their woollen vests on the fireguard to warm. Milk would freeze in the bottles on the doorstep, clothes froze rigid on the washing line, and there were beautiful Jack Frost patterns on the windows.

There were very thick fogs in winter as well. When you were out in the street, you literally could not see your hand in front of your face, and when driving with my husband, I kept the passenger door open to see the kerb!

The Saturday before Christmas, as we did our shopping, we could hear the sound of carols along the High Street, from the Women’s Voluntary Service at the Corner House. The Salvation Army band came round the streets in their uniforms and peaked caps, and sang Christmas carols gathered around a barrel organ, and there was a big Christmas tree on the Green.

We bought our turkey, ham and sausages in Dennis the butchers and the tangerines, dates and nuts from Harveys. Also, a real Christmas tree, which looked pretty but dropped needles all over the carpet.

Woolworths was the shop for Christmas decorations: packets of paper chains, which had to be painstakingly licked and glued together, red and green crêpe paper, tinsel, fairy lights, chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil to hang on the tree, pink and white sugar mice with string tails for the stockings, and of course, glue and glitter for home-made Christmas cards.

I used to buy the children’s Christmas presents from the lovely toy shops we had in those days. Vane’s the bookshop in Cambridge Park. Reed’s on the corner of Wanstead Place, which sold bicycles and toys, a lovely little shop near Snaresbrook Station that sold wooden doll’s furniture and Gravatt’s in Nightingale Lane for all sorts of toys, jigsaws, little dolls, paint boxes, board games and colouring books.

And who can forget the big treat for children – a visit to Santa in his grotto at Bearman’s in Leytonstone, the wonderful department store that I am sure many local people will still remember fondly.

by Jean Medcalf

Time to check the network

Time to tie the knots of ravelled aunts
Catscradle the newcomers from the womb
To pleach the family tree with distant cousins
To trawl the book for the forgotten few

Alone, bereaved, insane and old.

Time to test the warp and weft for strengthening
Renew the wear with friendship and with love
Darn in the weaker spots with woven letters
All frayed edges must be unafraid

Test tension, teach it to relax.

Time for our network now to be elastic
A trampoline to bounce us out of grief
A loving safety net to ease our falling
A laughing hammock curved for troubled nights

Secure in bonds of love

Time for no gaps that you and I might fall through
Time for no depths that we might leave unplumbed
Time for no breadth and height to be omitted
Time for the Big Fisherman to net us

Time He took the strain.

Jean’s book To Everything There is a Season is available in paperback (£4.75). Visit wnstd.com/jean
Author: Editor