Interview with Vera Battell
Vera Battell has lived for 34 years in a terrace house built back then by Islington Council. Vera is a lively 77-year-old, a widow now, her walls covered with her husband’s work.
A window cleaner by trade, he was a keen painter – landscapes, street scenes, copies of portraits of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill by Graham Sutherland (Vera remembers that Churchill’s widow destroyed the original). And along with them hang a couple of Vera’s own landscapes. She talks with enthusiasm of the painting and craft classes at Claremont in White Lion Street to which she goes twice a week. The classes are a central part of her life – not only for the occupation, but the company, the friendship.
Vera is a true Islingtonian – Islington and district. She was brought up in Stoke Newington, one of six: her granny was from Finsbury and had 17 children. Vera’s own more modest two both live locally, as do her grandsons. One of these is doing The Knowledge. Taxi driving is a family occupation, along with painting and decorating – though the decorator sons are currently out of work, victims of the recession by the sound of it.
So how does she feel about Islington? A mixture of warmth and criticism. You can’t feel too lonely, she says citing the support she gets from Claremont, from the St Giles Mission, from the friendly shop over the road and the social events put on by the Tenants’ Association, along with local facilities like the farm in Sheringham Road and the nearby park. On the other hand, she hates the traffic – a horrendous increase since her younger days, she feels, and the street violence that was not around then – the knife-crime, the muggings. She had her bag stolen recently, her shopping trolley slashed by a furtive hand. And she misses the small shops that have been ousted by the chains, though she concedes that maybe you get better bargains sometimes at the supermarkets.
Vera talks of people in the borough whom she admires – her neighbour Ben Millett OBE, now 92 and running the Westbourne Tenants’ Association until last year. She praises the volunteers at Claremont and the other centres that give her support and company. And she has nothing but praise for the Whittington Hospital, where her annual check-ups meant that the lung cancer with which she was diagnosed last year had been caught early and could be successfully treated.
All in all, Vera gives Islington a pretty good press. She is a thorough town girl, she says – her only experience of living in the country was when evacuated during the war. Her complaints are less to do with the Borough, than with the ways in which things have changed over the decades. “It’s a wicked world,” she says, thinking of the crime, the street violence. But you are left with the sense that she wouldn’t be anywhere else – one of the more fortunate elderly, with family to hand and that essential support in the community.
Vera Battell was interviewed by Penelope Lively, a writer who has lived in Islington for 30 years.