Estimated reading time:13 minutes, 21 seconds
Everyone has a story. In May 2016 Elizabeth Jones, 88, and her volunteers celebrated sending out the 100th issue of Talking News Islington – an audio magazine for the visually impaired. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, she reckons that during her career running a general store near London Bridge she was one of the first to introduce both self-service and plastic cling film. Interview by Nicola Baird.
“At least 1,500 people are blind in Islington,” says Elizabeth Jones, 88, who lost her sight in an accident in 1980. “Most of them are elderly and lose sight through glaucoma or age related macular degeneration. They don’t go out, and then lose the mental capacity to go out. They can’t overcome their fear of the outside world and are then left in isolation and needing emotional support. The council has little staff helping with the blind in Islington, and so they often don’t get care or assistance when they are first made blind.”
“Losing my sight turned my life upside down and from light to dark. I missed driving, and I missed getting out and about. I used to like reading and I couldn’t read. I’d get the Islington Life produced by Islington Council and be unable to read it. About that time I heard a talk about audio description, so one day I rang the council and said you keep sending me this magazine and I can’t read it. They were surprised and said ‘What do you want us to do about it’? I suggested they could perhaps make an audio tape and send it out. Ultimately they did – and I was amazed by how much was going on in Islington, and how I’d lost touch with five or six years. I rang back and thanked them, And thought, if it’s had this effect on me what about the other blind people in Islington?” explains Elizabeth.
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Convinced that audio would benefit many people, Elizabeth spent the next few years using her banking, business and persuasive skills to set up the monthly audio magazine, Talking News Islington, filled with topical and positive stories taken from their original champion, Islington Gazette, as well as Islington Tribune, the council’s Islington Life magazine and occasionally the Camden Journal.
“We pick stories which offer something of interest; something listeners can relate to. We invite some of our listeners to write their own stories about how they live independently and how they get though life. As project manager I do the corporate news which I take from the RNIB, Moorfields Eye Hospital and similar organisations,” says Elizabeth who managed to get early funding from the Talking News Federation and Jack Morris at the Business Design Centre.
Now there is a steering group and 30+ volunteers and a recording studio and meeting space at the Islington Outlook Rehabilitation Centre in St John’s Way, Archway. Last month around 200 Talking News were sent out on CDs and tapes, “in order to help get more visually impaired people out of their homes, so they can lead more interesting lives.”
“We’d like to find more people to send Talking News, but to be able to service them we need their permission, or their family’s permission, date of birth, address and so on,” she says. “I keep my database up-to-date so I remove people from the list who lose their hearing, have a stroke and can’t concentrate, go into a home or die.”
Places & people Elizabeth Jones enjoys in Islington
- Most shops help: I go to the counter and ask for counter service. But they know me in Morrisons and send someone round with me. I like to go round with my list, you need a choice. I make the refreshments for when we have a Talking News recording night. I also go to Waitrose if I want a treat or something different.
- Busy: I didn’t renew my pensions pass for the cinema this year as I don’t have time to see films.
- Loves theatre: I’m going to the Almedia Theatre to see They Drink it in the Congo.
- Adventurous: One of my volunteers treated me to a meal at the restaurant, Dine in the Dark (Dans Le Noir at 30-31 Clerkenwell Green, EC1). Even for me it was totally different, totally black and you don’t know what you are eating. You choose meat, vegetarian or surprise. It was nice and tasty but we couldn’t identify it all. We had quite a laugh. They have wine. If you serve blind people cold red wine they think it is white wine. We choose white wine. You go in, totally dark. They put the glass in your hand and they make sure you know where the plate is. Quite an experience.
- Music & awards: I really like the Inner Vision orchestra – Britain’s only blind orchestra. Their founder Baluji Shrivastav just got an OBE (June 2016). And Jack Morris, our original funder – who gave £500 to start Talking News Islington – he’s just got the CBE. I got a BEM in the New Years Honours (January 2014) for volunteering in the community. I felt embarrassed because I only run Talking News, it was all the volunteers who do the reading and recording.
Elizabeth was born in Epping, but has spent most of her life in Islington near Archway. She raised two children here, although they eventually moved to Essex. She now has five grandchildren – the youngest has just turned 25.
“My parents came to London when I was two, and I’ve lived in this house off Holloway Road for 69 years. I know the area well and like to do things on my own,” says Elizabeth. “There’s lots of help from the public – only two out of 10 will pass you by. Eight will stop and help. If only you could get people to leave their homes without the fear of getting mugged. On Talking News we don’t pick stories about crime, fear or mugging, or knife crime. We say to the editors no crime, no trauma. But if you can find a good way about doing something – like crossing the road – we’d put that in. We campaign for clearing overhanging bushes and trees, as when it is raining you get a face wash. We want streets kept tidy and clutter free, and are totally against shared spaces where traffic and pedestrians mix (like South Kensington).
“I didn’t go to university because I went to school during the war,” explains Elizabeth. “For two years most of the children were evacuated and there was no education. We were evacuated too, but for only three months with relations in Essex. Then my parents said “If we’re going to die, we all die together,’ so we came back to Islington. When the evacuees came back that improved a lot of things as it got the education back together with so many children coming back. It’s how mixed secondary schools came about, prior to that it was girls and boys separately. I went to Pakeman School and then Tollington Park Central, because I didn’t pass my 11+ and make the grammar school. Between 14 and 15 years you could take matriculation, the Oxford Certificate. I left when I was 16 and went into a bank in 1944 and then also went to an evening institution to improve my learning. But if you were a woman who worked in a public service you had to leave when you got married. When I got married in 1949 the bank said they could keep me on, but only if I could do relief cover going to different offices. That was difficult, so in 1951 I left.
“My father was a butcher and ran a food shop, so we always had meat during the war, but we ate what other people didn’t want – breast of lamb, scrag end of lamb and oxtail. He said ‘Why are you working for someone else when you could work for yourself?’ So I bought a grocery shop at 138 St Paul’s Road from a friend – it was a small corner shop, with accommodation over the top, by the Builders Arms pub. It’s now housing. And at 136 there was a greengrocers. The only thing that remains there now is the pub.”
“My shop was like the TV show Open All Hours, from 9am to 6pm. My friend, Ellen Josling, whose children were the same age as me, taught me what to do. Customers would come to the counter with their list of two pounds sugar, bottle of camp coffee, a quarter of tea, and they brought a ration book in for butter, cheese and meat. With food you had to register with a shop upon receipt of your ration book – I had around 200 customers, and then when they shopped they brought their book in and I had to cut out the coupons for each week. If they had sugar you couldn’t have jam! I’d be running around the shop getting those things. A lot of it wasn’t in packets, so you had to weigh it up and pack. Rationing didn’t end until 1954, we came off bit by bit.”
“If you wanted fancy goods you needed to drive to warehouses and find them. It wasn’t until 1954 that we had freezers! Birds Eye were the first to do frozen peas and fish fingers. There was a company called Bejams (Iceland now), run by a couple who lived in Muswell Hill, where they’d set up a little factory and started freezing vegetables. They bought in the first microwaves in 1983 and I’m still using my one. It’s big so I can put big things into it.”
“Then the lease on my shop came to an end and I thought no point taking it on, so I went over to London Bridge near Guys Hospital and went self-service, working from 9am to 6pm, until that lease ran out 14 years later. Self-service was a very advanced idea and I had a drinks’ licence too.”
“It’s been a fascinating life,” she says.
“At the end of the war there were no foreign people; no one went abroad and there were no foreign foods. My first foreign food was when I went abroad to Spain. I’ve been to a lot of countries in Europe. Joining the London District Council of Grocers, which was the umbrella organisation for all the small buying associations, was interesting and it became the supermarket chain known as Londis. The association was voluntary and I ended up running the London District Council which controlled 32 buying groups – this helped me learn about new groceries. We would have overseas conferences where we met manufacturers talking about their new products. Bit by bit the grocers’ shops started going to cash and carry to choose and buy for themselves instead of through their buying group. I carried on after I lost my sight, and then retired from the association in 1989 and handed it over to the National Food & Drink Federation.”
“I go to shops now that give me assistance, like Morrisons and Waitrose, because I don’t recognise the goods they’ve got there. Nobody introduces you to the new things in supermarkets.”
Elizabeth is very proud of one marketing discovery. “I was one of the first to use cling film. It was made by a company that made tyres, Goodyear. We invited different manufacturers once a month, so I invited this company to demonstrated it at the Ambassadors Hotel, opposite Euston Station. Everyone was a bit sceptical, but I really never was, because I saw that you could pre-wrap your own goods, so I’d be able to buy and sell a big variety of cheeses in small pieces. I was one of the first to use cling film in the London district.”
“A lot of small grocers used to come to these trade meetings once a month. Now I do Talking News once a month, but for the product it’s rather the same!” adds Elizabeth laughing.
Not only is Elizabeth Jones determined, she’s also extremely nice to talk to – surely a very good excuse to say hello to her if you happen to pass her somewhere in Islington.
- To subscribe to Talking News, volunteer or contact Elizabeth Jones with news stories use her email: Elizabeth.firstname.lastname@example.org
- There’s another fabulous interview with Elizabeth Jones published on the Islington Gazette to celebrate the 100th edition of Talking News, see this link
Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.