DD’s 59th Woodford Diary


Some South Woodford scribbles from DD, our resident diarist, commentator and observer of all things local. Illustrated by Evelyn Rowland

My cousin Paul rang me yesterday. He seems to enjoy my scribbles. “Look,” he said, “you don’t actually speak to all those people on George Lane, do you? I mean, surely you don’t just walk up and ask them straight out about their dogs or their grandchildren? Their home improvements? Even their hopes and ambitions?”

Did he think I just make it all up? That would be impossible. I admit that, time after time, I set out with my pad and pencil, feeling a little tentative at first, only to be treated to a wonderful variety of stories and experiences I could never have plucked out of the air: Audrey with an appointment to sit on her new toilet with the builder in attendance so she could indicate exactly the right placement for the loo-roll holder; Gordon’s tender description of the meticulous research involved in developing an ideal habitat for kingfishers right next door to the South Woodford Cricket Club; the woolly hatted Russian orthodox priest recalling his years working in a leper colony; Iby, encountered on the zebra crossing by Bressey Grove, a lovely 90-year-old Hungarian lady, concert pianist and holocaust survivor; beaming Arnold trundling around in his wheelchair announcing his memory had completely gone; the aged Knitter Natter group down at the library sharing their historic life stories; the elegant lady outside the International Supermarket with her handsome Pomeranian dog “rescued from a dustbin in Tenerife.” Such ‘copy’ as any diarist might dream of.

I daresay the couple of years I spent knocking on doors doing market research was a valuable preparation for these bimonthly scribbles. I don’t think I’ve told you much about that period in my life. I shed any shyness about approaching people (if I previously had any). I was invited into homes of every shape and size. Ease of access varied: some residences required you to speak into a remote grid in a wall while staring into an overhead camera with what you hoped was a trustworthy smile. Other homes sat without pretension on the pavement so you could see straight down the hall and into the kitchen. A single step and you were in. I’ll never forget the greeting of one Bethnal Green householder. She came to the door in her apron, curlers and carpet slippers, took one look at my clipboard and said: “You know what you are, don’t you! A bloody nuisance! Go in and get the kettle on! I’m off next door to borrow some tea bags.” I count it amongst the warmest of welcomes ever. 

It wasn’t much of a money-spinner, calling round to ask my ‘sample’ what they thought of cling film or washing powder or whatever. That didn’t take long. It was all the rest that took the time: the discussions about losing weight, keeping boyfriends, dealing with extravagant children, problems with breastfeeding, noisy neighbours. The topics people raised were as varied as my questionnaires. My daughter came with me on one sunny day during her university vacation. We separated and shared the allocated addresses. When I emerged from my ‘informant’, I couldn’t spot her but I could hear her laughter on the far side of a garden wall. There she was, stretched out on a sun-lounger, in merry conversation with her ‘customer’ (young and male, as it happens) and entering into the whole spirit of the exercise. (A chip off the old block?)

You can see how this job was shaping me for my role as DD in the South Woodford Village Gazette. It easily spilled over into chats quite unrelated to market research. Travelling around locally on my designated itinerary, I particularly recall an encounter at Wood Street station. I noticed the stationmaster stomping up and down outside the ticket office, red in the face and possibly on the verge of a heart attack. “Is something the matter?” I asked. (Straight in.) I expected to hear news of signal failures or unreliable drivers or even leaves on the line. “The matter? Yes, there certainly is something the matter. This new ticket collector they’ve sent me. He’s some kind of nutter! The sooner we get rid of him, the better! What does he think he’s doing between trains? Buries himself in his kiosk and reads the bleedin’ Bible! That’s what he does, doesn’t he!” “I see.” I didn’t, but withdrawal now would be difficult. “Are there other duties he should be performing between trains?” “Course not. That’s not the point, is it!” “So what is the point? Isn’t he allowed to read?” “Course he is. Only no one does. And anyway, reading the bleedin’ Bible. I ask yer!” By this time, I was beginning to warm to his pious new colleague. He sounded like someone worth standing up for. But I didn’t think it was the moment to ask the stationmaster if he’d read any good books lately. “Well, is he doing any actual harm? Being rude to the customers? Taking regular sickies?” I risked. Rather to my surprise, this didn’t trigger the expected fatal event. Instead, there was a gratifying diminuendo in his huffing and puffing and he rustled up an embarrassed laugh. “What? What? Oh, I daresay, if you’re into that kind of thing.” He headed off in the direction of his ‘Private Staff Only’ sanctuary. Probably had me down for a nutter, too. 

Occasionally, I was asked: “Were people rude and dismissive when you wanted to intrude on a bit of their day?” Sometimes, of course, folk are busy with no time or wish to stop and talk. And why not? That doesn’t make them ‘rude’. The vast majority of ‘respondents’, as we called them, were good-hearted, more than ready for a chat. I’ve long since discovered that the human race is definitely OK! I loved knocking on its front doors. As I have loved my forays into our community in South Woodford over the past 10 years. Thank you for all the stories you have shared so willingly. I would have been absolutely stumped without your help. So watch out. I’m not planning to give up any time soon.

To contact DD with your thoughts or feedback, email dd@swvg.co.uk