Interview with Fran Jefcoate

Interview by Sarah Woods in London

I’m 60 now, 61, and I’ve noticed, over the years, the degeneration of the quality of the air. [That’s] linked with the fact that, five or six years ago, I was diagnosed with asthma, which is something I never has as a child, and I know that it’s down to the pollution and the cement dust. I can’t prove it, but I really believe that we should all be trying to do something about it. I know just sitting here, listening to people coughing as they walk around the estate, that I’m not the only one. The pollution levels on this corner by the galvanisers are particularly high.

I took part in some monitoring, it’s getting on for a year ago now, or the beginning of this year. We did some monitoring, and we placed ten of these little vials along the A12 from Belfont Tower out that way to Bow roundabout out that way. And the readings on that corner were horrendous. We didn’t have any readings at all under the acceptable level – they were all above acceptable levels. That was concentrating on the exhaust fumes; we’ve since done particulates tests, concentrating particularly on Epsom Street because of the cement works there. I haven’t been shown the data from that, but I dare say it’s pretty high. You can see it, especially on a dry hot day as a lorry drives down … the cloud of cement dust… You can clean your windows here and the next day you can write on the window sill. It’s really quite bad. Cement dust, which I’m led to believe is quite serious. It contains silicone which, apparently, if it gets in your lungs, is as bad as asbestos.

People seem to be sugar-coating over all of this. The bottom line I believe is that places like this should not be residential. It is going to change, but we might have to wait five to ten years for it to change. The area over there has just been re-designated a housing zone, so we will get the change. Meanwhile, people are having babies, bringing them back here, and they’re not getting them off to a very good start. Babies born in the east end of London don’t have very good prospects on so many fronts.

But hasn’t it always been the same? The frustrating and angering part about it is that nothing changes over hundreds of years. There have always been the deprived areas that stay deprived. The East End has always been poor, always been a melting pot of races, which I think is wonderful. Other people don’t like it, but I think it’s a really amazing place to live. We’ve got all these green spaces, two different rivers, the Thames and the Leigh, we’ve got the canals, we’ve got Victoria Park, we’ve got the cemetery park, we’ve got little pockets of green. So much nature! But the people here are struggling with ill-health for all types of different reasons, whether its poverty … or the pollution.

The first thing is to do away with is the [internal] combustion engine. We need to concentrate on alternatives, be it electric or whatever. It is unsustainable treating the planet in the way that we’re treating it and I won’t see the consequences, but my children and my grandchildren will and personally I don’t contribute to the misery: I’ve never flown in a plane, I’ve never driven in a car, I recycle as much as a possibly can. It’s only a little bit but, if we all did it, then the world would be a much better place. It is turning into such a selfish, money-orientated society that I’m ashamed sometimes to be a member of a human race.

[The people suffering are] not the people creating [the problems]. There are families here that have got two cars but we’re not rich people round here, and – if they’ve got two cars – it’s out of necessity really. Personally. I would be getting a bus or walking but you know… I’ve got the tube up there for the Hammersmith and City and the District Line, the DLR is up that road there. I’ve got a bus stop just up there to take me to Mile End and beyond; another bus stop there takes me to Stratford and beyond.

In these times in particular, when austerity is really starting to bite and services are being cut back, it’s going to be more and more incumbent on us all to look after one another, to do what we can. To do really small things, just checking on a neighbour. I’m not far off being quite old myself now, and I hate that it frightens me that I might one day be found dead in my flat and no one knows. That’s not going to happen to me because I’m not going to allow it to happen. I have family, I have children; they would never allow that to happen. But there are so many people out there that are on their own, and loneliness is a terrible, terrible thing. You can be in a crowd and still be lonely, but it’s on us all to make that effort, to smile at someone even, to make their day. So many people go round with their frowny faces and their eyes down and they don’t make contact with another human being and I think it’s a sorry state of affairs. You can find out wonderful things about people if you take the time to ask. But it is, at the end of the day, down to the individual: some people don’t have the confidence to put themselves out there, some people don’t want that contact, but I think we should all be reaching out and extending a hand to those people who do. Because there are a lot of people out there who don’t know the opportunities that are around locally, because there’s all sorts of little, little enterprises and little clubs and stuff. Otherwise, if you sit back and think ‘I’ll leave that for someone else to do’, then things don’t get done, do they? Maybe, after you plant a little seed of enthusiasm in someone else and they’ll carry on. Or, when I’m long gone, they’ll remember something I said one day and think: she was not wrong.

When I get wheezy, I need to use my inhaler a little bit more. The summer, especially when the air is still sort of hanging there, and it’s really nasty, and you can taste it. Metally, unpleasant exhaust fumes. It’s not nice at all. I always have my inhaler with me. In the hot weather, I just struggle to breathe. Not so much in the house because I put a fan on and stuff. But yeah, I’ve had it where I’ve walked out the front door and immediately I’m breathless.

It was only about five years ago since I was diagnosed with asthma, but I’ve noticed it for about the last ten years. But it was usually just in the summer; now things trigger it: if I get too hot I have an asthma attack, if I breathe in on a really cold day, it like catches me and I have an asthma attack. And it’s getting worse. My friend keeps trying to tempt me to Wales where I’ll be able to breathe, but I’m a town and city person and I would die of boredom in Wales. It would be lovely; I’d be able to take deep breaths but you know, what would I do? I love doing all the stuff I do in London. It’s my city and it’s my community and that’s what I focus my energies on these days – doing stuff within my community. I sit on a few boards, I do resident satisfaction surveys, I write for our in-house magazine, once a quarter, a nature article, a seasonal one. I’ve been doing that for a few years now… I sit on my estate board, on a joint estate panel, on a services board panel. I’m also involved with the Bromley-by-Bow Centre, which is the local health centre. So much goes on in their community stuff that I’ve started getting a bit involved there. I did a survey of centre users and managed to get the council to do some repairs in the playground. We’ve got a clean air café, going tomorrow, in St Paul’s Way for Poplar Harca. I’ll be down there and answering any questions.

The main thing about here at the moment is that if you want to go that way, south from here, is that you’ve either got to go really out of your way or you’ve got to walk along the motorway. One of the good things about this new housing is that they’re talking about putting a footbridge over the canal which will be really nice… There are also plans in the pipeline to slow [traffic] down by putting traffic lights and more crossings further down towards the Bow roundabout. We’ll have to see how that goes.

There are a lot of traffic jams along there. If anything happens in the tunnel, it gets blocked, so it tails right back, on both sides, both south and north. Because its only two lanes each way, so it’s a bit of a nightmare. Fridays, it’s probably started filling up now, Friday evenings are particularly bad. Especially if you go somewhere like Greenwich, and you look down on a particularly bad day, you can see it, a little haze. But, unless you’ve got a lung condition which makes you aware of it, of course you just go about your daily life and don’t give it a second thought, its only when it affects you that you start thinking: ‘Oh, we really need to do something about this’. It’s all very selfish. Because otherwise you wouldn’t think about it. Because you can’t see it, it’s like invisible illness. Because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. We are poisoning our planet and its quite scary, from the air we breathe to the plastics in the sea, and we don’t know the long term consequences…

In my little Fran world, the ideal thing would be there would be a great, and I mean a huge natural disaster and it’ll set the clocks back and we’ll have to start again… But I think it will always be greedy people that will exploit others. It’s pretty depressing, but I don’t think we’ll learn anything, because we haven’t learnt anything before. All any of us can do is hope that [kindness is] the power that prevails. Because otherwise mankind’s doomed, and we live in such a beautiful world, and it will carry on without us, and it will still be a beautiful, it will be even more beautiful for our absence. I just think it’s a crying shame that people won’t open their eyes and see what we’re doing.

I’m just a realist, I always have been. I’ve got some airy-fairy ideas in my little ideal world but it’s [not] reality, is it? In my ideal world, no one would drive cars, and we’d have a marvellous public transport system, and we’d all be kind to each other and we’d all earn a living wage, and there wouldn’t be fat cats lording it over everybody. But that’s not the real world.

What practical things can be done? We wouldn’t have any [internal] combustion engines. We’d have a really good electric or solar or something network of public transport that was cheap, and [which] made it possible for people to travel. We’d love our areas more, we’d pick up our rubbish, we’d dispose of our rubbish properly, then we could start complaining about gulls and foxes, because the only reason we’ve got so many is because of the way we get rid of our rubbish… And I’d utilise our green spaces more and I’d link them up to make them more pleasant, because there are some wonderful green corridors, but they are patchwork and they need linking up a bit more. Because there is just so much wildlife in this area, you just wouldn’t believe it. I’ve seen bats from this back door, only on two occasions but they are there. And it can be done, we’ve got a green bridge at Mile End that links Mile End Park so you don’t have to go down to street level. [You can] go over the green bridge, cycle over the green bridge, you don’t have to go down to street level at all.

I think this road here is very difficult … to do anything with, if we had another couple of Thames crossings it would take the load off that. But it’s the main one through to the south, so you have to go right out of your way to cross the river. That would be a really good idea for London: more Thames crossings, to take [the traffic] away. Or to somehow screen the residential areas with trees, green walls, mossy walls, moss soaks up a lot of the rubbish that they let off.

The problem with electric cars [is that] the infrastructure’s not there. We should be doing everything we can to encourage people to go electric, and then more money will be invested and then it will improve. The knowledge will improve, but we seem stuck with a combustion engine and its choking our planet, and choking our people and making our kids ill…