It took a crisis for us to meet
Eileen Moir: Jenny, Mary and I met in the strangest circumstances imaginable.
Jenny Jennings: You can say that again. Its fairly unusual to say you met because your houses got flooded with sewage. But in our case, thats exactly what happened. Now look at us! Weve run a national campaign. And last week, we went to 10 Downing Street. Its crazy to think whats happened.
Mary Dhonau: The strange thing is that weve been neighbours for six years but until the floods came, all wed done was nod and wave at each other.
Eileen: It took a crisis for us to meet.
Mary: Crisis is an understatement. Last Christmas, all our houses were flooded with sewage. And in fact, its happened to me ten times in seven years sewage water three foot deep. This time, Id just had enough. So I sat down at the PC and wrote a cross letter to our water company, Severn Trent.
Jenny: Some people even had faeces floating through their homes and still Severn Trent didnt come out.
Mary: So I put my Wellington boots on - that was the only way I could get to see most of my neighbours - and I knocked on 48 doors and got signatures. In turned out that all of us had had the same experience, and the water company had taken no notice whatsoever.
Eileen: Id never seen Jenny before, but Id seen Mary and always smiled and said hello but never stopped.
Jenny: Then when the sewage water came in, we knocked on each others doors and just said, Are you flooded? And it was, Yes, come on in.
Jenny: Then the wine opens, and we havent stopped drinking since. Now were very, very close friends. Weve got a Christmas party planned for April or May, because we couldnt have Christmas as our houses were flooded.
Eileen: It was the most miserable time for everyone. We felt incredibly isolated.
Mary: I remember how I opened the curtains on Christmas morning and nine houses in one direction were all empty and gutted and I just felt sick because no-one was there, no-one to wave to and no-one to share Christmas with.
Eileen: It was that awful sense of loss, really, as though our homes had been stolen or taken from us and we were powerless to do anything about it. Nobody was accountable. Everyone abdicated responsibility and blamed the next person, and we were made to feel very much like trouble-makers. And apart from the practical and functional problems of not having a kitchen, not being able to use your washing machine or toilet, it was because it was your home, your base, the place where youre safe and secure. The thing is, it wasnt nature flooding us, though there were certainly lots of natural articles floating in the water, it was from the drains. If wed bought a house by the river wed have made a calculated risk that it might flood...
Jenny: But were half a mile from the river with an industrial estate in the middle. And we had a foot of water in our house for twenty-four days solid with not one single neighbour coming over. Even when they saw us in the street walking about in Wellington boots up to a portaloo, not one person asked us how we were.
Mary: And they must have seen us on the telly.
Eileen: I think they found that we were an embarrassment, we were highlighting a problem and it had an agenda for them, in terms of house prices it lowered the tone.
Jenny: But people here can be so narrow-minded. Youd expect it in a village maybe, not a city like this.
Eileen: I dont think its peculiar to Worcester. I think its echoed everywhere. It was the same in South Wales. I had to move from there to Worcester because of my husbands employment. It was a question of being together in Worcester or not being together.
Jenny: My husband was born here, so I moved here to be with him. All his family come from here I dont know how far back. And theyre all still here. So hes a real Worcester man, a woozer. Its a big, very close family, just like the Waltons. The Waltons of Worcester!
Mary: Ive got five children at the last counting talking about the Waltons. I lived in Malvern originally but my son got a choral scholarship at the Cathedral, so we moved here.
Eileen: I love Worcester, its a beautiful place.
Mary: I dont like Worcester at all. I think its the most unfriendly place in the whole world. Just look at what happened when we flooded. No-one cared a bit. People here really dont welcome a stranger into their bosom. I can stand at the school gate and I have been going to that school for years and Im still a relative stranger.
Eileen: But everyones different. I dont think theres a typical Worcester person at all.
Jenny: And what about people saying theres a typical Worcester Woman? I mean, look at us! What are we like? Personally, Id have found it really offensive to be stopped in the street and stereotyped as Worcester Woman.
Mary: I found it quite funny, I went around at the last general election saying, Of course, Im Worcester Woman, and however I vote its going to go with me. Mind you, Ive always voted Liberal Democrat. The first thing I did when I escaped from home to university was to vote Liberal Democrat my parents have always voted Conservative.
Eileen: Everyones got to find their own way in life. And I think chiselling in to be part of a community is a hard slog wherever you go.
Jenny: Its very American Werewolf in London here. Especially with me. Im an outsider. I come from Essex, and its not the classiest voice, is it? But Im not shy. I talk to anyone. Im not bothered. So you walk into a pub, and if youve got a different accent everyone stops and looks at you
Eileen: The piano stops
Mary: And they knock their dominoes over
Jenny: As long as they let you through to the bar, thats fine by me. But its very cliquey, very interbred. Worcester is a strange city because they dont like to be classed as being anything to do with Birmingham even though were not so many miles away. But Im from the sea, originally we lived on twenty miles of beach so Worcester seems like a proper city to me.
Mary: But its not a friendly place. If you think about it, even we werent that friendly until the floods came. Maybe theres something in the water?
Jenny: I wont stay here forever. Ill go back to the sea.
Mary: And be flooded!
Jenny: Yes, but you dont get flooded by the sea.
Theres too many fences and barriers
Eileen: I was born in Glasgow, my family are all from Scotland, and its an involuntary thing but I feel very proud to be Scottish, and interwoven in that is a strong British identity Im not English at all. So I feel Scottish in the first instance and British in the second. But I think there are all sorts of problems with Scottish independence. I mean, in terms of care for the elderly, for example, theres a different rule in Scotland and a different rule here and I think thats absolutely disastrous. Its postcode care and I feel very strongly against that. So in terms of independence, or regional devolution, I think it has to be threaded through the whole of Britain. I mean, I feel its very important for Scotland to have their say and to have their power, but Id be very against a postcode type of situation where it became graded what kind of care youd get and how youre viewed. I dont know how it could be worked so that you get your say, but there is some sort of vote that allows people to be treated the same wherever.
Jenny: Its because theres too many fences and barriers. Everyone wants to be British when it suits them, but the next thing you get is the Welsh trotting off one way, and theres Scotland, and its all very torn when it suits the government to be torn. Personally, I feel British rather than part of any region, like Essex, where Im from originally. And no, I dont wear white stilettos not on a Sunday.
Eileen: I do think theres strong differences in culture, and issues surrounding all the different identities.
Mary: I think theres a definite English identity, too. But take my parents, I have watched them become more and more British. They didnt even vote Conservative last time. They voted for the Independent for the first time because they liked everything the Independent chap was saying. And then theres my parents in law who will not have a two pound coin because they think its a euro. They actually refuse to accept a two pound coin if they are handed one. But I think the euro is something weve got to do. Our family motto has always been to go with the flow, and I think weve got to go with the flow over this sorry Jenny.
Jenny: Oh God!
Mary: Because surely the idea of the Common Market was to stop anything like the Second World War ever happening again. And thats how I feel, that in that idealistic way, if we can all work together and just get on. Even though I cannot believe the bureaucracy of it all, the paperwork, and the beef, for instance. Theres a lot of petty battles. Its not working how it should be.
Jenny: But its all for show. The countries will never unite. The French bloody hate us, and we cant stand them as in the token Brit and the token French fella. But we will never unite. The euro is a token trophy of how we could unite but underneath, with all the undercurrents, were just too different.
Eileen: I worry about all the different identities, I mean we do have to acknowledge difference, and celebrate it, and use it to our advantage, and not pretend were all the same. And in Europe I feel that every country has its own identity, and different value-base.
Mary: We need to stand back and address the situation, because the Common Market is going really AWOL, pear-shaped. Theres too much bureaucracy, too much petty fighting and goings-on in between. The ideal, the basic reason for the Common Market, has gone out of the window.
Jenny: Its all very well and good having a European parliament but how many times have I, or anyone else in this room, ever been asked our views on it? Its just like with Westminster. Its way out of everyones hands. I know weve just been there, and it was lovely, but... Ive never, in my life, had to make a stand on something, apart from this. Its the first time. For years, Ive sat and watched the TV and heard whats being decided in Westminster and Ive never thought about actually doing something. I mean, we took our campaign nationally in desperation.
Mary: And weve used the media to let Severn Trent know were really serious. We wanted them to take notice of us. We needed the weight of the media behind us.
Jenny: So were using the media, because thats what theyre there for.
Eileen: If we look at it locally though, I work for Social Services, and its like a microcosm of things on a larger scale, say at Westminster. Even at work, decisions are made without consultation of people doing the job. The knowledge of the people on the ground floor isnt used. As workers, we feel frustrated because at the end of the day were the ones facing the public and having to deal with difficulties surrounding the decisions that are made. All we can do is work hard, argue, discuss, debate with our managers about decisions, but theres this heavy feeling of it being a pointless exercise sometimes because these decisions are already made. And thats how I feel on a bigger level as well. Youre often powerless, because decisions are already made and even if theyre the wrong decisions youre half way down that road and you have no power to stop. And then as a worker, and I guess as a citizen, it could be argued that you have to have the strength to face the repercussions of sometimes completely stupid decisions - mostly made by men.
Jenny: And think about MPs. How many female MPs have we got? For hundreds and hundreds of years, government has always been the mans job. Decisions were made with a group of blokes sitting round, while women were supposed to be at home doing the menial tasks, and I think that tradition is still around.
Mary: I had a letter from 10 Downing Street this week addressed to Mr & Mrs Michael Dhonau. Well, I am not Mrs Michael Dhonau! I was absolutely outraged.
Jenny: How would he like getting a message sent to him as Mr Cherie Blair?
Mary: We went into our marriage as an equal partnership, Mrs Michael is ridiculous.
Eileen: Its funny, when my husband was in the army we were in Berlin one time, and I had to get some medication for something, and they gave me tablets for Lance Corporal whatever. So I said to my husband, maybe you take the tablets three times a day and Ill get better? Its all so much a part of our structure and our culture.
Jenny: I mean, Worcester Woman to me sounds so patronising, as though its about time the little woman had her say. You know Middle England, little women, well knock on the kitchen window and get her away from the sink, see if shes allowed to vote or ask her husband if she should be allowed to have her say.
Mary: When Im in the paper, its still Mary Dhonau, mother of five, and my age, nothing else about me. But when my husband is quoted they dont mention his job or that he has five kids, but with me its always mother of five. Even though Im in the paper for lobbying, they dont see me, they see the fact that Im a mother and happen to have five children.
Eileen: But I think thats woven into life in Britain wherever you are.
The real issues are lost in the game
Jenny: The one thing Id say about our MP, Mike Foster, is that I dont agree with his politics at all. Hes trying to get fox hunting banned, and I disagree with him about that. But hell get my vote, because hes the one person who has actually listened to us. We went to his clinics and then he came round our houses and spoke to us. Like we could have said, Michael, cant use our kitchen, love. Can we come round for Sunday dinner? He has been absolutely fantastic. All right, its coming up to the election and people are going to be coming out the woodwork. Weve had councillors saying, Yes, Im backing you.
Eileen: And weve never heard of them!
Jenny: So were like, Who are you? One councillor has an Indian restaurant and in fact hes given us free Indian takeaways he was fantastic. But thats bribery, surely?
Mary: Curries for questions!
Jenny: I wish we had a councillor who owned an off-licence.
Mary: I went on the radio and said we were outraged because of all these councillors saying they were supporting us, and they hadnt been near us! The only person wed seen, and the only person to have dirty waders, incidentally, was Mike Foster.
Eileen: Hes been marvellous, and I dont want to be cynical but of course hes got his own agenda. He took us round the House of Commons and was wonderful but it was a game.
Mary: Anyway, I havent made a decision who Ill vote for yet. But Ive rung round every party to ask for a copy of their Manifesto. For the first time in my life Im going to make a very slow, reasoned decision before I vote.
Eileen: But its all a game. And were not happy to play the game its choice-less. But wed tried all other reasonable means. They didnt answer letters, we were passed from one agency to another. So we cant win this unless we take a stand, get our voice heard.
Jenny: Youve got to play the political game. To get from one side of the board to the other, youve got to have the right connections and the right links to get across. So we had to go first to the local media, and from there to the national media. And we contacted our MP to get the connection to Downing Street.
Eileen: We wouldnt have to play that game though, if it was clear what the local bodies were, where their boundaries were, and what they offered us. But its not clear, and its in the big agencies interests to keep it hazy. Severn Trent are prepared for us to be flooded for a few more times before they actually do anything.
Jenny: Meeting each other, weve been able to shout together, so weve been heard. Individually, weve got nowhere.
Mary: If it was just me, I dont think people would take me seriously, its only when were together...
Jenny: Otherwise, youd be the mad Worcester Woman.
Mary: I can see it now - www - the wicked witch of Worcester.
Jenny: I think people forget how individual people can be.
Eileen: But then think about how the thing was dealt with. For instance, Severn Trent have agreed to see us, but they wont see us together. They put it in writing, and said they thought it would be a free for all.
Mary: Weve been pushing for a public meeting but no way.
Eileen: They replied to my letter and I said, look, whilst I appreciate an answer to my letter which is a novelty and whilst Im happy that you want to have dialogue, I feel itll be wasting your time unless we actually get together as a community. Because although our stories are slightly different, there are a lot of common threads.
Jenny: Now every house he walks into is going to be, Ive got shit in my house. And there you go. The same story every time.
Eileen: But its divide and conquer. Because I think very often the structures are designed for one reason to protect the ones in power. Its always an abdication of responsibility. And theres so much of this game-playing around, in politics, and on every level. I think whats happened to us has really highlighted and illustrated that.
Jenny: Youre right. Weve gone to our MP with our cause because hes the peoples spokesman, hes Worcesters spokesman. Alright hes opening fetes one day, talking to old dears the next, but hes our voice, we can go to him. But when we went to parliament, its as though the buck stops with him. Hell filter through the stuff that he sees necessary that will help his party, his cause. Hes a sieve, and things hit him and what needs to go through goes through.
Mary: Hes very publicity oriented, I suppose they all are. But hes the man with the lollipop at the moment. With the hunting issue I think its barbaric. I cant think of anything more repulsive. So I think hes right to be against it. But someone told me that he didnt feel that strongly about it, that he was just doing it for publicity.
Jenny: What annoys me is that you get all these people sorry Mary living in the town who say that we should ban fox hunting. But Ive been on fox hunts for twenty odd years and weve never bloody caught one. 99.9% of fox hunts you dont catch a fox, its just traditional sport, its like pheasant shooting, its a traditional country thing. Its a bloody good laugh!
Mary: But Ive heard a fox being ripped apart. Ill never forget that sound. I was about ten. It was near Oxford.
Jenny: Still, its getting a lot of publicity for Mike Foster. And he cant believe in every single aspect thats put on his desk. He cant agree with everything. But hes got to be shown to support some things, hasnt he? Thats what he gets paid for, thats how he wins votes.
Eileen: I think the real issue in Worcester is that theres a crisis in care for older people, and probably a lot of other people, who are not given the support to actually demand the services that they have a right to. Theyre not able to play the game. They havent got the energy to play any game. They cant get to the toilet some of them. And yes I do think fox hunting is important, but there are other issues that are important as well and theyre arguably more important if youre talking about somebody who cant get to the toilet, feed, eat. But because people dont make a fuss, because they internalise and accept, the problems arent dealt with. Its just treated as a game, moving money from one pot to another.
Mary: You dont question. Its like going to the doctors and they send you to a consultant and they say x, y and z is going to happen to you, or to your child. And the minute you question them, all hell breaks loose. People dont question.
Jenny: And the problem I find is that you have one say every five years. One say, and thats it. Then you forget about it.
Eileen: And the real issues are lost in the game. The real issues are lost in the hype and the nonsense surrounding it, so people dont know what theyre really voting for.
The world is getting smaller and smaller
Jenny: There was a man when I came home from work yesterday, in the bus stop opposite Sainsburys, glue-sniffing. I was absolutely horrified. Ive never seen anyone glue-sniffing before I moved to Worcester. Its horrendous here for drugs and everything.
Mary: Ive got teenage children and I feel sick when they go out in the evening. I cant very well say no, you cant go out. But whenever they go Im petrified because theyre so vulnerable with peer pressure, and Im so scared for them.
Eileen: Theres a lot of frustration around because things go to court, people are let off, and it becomes a game. So people can get very disheartened when theyve used the legal system to try to bring justice to situations, be it crime, car crime, drugs or whatever, and for some reason it hasnt worked out. Theres quite a lot of racism around, too.
Mary: Actually, the Asian community is very big here, and it doesnt worry me at all. I just want to get on with everybody else and I dont think that just because someones got a different coloured skin it makes them any different, unless they try to influence their religion on me or something like that but then Ive got my own thoughts about religion. Im happy just so as long as we all muddle along together and everyones allowed to be themselves.
Eileen: I think theres a lot of opportunity for differences inside a culture. There are very positive things that can come out of it in learning about different cultures and changing to a way of life that suits all of us, thats better for all of us.
Jenny: I make it my business to know whats happening around the world because the world is such a small place, and now when there is a flood, or the earthquakes at the moment, it affects every single country. The world is getting smaller and smaller.
Eileen: Especially with the internet. We looked up the legislation for the sewage issue on the net, because you can use legislation creatively, and we thought if we have some knowledge of it then itll give us confidence to argue. But sewage legislation is so boring! You cant believe how boring it is.
Jenny: But the internets another tool, isnt it?
Mary: I mean, I didnt understand about MAFF and wondered whether because Jennys fish had been put in the bath...
Jenny: Yes, my fish had to move into our bath.
Mary: And I was wondering whether we had to report it to MAFF for cruelty to fish.
Jenny: Very funny... Its true, though. We had to fish them out of our garden and put them into our bath. They loved it! It was the hot water and the bubble bath that didnt go down well.
Eileen: But that was the funny thing. In the end, we had to go and find out about the sewage system for ourselves. But we have no wish to be sewage experts. Theyre supposed to be the experts. So again it was about this muddiness, people not taking responsibility. And then they had a lot of explaining to do.
Given an opportunity to shout, people will say something
Jenny: The thing about the Americans is that they cock everything up, dont they? And we always look at them as though thats the way weve got to be. But look at what theyve just done with their election. Its the biggest farce, and a company like that I mean, a country like that, its all Hollywood, all glitz and glamour, and the cost to do an election! Surely thats money that should be spent elsewhere? Its all the game, the hype and everything, where they pick you up for a week or two and then they drop you for five years.
Mary: But I think its the same with our general election, all the parties will make these incredible promises, and will they keep them?
Eileen: Its all so glitzy and tailored now. Its all for show, with everybody looking glamorous and having their designers to make sure they look right and say the right thing, and its all false, just like with Worcester Woman which happened in America first, didnt it, when they had women from wherever it was?
Jenny: And we all know that the prime minister or the president, or whoever, is just a spokesman, a hand-puppet who will say whatever hes told to say. But Britain is getting left behind. Weve always been the British Empire, which was absolutely huge. And slowly but surely weve dropped bits off and weve got smaller and smaller. If you go to Germany, or Switzerland, the country is immaculate, everything is run very efficiently. Alright, theyre not the perfect race but everything is just right. And when you come here, the country is filthy-dirty, weve got a problem with immigration or drugs. Now of course every countrys got that, but other countries in Europe highlight it and act on it. We dont. So theyre keeping up with the times, while Britain as a country and in her politics, is very, very stale. We just havent moved on. Weve got a huge history and we rely on that to get us by good old Great Britain. But Great Britain isnt as great as what it used to be.
Mary: But I think weve got a good chance to be great again.
Jenny: Only if you are given the opportunity to stand up and speak. We stood up together and shouted because were three exceptionally strong people with three exceptionally strong views maybe not all the same. But people who maybe arent as strong as that have to be given the opportunity to speak and say what they think and then, yes, Britain would be great. Because given an opportunity to shout, people will say something.
Eileen: But I think things are getting better because there is a lot more opportunity, and a lot more impetus for dialogue and discussion, for debate. Say with education, it looks at how life is now. When I was little, we didnt have computers, we didnt know about mortgages, we didnt learn about life, and everyday life, and I think thats what goes on now. So it helps debate, and the general belief that if you have a voice then you can change things.
Mary: My sons doing a diploma in life, I think it is. He learnt how to mend a car and how to bake a cake last week.
Jenny: Thats all well and good, but when you look at the other side of the coin, the education service I think is appalling. When we were children I would never stand up and tell a teacher I thought they were talking a load of old cobblers, and storm out of the classroom with you cant flipping stop me. But you cant get the cane any more. The discipline in schools! Kids are pushed to be more outspoken and to know their rights.
Mary: But I often think, what are my rights as a parent? Ive got a very difficult fifteen-year old, and shes always talking about her rights, she can do this and that. Its how she feels empowered. And all her friends feel the same. Now, I hope that one day, when shes a parent, and shes in the position that she puts me in, that things have changed and she has the power I havent got now. But Jennys right in a way. My daughter has been threatened and bullied at school. Shes had mental torture going on for months. One of her friends was totally smashed up last week, and the children havent been expelled, theyre in an exclusion block at school. You can see them there drinking coffee and eating chocolate biscuits. Now what kind of punishment is that?
Eileen: I think its more to do with values, and the erosion of values. Yes, children are being taught now that they have rights, but on a deeper level its about the values. I know theres a lot of talk about family values, but I think theyve been eroded.
Mary: I was brought up quite strictly. But I dont feel that were a completely united family, we dont have the social interaction we had when I was a child.
Jenny: But in Europe, the family values are very strong. They all have dinner together as a family, and families go out together. But that doesnt happen here. Its a different culture.
Mary: The thing about childrens rights is that theyve been taken to the extreme now, so theres things like Childline. But is there a parent line? Right now I would give anything for a parent line, for some help and backup on how to bring up my child because Im treading in very, very deep water and I dont know how to deal with it.
Eileen: Its all underpinned by changing values. Religion, education, politics and the changing family which isnt necessarily mum and dad any more. It could be any kind of combination and you have to acknowledge and accept that because thats the reality. And it doesnt lessen value, you can still have a strong and good foundation for your family, whatever your family is.
Mary: I have family values, very strong ones, but theyre not happening, and things feel very disjointed. Teenagers now have a lot more happening outside the home, and so the parents dont feel needed, unless its for money. I dont know whether my children will still have a deep and meaningful relationship with me when theyre the age I am now. But I can pick up the phone to my Mum and shes there for me. Id like to think my children would feel the same about me, but I dont think that theyd turn to me. I think their friends and outside interests have a much stronger impact on them.
Jenny: Just like us then.
Since we first met the women of Waverley Street, their campaign has, it seems, won a total victory. Exactly one week before the Queen was set to meet Worcesters flood victims represented by Mary Dhonau the women received several phone calls from the press. Theres been some good news, they said, unable to elaborate.
Severn Trent planned to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds into upgrading Waverley Streets sewage system, agreeing to a comprehensive two-year programme of maintenance. They had not yet told the women of Waverley Street.
Now it was the turn of local press and TV to flood into the street. A picture of a triumphant Mary, holding a champagne bottle, arms aloft in celebration, appeared on the front page of the Worcester Evening News even before the water company had held their press conference. Shortly after, now in celebratory mood, Mary met the Queen, who reminded her of her Auntie Jean: just a regular old lady with a handbag. The Queen, well-briefed, talked sewage. Marys mother was so proud that she felt she could die happy and go to heaven.
Since then, the women have held their belated Christmas celebrations. Mike Foster MP came for lunch, as did the local and national media. The women have appeared on numerous radio shows and become an item on television. They find themselves being recognised by strangers, and not just locally. The morning we last spoke to Mary, she had called up a ticket hotline: the operator recognised her name, and wished her the best of luck.
Their only reservation is that everyone is getting scared of them.
For years, Severn Trent denied all knowledge of the street flooding. They have now admitted that they knew about the problem as long ago as the 1970s. But when the press reported this new revelation, the water company reverted back to their tactics of denial. In Waverley Street, four sewage pipes, filled with faeces, flow into one. Some of the pipes, the women have now discovered, flow uphill.
A new community spirit has emerged that once was non-existent. It occurred to me this morning, says Mary, that as I was walking home, everyone was waving at each other and saying Hi.
The end-goal is clear: Our ambition is to be invited to switch on the new pumping station when we get it! If they try and renege, the TV companies have agreed to follow us straight through the doors of the directors office of Severn Trent. With the media on our side, we will make sure we see this through.
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