LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Living with Pets - Joan Dorothy Philomena O'Connor (with her three dogs and Bimbo, the giant rabbit )
Date of photography: 9th May 2017
Though Joan has always shared her life with other people, now in her 80’s, she prefers to live surrounded by her pets, including Bimbo, the giant rabbit, whose love for her is explicit and unconditional. Joan says: “I started my life surrounded with pets and I still love to live with my pets. My three lovely dogs, two cats and my giant rabbit are the faithful companions in my life now. These days, I am much happier to live with pets than with human beings. Some people may disapprove, but I definitely prefer animals to people - animals give you unconditional love, they are always there for you, and they wag their tails, not their tongues. And whatever mood you’re in, they seem to sense it: if you feel down, they get on to your lap; they give you love and they lick your face; they always seem to know. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t live an isolated life, I do have friends too.”
“Life is a full circle, widening until it joins the circle motions of the infinite,” observed Anaïs Nin, the French-born novelist, and when I meet Joan Dorothy Philomena O’Connor at her home in Brixton, the truth of this statement becomes obvious almost immediately. “I was brought up with animals and pets,” says Joan. “When I was born, rather suddenly, at Chandannagar, a former French colony in West Bengal, our faithful dog was at my mother’s side. My father worked for the British Army and my parents were soon required to move to what is now Kolkata (then Calcutta) where we lived in army quarters set amongst spacious grounds. I had a goat, four rabbits, six guinea pigs, and two birds, known locally as ‘boglas birds’.
I remember having a lamb, at one point, and I also kept a duck as a pet. Of course, our family always had several dogs too. Animals and pets have always been part of my life.”
Nearly eighty years later, I chat with a very spritely-looking Joan, while she sits on the sofa that she shares with part of her current menagerie - three dogs and a giant rabbit called ‘Bimbo’. Her two cats had obviously decided that posing for the camera was not something they would condescend to do. It is self-evident that the bond between Joan and her pets continues unalloyed.
On her sofa, Joan reminisces about life in India: “During the First World War, my father was posted to the front line but, unlike so many others, he managed to survive.” Over a million Indians volunteered to defend the British Empire; more than 170,000 animals were used during that dreadful, bloody war; and almost 74,000 Indian soldiers never returned home. “Though my mother gave birth to a good number of children, I was the sole survivor, so I grew up without siblings, an only child but a happy one. I went to one of the best, most prestigious schools in India, the Loreto School of Calcutta, a Roman Catholic convent school. I was bright and a good pupil but, to be honest, I also stood out because I was more like a tomboy than a girl in the conventional sense. I preferred sports and I liked playing games with the boys but I must admit that I was more interested in the sport than in the boys,” says Joan wistfully and with candour.
By 1946, British rule in India had lost its legitimacy and with elections and the creation of Congress, tensions between Hindus and Muslims mounted, culminating in the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ of August 1946. From this event further violence flowed, bringing about the deaths of thousands of Indians, and what we have now come to call ‘ethnic cleansing’. And sadly, the violence was not restricted to political activists nor contained within the public sphere: the homes of ordinary people were attacked and destroyed, with many women and children killed.
A year later, on 14th August 1947, the partition of British India became a reality. Joan recalls those turbulent days with great sadness: “I was only nine, but I remember the frightful events of those times vividly. All the schools were closed for three months and no-one dared to go out on the streets. I saw neighbours killing one another and these deeply painful memories will stay with me for ever. Being Anglo-Indian, and having our home within the Army Quarters, we were relatively safe but one never quite knew for how long. Once Indian Independence was a reality, the British Army started to pull out and, together with lots of others, my father lost his job and with it, our home. Then, in 1952, my mother died; things just happen that way, don’t they? My father never remarried and continued to look after me, though by that time I was already an independent young woman, much more so than was customary in our culture. I went to Calcutta University to study athletics and I represented West Bengal in the 100m and 200m sprint, and in basketball. I was also coach to the West Bengal hockey team. Eventually, I became a Games/PT Mistress and when I retired from this profession, I was the PT Teacher in one of the most highly regarded local schools in Kolkata.”
Joan must certainly have been a most unconventional young woman for her time: she had great insights into Indian and world politics; she was heavily engaged in sports; and, while she had no great interest in the opposite sex, she managed to live successfully in a society where traditional social norms and religious codes greatly influence how women, in particular, behave. At the age of 24, Joan married an Officer in the Indian Navy who, quite naturally, spent most of his time at sea, though they nevertheless managed to have four children. During the thirteen years she was married, Joan continued her professional career as a teacher until, once more departing from the conventions, she and her husband divorced.
“Life in India began to be very difficult economically; teachers salaries were poor and life became something of a struggle. I was 51 when I decided to set out for England, the ‘Mother Country’. My grandfather came from Lancashire and my father had always maintained that one day I would return to the land of my grandparent. I arrived to North Humberside in 1988 and the only way to describe that experience was ‘horrible’. Having worked all my life, I was determined to get a job in Hull, but I failed miserably. I also found the place full of extremely narrow-minded and provincial attitudes, so I decided to move to London.”
Joan was certainly not work-shy, working for the first two years in London as a cook for the former Inner London Education Authority (ILEA). Thereafter, and for the rest of her working life, she worked for the Metropolitan Police as a Traffic Warden, in uniform, mostly outdoors, earning a respectable salary and enjoying the team spirit which often exists in such jobs. “I stayed with the Met until I retired. I was very, very happy doing that job and I enjoyed the complete independence it brought me.”
“For most of the time I’ve been in London, I’ve lived on the Stockwell Park Estate which, many years back, was a very rough place. We had a lot of undesirables living here but we determined not to let them get the better of us; we got together, stood up to them and gradually succeeded in driving them away or neutralising them. The creation of a Community Centre was instrumental in this change; it can only be described as transformational, and it continues to play a pivotal role in our community even today.”
Joan is now in her eighties; while her mind is as sharp as a razor, her mobility is impaired. However, she refuses to be housebound and can frequently be seen whizzing through the local streets and parks on her mobility scooter, with her three dogs either in the basket or following on excitedly behind her. Joan adds: “I started my life surrounded with pets and I still love to live with my pets. My three lovely dogs, two cats and my giant rabbit are the faithful companions in my life now. These days, I am much happier to live with pets than with human beings. Some people may disapprove, but I definitely prefer animals to humans - animals give you unconditional love, they are always there for you, and they wag their tails, not their tongues. And whatever mood you’re in, they seem to sense it: if you feel down, they get on to your lap; they give you love and they lick you face; they always seem to know. But don’t get me wrong, I don't live an isolated life, I do have friends too.” And indeed she does, she has many friends. Everyone I spoke to in the well-patronised community centre spoke with great affection of Joan O’Connor.
Text edited: 20th July 2017
Page modified: 9th April 2019