Jean Faley (2008 ) Up Oor Close. Memories of Tenements 1910 – 1945
Helen Clark and Elizabeth Carnegie (2006 ) She Was Aye Workin’. Memories of Tenement Women in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
I’ve just finished Helen Clark and Elizabeth Carnegie’s book, but I read Jean Farley’s Up Oor Close a while ago but didn’t bother reviewing it. This has a bit to do with time and opportunity cost. If you’re reading you’re not writing about tenement life, as I’m doing with my series Grimms, which has reached number 100 and is sure to be a first-draft over 100 000 words. And if you’re writing you’re not reading, which is the engine of writing. Blog posts like this in particular serve no discernible purpose other than to put a marker down in hyperspace, ‘I WIZ HERE’ first, even though I wisnae.
These books make me laugh, but not in a bad way. There’s recognition that these women, these wee superwomen, are my ma. There’s a lot of love here, but dreadful, dreadful poverty. Women eat last, and at times, not at all, first up and last to go to bed. I naively used to think those times were gone forever. Aye workin’. Aye cleaning. But there was a very good reason for that beyond the domestic. Medicine cost money that nobody had, especially in the Depression years of the 1930s and some doctors would stand of the doorstep until he got paid his 7 s 6d fee. Home remedied invariable involved poultices. ‘Father’s sock filled with salt for toothache… and sore ears. Hold salt over the fire until heated.’
‘Bread poultices mixed up with grated soap and made up with boiling water, put into a cloth, squeezed out and put on your chest.’ You guessed it, the cure for colds or chest pains.
‘Sulphur and treacle,’ the obvious cure for constipation.
Try this one at home, slice an onion, stick it on your back, with sellotape or something, or carry it in your back pocket. That will cure your rheumatism. Soak it up.
There was no cure, of course, for scarlet fever, tuberculosis (consumption) diphtheria or in most cases pneumonia. Glasgow up until the First World War had the fastest population growth in Europe, outstripping London, it also had the highest rate of TB and child-birth mortality. We Scots were good at something. Dying. When I read about concentration camps there were certain zones the Nazis were scared to enter because of the high risk of contagion. Obviously no high ranking SS officer would have dared enter a tenement block in the Gorbals. But the Green Ladies did, those women whose job it was to protect the public health.
We didnae know we were poor. You’ll hear that quite a lot. Making soup from sheep’s head was the equivalent of our food banks. I remember my Uncle John telling me how he used to half to get up at half five because it was his turn to go and queue for broken biscuits sold cheap from the factory across the way and there’d be a queue there when he arrived.
We thought those days were gone. You’ll hear quite a lot of that from me. These books remind us what it was like to have nothing and to be treated as nothing and yet, hope and pray that a better world will be there for our kids. The Burro and the Parish. A Pawnshop on every corner. Welfare cuts and the highest ratio of borrowing to income in Europe. Starting a day in debt and ending the day in more debt. Don’t bang on to me about progress. People in Scotland still do not have a bed at night. People in Scotland and their children still starve. Twenty-first century poverty is a greater abomination that it’s twentieth-century counterpart and the reason is like the TB virus we thought we had defeated it, but it has simply mutated into a more toxic version. God help us. Even my wee mother would never have dreamed of such a thing.