You’ve probably not heard of Jennifer Worth. Certainly, I hadn’t, when my sister gave me this book. You probably heard of Call the Midwife. It’s one of the most popular programmes on telly and a massive hit for the commissioners at BBC. It’s got everything you need: nuns in funny wimples and nurses dressed in uniform (with nursing hats made out of doilies) no nonsense matrons and cute as pie, newly born babies, which provoke a collective aahhhh. Jennifer Worth is the author of Call the Midwife and Farewell to the East End.
Her stories are a nostalgic poke in the ribs and collective wink at what we were like then for the reader to gawp at with wry amusement. The clean-cut, middle-class nurses and nuns living and working from Nonnantus House (Sisters of St Raymond of Nonnantus) and providing a free midwifery practice to the working class women living in slums and within bicycling distance of the East End of London. Poverty came with the turf of unlit and bombed out houses overflowing with little cockney men and women with too many children, but they still got on with it and liked a good old fashioned knees-up. If that sounds clichéd, you’d be right.
There’s a glow from the stories, but the writing is awful. I struggle with the rights and wrongs of Scottish dialect. The debate for example of whether to go with fucking, fucken, or fuckin (with or without an apostrophe) is a matter of choice but helps set the tone.
For example, Cynthia a midwife has went missing. The postulants, nuns and even the Cockney caretaker are worried about her.
‘the police all go around in pairs, while we nurses go out alone even in the middle of the night.
No man would attack a nurse—even if he did it would be the worse for him, because the other men would make him pay for it.’
Good old-fashioned cockney values. Listen to the nun, Chummy. ‘What-ho you jolly swags,’ she called out cheerfully.
Megan’Mave were identical twins and kept a fruit and vegetable stall in Chrisp Street market. They didn’t trust the medical establishment which has a contemporary ring to it.
‘An’ look at her constitooshun! It’s her constitooshun, see! No proper nourishment when she was a baby—ooh, terrible it was, I tells yer. Dad—he drank, an’ Mum—no good she was, couldn’t stand up to ‘im.
‘Welliclose veins, She ‘ad wellicose veins, see? Right mess they made of ‘em. Stripped ‘em they did.
Magan’Mave speak the author’s approximation of phonetically. Chummy speaks like the talking clock. The distance in language immense.
Joe Lawrence in the brilliantly moving East End Butcher Boy is pulled out of his bed by his mum. It’s a Saturday morning in the East End, 1972.
‘I think I’ve got you a job, get yourself down to Roy the Butcher cos he’s looking for some help clearing up on Saturday.’
Roy greets him with
‘You’re fucking late, the kettle’s out the back, now go and make us all a cup of tea, here’s a quid, walk over to the bakers and get us a dozen doughnuts.’
‘Dozen doughnuts, love?’ said the lady behind the counter of the bakers.
Both books are true stories based on recollection. Jennifer Worth wanders off and into her character creations such as Hilda confronting the seemingly respectable middle-class abortionist and demanding her twenty guineas back in a slapstick confrontation. The author couldn’t have been there. It is fiction awkwardly dressed in factional clothes.
Facts are added to the story to give context. ‘Driven to extremes by despair, women will go to unbelievable lengths in trying to make themselves miscarry.’
She ends with noting how we’ve progressed (compare and contrast Roe v Wade being repealed in America state by state).
The Criminal Abortion Act 1803 was repealed in 1967. Knowing that I had been a midwife I was sometimes asked if I approved or not. My reply was that I did not regard it as a moral issue, but a medical issue. A minority of women will always want an abortion. Therefore it must be done properly.
I’d guess Call the Midwife on telly is much the same as Call the Midwife in book form. A diversion if you fancy it. I kept my copy on the lid of the toilet. You should always have a book in the toilet in case of non-medical emergencies. But if you want a proper book about the East End read Joe Lawrence.