Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife

I actually wrote this ramble after I first read the book, about two years ago. However, I recently reread it because it is the sort of book which is easy to read but also very rewarding every time. When I first read it and watched it, I was about 4 months behind everyone else regarding the ‘trend’ – as usual. I only started watching the series after my grandmother and I were talking about her life in the East End at teaching college in the fifties. Call the Midwife is set in the same time period and is, according to my grandmother, fairly accurate. Obviously such productions take artistic license and I am sure that it wasn’t quite so clean on the streets, but the reassurance of general accuracy is comforting somehow. Then I read the books and (as always) they were even better, but this time the BBC had done a good job. Actually, the BBC adaptations are usual good. Of course they edited but where they had it made sense.

The TV series made me cry with laughter and cry with sadness. The most stirring scene was one I didn’t remember from the book, namely the death of Mater, Chummy’s mother. Oh how I cried – it was so so sad!! All the portraits are heartfelt and real and the tragedies are not oversentimentalised. I thought. Because I’d seen the TV-series I knew which books I did or did not want to read. I do not think I could read In the Shadow of the Workhouse without crying over every page. That book features the veteran and the siblings shown on TV and Jennifer Worth’s style of writing is so open and easy to read but so astute that it makes it even more poignant.

Some stories are only one chapter long; some portraits of a family are strung out over several chapters. But what always amazed me was the casual acknowledgement that nurses and midwives in their uniform would never be molested or even really talked to because their profession was so respected. In uniform they could go where even policemen would only go in pairs (and only if they couldn’t help it). This respect is something to long for when many women of whatever profession cannot walk the streets without comments, jeers or even physical abuse. And yet the midwives’ respectability also seems to imply that life for women in the East End at that point would have been more dangerous than Worth admits. She mentions all kinds of women, the more well-to do (perhaps in a comparative way) as well as the homeless and completely destitute. But while she always emphasises the communal spirit that played down problems the gaps in her writing imply a more dangerous and problematic world. However, as Worth says towards the end of Farewell to the East End which describes the changes brought about by the demolition of the docks and the rehousing of families, the destruction of the community of the East End was not necessarily a turn for the better. The houses were bigger, cleaner and safer. However, tearing a family apart that was not defined by blood-ties, makes me wonder how high the cost was.

Now while that last bit sounds as if I’m a bit of an ‘oh let’s go back to the old days’ kind of person which (at my age) would seem more than a little odd, as I have no idea what life was like in the fifties, I do think that the idea of asking someone to ‘watch my baby out here while I pop in to the shop to get bread’ is very nice.In this day and age the concept of trust has changed and the concepts of responsibility, of health and safety and of childcare have changed drastically – some for the good and some, arguably, for the worse.

The occasional problem with TV series and novels is a tendency to romanticise life in the past, the present or even in the future. It is easy to stand at a distance from a culture or a time and say: ‘This is ideal’. Generalisations are never good (an oxymoronic sentence, surely?). I appreciate the difficulty of ‘getting it right’; it seems as if you either romanticise or exaggerate, in this case, squalor and dirt. And because of this Worth’s focus on the community or family allows a glimpse of life in the East End without judging or pretending to be the complete image. A window into a way of life. Not good. Not bad. Just perceptive – with maybe a few embellishments.

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2 thoughts on “Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife

  1. I liked the TV series until Alex died…Shelagh was getting on my nerves too. I prefer Anzac Girls because there’s too many injured men to get attached to or really show the individuals who die. I guess I’m just used to things like Doctor Who where time can be rewritten to save the characters that “matter”…which I like the best because of how much pain there is in the world already.
    I don’t understand what you mean about women not even being able to walk around without comments or abuse, the only man who approached me like that had dementia and had no idea what he was doing or where/when he was (too fragile looking for me to punch) …that never happens to me or my friends, one of us even walks around alone in a ‘party’ area at night to get home….dunno it might be the way I walk, like sometimes men step aside if they’re in my way.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment!

      I agree with you about the most recent series – I enjoyed the first two series of the show more than the last one. I sometimes feel that shows go on too long and feel like they have to ‘do something interesting’ with the characters. I think that’s a pity because the added drama takes away from an already interesting series. It goes to show that I find the first two series more interesting and they were the ones based on Worth’s memoirs.

      Luckily, I very rarely get offensive comments thrown at me, and I also do not get groped. Though the latter may have something to do with my aversion to clubbing and the luck of not having to use overcrowded public transport (i.e. the Tube) on a regular basis. My experience of street harassment is based on comments about my sexiness, my clothes or that I look like a piece of food (the most recent one being an appraising look accompanied by a noise I might make when eating a particularly appetising plate of food and that was on my way home from work, at around 4.30 in the afternoon).
      However, many of my friends are not so lucky, and get men commenting on their look, on whether they are apparently sexy or not, and informed that these men would like to have sex with them. These are strong and fearless women and it is hard to see a pattern – I think every woman I have met has experienced lewd comments, even during the day and in fairly popular spots. I personally have no objection to compliments about my look (who would); however, I think there is a difference between a polite and acceptable way of giving a compliment and harassment which makes a woman feel uncomfortable and, in a way, like a painting to be commented on in an impersonal manner.

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