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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Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines Or: How I flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours and 11 Minutes

Because I like random films as much as like random books, I have decided to branch out and include ramblings about films, too. Once in a while anyway. First up: Those Magnificent Men.

From the first few notes of the catchy theme tune the film hooks in the viewer – warning: you will probably find yourself humming the tune for the next few days. Filmed in the 1960s, the comedy is set in the early days of aviation, at the beginning of the 20th century. However, another brief warning: If you are very concerned about political correctness, do not watch this film. The plot is based on all sorts of stereotypes and derives most of its comedy from them – apart from the occasional Laurel and Hardy moment, when one of the characters gets a pie in the face. In a nutshell, the only important thing for the plot is that a rich Englishman organises an air race in order to learn the tricks of the trade from other countries whilst showing that, really, the English are best at everything. There is a romantic sub-plot which is a little annoying and pointless and which will be discussed later on.

So! The cast of characters

The Good Englishman: A young aristocrat with a stick so far up his backside that he forgets to ask his lady-love to marry him because he is too busy wooing the father, the sort-of protagonist turns out to be a fairly decent chap after all.

The Bad Englishman: The Good Englishman’s rival in love (well he likes to think so anyway), the Bad Englishman is determined to win the race in any way possible – entrusting his sidekick to help him sabotage the other participants. Complete with sinister moustache and ever-present eccentric head-gear, the scheming Bad Aristocrat gets his comeuppance when his plane… well. I won’t spoil that moment for you but it is absolutely hilarious.

The Frenchman: He makes love (sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally) to a different girl in every place he goes to but because all the different girls are played by the same actress, the effect is hilarity rather than creepiness.

The Italian: Permanently surrounded by his wife and all his bambini, the Italian is supposedly a great pilot. He does, however, have a very long stroke of bad luck with the planes he flies and constantly promises his wife that this flight will be the last one. There is a very amusing episode when he crash-lands in a convent and convinces the nuns to help him so that he, a good Catholic, might beat those Protestants!

The Japanese: Doesn’t appear much, but flies very well when he does. Is apparently such a threat to English supremacy that he is sabotaged before the race even starts. Disappears after that.

The German: Ah the wonderful Gert Froebe, whom most people will probably know as that bad guy from Goldfinger, is absolutely brilliant as the correct German officer. He insists that Germans can do ‘anysink’ because all they need to do is follow the rulebook but his, ahem, ‘German-ness’ gets him into more than one fight with other nations. Especially the French.

The American: I think this character is intended to be the ultimate good guy but I’m not entirely sure. There is a bit where he and his friend are driving through some desert somewhere in Arizona or something and, of course, he is a young fellow looking to find his fortune, but other than that there seems a lot less comic potential in him than in the other characters. A bit weak.

The Lady: A young aristocratic woman, the daughter of the race’s sponsor, is sort-of in love with the Good Englishman, but more in love with flying and engines. At the beginning of the film she is great – a feisty suffragette who is a genius at engineering. However, once the men and their flying machines take centre stage she becomes nothing more than the sighing lady on the sidelines which is such a pity.

 

The romantic sub-plot involving the Lady, the Good Englishman and the American is a little silly, mainly because it’s obvious who she will choose and because it detracts from a really well conceived character and a fun, energetic plot. We don’t need long sighing speeches when there is a race with rickety planes and mad pilots to watch! And I think the race would have been even better if the Lady had ended up taking part.