Tag Archives: London

“Call the Midwife – A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times” by Jennifer Worth

This well written memoir was published in 2002, the first of three books about practicing as a midwife in the poverty stricken East End area of London (the Docklands) in the 1950s. The BBC produced a television series based on these books, broadcast beginning in 2012. Having seen just one episode, I was expecting Call the Midwife to be humorous and exciting. Instead I found it to be gritty and very sad. I actually skipped one chapter (about the workhouse), not feeling up to it.

The first surprise for me was how BAD conditions were in postwar London. Wartime damage to buildings had not been repaired. Housing was limited, so poor people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Not every apartment had a bathroom or hot water. Men readily found employment on the docks, but the work was hard and poorly paid. Women married young and had many children. If they worked, they were poorly paid.

Nonetheless, there were positive aspects to life in the Docklands. People knew their neighbors well, and extended families were very supportive. Nurses and doctors were so respected that they were safe even in violent neighborhoods, where the police worked in pairs. Worth also mentions in passing the richly expressive Cockney dialect, almost a distinct language. She understood it most of the time, but certainly never spoke it.

Having just read  Empty Planet – the Shock of Global Population Decline by Bricker and Ibbitson (see blog entry dated August 15, 2019), I found myself pondering the “demographic transition”, the shift of a community from high birthrate with high death rate to (eventually) low birthrate with low death rate. Sometimes countries at these two extremes are described as “third world” and “developed”.  East End London in the 1950s was in a transitional state, with high birthrate and low death rate. It was challenging and (inherently?) unstable. The conditions described were so bad, I had trouble remembering that I was NOT reading about, say, the year 1900.

The quality of obstetrical care provided in this teeming slum was amazingly high. Midwives and nurses were well trained. Doctors and hospitals could deal with a wide range of emergencies. Most babies were born at home, attended by a midwife. Follow up as extensive as three nursing visits PER DAY might continue for several weeks. Doctors also made home visits, and extreme emergencies were handled by an Obstetric Flying Squad which could transport mother and baby to a hospital quickly if necessary. The maternal and infant survival rates were high. Little was available by way of contraception, so families with more than 10 children were common.

Death rates also fell because antibiotics became available and communicable diseases were increasingly controlled.

In the introduction to Call the Midwife, Worth attributes the disappearance of the Docklands community to “the closure of the docks, slum clearance. and the Pill”. When oral contraception became available, women chose to have much smaller families. The midwifery practice in which Worth was employed saw births fall (over a few years) from 80-100 per month to four or five per month! One can only speculate about how things would have changed if this reproductive revolution had NOT been accompanied by job loss and the wholesale destruction of old (but potentially useful) housing.

This book should be read by urban planners. Some experts think that the most sustainable human future will arise from high density urbanization.


“Full Dark House” and “The Water Room” by Christopher Fowler

These are the first two books in the series about the fictional London “Peculiar Crimes Unit”, also known as the Bryant and May mysteries after the two protagonists.

These are first class mysteries, full of atmosphere and detail.

Full Dark House takes place during the Blitz, and reflects the anguish of a country at war. A German invasion is expected. Civil order is stressed near the breaking point. Deaths in a popular theater need to be solved. Bryant and May are young and inexperienced – the War forces people into jobs for which they are unprepared.

The Water Room takes place decades later, when Bryant and May are past retirement age and the Peculiar Crimes Unit is threatened with dissolution. Crime strikes a neighbor balanced uncertainly between slum status and upward mobility.

Bryant and May represent two different approaches to crime. Bryant is an intuitive and “non-linear” thinker, likely to propose mythical or psychological explanations for human behavior. He cultivates a wide acquaintance among London’s fortune tellers, psychics, witches, cultists and oddballs, sometimes using them to aid his investigations. May represents the “conventional” approach to crime – interview witnesses, seek motives and connections, repeat as necessary. Together, they solve seemingly impossible conundrums.

These books force the reader to confront the question, which am I, logical or intuitive? Given that “logical” is now (at least in theory) mainstream and dominant, how do I incorporate the intuitive into my mental processes? When do I rely on my “intuition”? Important questions! When does intuition slide into prejudice?

I have good friends on both sides of the line. I come down on the “rational” side… mostly. If I was a crime victim and the investigating detective decided to consult a psychic, I wouldn’t be pleased. How about you?

Wikipedia points out that the city of London itself can be considered a “separate character” in the Peculiar Crimes novels. This is especially true in The Water Room. London is built over ancient structures, including enclosed rivers and underground chambers. This historical framework adds a wonderful dimension to Fowler’s writing.

I plan to keep a novel or two from Fowler on my Kindle, against a rainy day or travel delay. Fowler is a very prolific writer. I won’t run out soon!

“The Summer House – a Trilogy” by Alice Thomas Ellis

I used to hang out with a group of radical feminists. For years, one of them read only books by and about women. In fact, she only talked about women. If the conversation drifted to a man/men/men’s actions, she remained silent. ALL her energy and attention was directed towards women.

The Summerhouse would have been just the book for my friend. It’s labeled “a trilogy”, but it does not consist of three stories in sequence. It’s the same story told three times, from the viewpoint of three different women of three different ages. Maiden, mother and crone, if you want to get psychological about it.

The Summer House was originally published in 1987, and the setting is a suburb of London, where nineteen year old Margaret is sleepwalking towards her wedding. Her betrothed is the son of a neighbor, and he is more than twice Margaret’s age. Something is seriously wrong with Margaret. (Something is wrong with everyone in this book – goodness, they are human…) At the climax of the book, on the appointed day, the wedding is cancelled. To me, the end of the first book was a very satisfying surprise. This first tale could stand nicely on its own, a short novel.

The next two versions of the story provide two additional perspectives and lots of juicy details.

Okay, it’s about a wedding, right? SO there had to be some men around? Yes, but they are very lightly sketched. Most visible was the intended bridegroom, who is not, apparently, disturbed by the fact that he barely knows Margaret. He assumes that under her very quiet exterior, she burns with passion (for him).

The other two women whose voices we hear are the bridegroom’s aged and unhappy mother (Mrs. Monro), and a friend of Margaret’s mother (Lili) who shows up for the wedding, having lived overseas most of her life. Lili is disruptive, unconventional and opportunistic, sort of a modern Sally Bowles. She recognizes that the impending marriage is wrong (doomed, damaging…) and throws a wrench into the works.

I can imagine this book being avidly discussed by book discussion groups (a mostly female activity by my observation)! For starters, who identifies with which narrator? Many moral issues are raised, sometimes by the behavior of men. Who was guilty, and of what? Who felt guilty?

I’m profoundly glad the publisher did not add “discussion questions” to the book! This is an unwelcome, recent intrusion (that I have encountered several times recently) and I hope it does not catch on.

“Sweet Tooth: A Novel” by Ian McEwan

This book should be called “A Novel of the Cold War”, or perhaps be identified as a spy thriller. The scene is London. Our young heroine (Serena) stumbles into the web of the British domestic surveillance agency and goes to work as the lowliest of clerks. She doesn’t know that one of her boyfriends was suspected of passing information to the Soviets, and hence she is under suspicion. She is quite a rule breaker and risk taker herself.

When Serena finally gets put onto a “project”, the plan is to support writers of a certain conservative political persuasion. She falls wildly in love with the man she is ordered to “recruit”. 

Add “atmosphere” and a plot twist that totally surprised me, and you have a good, absorbing novel. I will return to this author.