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Call the Midwife - Jennifer Worth

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AT THE age of 22, Jennifer Worth became a midwife. But she didn’t go on to practice in a hospital with the kind of technology we’ve come to expect in the 21st century. Instead, she worked on the district – in London’s East End at a time when it was still recovering from the traumas of World War II – the 1950s. Call the Midwife is her story.

And as stories go, it’s pretty impressive and I take my hat off to all the young women like her, who worked against such impossible odds.

In fact, it’s hard to believe that life was so very different such a relatively short time ago. But it was, as Worth’s meticulous and absorbing account bears witness. However, with its no-holds-barred look at life in the East End slums, it’s definitely not for the squeamish.

For here we have topics such as prostitution and the tragic story of Mary who left Ireland to escape hardship and the attentions of her mother’s new man but instead found herself in one of Cable Street’s notorious brothels and, at the age of just 21, in prison. Along the way, she witnessed another scourge of the time – the terrible outcome of a botched backstreet abortion. Anyone who advocates an end to accessible termination should read this account. It’s simply appalling.

As indeed, are the revelations of life in the workhouse, where parents were separated from their children and never reunited. Unimaginable in this day and age. As indeed are the bomb sites which were the haunts of undesirables such as meths drinkers.

As for midwifery, it was largely confined (pardon the pun) to the district, in tenements that were often bug infested and without running water. Antenatal care was minimal and diseases such as rickets commomplace. And, as the sad story of Sally testifies, eclampsia was a killer.

But Call the Midwife is not all doom and gloom. Community spirit and family life far outweighed the hardships and heart-warming stories abound. I particularly like the one about Conchita, Len Warren’s Spanish wife who spoke no English but against all the odds, successfully nurtured a premature baby weighing less than 2lbs (that’s less than a bag of sugar!).

Then there’s Mrs Jenkins, the nuns – Sister Monica Joan in particular – and Fred who had one eye that was ‘permanently directed north-east, whilst the other roved in a south-westrly direction’. Wonderful individuals, they put many a fictional character to shame. As for smog and learning to ride a bike, you’ll find no better descriptions in a literary work of art.

Call the Midwife is well written and doesn’t balk at depicting the nitty gritty of life as it was 50 or so years ago. But whatever the subject – even if it’s lavatorial humour – it’s never offensive. And the darker moments are offset with interludes of humour. How about ‘early to bed and up with the cock’ for a prize-winning pun? The perfect advice for a happy marriage, wouldn’t you say?

Whichever way you look at it (and there are photographs to put you in the picture!) this is an eye-opener of a book. It’s also an extremely good read and as such, comes highly recommended.