Tuesday, November 03, 2009

CBRII: Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth

As I am currently staying close to the East End of London and spending some time wandering around this area, the title of this book on display grabbed my eye. It is a wonderful memoir of a nurse/midwife who took her early training at a religious house of nursing nuns, in Poplar, East London in the early 1950's.The book is formatted into short stories of life in the Docklands of that time (and some that go back to the early 30's as well) and are a rich eyewitness account of what was a rather grim life in that impoverished and bombed out district of London.The author switches from true memoir to narrative story, weaving characters and plot with historical background and midwifery technique.Be warned, midwives like to talk about vaginas, placentas,umbilical cords and other womanly bits in a frank and open manner.A glossary is provided for medical terms at the back.
The first few stories of the book introduce the author and her fellow midwives,the nuns of the order and the women of the district, many of whom had too many children and never enough money. Tales of the harrowing birth of triplets in a dark,cold shell of a building; the death of a newborn; the sad reality of infanticide,backstreet abortions and illegitimate birth (during a time when this was a fate worse than death itself), told through the eyes of the midwives.As the book progresses, the personalities of the midwives and nuns fill out, the world of Cockney culture and the grey, run down streets and tenements of East London and the colorful characters that lived there come to life.And oh! what characters, I was particularly fond of the elderly Sister Monica Joan, a refined but rebellious, recalcitrant nun that behaved in ways most un-nun like.The sisters MegandMave, the desperate Hilda and Bill Harding and the intriguing Captain's Daughter are not fictional and the author lets us into their lives with humour and without judgement.
The life of a nurse/midwife was not all babies and births.Before the days of the NHS, a nurse/midwife was the first, and often only, stop on the road to medical care.Nursing also included looking after long term patients, doing daily injections of the 'new' drug insulin for diabetics and occasionally mending injuries for those that refused to go to hospital.Despite the bleakness of the area, a crumbling shell of a once vibrant, albeit historically impoverished, community, these memoirs reveal the resilience and humour of the people who lived there.
I found this book to be a good, light read and may be inclined to venture back into the long gone world of London's East End in her other book Call the Midwife.


Spender said...

This sounds like a fascinating read! I am a history fanatic and tales such as these are always of interest. Thanks for the review.

Anonymous said...

i keep starting this comment over. i don't want to appear crass. the subject matter is the stuff of nightmares for me: unsanitary birthing conditions, dead or dying infants, womanly...stuff.
i feel faint.

as such, i loved your review.

brite said...

Thanks Spender! She actually weaves quite a bit of history about East End London into the book.

LOL gp! When I was writing this review, I was going to put in a warning for the...er...squeamish and not into the ladybits type persons.

Anonymous said...


that has me cracking up!