For the past few weeks I have been avidly engrossed in a TV series called “Call the Midwife“. It is basically based on the books by Jennifer Worth who worked as a midwife in the east end of London during the late 1950’s. I read the first book way back when I was in Basingstoke in 2015 and managed to read the 2nd a few weeks ago. As a result my curiosity about the series was piqued and I bought the first season.
It has been a roller coaster of emotion for me for a number of reasons. My grandmother was born during the late Victorian Era in Southwark which is not too far from Poplar, her mother was born in a workhouse in Poplar in 1864, the product of an unmarried 17 year old mother. Notions of respectability were very important back then, and an unmarried mother was in serious trouble as her family would be very quick to consign her to a workhouse or throw her on the streets. I will never know all the circumstances of her birth but I do know that Poplar was a definite drawcard for me.
There have been a number of episodes that have touched me personally because many of the incidents in the series are easily transportable to to my own upbringing 10000 kilo’s away in South Africa. I was born in 1961, and those were the days when childhood diseases were still dangerous. I recall one of my early classmates had polio and she wore callipers to school, I recall our family doctor making house calls, and I recall that many children still died in their early years; one of my school friends died from Leukaemia. We had a rough and tumble childhood with packs of kids playing games in the streets, very similar to what I saw in the backgrounds of the series. I laughed at the antics of the boy scouts and cubs with their mania for collecting proficiency badges, and I sniggered at the horned rimmed spectacles and large bouffant hairstyles in the women. I experienced some of what I saw there (Ok, maybe not that bouffant hairstye). Strangely enough, one of our neighbours had a daughter that made a mistake and I recall the horror and shame of her parents. Her feelings were moot though, and one day they quietly moved away.
The series does not only concentrate on life, but also death, and way back then death was always around the corner, medical science does not solve the the problem of death, it just recognises it as the end of life. The last episode of series 3 was particularly sad, dealing with the death of Chummy’s mother. There is a lesson in that episode, and I fear that one day I will be facing a similar situation.
The obtuse point I am making in this seemingly disjointed ramble is that the one thing that struck me about the books and series is how good the midwives actually were, and how they cared for the community around them. It must have been an incredibly emotional job, and one that had a very high element of job satisfaction. There must be an element of satisfaction to knowing that you brought so many babies into the world, and sometimes you saw them leave too. I do know that this is a TV series, but the books contain that element of truth about them that only somebody who has experienced it could have written about.
The second book: “Shadows of the Workhouse” does make for horrific reading, dealing as it does with the horrors of the workhouse system in Britain. And while reading it I could not help but feel shocked that something like that was experienced by my great great grandmother. I cannot but help feel empathy for those who ended up there, and the many children who suffered in the system and who fell prey to the monsters who ruled over their day to day existence.
There are just so many emotions running through my mind when I watch this series that there are times when I think I should not watch it. It is the same effect I get from watching some war movies, that sense of deja vu and the knowing that you cannot do anything but watch it play out and dream about it in the depths of the night.
I have season 4 lined up already, although I believe it has a very different feel about it compared to season 1-3. I will have to wait and see. But, if all is quiet on a Saturday afternoon the odds are I am clutching my hankie and watching it with interest, and inside my mind the gears are turning as they root through my past, reminding me that had things been different I would have not been here today.
Dedicated to Emily and Eliza Ann Mott.
© DRW 2016-2018. Created 25/12/2016