Jean was born into a large, East End family and grew up in the overcrowded streets clustered around the Tower of London. She still lives a few miles from where she was born. Jean feels that it is her background that gives her historical East London stories their distinctive authenticity.
So - over to Jean!
When does history start?
For me history was always easily identified. Men wore close-fitting hose and jerkins and women were kitted out in flowing robes and pointy hats with veils, or if it were a later period then frock coats, breeches and tricorn hats for the chaps and tight bodices, wide-skirts and lacy caps for the girls - but things have changed.
When my publishers first asked me to write Call Nurse Millie I threw my hands up in horror, ‘I’m an historical writer’ I told them and couldn’t possibly write something set in the 1940s. My editors - sweet young things that they are – tactfully pointed out that the 1940s are now regarded as history.
In fact, what’s even more blooming depressing it seems half my adult life is regarded as historical, too.
And that got me thinking. Where does the history start?
History is more than costumes and funny wigs. It’s about the social norms of a given period and the shared experience of people. It’s like capturing them at a slice of time and studying them against what we understand and accept now.
For those of you who remember the 1970s think how very different life is now from the dreadful glam-rock fashions and platform shoes. Think of the attitudes towards women and minority groups. Think of the language used that no one turned a hair at then like 'spastic' or 'coon' or 'dolly-birds', words that are now considered deeply offensive. How, then, for women it was part of office life to have your bottom patted and to have to dodge the manager's roaming hands.
Thankfully things have improved. As I undertook the research for my new book Call Nurse Millie it has been fascinating to delve into my own profession at a time when nursing was very different to the way it is today. It was a vocation for a start and your patient came first above all else. The hospital Matron presided, like a capricious despot over the wards, sisters and nurses - and woe betide you if a patient in your care was dirty or developed a bed sore.
The tools were totally different too, no sterile disposable packs then; everything had to be boiled and some equipment was positively medieval – silver catheters for draining urine- ouch! And techniques, such as rubbing a patient's bottom to restore the circulation are now known to cause, not prevent, the breakdown of skin tissues.
‘The District’ was much the same. The area superintendent presided over her district nurses and nursing assistants - the forerunners of the 1960s enrolled nurses. Remember too, this was before the introduction of the NHS in 1948 and the local nursing associations were charities that ran fund-raising events and flag days to help pay for their upkeep.
Many patients would pay a few shillings a week into the association fund which entitled them to treatment should they be sick. It also meant that district nurses, then, were also health visitors, school nurses and midwives all rolled into one.
Call Nurse Millie spans the period from VE day, 1945, to Christmas 1947: it predates me by twenty years but so much of the war time and post-war culture was handed down to me by my parents. Like many of Millie’s patients they could vividly remember a time when if you couldn’t afford sixpence for a doctor’s fee you could or could not be seen, and both remembered playmates that died because they weren’t taken to the doctor in time.
Although the NHS, quite rightly, has come in for some criticism recently over lack of care and long waiting times it is difficult for anyone born in the UK after WW2 to really imagine what it must have been like to live without the safety-net of free health care. In addition to this, before the advent of the NHS most of the basic medicines such as antibiotics, blood pressure and heart medication, and asthma drugs, were unknown.
Before joint replacement surgery was perfected in the 1960s people with crumbling hips had nothing to look forward to other than years of pain and reduced mobility.
Although perhaps time-wise seventy years ago might not actually be the dark- ages as far as attitudes and lived experiences are concerned it might as well be seven hundred years ago as things in the 1940s were so radically different from today.
So back to my original question; when does history start? Well, perhaps the answer to that is it starts as soon as society shifts attitudes and embraces the next technical innovation.
I’m sorry to say it but the 1990s are starting to look a little antiquated already....
about the book:
It's 1945 and, as the troops begin to return home, the inhabitants of London attempt to put their lives back together. For 25-year-old Millie, a qualified nurse and midwife, the jubilation at the end of the war is short-lived as she tends to the needs of the East End community around her. But while Millie witnesses tragedy and brutality in her job, she also finds strength and kindness. And when misfortune befalls her own family, it is the enduring spirit of the community that shows Millie that even the toughest of circumstances can be overcome.
Through Millie's eyes, we see the harsh realities and unexpected joys in the lives of the patients she treats, as well as the camaraderie that is forged with the fellow nurses that she lives with. Filled with unforgettable characters and moving personal stories, this vividly brings to life the colourful world of a post-war East London.
|Those who enjoyed the TV series "Call The Midwife"|
will also enjoy Jean's books!