To anybody interested in British social and political history, 4 May 1926 is an auspicious and important date. The coalminers (in response to a reduction in their wages) had called for a general strike to begin at one minute before midnight on 3 May, so the dispute officially took hold the following day, the day that my grandmother gave birth to my mother. The Britain in which my Grandma Jenny laboured to deliver her daughter was defined by striking miners, iron and steelworkers, railwaymen, transport workers, printers and dockworkers all withholding their own labour. Her brother, my uncle Jack, frequently reminded us that, in the absence of buses, he had to cycle to Mother Levy’s home, the East End maternity hospital where my mum first saw the light of day. Sadly after a strong campaign against demolition, the building was pulled down in 2012.
When mother and daughter returned to the family home at 39 New Road, it was to a very different East End of London than the one that exists now in the early twenty-first century. They lived in New Road, a street that runs between Whitechapel and Commercial Roads, and they shared the house with her mother’s family. Her memories of those years are of close knit families living in the same neighbourhood, where the shops were geared to selling produce for the Jewish residents, and where friends and relations were in and out of one another’s homes as if they lived there themselves.
Thanks to Google Street View, I was able to locate a picture of the house without needing to visit. You can see all three storeys, as well as the basement railings enclosing the area, or the ‘airey’ as mum says it was generally referred to.
Thanks to Google Street View I was able to locate a photo of the house without needing to visit.
Immigrant Jews fleeing from persecution and pogroms in Tsarist Russia and anti-Semitic Catholic Poland had been making their homes in the overcrowded slums around Whitechapel and Spitalfields since the second half of the nineteenth century. My mother is still unsure whether her family originated in Poland or Russia: I suppose it depends on where the borders were drawn at any given time. My great-grandparents made the journey, on what my mother used to refer to as the ‘onion boat’ during the 1870s and 1880s. I never knew Harris and Rebecca Angel, Jenny’s parents, but I wish had met them in person, rather than just visiting their graves in Plashet Grove cemetery. The more my mother recalls those days, the more I can almost feel that I am there with her. This is possibly also coloured a little by the memories I have of visiting the East End during my own childhood in the 1950s and 1960s.
Nowadays the area is a mixture of other immigrant groups (particularly Bangladeshis in and around Brick Lane) as well as professional classes, who have moved back to some of these streets, especially where the Georgian and Victorian properties have been restored and become gentrified. A local estate agent is currently offering a renovated 1797 terraced property for £1.5m in New Road and a two-bedroom flat in Myrdle Street (now a conservation area where my mother went to school) is on the market for £450,000. Myrdle Street School itself, which could be seen from my great grandmother’s house, has reemerged as a school for Muslim girls. One immigrant group supercedes another.
The more my mum shares her early memories with me, the more I wish I had spent more time getting to know the older members of the family who were still alive when I was younger. My sister and I are currently encouraging her nostalgia for a world that has passed us all by; there is almost an urgency for soaking up her past and impressing our own stamps on it as a means of preserving it for the future. So many people have regretted not probing past generations for their recollections that I feel it is imperative to glean as much as I can while I can. Prompted by our mother’s wishes my sister has also been trying to compile a family tree; we need to know where we have come from to truly appreciate who we are.
Obviously it is difficult to cast your mind back over a period spanning more than 80 years and we all know that our memories are fallible and subjective, but mum was nodding enthusiastically in recognition and smiling to herself when I read to her from Dr Cyril Sherer’s account of his childhood close to where she lived, and of his account of his time spent at Myrdle Street School. He believes that those days before World War II shaped him, and I’m certain it had the same effect on my mother.
Five months ago my mother did what every daughter dreads; she fell and broke her hip (the precise medical term is a fracture of the neck of the femur). Our experience of the National Health Service was very different from the headline revelations in the newspapers at the time.
She was initially taken by ambulance to her local hospital, and was then transferred a few hours later to St Mary’s in Paddington for surgery. We made jokes that the hospital transport was in conjunction with DHL, but she arrived safely, was not lost in transit and arrived on time. In spite of tales of doom to the contrary, the operation to pin her hip took place on a Saturday, she survived the weekend and by the following Monday she was being attended by physiotherapists attempting to re-mobilise her. It was a slow process, but she was eventually discharged from hospital two weeks after her initial admission with a package of three home carers per day. The local council in conjunction with the hospital also supplied a frame around the lavatory, a commode for use in the bedroom (to save walking to the bathroom at night) and fitted a rail to the side of the bed. The Zimmer frame that came home with her was a godsend.
The hard work began once she was back in her own flat, which is luckily on the ground floor. The first carer arrived around 7.30am on the day after discharge. Unfortunately mum was not completely wide awake when the bell rang and she managed to fall on her way to opening the front door. The paramedics were again summoned but no damage had been done so she wasn’t taken back to hospital.
From then on the daily visits were shared by the three carers: one in the morning to help her up, get washed and dressed (initially it was just to change one nightdress for another one), get her something to eat and prompt her to take her medication. The lunchtime carer saw to food and medication, and the evening carer took charge of a strip wash and change of night-clothes, as well as reminding her to take her pills. In addition my sister and I visited every day for more than three weeks, fussing over her like mother hens and attending to every other need, and probably doing far more than we should. We actually overdid what was necessary and encouraged more dependency than we should have, but that wasn’t apparent until sometime further down the line.
One thing we soon became aware of is of how dedicated the home carers are. They are paid disgustingly: not much more than the minimum wage and do not receive any payment when travelling between jobs. The majority rely on public transport and some of them work 12 hours a day just to earn enough to live on. The media is now drawing attention to the practice by many companies of zero hours contracts; most of these carers, who are employed by agencies, fall into that category. Our capitalist society values productivity and financial gain over care and compassion. In a country where the older population is outgrowing the younger members of the community this is a sorry state of affairs that should be addressed at government level. Most of us will become old or infirm in later life and the value attached to human beings and the care they need is far more important than money made, squandered or gambled by bankers and businesses. Every housebound elderly person is or was somebody’s mother or father, aunt or uncle, brother or sister and deserves to be treated as a person who matters and should be regarded with dignity and respect.
In addition to the package outlined above, mum was also assigned a care coordinator (as part of the re-enablement service) and received weekly visits from a physiotherapist. Unfortunately my stubborn, Taurian mother disregarded a lot of what the healthcare professional told her and neglected to do her exercises unless nagged. The result is that after five months she has still not regained full mobility in her right leg and remains dependent on us. After five months, journeys outside of the home are a struggle that exhaust her and tire us. She insists that her legs work, when they obviously don’t, hates using the two sticks that have been provided and insists that she can walk better with one. Although her GP and her physiotherapist have patiently explained the benefits to her, her mobility and her balance of using the pair, it is an uphill battle. She flatly refused to use the three-wheeled walker that was supplied and argues against going out in the portable wheelchair that I acquired from a friend.
Thanks to healthier diets and better healthcare we are all living longer. Older daughters (and sons), such as my sister and myself, will fall into the roles of our parent’s carers as long as we are fit and healthy enough to do so. Twenty-first century parent/child role reversal seems to be here to stay.