More about my Mother

Published 29/08/2013 by damselwithadulcimer

 

So now you have a rough idea of my mother and of her current state of health.  But she wasn’t born at 87 years of age; like all of us she has a life story. And as she gets older she reminisces more and more about the past.  She is the sum of her past life, and as her daughter I am partly composed of her and her memories.

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.

Image

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.

39 New Road

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.

Mothers and Daughters: in Sickness and in Health

Published 16/08/2013 by damselwithadulcimer

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.

Words … words … words

Published 12/03/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

The power of words is an immensely strong one.  Without words we wouldn’t be able to communicate and share ideas, and without the written word it would be impossible to read what others have written.

I recently had an interesting day built on the power of words.  During the afternoon I helped to run a class where we discussed, and then attempted to compose our own, poetry.  We were a mixed bag, men and women with varying interests, some of whom hadn’t had a huge amount of exposure to poems.  I brought along copies of a few different verses: Henry Shukman’s ‘Spring Lamb’, ‘Adrian Henri’s Talking After Christmas Blues’, and A A Milne’s ‘Daffodowndilly’.

We started with the Shukman poem, which evoked a range of responses.  The overall feeling was that it was very emotive, started a little sadly and pessimistically, and finished with a happy ending.  The language is relatively simple, but the poem does exactly what it sets out to do, it leaves the reader feeling happy and optimistic.  We also agreed that it doesn’t follow rigid rules, nor does it rhyme, but it fits in with the theme of renewal that is prevalent at Easter, and therefore in the spring.

We then went on to look at the Adrian Henri which is partly in rhyme, follows some basic patterns, but also breaks them.  It conveys human emotions and feelings of loss.  We agreed that it was probably a man writing about a broken relationship with his wife or girlfriend, and unlike the previous poem it didn’t have a happy ending.  It also drew a response from a widower in our group, who read us a poem that he’d written about his wife after her death.  Even though he is not a poet, we were equally touched by his use of words and felt honoured that he offered to share these extremely heartfelt words and emotions with us.

The final piece was ‘Daffodowndilly’, which may seem like a simplistic poem for children, but which is rich in imagery, anthropomorphising a flower.  It also provides a surprise in its final line as it juxtaposes the statement ‘Winter is dead’ with the earlier light, colourful imagery of spring. The overall impression was of an informal class that had been enjoyed, and possibly where expectations had been confounded.  I’m very much looking forward to the next time we meet.

A couple of hours later I attended a lecture at University College London about the final years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and of the responses evoked in literature and art to the fact that the queen was past her fertile years, remained unmarried and childless, and there was no successor to follow her to the throne.

This lecture was so skilfully given, and so easy to follow, that it made me wonder why I hadn’t made all these assumptions myself.  However, in the hands of another academic, who possibly may not have the gift of explaining and conveying these same theories in a way that was easy to understand, it could easily have turned into a boring and uninteresting hour.

We don’t have to be academics to read and learn from the printed page.  We can all enjoy on different levels as the fancy takes us.  But what a strange place the world would be without the written word.

Review: Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore

Published 12/03/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

Helen Dunmore never fails to disappoint. She has a way with words and makes you believe you are inside the narrative and able to experience the sensations she evokes. I can always feel, taste, smell and hear a Dunmore novel.

Talking to the Dead is filled with tension and an awareness that something unpleasant will be revealed. The story unfolds through the filter of Nina, the younger of two sisters, who relates in the present tense, adding to the immediacy of the narrative. Although the perspective is Nina’s, she doesn’t try to pull the wool over the eyes of the reader, but presents herself in a way that is not entirely sympathetic. She is drawn deeper into the lives of her sister, Isabel, who has recently had a traumatic birth experience, and her husband Richard; the proximity between the two sisters leads to the awakening of long suppressed memories from the past.

The Big Society: Are We Really All In It Together?

Published 28/01/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

At least Stephen Hester and his huge bonus are not on the front pages again today.  My other half tried to convince me that the RBS boss is worth all those shares and explained how much money Mr Hester has saved his bank.  Sorry, I’m still not entirely convince and need somebody to explain to me, very slowly, why bankers are so highly valued.  In my opinion there are many people working in far less high profile jobs and professions and who contribute to society in much more beneficial ways.  From where I’m standing it appears that our cabinet of millionaires, and multi-millionaires are far more closely allied to the ‘fat cats’ of industry and big business, than they are connected to the majority of people in Britain.

Although I’m jobless, I’m lucky that I don’t need to apply for benefits, although I would love to work. However I use some of my spare time to volunteer and help out others and I believe I have I much more balanced and sympathetic view of those who are far less well off than I am.  Today I put money in a collection box for Alzheimers and Dementia, simply because I’ve often stood in the same spot and collected for my local branch of Mencap.  Life is not fair these days, and can even be extremely cruel, but I usually feel pretty good in myself after a couple of hours holding out a collecting tin and feeling it getting heavier and heavier.  I know what I take in an hour or two would be a mere drop in the ocean compared to the earnings and bonuses of the big bank bosses.   I often feel incensed when people smile at me and walk away without putting a penny in my tin, but I feel more of a connection to those less fortunate than I would do if I carried on living my own self-centred life.

I think those of us further down the heap have more of a connection than those who preach to us.  Would they really want to donate spare time to help people learn the internet for nothing at their local library (assuming that they have one that is still open)?  I will expand this to teaching computing and internet to elderly carers in my area next month.  These are the unsung heroes of our society.  Those people who have no option but to care for friends and family with disabilities.  The people they care for are not scroungers, but people who are afflicted with problems, difficulties and illnesses that prevent them from working.  In spite of these handicaps, I know of men and women with learning disabilities who work to a certain extent and do the best they can.  And I haven’t heard one of them moan or grumble about their situation.  They just get on with it and carry on as best they can.

We are definitely not all in it together.  In Animal Farm George Orwell famously stated that ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’  It was ever thus and will never change, unless those who are more equal roll up their sleeves to help those who are less equal.

Book Review: An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

Published 28/01/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

An Experiment in Love is Carmel’s story of her childhood somewhere near Manchester. She is educated at Catholic schools, earns a scholarship as a passport out of her working class background, and fetches up at university in London. Here she makes new friends from different classes and parts of the country, but fails to sever her ties with her school friends, who have joined her at the same hall of residence.

Carmel reflects back on her life, prompted by a newspaper article about a friend and former co-student, but it is only when we approach the novel’s end that we realise how her story, and her friend’s profession, are linked, and can understand what has prompted Carmel’s reminiscences.

This is a coming of age biographical novel, told against a background of the 1960s and early 1970s, of girls leaving home for the first time and trying to live independently in London. We are vaguely aware of the wave of feminism that underpins the era, although these girls are having to work it out for themselves. As someone who was born in the same year as Hilary Mantel, I was also touched by the memories that are so relevant to the 1960s, especially the ritual of buying the first school uniform, and encountering school teachers who are quick to lash out with a ruler.

T S Eliot famously stated that his past was part of his present, and this is acutely true of Carmel and her tale. She may have risen above her working class background, but she can never leave her former self behind.

Family Album by Penelope Lively

Published 13/01/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

Penelope Lively has long been one of my favourite contemporary writers. Once more she plays with the idea of memory in a novel that is not linear, but jumps around in just the same way that we remember the past.

Family Album is the story of a large middle class family and is told through the eyes of the parents, and the six children, who are all adults when the novel starts. What appears to be an ideal existence in a large and rambling home, Allersmead, actually turns out to be anything but. There is a skeleton in the family cupboard, and it gradually becomes apparent that it is known and acknowledged, although never explicitly acknowledged by the parents.

It’s often stated that a family that eats together, stays together. But this is not the case and the novel ends with the siblings widely scattered and keeping in touch by email. Thus a tale that starts slowly and that expands gradually, is reduced to the shortened messages conveyed through hyperspace.

Penelope Lively again proves that scratching the surface reveals that things are never quite what they seem, and that we don’t all take away the same impressions from shared experiences.

Review of The Fight for English by David Crystal

Published 05/01/2012 by damselwithadulcimer

This book should be required reading for anybody who cares about the English language. Although David Crystal is a linguist he passionately believes that our language must evolve. It can never be preserved in aspic. To endorse this belief he reminds us that Samuel Johnson saw the error of his way, and proclaimed that language can never be fixed. Crystal goes on to state:

You cannot stop language change. You may not like it; you may regret the arrival of new
forms and the passing of old ones; but there is not the slightest thing you can do about
it. Language change is as natural as breathing. It is one of the linguistic facts of life.

He charts the evolution of the English language, both verbal and written, from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day when American English is more the norm than the exception. He analyses the changes in our language over the centuries and discusses how the pedants and moralisers have tried to impose rules and regulations. How regional accents and dialects have been derided, and how writers, such as Shakespeare, have been retrospectively criticised for making grammatical errors.

Crystal reaches an optimistic conclusion that allows for changes to the English language. He is pleased that the teaching of grammar has been reintroduced to schools, but in a far less prescriptive and proscriptive manner that now permits children to understand and questions the rules.

It’s time to go with the flow and accept that the English language has never stood still, nor will it in the future. And there is nothing wrong with starting a question with a conjunction and ending it with a preposition. 

Review of Nemesis by Philip Roth

Published 19/11/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

It was difficult to read this novel without a growing sense of foreboding. The very title can mean retribution, or it can also mean an enemy in North American usage. The very ambiguity of the interpretation of the title feeds into Bucky’s feelings of guilt and makes the reader question why Bucky feels he must shoulder so much blame for the polio epidemic that is raging through New Jersey while World War II is being fought in Europe and the Pacific. Is he really an agent of doom, or can he never forgive himself for not being fit enough to fight in the armed services? Bucky can run, but he can’t hide. The novel also questions the existence of a cruel or a caring God and leaves you feeling unsettled and angry and upset for Bucky, the life thrust upon him, and the choices he has made.

Golden Vegetable Soup

Published 10/11/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I like to cook foods that are in season, but I also like to mimic nature’s colours if I can.  When the leaves change to shades of gold and brown and start to drop from the trees, I yearn for ‘harvest’ foods in similar hues.  These colours are abundant in squashes and pumpkins, carrots and peeled sweet potatoes.  It’s simple to make a nourishing vegetable soup from any or all of these ingredients.

Ingredients

1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
3 carrots, diced
1 medium size sweet potato, diced
1 medium potato, diced
Half a medium butternut squash, peeled and diced
About three good handfuls of soup mix (the ones that contain lentils, barley, beans and split peas)
1 tablespoon of tomato purée
1 litre of vegetable stock
Seasoning to taste

Method

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil (or butter if you prefer) in a large saucepan. Lightly fry the onion and celery in a little oil until soft.  Add the other vegetables, toss with the onion and celery and leave to sweat over a low heat for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the beans and pulses and mix in well with the vegetables, then add the tomato purée and make sure everything is well coated.   Finally add the vegetable stock (or chicken stock if you prefer), bring to the boil, season to taste, cover the pan and leave to simmer for about an hour until all the ingredients are cooked quite softly.

The ingredients and quantities can be varied and played around with.  Any squash or pumpkin will work and leeks can be used too.  Served with some chunky bread and cheese this soup is a main meal in itself.