CALL THE MIDWIFE – Jennifer Worth

Truth is always stranger than fiction goes the old saying. When I finished Jennifer Worth’s book, I realised the old cliché perfectly summed up the book for me. A memoir of Jennifer Worth’s work as a midwife, in the East London  slums  during the 1950s.

You could not invent some of the stories you will find in her book.
For example: Conchita, married happily to her English husband, for over 20 years, living in the East End, mother to 25 children. No: this is not a typo. I repeat: 25 children. Conchita met her husband while he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and escaped Spain, fleeing back to England with him. Once she was old enough they married, and then the babies began. As if all this were not incredible enough, the couple were devoted to each other and provided a happy family life for their tribe despite poverty and cramped living conditions. But wait! There’s more. The reason they got on so well was that she spoke not a word of English, and he not a word of Spanish! Even after all those years. Apparently some of the older children had learned Spanish from their Mum and acted as translators.
Jennifer Worth’s story reveals the dreadful conditions in 1950s London slums: no running water, inadequate sanitation, no home telephones (to call the midwife – you had to race to a callbox!) no domestic appliances, little or no work for women, huge families, and not much by way of birth control. The book doesn’t set out to be a social history of the area and the decade, but that’s the unavoidable backdrop. Hard to believe that her early life as a nurse, and young woman, unfolded in this milieu, and that she found the courage to deal with the harsh  circumstances , and carry on working like a Trojan. These deplorable conditions were in one of the world’s greatest cities, just under 70 years ago. Hard to believe from the vantage point of our 21st century modern world.
Despite the grim social reality, Jennifer’s story is filled with memorable characters, especially  the nuns with whom she lived. The Sisters of St Raymund Nonnatus provided midwifery services to the area, and also engaged lay nurses to help. The nurses lived in the convent building alongside the nuns. Meeting the aristocratic, semi-demented, cake-loving Sister Monica Joan is worth the price of the book alone.
Some of my readers may have seen the British television series of the same name. If you haven’t seen the programme, it’s worth giving it a try. Ditto the book – what a good, engrossing read. I see there are 2 if not 3 more titles in the Midwife series, and I’d love to read them all.



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I had a good reads all through the month, no duds at all. Two Paris themed books, and an extraordinary novel set in the Maghreb. I had to consult Wikipedia to orientate myself. ‘A Life Full of Holes’ is a translated novel, recorded by the American novelist Paul Bowles who spent time in North Africa. He had the stories translated into English, and many thanks to him for doing so.  Otherwise the book would remain closed to the English speaking world.

I followed Ann Morgan’s blog  a while back. She (literally) read her way around the world, 196 books , one from every nation and this introduced me to the world of translated books.  Thanks to her, I’ve read some extraordinary books, plus a few lemons – don’t talk to me about Japanese crime novels. No thank you. Thus I pounced on the Maghrebi book (on a sale, naturally). It’s been languishing in the dreaded TBR pile for a year or two, but very much worthwhile once I got into it.

I hope you find some inspiration in my  September Roundup.

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding!  4*+  –  Good to very good;  3* – average;  2* – run-of-the-mill  dismal;  zero * – no comment.   DNF – did not finish


5* My Life with Bob – Pamela Paul . Memoir. A life with and through books.

4.5*Books , Baguettes, and Bedbugs – the Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Company – Jeremy Mercer. Memoir. Life in Paris and the Legendary bookstore at the Millenium. Riveting. Reviewed on this blog.

4* How to Stop Time – Matt Haig. A 400 year-old man resolves his  centuries old losses in the 21st century. Intriguing and highly readable.

4* A Life Full of Holes – Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi – intro Paul Bowles. Reviewed on this blog.

3.75* The Cold Dish – Craig Johnson. First in the Walt Longmire crime series, set in Wyoming.  Reviewed on this blog.

3.75* Lunch in Paris – Elizabeth Bard. Fall in love with a Frenchman, settle in Paris and explore the wonders of French cuisine. Reviewed on this blog.

A LIFE FULL OF HOLES – Driss Ben Hamed Charhardi






A Novel Recorded and Translated by Paul Bowles
Amazon review: One of the most unusual literary innovations ever produced, A Life Full of Holes is the result of a singular collaboration between two remarkable individuals: Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, an illiterate North African servant and street vendor, and legendary American novelist and essayist Paul Bowles. The powerful story of a shepherd and petty trafficker struggling to maintain hope as he wrestles with the grim realities of daily life, it is the first novel ever written in the Arabic dialect Moghrebi, faithfully recorded and translated into English by Bowles. Straightforward yet rich in complex emotions, it is a fascinating inside look at an unfamiliar culture—harsh and startling, yet interwoven with a poignant, poetic beauty.



The book languished in my TBR pile for a couple of years, but I tackled it in October, and I’m glad I did.

At first I thought I was reading a memoir, but apparently it’s a novel. The setting is North Africa , the Maghreb region, in the 1930’s and covers Ahmed’s life from 8 years old to his late teens.

He starts his working life at age 8 as a shepherd in the mountains, tending sheep. He moves down to the city below, and does all and any work he can get: delivery boy for a bakery, night watchman, house-servant for a debauched gay couple of Westerners; part-time smuggler of kif (a herb somewhat like hemp). And bearing in mind he’s just a kid! He’s usually hungry, desperately poor, often beaten, periodically jailed for petty theft, but he keeps on keeping on with a fatalistic belief that Allah has his life mapped out for him.

What a hard life! The story ended very abruptly with no sense of closure or resolution. I was left wanting to know what happened to Ahmed. Did he ever achieve his very modest ambition to own his own home, find a wife, and have children? We will never know.

I’ve never read anything like it. Somehow the plain unvarnished narrative – no adjectives, adverbs and seldom any indication of Ahmed’s emotions or feelings – kept propelling me onwards, after a somewhat sticky start. I don’t know that I agree with Amazon’s phrase “ a poignant, poetic beauty” . I frequently had to remind myself that I was reading about a kid, a teenager who, by today’s standards, was living a dreadful life. No wonder he smoked kif and lied through his teeth to escape another beating or arrest.

If you can find a copy then I suggest you give it a try. It’s definitely a reading adventure. I enjoyed the book.