A compelling memoire of life on a different kind of delivery bike in 1950s England
Orion 9781409120100 264pp £6.99
Social histories of cycling as an everyday means of getting about are surprisingly rare, which makes this memoir of midwifery in the 1950s all the more interesting. Apparently written half a century after the events it describes, it recounts the three months during which the author was billeted with an experienced midwife and required to deliver a dozen babies, on her own, before she could sit her final exams.
Night after night she is awoken by the phone in the midwife’s flat and sets out on an old roadster to facilitate home births. Her delivery bag is in the front basket, the gas-and-air machine strapped on behind. She navigates the unfamiliar streets of an unidentified English midland city to attend to births in bedsits and brothels. And she delivers babies despite collapsing furniture, unheated, insanitary rooms, drunken husbands and overbearing extended families – not to mention sufficient medical complications to fill a text book.
It is a surprisingly gripping tale – written in the first person and the present tense – as not only does the narrator get to grips with the gynaecological uncertainties of her profession, but is also subject of the uncertain delivery dates. To complete the required twelve births in the time allotted she is at the mercy of her patients’ unpredictable biological developments.
She tells a good tale, and there is a lot of nice social period detail – the student union dance, egotistical student doctors, men rushing to work in factories and courteous cycling policemen among them. She also leaves you in no doubt what a remarkable job midwifes perform.
As the seasoned campaigner to whom she is apprenticed, Mrs O’Reilly says: “What is straightforward about having a baby? You ask any woman who’s ever had one, every birth is packed with drama and the unexpected. The only thing you can do is to be prepared for all eventualities, and if the mother and baby come out fit, then you’ve done well. Whatever you had to do and whatever it took, it was right.”
Considered today, it is amazing what a tough and rigorous training it was (and might still be, for all that I know). It also seems both extraordinary and rather marvellous that such a job was undertaken entirely by bicycle. I doubt whether it makes a case sufficiently strong that midwifes will be making a return to two wheels any time soon, but it is good to have so readable an exposition of the possibility.
The one thing that the book lacks is a note what became of the Student Midwife Compton that we come to admire. From her change of name, one might deduce that she does marry eventually – although clearly none of the suitors who make fleeting appearances in this book. And, from a note on the web, it appears that she spent 50 years ‘on the coal face’ and ended her career a research fellow at St Barts.
The book has been a considerable success. According to The Sunday Times, it spent several weeks in the paperback top ten and has sold more than 20,000 copies. And gritty 1950s autobiographies of ordinary folk do appear to have carved out a publishing niche occupying a space that might be called ‘misery memoires lite’. This being the case, perhaps further volumes are planned.
PS Nov 10