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This is a review of the 2003 book 'A cuppa tea and an aspirin' by Helen Forrester. I first discovered this author around 20 years ago when I read her own semi biography of her childhood which was poverty stricken, in Liverpool she was the eldest of seven children and had to stay home from school to look after her siblings. I have reread her book many times and find her writing style very enjoyable and was delighted when this book came to me from a friend as I had forgotten about the author and didn't know about this one which is a work of fiction but again centres on a life of poverty and hardship in Liverpool.
This book follows Martha Connolly and her miserable life in Court no 5 which is near the Liverpool Docks. Her husband gets work on the docks sometimes and then other times he doesn't so the worry about money to pay the rent and buy food for their nine children constantly niggles Martha. She does the rounds of the local charities begging for food and clothes but often comes away empty handed. The whole family live in one room and most of the children stay home from school because they don't have any boots. Their constant hunger and sad lives are only made bearable by the friendship and support from the neighbours in the court who stick by each other and look out for the children whilst suffering the poor health that comes with the hardship of no food and inadequate clothing and heating in their rooms.
The book jumps between present day where Martha is recovering in a nursing home from a broken hip to the hard times just before and during the second world war. She remembers all her children and the other families in the court and the story begins to unravel about what happened to them all.
I loved this book although it was difficult to take in just how awful some people's lives were in England just a few decades ago. Shared latrines, a family of 11 in one room, all sharing a mattress, filthy children (no one took a bath) and desperation all make the content of this book and whilst it was fiction, it is also based on the author's true knowledge and experience of those times.
Despite the hardship, Martha remains positive about her life and lives for the day. As long as there is soup or stew for tea and a slice of bread for everyone in the morning, she is happy. She sells rags or 'fents' on the market for the traders to wipe their hands on and supplements the food on the family table with this as her husband tends to hold back half his wages so he can go to the pub. They still go for drink at their local on a Saturday night which seems a little selfish as the children stay home and listen to their stomachs growling, but it is the only pleasure they get as she justifies their night out.
As things get worse and the neighbours begin dying of consumption and other 'poor' illnesses, you see the seedy side of life in the slums. Prostitution and selling children are all crimes of the day that people turn a blind eye towards to get the pennies they need to survive. Pawning anything of any value is all normal and often precious items remained with 'uncle' as they just didn't have the money to get them back. Trying to get groceries on the tick at the local store is difficult but sometimes possible so that was an important bill to pay when the wages came in. It may have been weak but there was always a pot of tea stewing on the fire for family and neighbours and this was a great comfort on a cold day.
Martha seems to have a strange relationship with her children. She is almost relieved when one of her girls is sent to a sanatorium with TB as it's one less mouth to feed, and then she forgets to visit her for a long time until she remembers and feels guilty. She is quite harsh with her other older girls and makes them look after their younger siblings. When they are old enough to work she sends them out so that she can have their meagre wages and they do this willingly although some are bright and would have done well to stay on at school. Her husband is a moody and irritable sort and the children are scared of him. Martha thinks she is lucky as he hardly ever hits her but she is wary around him and always has something ready for him to eat when he comes home from the docks or the pub and waits until he has eaten before she tries to speak to him. He goes mad when she begs him for money for some plimsolls for two of the boys and tells her to go and get a job herself. So she does!
I don't get a kick from reading these 'poor me' stories but it certainly makes me appreciate how lucky I am to live in a nice house with enough heating and plenty of clothing in the wardrobe. Times have been and still are hard for people out there but you can't imagine the level of poverty people lived in until you read about life in court number five. Despite the dirtiness and sadness, their worst fear was that the slum would be closed down and they would be moved and separated from their beloved friends so there must have been a level of happiness in the courts to make people want to stay there.