Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Knock and Wait by Gwen Grant


published 1979



Knock and Wait


[The young narrator has just arrived at the Open Air School – a sanatorium – where she is to stay for a year]

Sister Sweet went flying across this hall, up the stairs and down a long corridor. One minute she was there, the next she was gone and I was standing in this corridor wondering what to do next. I felt very tired and poorly and my legs were going wobble, wobble, and everything was starting to go dark in front of my eyes…

I felt tireder and tireder and in the end, I must have been walking about an inch an hour but I got to this room where this Sister Sweet had gone and looked round the corner. There were six beds in it. Three down each side. Everything in the room was white. White walls, white beds, white chairs. Match my face a treat all that white, I shouldn’t wonder, because our Mam says I go white as a sheet when I’m tired and I was so tired I could hardly stand.

commentary: Not more sanatoriums/sanatoria? Yes more.

Earlier this year I blogged on Linda Grant’s Dark Circle and Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and those posts brought me tip-offs from commenters on other works with that theme. There was Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I. The film Twice Round the Daffodils – a longlost treat of a film, and ggary (in the comments here) is the only other person I know who has seen it, which somehow doesn’t surprise me.

Then long-time blogfriend Daniel Milford Cottam (who always has brilliant suggestions) came up with this one, a children’s book, and described it so enticingly (again, in the comments) that I had to track down a copy.

I realized I had read another book by this author: the predecessor to this one, Private – Keep Out! It’s about the same young girl, growing up in a Nottinghamshire town in a miner’s family. To be honest, I don’t think I’d realized till reading this one that the events were taking place in the 1940s, and not around the publication dates in the 1970s. (And I have only just realized the coincidence of Linda Grant/ Gwen Grant, which I’m pretty sure is only coincidence.)

As a child the author had to go away from her family because of illness and live in an Open Air School (see her website here), and Knock and Wait is based on that: in this case it is anaemia rather than TB that is the problem, but the experience sounds much the same.

She is carried off from her warm close family living in a terraced house, surrounded by her parents, a busybody community of old ladies, and her rowdy siblings - and she is taken to another world, cold and sterile and white. She doesn’t want to go, knows she is there for a year, and hates the idea. When she gets there – well, the book is fully of funny anecdotes. But there is never any feeling that it was a lovely place, or warm or kind.

After four months (four months) her family is allowed to visit her. They are delayed by train problems, and the description of her staring out the window and waiting and waiting, as everyone else’s parents arrive, had me in floods. When she gets a letter saying her dog has died, she is devastated. She asks for a dog picture which she knows will comfort her, but the Matron refuses: ‘Not a good thing to brood.’ (Fortunately the slightly kinder nurses cheat and get her picture for her.) When she has chilblains, she is tied to her bed, hands and feet, to stop her from scratching.

So this is very much like The Plague and I: understand the recommendation, understand that others found it hilarious (and really, the tiger in this one is quite extraordinary… as is the story of the censored letters) but I was too bothered by the san experience to put it wholly in the hilarious comfort read category – too much in the bittersweet category. One thing you could say is that it is more cheerful than Janet Hitchman’s King of the Barbareens – in that poor child’s life, the sanatorium wasn’t much worse than anywhere else she was sent. At least Gwen Grant had a family.

So then I managed to get hold of Twice Round the Daffodils, and watched it for the first time in probably 30 years. It’s a 1962 British black and white film and it is a gentler, less risqué version of a Carry On film. It is set in a TB ward; the patients are all red-blooded men, and they all fancy the nurses. It is very much of its time, but still has a charm and mellowness of its own.

The film shows its origins in a play written some years earlier, it was more convincing for 1956 than 1962. Some of the humour is very obvious, and some of it would not be acceptable now, but overall I very much enjoyed it. However, I have read so many books on the topic recently that I was full of criticism of the way the patients acted – ‘oh’ I kept thinking ‘they shouldn’t be doing that, it will be bad for their condition’. ‘Oh no, they’d be in big trouble for that in a properly-run san.’ I was nodding appreciatively at the unmentioned handcrafts sometimes glimpsed. (Betty MacDonald hated doing them – making hideous and useless objects - but felt sorry for the men who usually refused to do any such crafts at all, on the grounds that they were un-masculine: she felt it might have helped them.)

I am becoming institutionalized.

The nurse picture is from an anti-TB campaign, and came from the Library of Congress.




















24 comments:

  1. I think Gwen Grant really captures the essence of the narrator, you really get the sense that it IS a real and very rowdy girl telling the story. Yes, if you really think about it, it's really grim and horrible, but the comedy in it, and the way the characters are just drawn (and exactly as seen through the child's eyes) just makes it one of those books I can read over and over again.

    Gwen Grant's writing style I think is just as successful as Hilary McKay's in capturing the child voice - you can imagine Lizzie hanging out with Rose and them giving each other ideas.

    The funny thing is that, as monstrous and outrageous as she makes the Matron sound, there are still moments where you realise that she was a human being really - it's something Gwen Grant does very well. I do remember that kind of demonisation of authority figures because it's much the same thing I did at that age too, and then it's a bit of a shock when you realise that they were actually not that bad all along.

    I do wonder whether there's an autobiographical element to her three books - she describes what's going on with SUCH vividness and detail, that you're transported. I really wish Gwen had written more books about Lizzie than those three, as I would love to know what happened next with Lizzie after book three (back with her family, and more of the same, although much less sadness in that one.)

    I do like books that can make you scream with laughter one moment and then suddenly make you really sad in a couple of sentences, and back again - the late Deric Longden was so good at that too, if I need to be put in touch with my feelings I just pick up one of his books.

    And after all, if you didn't laugh, you'd have to cry...

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    1. I knew it (breathe, breathe, gasp) - I KNEW IT! Just read her website biography and I knew there HAD to be an autobiographical element.

      The tiger story is so crazy that I want to believe it really did happen.

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    2. Did you see that in her notes on her website, she actually mentions The Plague and I as making quite an impression on her as she found so many parallels to her own experiences? I thought that was such a coincidence.

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    3. Thanks again for the reco, Daniel, and yes what a real first class narrator she is: they so often don't sound like a real child, but this one could be a convincing diary. And the author sounds lovely from her website. I didn't see that reference to Plague and I though! Will go and have another look.

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  2. This does sound grim, Moira. The writing style looks as though it would draw the reader in, but it sounds achingly sad, too. Hmmm.....

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    1. Yes it is, but then see what Daniel says above - also very very funny! And I think it is a record of life at the time, even this rather niche area, and I do like that.

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  3. I'm surprised no-one mentions The Rack by A.E. Ellis in any of your TB book entries. One of the last novels set in a sanatorium and very well written.

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    1. Thanks - someone did mention it, and I downloaded it to my Kindle but haven't read it yet. You've given me a nudge... though it did sound rather a downbeat book.

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  4. I've seen Twice Round the Daffodils! Kenneth Williams is very good in it. Does he get a girlfriend in this one or is that Carry on Nurse? Does Donald Sinden speak the line "Admit it! You love Bertha Bedpan!"?

    A quick Google reveals that the Bavarian-style Scottish sanatorium (Glen O'Dee) that once hosted Somerset Maugham (read his story Sanatorium or see the excellent film), having been saved from demolition, has been destroyed in one of those "mysterious fires".

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    1. Oh good! It's splendid isn't it? Oh my goodness the whole world of sanatoria, including mysterious fires, is surely ripe for yet more novels...

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  5. PRIVATE-KEEP OUT! is a charming little book. I had no idea that there was a sequel, so I may have to look this up.

    I strongly suspect that nowadays the medical community wouldn't be allowed to treat the patients and families of patients in the way that they did in this book. People are just too aware of their rights. I can remember a two week spell in hospital as a ten year old where myself and the other kids were bullied by a particular nurse. It went on for several days until she decided to be rude to the visiting parents. The rest of the nurses were relieved to be shot of her, and told us that she had been sent to do duties that didn't require her to deal with the public! People have enormous respect for doctors and nurses, but they no longer treat them with an almost religious awe that they did at one point.

    ggary

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    1. Yes indeed. Life was very different - I was in an isolation hospital (for something that nowadays would be treated by a few days off school...) and it was absolutely Victorian: bullying nurses, minimal visiting hours, vile food, nothing properly arranged.
      This was in Liverpool, and I was very unlucky because there is a very good children's hospital there, Alder Hey, which was famously progressive and way ahead of the game in terms of treating children better and having open wards and open visiting - but I had to go to this workhouse for the allegedly sick elsewhere in the city.

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  6. Replies
    1. Yes, a children's book about illness isn't very noir is it!

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  7. I feel such a draw to books about children thinking they're being treated unfairly. I need to read this one just to learn about the tiger story.

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  8. I had no idea that there were so many books set in TB sanatoriums. And I cannot get the spelling right. It should not surprise me, but it does.

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    1. I am constantly surprised too, and ever time I post I get more recommendations. I suppose it was just a bigger part of life than we remember or realize...

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    2. Yes, there was a PBS documentary about TB a year or so ago, and it was eye-opening. It is fascinating that a disease with such a huge impact had almost disappeared from the national consciousness. But it WAS huge.

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    3. And always in danger of coming back. When I was at school they still tested for it quite rigorously.

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    4. It is coming back here. It's not rare in immigrants from SE Asia. And, sadly, some strains are antibiotic resistant. My sister works in a hospital, and they're tested every six months.

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    5. So sad to have successfully fought it and for it to be returning...

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  9. I lost relatives from TB during WW II. I wasn't born until after the war, so I never met them.

    One of my grandmother's younger sister and her husband died, leaving two young daughters. Another sister adopted them.
    And my father lost his youngest brother. Another of his brother's had TB but survived and made it to 91.

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    1. There was some in my family too. It was a scourge, and everyone was rightly terrified of it.

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