I have SEVENTEEN PAGES of notes oh no way can I get that down to a proper review in the tiny scrap of time after children are in bed and chores done. Mini post series time!
At the very end of the book, she talks about her own family history. I love reading about family histories. Her stories are fascinating, especially the Belgian grandmother who fled her occupied homeland with two children in tow, to join her husband in the UK. Both of Slaughter’s grandfathers were educated and successful professionals – one a doctor, the other a judge.
My upbringing was upper middle class, but scratch back a few generations to the same time period as Slaughter’s grandparents, and the stories of my great-grandparents create a different perspective. My great-grandmother, a contemporary of Slaughter’s two grandmothers, had a pretty hard life. My grandmother doesn’t complain about her childhood, her reminisces are fond, but the detail of the stories she tells paint the picture of working class struggle anyway. There were seven living children, one dead. She and her sister closest in age shared a bed. My great-grandfather had tuberculosis so he had the privilege of an egg for breakfast every morning, despite the stringency of war rations. The children would take turns having the top of the boiled egg. That’s right: every eight days, they got the top of an egg. Growing kids. One Christmas, their mother decided to kill the pet chicken “Hoppy” (he only had one leg), to serve for Christmas dinner. My grandmother remembers none of them wanted to eat Hoppy and her mother was cross.
When the kids had spare pennies, they would buy a card of peanut butter from the shop: a smear of peanut butter on a scrap of cardboard, to be licked off, savoured. They would eat this treat in secret because their father thought it unhygienic and forbade it. When he was well enough to work, my great-grandfather was a telegraph operator at the post office. When he became too ill, he stayed home and managed the house and my great-grandmother worked as a housekeeper for a doctor’s family. After he died, my great-grandmother remarried. Her second husband was a widower with two children. They had another child together. In the “on demand” economy of the day, the work situation of the second husband was not favourable. He was a dock worker (they lived in Liverpool), and would line up in the morning seeking work unloading containers. Here’s how the system operated: the men would stand around, and the big strong ones would be offered work first. There wasn’t always work for everyone. The wives would go down on payday and make sure they were there to get the pay packets so that the money wasn’t drunken or gambled away. My grandmother passed her 11-plus but there was no money for the grammar school uniform so it wasn’t an option. She wanted to be an “authoress”.
It’s not that long ago, this history.
It’s difficult for me to see the promise in the “gig” economy for mutually advantageous flexibility, glowingly discussed by Slaughter, when I think of my grandmother’s step-father waiting on the docks, hoping that there’d be work for him that day, knowing that there were ten children at home.