Secondhand bookshops are treasure troves, but sadly they are in decline. They have been defeated by Abe books and the lack of books bought generally. But in Hamburg I came across this great English language bookshop run by Rob who has lived in Germany since the 1980s. The shop was crammed with books everywhere – on the shelves and on the floor – and that is where I came across this hidden gem.
Originally published in 1962, the wonderful Virago Press put it out as a Virago Modern Classic in 1983. Written by Maureen Duffy it documents her working class upbringing and the tremendous impact that her mother, a single parent, and TB victim, had on her life. The novel includes an introduction in which Maureen discusses her life, the novel and its publication.
It reveals a world that looks scarily similar to today Tuberculosis was the Covid 19 of its era. As Maureen says. “In the year that my mother died, 1948, she was one among nearly 23,000 recorded deaths from TB of the respiratory system.” This only told part of the story as the disease was often concealed in the deaths of people with lung conditions.
Maureen was brought up in the 1930s – a time of no NHS or free education: the book shows how her mother encouraged her to pursue education as a means of freedom from poverty and the escape into an independent life. She quotes her mother on education as “the one thing they can’t take away from you.” That is a phrase echoing in many working class families across this country – even today.
At the core of the novel is the relationship between Paddy (the daughter) and Louey, her mother. Paddy is “illegitimate” – a word that had life changing consequences for many children of that era -but not for Paddy. It is Louey who tries to ensure that she is sheltered from the harshness of that label and, as Paddy says, “I grew six inches under the light touch of her hand on my head”.
Running throughout the book is Maureen’s own experience of growing up in a working class community. Her mother came from an East End background: the people who were originally sucked from the agricultural areas of outer London into the industrial suburbs of the city.
Alongside Paddy and Louey is another character, the TB which Maureen called la belle dame sans merci. Her mother lived with it for nearly thirty years until she haemorrhaged and died in the street at aged just forty-two.
There are harrowing scenes throughout the book when Paddy and Louey go for check-ups and there is always the prospect that Paddy may have inherited the condition. Unlike Covid 19, having TB was seen as shameful. When Louey meets a young mother in the hospital she explains the process and says “And if he sends you for an X- ray, as he probably will, don’t you worry. It doesn’t hurt, and if there is anything, they can see it and catch it in time, and even cure it.”
For me, the strength of this book is the portrayal of a working class community that is intelligent, brave and loving towards each other, even under the worst conditions. The lives of Paddy and Louey are quite tragic and nowadays would be seen as victims of their class, social position and health but that is not how Maureen creates their characters or tells their life story.
That’s How it Was is a novel about the 1930s, written in the 1960s, but its universal themes about class and sexual politics are as relevant today.
It is not easy to get a copy of the novel today, the only place I could find one was on Amazon UK.
Find out more about Maureen’s other books here
Maureen wrote one episode in the Upstairs Downstairs series (1971).
A great story of class and sexual politics.
Watch it here “The Mistress And The Maids”