No child nowadays needs to endure a dislocated hip due to a breech birth, and osteomyelitis without the aid of antibiotics. After a traumatic labour at home with no medical aid and helped only by a local woman who is there to bring babies into the world and lay out the dead, Dot is pulled from her mother’s womb by her left leg on 21st May 1924. As a child of twelve years she bears with fortitude six months in a plaster cast in order to try and rectify her hip, which has caused her left leg to be two inches shorter than her right. The treatment does not work and she goes on to discover that for a successful result, her hip abnormality should have been corrected at the age of two.
There is worse to come. Even now Dot often wonders what her life would have been like if her aunt had not been chasing her along the street when she was four. Dot was wearing a calliper on the shortened left leg at the time, and cannot remember why she was running away, but suddenly she falls over and injures her good right leg. The leg does not heal, there is no Penicillin, and she needs several gruelling operations at the Middlesex Hospital in London to release the osteomyelitis poison from inside her bones. She is left with a series of long scars on the front and back of her right thigh, and nightmares due to being held down by the surgeons in order to be anaesthetised by a foul-smelling gas emanating from a mask placed over her face. Her mother, Elsie, is instructed not to visit as Dot convalesces in Bexhill as it would upset her daughter, and Dot has an abiding memory of looking for her mother’s face in vain through the glass door of the children’s ward. At any rate Elsie, an impecunious single parent, would never have been able to afford the cost of travelling from the home she shares with her father, two of her brothers, and her two children in East London’s Bethnal Green all the way out to the comparable grandeur of Bexhill-on-sea.
Released from hospital but still having to wear a calliper, she soon learns to run about with the other ragamuffins of Bonner Street and ignore her considerable infirmities. She loves her grandfather, who enjoys having his daughter and grandchildren close at hand. The love is returned a hundredfold.
Dot is sent to a special school for crippled children and excels at creative writing. Because of her condition she is not allowed to leave school until she is 15, the year after World War II breaks out. By this time she has taught herself to type. An old piano given to her by her mostly absent father also serves to satisfy Dot’s musical yearnings, and she teaches herself to play songs by ear using notes and chords from the C Major scale. Realising that Elsie has two jobs and is struggling to keep her and her younger brother financially, Dot quickly secures a post as a messenger girl and trainee switchboard operator, in the days when jobs are two a penny. Every Friday afternoon without fail, my grandmother arrives at the factory gates of Allen & Hanbury’s in Old Ford, East London, to wait impatiently for her daughter’s wages. Dot is loyal to her mother, especially after all the fruitless trips in the past to Old Street police station with Elsie to discover once again that Harold, her father, had not paid in any maintenance money. However, on one such trip they did notice a new fish and chip shop along the route in Harold’s name whilst riding home on an open-topped bus. Elsie pulls both Dot and Albert off the bus, strides into the shop, and demands money there and then from her errant husband.
Dot’s natural sense of order is a complete antithesis to that of her mother, and so her relationship with Elsie can sometimes be a little strained. Elsie’s lackadaisical attitude to keeping the house clean and tidy irritates Dot greatly, who takes it upon herself to carry out all housework. Also, her mother’s tendency to let people walk all over her is totally alien to ...