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Bread, Jam and a Borrowed Pram: A nurse’s story from the streets

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  • Title: Bread, Jam and a Borrowed Pram: A nurse’s story from the streets
  • Author: Dot May Dunn
  • Publisher: Orion Books, 2011
  • Reviewer: Jenni Middleton, Editor, Nursing Times, EMAP

What was it like?

Health visitors could probably moonlight quite easily as authors. Their ability to enter people’s homes and experience first hand their patients’ lives probably gives them enough anecdotes to fill up 100 novels. Dot May Dunn, a former nurse with 50 years’ experience in the NHS, has so far produced two. Bread, Jam and a Borrowed Pram follows the success of her first novel Twelve Babies on a Bike, which was a Sunday Times Top 10 Bestseller. Her most recent novel tells the story of Dot, a newly qualified health visitor in 1958, who works in an inner city clinic.

Narrated from Dot’s perspective, we feel the trials and tribulations first hand of heading alone to houses that are unwelcoming either because of their inhabitants, their cleanliness or of the odours they emit. Her non-judgemental approach to her service user group exposes us to the real kindness that existed as well as the extreme poverty during this period, and the storytelling has a real vintage feel to it, you are exported back in time with every turn of the page. It also reveals just how much entrepreneurial spirit health visitors had to exhibit in the 1950s in order to look after their patients.

There is a vast parade of characters, all colourfully created to show the difficulties of surviving anything from losing a job to coping without running water in your home. The heartbreak of child death, a grieving widow suffering with a mental illness, alcoholism and women entering prostitution to make ends meet is dealt with sensitively, but never over-dramatised. The stories of the cast list of the book are sometimes sad, sometimes funny, but always interesting.

What were the highlights?

For all the austerity of the time, it does not paint too bleak a picture of life, and Dot’s love of her job is always evident, even when she’s handling a busy clinic, failing to help a family to her satisfaction or becoming frustrated by the human condition. Her inspirational nature really shines through and would, I think, warm the heart of anyone working in nursing today. She is a nurse, through and through.

Strengths and weaknesses?

The funny stories are used to punctuate some of the tales of hardship but are not lavished too heavily on the book so that it loses some of its accuracy in terms of reportage. The vastness of the caseload has clearly been edited for this diary-style account of Dot’s day, but still some of the characters are difficult to connect with because it is such a vast cast list.

Who should read it?

A brilliant book for current health visitors who want to compare their caseloads and careers with those who trod the pavements in the 1950s. But I suspect that anyone who was a health visitor in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s would enjoy Bread, Jam and a Borrowed Pram the most for its walk down memory lane.


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