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Nature doesn't know best

Bernadette Whelan's recent experience has destroyed her illusions in natural childbirth

Perhaps my personal experience is not decisive in the argument for medical intervention as opposed to natural childbirth, but I spent many of my 55 hours of labour planning to get up a lynch mob for the peddlers of do-it-yourself delivery. The legend that you forget the pain when you get the baby is partially true, but my feelings towards the natural childbirth lobby remain as intense as ever. I am writing this because I think Living Marxism readers should be forewarned, particularly the women among you who may need to be forearmed.

Pregnant women are easy prey to the plethora of 'experts' on everything from the wherewithal of waterbirth to how to write your birthplan. You'd think that I'd have known better than to fall for that malarkey being a regular reader of Living Marxism myself, but I'd never had a baby before. So there I was, taking notes from soothsayers on daytime TV and buying paperbacks on pregnancy and childbirth as though my life depended on it.

The fashion in this field is to encourage women to 'greet' their labour pains, to get through the whole barbaric process with no pain relief and preferably no medical intervention whatsoever. Otherwise, the accepted wisdom is that you are missing out on a wonderful exper-ience. You also become riddled with guilt at the implication that you are not doing the best thing for your baby.

Breast pumps

I got a taste of this when I rang the local adviser for the Natural Childbirth Trust. I asked about the times of antenatal classes, but when I told her I couldn't make it on a particular night she snapped, 'Well you won't be free to do things in the evenings when you have your baby, so you may as well start putting it first now'. I later discovered that she was a veteran of the women's movement who saw no contradiction between her erstwhile feminism and her current work brow-beating women into using an electric breast-pump (a modern version of the medieval torture chamber).

It seems this has been one of the few areas where the women's movement has had an impact on the way women are treated in society (ie, they get less treatment). I remember feminists arguing that medical intervention in childbirth is down to male jealousy of our reproductive ability, the medical profession being predominately male. Personally, I can't see it. I was never so jealous of men, barren as they are, as I was after just one hour of labour. As for medical intervention, I didn't care what gender administered it to me, as long as I got it.

In my mother's day you may not have had the option of booking the birthing pool, but at least you could get knocked out without an argument. With hindsight, I can say I would have been better off listening to my mother than going into hospital thinking I was about to have an uplifting experience. It was uplifting alright, but not what I had in mind. So much for doing the research. In this instance the old wives' tale was nearer the truth. However, I wasn't quite as misled as one woman I met at antenatal class who thought she was going to get through the gristle and gore with a prayer-mat and an irritating nasal chant.

I must own up. To the obvious hilarity of the midwives, I too had booked the birthing pool and hired the Tens machine. To those of you who don't know, Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (Tens) tickles your spine and is supposed to make you forget the pain, working on a similar principle to acupuncture. I felt like Marie Antoinette with a packet of aspirins. I didn't even have the right batteries.

I called for old-fashioned drugs, followed by an epidural and finally a knock-out general anaesthetic. I ended up with wires, drips, drains, a whole day of induction and a Caesarean section. In my paperback there were several chapters on breathing exercises and positions to adopt during labour; but only one paragraph, which I must have missed, on induction and Caesarean birth. Somebody is going to have to pay, and I don't mean a refund from WH Smiths.

In these days of cutbacks in every area of public spending, there is of course a sinister side to the enthusiasm for natural childbirth in the NHS. It's cheaper. The more women who opt for home birth, the better from the budget's point of view. I don't wish to idealise the NHS in my mother's day, because it was her horror stories about women being induced and left to scream in corridors which made me turn to the experts on natural childbirth in the first place. Nonetheless, she got seven days rest in hospital after the birth, which is a good idea for anyone and was a life-saver for my mother with several other kids at home.

I was told that if I had a normal delivery I would get 48 hours in hospital and would then be turfed out. When I got there, notices in the toilets warned that the hospital did not provide sanitary towels, never mind anything else. If I hadn't had an army of relatives and a New Man ferrying in nappies and taking my washing away I would have been dependent on the charity of midwives. If there are any women out there who heaved a sigh of relief when they heard about the terrible maternity care at Guy's hospital, thinking it would be better where they were going, my advice is to check it out first. It's the same story wherever you go.

I even learned to regard new policies like continuity of care with a jaundiced eye. This is supposed to be in the interest of patients and of course it was nice to have the same midwives looking after me for the duration of my stay. It is also nice for the hospital administration, because they can rely on the professionalism of the staff to fill the gaps left by lack of resources.

I am indebted to midwives like Maureen, the student assigned to my ward who stayed to take care of us when she should have gone home, and even spent her dinner break making phone calls to get my baby the special care she needed. It's the worst kind of emotional blackmail to force hospital staff into a personal relationship with patients and then play on their human compassion to screw more work out of them than they are paid to do.

What I learned from childbirth has nothing at all to do with getting in touch with nature. On the contrary, if nature had taken its course with me I would probably have died in childbirth, and so would the baby.

I was in the special care baby unit when I met a friend I had made in early labour. Marina and I had walked the corridors together, trying to move things along, both facing difficult births because we had outsize babies. She asked me what was wrong with my daughter. I was faintly aware of how ridiculous I was being as we were surrounded by babies you could fit in the palm of your hand while mine was obviously robust in comparison. It was only when I finished talking that Marina pointed to the incubator where her baby was lying. His head was bandaged and I could see he was being kept alive by machines. The decision had been taken that she could deliver her baby normally, but his head got stuck in the birth canal for two minutes. The result was that his brain would probably be damaged, if he survived at all.

What birthplan?

On the night I finally delivered my baby, I had to queue for seven hours for the operating theatre after the decision had been taken that I could have a Caesarean section. From start to finish, the very idea of a birthplan was a joke. Every stage of my labour was determined by the availability of resources. I made two trips to the labour ward before they had a room to take me.

There were six other Caesarean sections on the night Ella May was born. The doctor who operated on me was working hours after the end of his shift. I remember a midwife saying, 'My God, you must be dead on your feet' and lying there thinking 'Blimey, where does that leave me'. I am not questioning the medical expertise of the doctor who decided Marina should have a normal delivery. I have nothing but praise and admiration for the staff at the hospital. But it's obvious that those conditions were not the ideal ones under which to make the right decision for Marina and her baby.

I'm heartily grateful that mine was one of the six Caesarean births that night, although I know in these days of natural childbirth that I'm not supposed to be. The woman in the next bed having her second child enthused that once you'd had a Caesarean section on the NHS, you could elect to have future babies the same way. It's no surprise to me that in America most women who can afford it opt for the knife - in fact 30 per cent of American births are by Caesarean section. They would have us believe that this is for cosmetic reasons alone, but in my experience, after nine months of foreboding that's the last thing on your mind. The first thing is how to get the baby out in one piece, with a minimum of pain and as quickly as possible. And unless you're very lucky, for that you need science and technology, and the more of it that is made available the better.

Accents speak louder than words

When Andrew Calcutt went eavesdropping in the bars of Soho, the small talk was as boring as ever, but the accents had changed

They're back. Strangulated vowels, sing-song cadences and crisply enunciated consonants can once again be heard in every bar in Soho. Suddenly it's fashionable to sound like The Word's Amanda de Cadenet and her schoolboy brother, known to fellow-Harrovians as 'Bruiser'. Rarely heard in public for nearly 30 years, the plum-in-the-mouth accent has been revived by London's arts and media crowd.

There has always been a small number of gilded youth who think that everyone's daddy speaks like Edward Fox in Edward and Mrs Simpson. From the early sixties to the eighties, however, a generation of Amandas and Bruisers learned to flatten their vowels in public or risk mockery. The undisguised voice of the upper class was rarely heard outside boardrooms and private dinner parties. Meanwhile the middle classes adopted an anti-establishment bent, and dropped their aitches to prove it.

Things are different now. Britain's rulers are talking loud and proud, and middle class wannabes are starting to imitate their intonation. The plummy-voiced novices haven't got the patter down yet: their version of talking posh is about as convincing as a painting-by-numbers copy of the Mona Lisa. Accurate or not, however, the in-crowd's plum-in-the-mouth imitation is a sincere form of flattery, and something of a turning-point in British social mores.

As spoken by the media people of Soho, the return of the plum-in-the-mouth suggests that Britain's middle classes no longer feel the need to keep in touch with the working class. They have come to the conclusion that only the upper classes carry enough weight to warrant flattery and they don't mind putting their mouth where their money is.

In the late fifties and sixties Soho's media people were a newly emerging stratum, 'tuned in' to the notion of consensus society. The high-flyers among them worked in the new medium of television, known as 'the box'. And they had a new accent to match: the 'classless', flattened tones spoken by David Frost.

By the mid-sixties, the 'classless' tone was every- where. On the pop programme Ready, Steady, Go Cathy McGowan spoke youth-Frost. On Tomorrow's World James Burke talked science-Frost. Cliff Michelmore was news-Frost. The plummy vowels of the previous age of broadcasting began to sound peculiar.

Frost-speak was the voice of a shortlived vision: a state-educated meritocracy would forge a new Swinging Britain in the white heat of technology; the masses would learn to appreciate Mozart as well as McCartney; and every house would contain furniture from Terence Conran's Habitat. But the sixties were barely over before the dream became untenable. Frost-speak soon became as unfashionable as the vision of consensus associated with it.

The vision of a unified Britain was quickly dashed, but Soho's arts and media people weren't sure which way to jump. Instead of teaching the people to talk 'classless', the in-crowd learned to talk 'working class'. In the seventies, former public schoolboys like Joe Strummer tried to sound like Ian Dury - the original Essex Man. Soho bars were packed with Oxbridge graduates speaking in fake Cockney accents about taking their degrees at Middlesex Poly. This was also the age of bar-room revolutionaries. Talking about the 'dialectics of culture' in a Geordie dialect was a winner, especially after the success of man-of-the-people James Bolam in the television series When the Boat Comes In.

Cosmetic Cockney

The coming of the yuppie took some of the cachet away from regional accents. By the mid-eighties, Janet Street-Porter's cosmetic Cockney sounded out-of-date compared to media-yuppies Selina Scott and Anna Ford. But the yuppie was rarely seen in person beyond the confines of the City, and half of them spoke Essex anyway. Only on the brink of the nineties did the young bohemians of Soho really start rehearsing the strangulated speech of the British upper class.

Not everyone was converted immediately. John Major is still trying to evoke the 'classless' tone of Frost-speak. Music journalists continue to speak an Americanised version of sixties Mod. But the Soho in-crowd sounds like it's taking elocution lessons from Bruiser de Cadenet, Lloyd Grossman and Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell. After a few years paying lip-service to the masses, Soho's media-people have returned to the ancient middle class tradition of aping the elite.

Andrea Mantegna
The man behind the myths

An exhibition of the work of Andrea Mantegna is on show at the Royal Academy. Alan Harding assesses this Renaissance man

Andrea Mantegna was regarded by his contemporaries as the greatest living artist. This was no mean achievement given that his working life spanned the last half of the fifteenth century, the golden age of Renaissance painting. At the beginning of Mantegna's career both Botticelli and Piero della Francesca were active. At the turn of the century, Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Raphael were working. But by the end of his career, Mantegna's popularity was waning and he was regarded as old-fashioned.

Writing in the 1550s, in his Lives of the Artists, Vasari summarised the reasons for this turnaround. He cited the artist's pre-occupation with antiquity, especially with classical sculpture and ruins, a preoccupation which owed as much to Mantegna's harsh character and his bleak view of humanity as it did to intellectual conviction. He also drew attention to the artist's technical mastery and consummate draughtsmanship, which, when allied to Mantegna's austere vision, further distanced the observer through its uncompromising attention to detail. These observations have been repeated by critics ever since.

Mantegna's technical accomplishment is unquestionable. The intensity of his perspective and the brooding quality of his rocky landscapes are inescapable. We may even conclude from his litigious bent, and from the harsh features of the sculpted head of Mantegna which opens the exhibition, that he was not the most approachable of men. Yet none of this explains Mantegna's special qualities nor his pivotal position in the artistic output of the Renaissance.

This exhibition ends with a Latin text saying 'Ignorance is always opposed to virtue'. It is an accurate summation of Mantegna's attitude to his own work. In order for ignorance to be vanquished, the commitment to honesty, observation and technical innovation had to be absolute. Throughout his long career, Mantegna never ceased to experiment and search for new solutions. He perfected the Florentine practice of engraving. He invented grisaille (a painting technique that imitated bas relief sculpture). And he gave an immediacy and concentration to his work through his mastery of perspective and through the low point of vision which he often adopted.

The pursuit of virtue was also a search for order. In contrast, ignorance meant disorder. Virtue was technical mastery and the Roman ideal of civic responsibility and self discipline. While the courts of the Renaissance princelings, such as the Gonzagas of Mantua who employed Mantegna, paid lip-service to an idealised conception of the Roman civis, their political practice was violent and arbitrary. Life was nasty, brutish and short.

When Mantegna depicts this reality with the honesty that his attitude demanded, and his technique allowed, he seems cold and even brutal himself. Just look at the brusque treatment of the crowd by the military in 'Saint James Led to Execution'. Harmony cannot be superimposed on life through art in order to obscure reality. Nor can there be an easy reconciliation between human suffering and salvation. Mantegna is uncompromising, not because there is nothing to be done, but because man must act: virtue must dispel ignorance.

But it would be wrong to echo the generations of critics who have said that there is no pity in Mantegna. On the contrary, Mantegna says 'Oh the pity of it'. There is not a jot of sentimentality in Mantegna. There is no blurring of the edges in emotional or pictorial terms. In this he is distinguished from the great painters who superseded him in critical estimation.

Mantegna did not wear his heart on his sleeve. But as this exhibition demonstrates, he could express profound tenderness. The placing of a Madonna's hand on the child achieves the poignancy of the relationship without fuss or flurry. Nor is Mantegna humourless. On the contrary, his invention and observation often make for wit and hilarity, for example in 'Bacchanal with a Wine Vat' and 'Bacchanal with Silenus'.

Mantegna sought order, but could not find it either in classical antiquity or Christian redemption. These sentiments which are characteristic features of the early Renaissance conflict with a more secular, humanist aspiration which also enlivens Mantegna's life and work. The pessimism instilled by the human condition is challenged by the optimism engendered by the human spirit.

The Royal Academy exhibition is a major contribution to our understanding of the imagination of an age and one of its major artists. As I sit and think about his work, I can think of at least a dozen pieces, any one of which I would pay the full admission price to see again. There are not many painters you can say that about.

Andrea Mantegna: Painter, Draughtsman and Printmaker of the Italian Renaissance is showing at the Royal Academy until 5 April.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ

Happy birthday Turk

A new film set in Frankfurt depicts the seamy underside of the new Germany. Rob Knight reports

To travel in the sleek, white high-speed ICE trains which connect Frankfurt to the other main German cities is a joy. The seats are comfortable, the carriages roomy and the decor luxurious. Some even have a television screen for each passenger. The buffet areas have sofas, as well as rather better food than their average British rail counterpart.

If you arrive at Frankfurt's Hauptbahnof in one of these Vorsprung Durch Technik wonders then what comes next is even more of a shock. To get to the town centre from the station means going under the main road outside. Beneath this road is a vast underground shopping centre, complete with cafes and supermarkets, bookshops, bakeries and market stalls. The subterranean emporium also has its own citizens. Gathered together in their hundreds in this artificial environment, lit 24 hours a day and permanently protected from the weather, are the dregs of Frankfurt society.

Alcoholics with bloated and bruised faces lean against the walls, beer and cider bottles all around. Thin young women with ratted and lank hair stare blankly at nothing. Occasionally they talk earnestly to young men in leather jackets, jeans and trainers, who look permanently poised for flight. Scattered on the floor are the overdosed, either semi-conscious or unconscious, with the contents of their stomachs spread around them.

Underground purgatory

Groups of men are constantly on the move, walking from end to end, or down the escalators and up again, to avoid the attention of the police, who are ever present, ostentatiously armed with pistols and with alsatians chained to their wrists. Occasionally the police drag one of the collapsed victims of drink and drugs away through a half-hidden door to some mysterious place behind the shopping facade. Sometimes, guns drawn, they search the youths.

This underground purgatory is a favourite place for Frankfurt's drug dealers, many of them foreign, and drug addicts, many of them German. It is also where the cheap end of the oldest profession goes to avoid the medical checks in the registered brothels. It is a nightmarish place through which thousands of Frankfurt's commuters hurry each day. It is an underworld in every sense.

Coming out into the light is a welcome relief. But the odyssey through the underworld is not over. What comes next is one of the largest red light districts in Europe. Block upon block of shabby buildings containing porn cinemas, porn shops, porn supermarkets as big as Tescos, peep shows, legalised brothels, strip clubs and video kiosks, promoting and selling sex in all of its ordinary and extraordinary forms. Here too are interspersed clubs, cafes and restaurants where immigrants, mainly Turks, meet together.

Frankfurt's moral clean-up brigade have so far failed to make much impression on this area. The last attempt to do so ended in failure when it was revealed that the city administration was riddled with officials taking bribes from the pimps. A new film, Happy Birthday Turk, which is set in Frankfurt, also explores corruption in the Hauptbahnof area, only this time it is the police who are in league with the heroin dealers.

The film's hero is Kemal Kayankaya, a private detective, whose parents died when he was a child. He was brought up by a German family and consequently speaks no Turkish, nor has he any idea about Turkish culture. He is hired by a Turkish woman to find her missing husband, which he does two minutes after the man has been stabbed in the back outside a porn cinema. It turns out that the man's father has also been murdered recently and Kayankaya soon discovers why. Both dead men were big time heroin dealers.

The director, Doris Dorrie, uses the familiar structure of the private detective film to explore two themes. One is the endemic racism of German society. Every German who Kayankaya has contact with is racist in some way, especially the police. The other Turkish characters live in squalid conditions in run-down tower blocks. They do menial jobs in which they are patronised by their employers. It is a depressingly accurate reflection of the lives of most of the immigrants here.

The outsider

The other theme is loss of identity. Kayankaya is an outsider in both German and Turkish society. He compensates for his lack of identity by playing at being a real policeman. He drinks too much and has no stable relationships. The solution put forward by the film for this rootlessness is for him to reclaim his parents' culture. He begins to learn Turkish and starts an affair with his widowed client. He even wears a false moustache to make himself look more typically Turkish. But Kayankaya is so thoroughly westernised that this is not a convincing solution, even within the context of the film, let alone in the real Germany.

The film is being hailed in some quarters as the beginning of a new wave of German popular cinema. The film industry is planning to expand, as are so many areas of German society, and Dorrie, trained in Hollywood, is seen as one of its greatest hopes. Certainly the film touches on real problems, and it is frequently very funny. But in today's more reactionary climate, Dorrie's sympathies with immigrants might be a barrier to commercial success, although the establishment would have no problem with her message that everybody needs a culture.

Divided city

What I found most interesting about the film was neither of these themes but the setting, the city itself. It is a place of stark contrasts which the film constantly captures. The red light district ends abruptly at the foot of the first of Frankfurt's giant skyscrapers, home to the big German banks. This is the world of high finance. Frankfurt as Manhattan, the financial centre of the new Europe. Then, just as abruptly, the skyscrapers come to an end and you find yourself in a pleasant shopping area and market, a bit like Nottingham.

The proximity of all these areas, the fact that what is essentially a provincial city can contain such contradictions, makes the contrast between the often squalid living conditions of immigrants, and other losers, and the world of Germany's rich far sharper. Frankfurt is a suitable microcosm for the whole of German society. As bright and shiny on the outside as a skyscraper and as dynamic as a high-speed train, but inside corrupted by exploitation and racism.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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