Nature doesn't know best
Bernadette Whelan's recent experience has destroyed her illusions in
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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
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
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992