When I was little there was a bookshelf in the downstairs toilet at my parents house. It was filled with Debrett's Book of Etiquette (a very old copy), a dog eared copy of The Pillars of the Earth (I now have my own) and the good, but very dated and not so subtly xenophobic Not Without My Daughter. There were other books there but those ones stood out in my mind.
Occasionally my mum or dad would find me lying on the carpeted floor of the toilet reading one of those books, normally with a cat curled up next to me. It never occurred to me to remove the book from the room and take it to the decidedly more comfortable sofa. I was a bright child but distinctly lacking in common sense.
One of those books I don't think I should have been reading at the tender age of 8 was Carol-Ann Coutney's Morphine and Dolly Mixture. I was drawn to the picture of the girl on the front who looked about my age and her smiling family and over the course of a few months, I read the entire book. I didn't know what the morphine in the title referred to, but I knew what dolly mixtures were and I assumed that the book would be a variation on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Written in the 1980's, Morphine and Dolly Mixture is the story of a childhood no child should be forced to endure. Compelled by necessity to grow up quickly after her mother dies, Caroline fights to protect her family from being separated by social services, endures violence at the hands of her father who is addicted to the morphine medication he was prescribed for his lung cancer and suffers continuous guilt at her father's accusation that she murdered her mother when she accidentally bumped her mothers head the day before she died. This guilt lasts with the author until she is an adult and requests a copy of the coroners report.
You see the effects of drug dependency on a family already struggling and living in poverty, flashes of the man her father used to be when he loved and supported his family before his dependency on morphine, and the desperation in Caroline as she tries to protect her siblings innocence for as long as possible. The world through Caroline's eyes is a sad and daunting place yet you also feel the love and warmth within the family unit between Caroline and her siblings, and even sometimes her father.
It is a book that not many people have heard of, yet it won the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year award in 1990 and has been made into a major television film adaptation. To say I enjoyed it would be a mistake, however it was gripping, moving and difficult to put down.
Jacky tells the story of her childhood in post-war Hackney. At a time when poverty and deprivation were rife and community was everything, Jacky lived a life of almost unheard of luxury, provided for by her father's black market deals and illegal betting. When a lot of people around her have nothing, Jacky has a chauffeur, a cleaner, posh meals and seaside holidays. Not all is as rosy as it seems from the outside as a growing darkness spreads from within and threatens to bring everything tumbling down around them faster than a blitz bombing.
Hyam's has been praised for her honesty and truthfulness in her writing and her attitudes towards her parents can be shocking at times. I was hoping for more insight into life in post-war London and Jacky's experiences cannot be described as typical of the era, but the book was neverthelss entertaining and moving in places.
I have yet to read the sequel, White Boots and Miniskirts which gives an account of life in London's swinging sixties, but I am eager to.
Both books are recommended, but Morphine and Dolly Mixtures is, for me, a must read.
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