On my list of authorial regrets was a suggested, but never followed through, biography of an amazing woman in a church I served. Joyce Graham was in her 80s when I met her, a determined and committed perfectionist of a sacristan, who drew on a fascinating life experience.
She had trained in the London Hospital, seen dire East End poverty at first hand, and was part of the revolution in the National Health Service which sought to offer accessible and free health care to all – something the Conservatives have always seemed to want to claw back on.
What made this one woman’s story so interesting? Among the highlights of her career were tending to the first German airman shot down over England and nursing men released from the Japanese work camps in the Pacific. This latter experience almost cost her the Christian faith she practised with typical Joycean tenacity.
She went on to be Sister Tutor at the London Hospital, bringing to that her gifts of firm oversight, meticulous eye for detail, and a compassion in a crisp coating. I met a woman in her sixties at a writing group who told me she had trained at the London. When I asked if she had known Joyce she sat bolt upright, stubbed out the cigarette she was smoking, brushed down her skirt, and asked, 'You know Miss Graham?'
Others told stories about Joyce. She herself was initially reluctant to recount her exploits. But they slipped out now and then during conversations as she polished brass, prepared vessels and vestments for the mass or building towers of flowers. And over the extraordinarily strong and fine gin and tonics she would offer guests.
But baiting the hook, waiting and landing the fish is not enough. You have to sell the catch, or eat it yourself. The literary nursing memoir market is now saturated – only to be overtaken by neurosurgeons and other medics – because of the pioneering pen-work of Jennifer Worth.
Worth is probably best known as Nurse Jenny Lee in the BBC television series whose title was taken from her first book of memoirs, Call The Midwife. The popularity of the book, even before the surge in sales following the TV programme, about go into its seventh season, meant Worth as a writer was attractive to publishers. And because her books sold, she could propose work that may not have been entertained otherwise.
Her last book, written with her own death in sight, is magnificent. In The Midst of Life, which draws its title from a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer 1662 service for the Burial of the Dead, with instructions that the priest recite it ‘When they come to the Grave, while the Corpse is made ready to be laid into the earth’. And Worth has an extraordinary talent in listening to and representing views she does not share, a thirst for knowledge, but retains a lively faith in the face of her own demise.
The writing fuses memoir, anecdote, analysis, medical information, musings on the changing practices in medicine and nursing, and some of the best theological thought produced on this important part of life.
It is probably never going to make it onto the reading lists of any training scheme for clergy. Which is a shame because, as Joyce Graham might have said, the best thinking about God is in the doing.
Death is a fish we all will land. No matter how much we might want it to be the one that gets away.