Gallery: Author of All Change for Nurse Millie reveals she owes a huge debt to the Call the Midwife series

A scene from Call the Midwife - the BBC's popular drama based on Jennifer Worth's books A scene from Call the Midwife - the BBC's popular drama based on Jennifer Worth's books

Sunday, February 23, 2014
3:30 PM

‘If you’d told me that in 11 years I’d be an award-winning author, I would have laughed in your face. You might as well have said: You’ll be an astronaut.’ But now district nurse, Jean Fullerton, is working on her fourth book contract. She tells Steven Russell how it all came about

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There was rarely a dull moment as a district nurse in the East End of London. Take this rainy Sunday evening in November. Jean Fullerton is called to a run-down council estate. The patient lives on the seventh floor and the lift is, of course, out of order. Up the concrete steps – past empty lager cans, cigarette butts and used syringes – to a door with a security grid. “Gripping my case tightly I rang the bell,” she remembers. “The door was opened by a man in his early 40s. He must have been six-five if he was an inch, and with shoulders that practically wedged themselves in the doorframe. With a square jaw, a noticeable five o’clock shadow and a full head of hair, he was impressive to say the least.

“At least I think he had a full head of hair, but I couldn’t be sure as it was covered with an ash-blonde, long, curly, Dolly Parton wig.

“He was wearing her make-up, too, with massive false eyelashes, blusher and crimson lipstick.

“He’d continued the country and western theme with a tight pink gingham blouse tucked into a very short denim mini skirt, along with fish-net tights over his muscular and very hairy legs and white rhinestone cowboy boots.

“I caught my jaw before it dropped and, like the competent professional I was, said ‘Good evening. Did someone call for a district nurse?’”

Jean Fullerton comes with more labels than a commercial traveller’s suitcase: Cockney, dyslexic, ex-Metropolitan Police officer, vicar’s wife… She’s no longer a district nurse, but does teach nursing at a university. And she’s an author, after an NHS stress management course in 2003 unleashed a latent passion for storytelling.

Unwind by doing something you enjoy was the gist. Jean went home, commandeered the kitchen table, fired up her laptop and whizzed off a chapter about a Welsh princess and a Norman knight. “I couldn’t stop. It was compulsive. I’d written 100,000 words in three months,” says the writer who’ll be in Colchester next month for Essex Book Festival. A few months later and another one was done. Husband Kelvin reckoned she ought to try to get published. She hooked up with the Romantic Novelist Association and hasn’t looked back.

No Cure for Love won a prize for fiction, netting an agent and then, in 2007, a two-book deal with Orion.

The story was about Irish immigrant Ellen O’Casey, struggling to support her mother and teenage daughter by washing laundry by day and singing in rough pubs by night. She dreamed of buying a ticket to New York and a better life than offered by the Victorian East End.

Second title A Glimpse at Happiness was shortlisted as the 2010 Romantic Novel of the Year, and another couple of books came swiftly. Then, a change of tack. Jean’s native East End remained the setting for her tales, but the period moved to the post-war years – launching a three-book series about young nurse and midwife Millie Sullivan. There was a good reason for it. Orion had become the publisher of Jennifer Worth’s Call The Midwife series, which told of her experiences as a district nurse and midwife in the East End of the 1950s. They sold well, and then flew off the shelves when the BBC began its Sunday-night TV adaptations two years ago.

Ah, someone thought. Jean did district nursing… does she fancy writing about that occupation in years gone by?

Well, yes. All Change for Nurse Millie, just out, is the third in the series. It’s the late 1940s and Millie has married aspiring MP Jim Smith. The NHS has been launched and nurses are busier than ever, as people realise they now don’t have to pay for treatment.

Chronologically, it’s set about a decade before the period of Call the Midwife.

That show is so phenomenally successful, she feels, because it portrays the differences in health care over 50-odd years and a more clear-cut world. “And it taps into the things our parents have told us.”

Jean read Jennifer Worth’s books before the TV series took off, and enjoyed them. She also watches the programmes – but not while she’s crafting one of her own stories.

“You’re in East London: you’ve got to have slums; you have abandoned babies; you’ve got to have people having illegal abortions. It’s difficult not to have similar storylines.

“It worries me a bit, so I tend to wait until I’ve finished the book and then watch it; otherwise it might… not ‘upset’ me but make me a bit jittery! And you don’t want to be accused of copying. I’m not, anyway – my books are 10 years before, and they’re (largely) pre-NHS, with the old system where people had to pay for their nursing care, or apply to the poor relief officer. Things that would stick in the craw now. I want to show ‘This is what it was like’.”

Jean’s grateful to Orion for the opportunity to create Nurse Millie & co “because I’ve enjoyed writing it so much, and included some of my family history. Millie’s Aunt Ruby is really my Aunt Nell, right down to the china ducks in the house in Ilford”. The 8th Army backstory for one of her characters draws heavily on Jean’s father George’s time as part of a gun crew during Montgomery’s campaign in North Africa during the Second World War − including a true story about purple stew. It also gives the author a chance to indulge her passion for social history. Some of Millie’s world, for instance, is flavoured by a 1946 handbook for district nurses. Also mined are diaries, newspapers and early photographs. Jean visits museums to study coaches, train carriages and details such as gas lamps, too.

Jean was born at The London Hospital in Whitechapel. “It’s brilliant,” she laughs. “When you go anywhere in the world, and say ‘Whitechapel – where Jack the Ripper was’, everybody knows. I sometimes say Jack the Ripper is my PR man. Immediately, people see in their mind images of tenement buildings and poor streets. And, actually, in many ways that’s what it was like when I was a child.” The Fullertons had come to Wapping from Scotland in the 1820s, and the area’s geography is woven into her period fiction.

Home for Jean was originally a tiny house in Anthony Street, about 10 minutes’ walk from the Tower of London. Her dad worked for Ford and did art as a hobby.

“It was literally one up and one down. You went in the front door and that was the living area. There was a scullery off the back, and boarded off-stairs that went up to the one room.” It’s featured a couple of times in her stories. “When the slums were cleared, when I was about five, we moved upmarket a bit and went to Stepney, which was still tenement houses but slightly better quality.”

Despite being dyslexic (undiagnosed, of course) Jean passed five O-levels and two A-levels. “That’s reasonably good in those days, but there was no expectation I’d go to university. That wasn’t the sort of thing we did, kids from our background.” She followed many of her family into the East End fashion trade. “In the ’60s, everybody wanted to be Mary Quant. I started as a general dogsbody and ended up working for Jaeger as a pattern cutter. Then I got made redundant during the three-day week time of the ’70s.”

Jean joined the Met Police. “Life on Mars, really,” she says, referring to the BBC TV series set in the days of flared trousers and wide lapels. “It was very chauvinistic. My husband and I watched it and loved it, and thought ‘That is just so true.’ The women were there, no matter how clever you were, basically to make the tea and get the filing sorted.”

She loved the job, though. “No two days were the same.” Writing about a woman’s life in the police in the 1970s is an idea tucked away in the back of her mind for a possible future book project.

It also brought together Jean and Kelvin, a fellow officer. “He always says he met me walking the streets of Soho!”

Jean left the Met after two-and-a-half years. It wasn’t really compatible with married life and raising three girls.

In the 1990s, the children growing up, she decided to create a new life for herself, working as an auxiliary, and then became a nurse. “I think the last child went to school full-time one Monday and I started my nursing training the following week.”

Jean was inspired partly by the care her oldest daughter received at Great Ormond Street Hospital after developing leukaemia at the age of four – and recovering. (She now has three children and has just completed her own nurse training. Another daughter is a CID officer in Bethnal Green.)

Soon Jean was working in the London Borough of Newham – which covered places such as West Ham, Stratford and the old neighbourhood around the Royal Docks in Canning Town. It was a very deprived borough, but “in this richly diverse and challenging area I learnt everything I needed to know about district nursing”. As a staff nurse based in Forest Gate she worked in some of the East London streets that fictional character Millie would walk. Mind you, the jobs were pretty different, though, about half a century on. Basics such as washing and dressing of patients now came under “social care”, which meant district nurses no longer had to contend with back-breaking daily wash and bath duties, on top of their nursing tasks.

Nor did Jean have to sterilise glass syringes by boiling them for 10 minutes, as a real Millie would have done. Now, equipment came in sterile packs and was disposable. Nor did she have to ask patients to bake gauze squares in the oven – with the evening meal! – to sterilise them for the next day’s dressing.

Jean took a nursing degree at what was then Anglia Polytechnic in Chelmsford at the end of the 1990s, and it was in 2003 that the NHS course on stress management fanned a spark for writing she didn’t know was there.

She’d always been able to read –liked it, and particularly historical stuff – but writing hadn’t featured. “Suddenly it was like I’d shaken a bottle of coke and taken the top off. This story just poured out. And I’ve not stopped since,” she says of that first tale typed at the kitchen table.

“The idea of earning money or being recognised as a writer seemed ridiculous. I did it for my own stress relief, really – to disappear into this medieval world I was conjuring up of fighting and castles and all sorts of stuff. It was only after about three or four stories I thought ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

That management course helped enormously. “It wasn’t about sitting in the lotus position, looking at your navel; it was actually about life-coaching. What do you want to get out of life and your career? It made me think about where I was going.” Jean took a job with London South Bank University a decade ago, teaching nursing. It kept her involved with a vocation she loved, but allowed a little more time for writing – albeit between 2pm and 2am, generally. Today, she’s a senior lecturer. How does she juggle it all?

Her daughters have all grown up – now aged 29, 31 and 33, and with families of their own – “and my leisure time’s my own. And I’ve got a very understanding husband. He’s been around it long enough to understand the driving force that means I have to get the stories out”.

Jean recognises we tend to romanticise what’s been and gone, but that people look back at the past to anchor themselves in the present. She enjoys showing how things have changed. We now don’t see children in callipers or babies left outside shops in prams.

Some has to be toned down, though.

“I always say to people ‘If I were to write about the Victorian era as it was, it would be too revolting. I’ve been reading a doctor’s biography. He would go into houses where you’d see the wallpaper moving because of the bugs. If I wrote that over and over again, people just couldn’t read it after a while.”

Jean’s priority is the characters: the strong and vibrant hero and heroine who seize the reader’s imagination from the off. Little surprise that her advice to budding authors is: “Just tell the story. All the technical stuff, yes, you do have to master that – putting plot structure together etc – but if you haven’t got the story, it’s not going to work.” She’s thrilled that All Change for Nurse Millie has already pleased readers in its first days of publication. “I don’t write for money. If I wanted more money I’d just take promotion at work. I write for people. I can show them the attitudes to black people, the attitudes towards disabled people, the attitudes towards women – totally different to today. It gives me a chance to explore that – alongside, I hope, page-turning stories. Even if nobody published me I would still have to write stories.”

Could we see her follow Call the Midwife onto TV?

“I’ve had a couple of expressions of interest in adapting my previous books and the Nurse books into TV series but nothing has come to fruition as yet.”

Surely only a matter of time.

n All Change for Nurse Millie is published by Orion at £7.99

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