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 Post subject: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 01 May 2018, 04:24 
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A Head Girl's Difficulties, published in 1923, is the second of the La Rochelle novels, and shares a setting with Gerry Goes to School. Also a school/home story, the focus is on the Atherton family, particularly Rosamund, the new Head Girl of St Peter's. There's a train accident, a fire, a diptheria epidemic, an outbreak of sentimentality among the middles, various pranks, some sports, a second fire, and recovered family fortunes. There are slang fines, a 'noted specialist' who happens to be on hand to handle an accident, and one of the most brilliant EBDisms of the series, in which Mr Atherton returned from three years in a POW camp five years before, but has a six year old son.

----

Rosamund Atherton is fretting about the coming year at school, and is discussing it with her mother. She is to be Head Girl, at sixteen the youngest to have had the post, and is worried about the responsibility.

There is other difficult news. Rosamund's father has been unable to work since the war, after spending years in a POW camp. The family has been living off of mining investments, which have been doing poorly. As a result, Cesca, Rosamund's older sister/aunt, will leave school at Christmas and apprentice in the Kindergarten. Rosamund will leave at the end of the year, and needs to get a scholarship in order to fulfill her desire of attending Oxford.

We then meet the rest of the Athertons. In addition to the responsible and rather high strung Rosamund, there's graceful 17 year old Cesca (actually Mrs Atherton's much younger half-sister, raised with as her daughter), tomboyish, good-naturedly slangy Con, fourteen, stunningly beautiful Allegra, foreign-looking nine-year old Jose, and the baby, six year old Noel. Mrs Atherton is surprisingly young for her long family, having married at eighteen. In addition to the family, there's the faithful servant, Belinda, who has been with them since their marriage.

The family time is interrupted by more disaster; Gerry and Jill arrive with news that Miss Catcheside, the Head, has been badly injured in a train accident, and won't be at school.

The school year begins, and Rosamund meets up with the other prefects. The accident is announced at prayers, to the dismay of the school, which has a quiet first day. Rosamund gives a stirring speech to the assembled prefects and form prefects, encouraging them to do the best for their Headmistress by keeping things going at the school. Afterwards, she breaks down in tears.

The school settles into its routines. Rosamund has a prefect meeting, and outlines an exceedingly ambitious program for the school, academically and in extracurricular activites (including 'win all matches' as a goal). The other prefects are initially dubious, but join in the planning.

Meanwhile, the juniors have been plotting something, particularly the mischevious Madge Halloran and Jose Atherton. It turns out that they have planned to sneak into the gym to watch a gymnastics display a couple of the mistresses are giving to the Fifth. The plan is initially successful, but then they find themselves locked in the gym. They are rescued by Rosamund, who returned to put back some equipment. Rosamund conducts an inquiry, lets the girls out, and summouns them for discipline the following day. She is particularly hard on her sister. That night, Mrs Atherton cautions Rosamund not to take things too seriously.

The next day, the juniors are summoned to judgement. Rosamund extracts the story, forces the juniors to apologize to the prefects of the fifth form, and to the mistresses. After, the prefects discuss the problems with tone in the school. The school has had two weak Head Girls in a row; the sharp tongued Alicia Brett nagged the middles into rebellion, while the insouciant Rosemary Drew didn't take anything seriously, and laughted at misbehaviour. As a result, discipline is slack, and the prefects are less well regarded than before.

The prefects discuss various family issues, including Rosamund's father, and Vivien's younger sister (who had been sent to boarding school for various misdeeds). They remember a recent funnny incident resulting from Kitty O'Connell immitating a pompous old rector. They go to French, and Vivien almost breaks down in laughter remembering the various amusing stories.

We then switch to Jill and Gerry at home, talking about life and their future plans. Jill is studying with a private coach, and Gerry is planning on a musical career. They've noticed something going on with the middles, mostly via Sheila Trevennor's behaviour at home, and discuss it with Rosamund. The "something" is soon revealed to be a middles' magazine, led by Allegra, Fiamma Vivalanti and Althea Southern. Rosamund is initially amused, but less so when she reads the badly spelled and rather cheeky document. The magazine is given in full; it includes cheeky limericks, notes on old girls, letters to the editor (with complaints about fagging), cheeky advice to prefects and mottos.

The middles, after circulating the magazine, are rather dreading the results. Con arrives to supervise their dinner, a departure from usual school policy, which results in wild indignation, as the middles don't realize that this was an edict from the Head. The middles get in a variety of trouble during the day, mostly due to distraction and excitement. The prefects retaliate for the magazine with extra grammar and spelling instead of games practices, to the middles' dismay.

Later, Cesca and Mrs Atherton discuss Rosamund and the middles, as Mrs Atherton has noticed Rosamund seems stressed. Rosamund joins in, and explains what's going on when her mother insists. Cesca explains the current situation, the deficits of the previous Head Girls, and the various pranks the middles have been indulging in (including the fizzy basin prank). Cesca and Rosamund feel that part of the problem is a new girl, Aveline, with whom Allegra is quite taken. Mrs Atherton decides to invite the girl to visit.

When the girls arrive at school the next day, there is a new difficulty. A diptheria epidemic is spreading in the neighbourhood, Cecil and Sheila Trevennor are ill, and the school is to be closed for the duration. The exam people are to take work home with them. The Atherton girls go on a walk with their mother and have a pleasant day. The following days, however, are much grimmer. Several students are very ill, and Cecil Trevennor dies. Dr Ralph Farringford, Mrs Atherton's brother, stops by, and discovers that their kitten has diptheria. There are other deaths; Rosamund's uncle Ralph, a doctor, tells her off for sentimentality for expressing sorrow at the deaths of her young schoolmates. Con falls ill, but it is a light attack. A spell of cold weather comes, which stops the epidemic, but the school is closed until after Christmas.

Rosamund heads backed to school. The geography mistress has married and left, and several children have died. Con, Mrs Atherton and Noel are sent to the south of France for Con's recuperation and Mrs Atherton's health, in spite of the difficulties with expenses. Cesca has started her apprenticeship at the Kindergarten, so Rosamund is without both of her sisters this term. Miss Catcheside makes a visit to the school, to everyone's delight, and the sixth get an extraordinary new student. Adelicia "Blossom" Smyth is an affected, sentimental girl who had been badly spoiled by a silly mother. The sixth form discuss their books for the term, and Blossom is is appalled at the academic standards of the school.

A new epidemic hits the school, this time one of sentimentality. The middles and juniors are going around arm in arm, 'adoring' various seniors, and their performance at games is dropping off. The prefects are horrified, and figure out that Adelicia and Aveline are behind it. Adelicia, finding that the seniors are not impressed by her, has been making a bid for popularity among the middles. The other prefects discuss the matter and how it's affecting Rosamund. At the prefects meeting, Rosamund is worried that they might have to go to the Head. The prefects decide on an embarrasment campaign for Adelicia, inventing a fake admirer and sending her sentimental but tacky gifts to shame her into better behaviour.

Rosamund and her friend Vivien get a lift home with Dr Ralph. Rosamund finishes an important prize essay, and Francesca has some trouble with an impertinent Allegra. The older girls enjoy a relaxed evening with their father and uncle. That night, the family is roused by their pet dog, saving them from a fire in the sitting room. The room is damaged; no one is hurt, but Rosamund's essay is destroyed and she quickly has to re-write it. Later, she asks for advice form Jill and Marcia, the former Head Girl, about Aveline and the sentimentality campaign.

The next week at school, the prefects confiscate the middles' secret post office, and force the girls to publicly read out their excessively sentimental notes, along with a dressing down for their behaviour. That, combined with an appeal to Aveline, squashes the middles.

The next chapter is a series of letters; Rosamund, Cesca and Allegra to their mother, Jose to her brother, and Dr Ralph to his sister, describing various events, and a response from Mrs Atherton.

The next week the prefects finish their 'curing' of Adelicia with a serious talk. Rosamund has a talk with Miss Phillips, the current head, and Miss Phillips with another mistress, and they decide to put the Speech day off to the next term, afer the various upsets. The middles have a bad literature lesson, are later reprimanded by the prefect Maeve O'Farrell, and plot revenge. The revenge goes badly; they plan to cobbler wax Miss Lawerence to her seat, but catch Miss Phillips instead. The ringleaders, including Jose, are demoted for the rest of the term. They treat Maeve's coat with a cat-attracting substance, and she's pursued by hordes of affectionate cats on the way home, before being rescued by Dr Ralph and his car.

The rest of the term passes without incident, and there's a letter from the recovering Con, who returns a few weeks later. Miss Catcheside returns the next term as well.

The next major event is a tennis match, where Rosamund is called on to play as reserve. She does well, and St Peter's wins. The year ends with Speech day. There are plays and form prizes. Rosamund wins a prize for her history essay. There's a minor fire at the end of the play, to Rosamund's dismay.

Finally, Rosamund gets her scholarship, and the family investments pick up, solving their money problems. The prefects discuss their summer plans; the Athertons are taking a house in Guernsey for the summer. Miss Catcheside announces her engagement, to an old friend she met while recovering.

Other Updates: Nell Trevennor is working as a PT mistress in Lancashire, Gerry is leaving school to study music full time.


-----

So - what do you think of the second appearance of St Peter's, and how does it compare to the Chalet School? What about the two epidemics (diptheria and sentimentality), both of which are portrayed quite differently from the usual Chalet School outbreaks? What do you think of the Atherton family life?

A quick note - the next discussion will start a few days late, as I'll be on vacation in a different country than my laptop. :D

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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 01 May 2018, 08:02 
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As is often pointed out in GO groups, it's a mystery how everyone seemed to think Cesca and Rosamund were sisters when the age gap between them was only 6 months, but never mind :lol: .

I really like this book, although the teenage crush storyline makes me cringe :lol: . We never "went in for" (as EBD would say) crushes on prefects at my school but, if someone had made us stand up in public and recite what we'd written (usually in our rough books) about how much we loved Jason Donovan or Morten Harket or Rick Astley then we'd never have got over the embarrassment, and it's not even as if celebs would have been there to hear it!

The diphtheria storyline is, sadly, much more realistic than the CS, where no pupil ever dies whilst at the school. I know Ruth Herbert dies in a car crash, but we don't even hear about it at the time. I cringe even more when the doctor differentiates between people of "your sort" and people in the poorer areas of town, but that's true to its time.

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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 01 May 2018, 09:18 
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Thanks for this synopsis - that's an amazingly full and varied plot! The part about checkmating sentimental friendships among students sounds brutal; quite a few books of the time depict this phenomenon, but has anyone else ever gone in for authorised public humiliation as the cure? The part about a child of a foreground family dying in the epidemic really surprised me, too - true to life, but not standard for this kind of school story, I thought.
I especially liked hearing a bit more about Gerry Challoner, later friend of Grizel Cochrane. (The timelines can't quite match, can they? Or is Gerry a good bit older than Grizel?


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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 01 May 2018, 15:25 
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Wow, Jennifer, thanks for that monster synopsis. I can't imagine how thick this book must be to cram all those events in.
I'm surprised that a major family character dies, this is much more in keeping with the C M Yonge type of book that we know EBD loved, rather than the CS world where Jo miraculously recovers every time. It's really interesting for me to see the same ideas that she later recycled, too.
One other thing struck me, the hugely ornate names of some of the characters - isn't that one of the things EBD gently teases Jo about when she starts writing?


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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 01 May 2018, 16:25 
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LucyP wrote:
Wow, Jennifer, thanks for that monster synopsis. I can't imagine how thick this book must be to cram all those events in...

One other thing struck me, the hugely ornate names of some of the characters - isn't that one of the things EBD gently teases Jo about when she starts writing?
I'm pretty sure it's herself and her first few published books that EMBD is depicting (and sending up) in Jo Returns when Jo writes Malvina and Cecily, especially the details like making out the roll for the whole school, and dropping her heap of typewritten pages and having to re-sort them. Incidentally, I've never heard of Miss Catcheside's first name, Rotha, before - and no, it doesn't come from C M Yonge's Dictionary. I suppose EMBD may have noticed that Rotha Lintorn-Orman was one of the early would-be Girl-Scouts in 1908.

Yes, there's a lot in this one, isn't there? That's impressive, jennifer - thank you.
Lucy, my copy of both this book and Gerry are much the same size, but Gerry is 248 pages and 22 chapters, whereas A Head Girl's Difficulties is 328 pages and 29 chapters. Both are late-ish (1950s) reprints, so I don't know if the same is true about size of book in the earlier editions, but I suppose publishers prefer uniform sizing for a series as far as is possible.

ETA And the two books are both 2.5 cm/ one inch thick.


Last edited by Noreen on 01 May 2018, 17:14, edited 1 time in total.

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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 01 May 2018, 16:32 
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I only know this because it once came up in one of the GO Facebook groups, but one of the founders of the Girl Guide movement was a woman called Rotha Lintorn-Orman, which must be where EBD got the name from. Her friend and fellow early Guider was called Nesta, another name EBD liked. After helping set up the Guides, she was a nurse in the First World War and was decorated for bravery.

Unfortunately, well after EBD wrote this book, Rotha L-O became a fascist and a huge fan of Mussolini, and was also apparently involved in drug-fuelled orgies! Unsurprisingly, EBD never used the name again!

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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 01 May 2018, 17:19 
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Thank you Jennifer for this.

I tried reading this book a few years back. I had been looking forward to reading it but unfortunately I never got into it. I don't think I even finished it so a thumbs down from me.


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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 02 May 2018, 13:56 
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It's a while since I read this book, but i remember that rosamund very much reminded me of Peggy as head girl; young for the job, needing a lot of support to grow into it, and perhaps not really having the character of a natural leader, but being more the type who can lead by example, but who need a strong backing to control the Middles.

They both grew into the role of Head Girl, but Peggy certainly shows more developed leadership qualities the next year when she is part of a much smaller group in Switzerland. We don't see much of Rosamund after this book, but she always seems to take a quieter role rather than natually finding herself at the centre of the action. While both are bright, they lack academic ambition out of school, and are happy to marry young without having any career (not that there is anything wrong with that, if you can afford it!)

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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 03 May 2018, 14:53 
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jennifer wrote:
So - what do you think of the second appearance of St Peter's, and how does it compare to the Chalet School?
My feeling is that they are two such different institutions that comparing them is really quite difficult. An English day school setting was the obvious place for Elinor to start, of course, since she had no personal experience of boarding school, but it's more limiting in scope for the dramatic episodes that she seems to have loved writing from the very beginning. There are dramatic scenes, but I think I'm right in saying that they're mostly external to the school, like the horse bolting with the trap in Gerry and the diphtheria outbreak in Difficulties. St Peter's seems a bit misty to me, despite lots of dialogue about hockey matches and school customs. I suppose we get less impression of what it was like because it was a more familiar environment that most readers could imagine with no difficulty, whereas with the CS, we go to the opposite extreme - there's so much vivid detail about the place that the reader can go and stay there in their own mind...

This book is tough stuff in places, never more so than when Cecil and Domenica are among those who die (admittedly off-page) in the diphtheria outbreak, and when José's sick kitten is killed off with prussic acid, presumably because it was thought to be a carrier. Yes, prussic acid was one of the standard veterinary euthanasia methods of the day, but such detail is unnecessary. Surely the whole episode would have been quite upsetting for a good many young readers? It certainly upset me as an adult.

What I do think is remarkable is that just two years (and one book) further on from here, we arrive at The School at the Chalet. So very different from anything Elinor had written so far, and equally different from most other school stories of the time, in so many ways - I really think reading it must have been almost a shock for readers who knew EMBD from her three previous books.


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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 03 May 2018, 15:12 
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Noreen wrote:
jennifer wrote:
So - what do you think of the second appearance of St Peter's, and how does it compare to the Chalet School?
My feeling is that they are two such different institutions that comparing them is really quite difficult. An English day school setting was the obvious place for Elinor to start, of course, since she had no personal experience of boarding school, but it's more limiting in scope for the dramatic episodes that she seems to have loved writing from the very beginning.


I'm reading Last Term at Taverton High at the moment, and it doesn't feel very Chalet-ish to me, and that's pretty much why! Having got through my entire career at English day schools without ever being caught in an avalanche, having a classmate kidnapped, preventing a teacher from falling off a glacier, getting lost on a mountain in thick fog, being hit by an out of control toboggan, falling into a frozen lake, etc, I'm not criticising Helen Barber for that :lol:, but it does make you realise just how much drama there is in the Chalet School books, and makes day school books feel a bit dull by comparison!

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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 06 May 2018, 08:29 
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This book is so different to any other EBD books, tackling child detach and post traumatic stress disorder. The description of the dead children ‘sleeping under the tree in the churchyard’ is heartbreaking, especially as we had got to know one of those children quite well in the previous book :cry: . I think it’s also the only EBD book which makes a direct reference to the horrors of WWI with Mr Atherton having spent time as a prisoner of war and who is clearly suffering PTSD as a result. I’d always thought at that time that PTSD was frowned upon by society yet Mrs Atherton takes on the role of provider for the household to allow her husband to recover/recuperate (not sure of the correct term sorry) - clearly a very strong woman! On the other hand, her brother’s attitude - the stiff upper lip - to the diphtheria deaths is despicable but more like what I expected.

I think my favourite episode in this book is the cats following the girls home - not sure if that would actually happen but as a cat fanatic would love that to happen to me :D

All in all, despite it’s ups and downs this is probably my 2nd favourite EBD (after Maids of La Rochelle) and one of my all time favourite books :mrgreen:


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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 06 May 2018, 11:00 
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I quite enjoy this book and its differences with the Chalet School series. I think EBD was still finding her style and what she wanted to focus on with her writing. I remember when we met Adelicia for the first time in the book and she said her nickname was Blossom, my first thought was 'oh that's why Rosamund calls her daughter Blossom - they must become really good friends.' And then I was really baffled by Rosamund calling her daughter Blossom, especially when she really didn't like Adelicia. Was anyone else surprised or did it not stand out for most people?

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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 06 May 2018, 12:01 
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Fiona Mc wrote:
...I remember when we met Adelicia for the first time in the book and she said her nickname was Blossom, my first thought was 'oh that's why Rosamund calls her daughter Blossom - they must become really good friends.' And then I was really baffled by Rosamund calling her daughter Blossom, especially when she really didn't like Adelicia. Was anyone else surprised or did it not stand out for most people?
Astonished was nearer the mark - now try to imagine Madge calling a child Mabel, after Miss Bubb...


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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 06 May 2018, 17:12 
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I’m very fond of all the La Rochelle books, and see this one as very much a honing / polishing of EBD’s skills before School at the Chalet.

Yes, there are things which wouldn’t appear in CS book, but she is trying things out.

I rather like this group of girls (though, I could do with a cast list :D ), though I agree that a surburban day school offers a lot less scope than an Austrian boarding school, and most of the exciting events are actually outside of school. I completely agree with whoever up thread says that Rosamund reminds them of Peggy Bettany. In some ways the middles rebellion and Adelicia are a bit of a precursor to Eilunedd and the whispering campaign. Though, there are also suggestions of Dimsie and the antisoppists (I’d be interested in the dates of this versus Dimsie). The middles reading out their soppy notes is bit harsh, but very much punishment fits the crime.

This book does make you realise how much EBD was poking fun at herself when she wrote about Joey’s first efforts as a proper writer in Jo Returns.


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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 06 May 2018, 18:20 
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Caroline wrote:
(I’d be interested in the dates of this versus Dimsie). The middles reading out their soppy notes is bit harsh, but very much punishment fits the crime.


Dimsie Moves Up is the second Dimsie title but the first in which Anti-Soppists appear; it was first published in 1921 and first reprinted in 1924. I have a later reprint which lists the publishing history. According to the list on the FOCS website, A Head Girl's Difficulties was first published in 1923 (my hb. reprint only gives the year of that reprint's publication, without the earlier publishing history.) So it's certainly not impossible that EBD had read Dimsie Moves Up either before or during the time she was writing A Head Girl's Difficulties.

I'm another who really likes the La Rochelle series, though I must admit the character of Adelicia - not only her name - always seems to me to be highly overdrawn. However, I'm not very au fait with the school stories of the 1920s, apart from EBD, DFB and EJO, and it could well be that other writers of the period featured similarly overdrawn characters.
And while diphtheria, like other illnesses, was more widespread among poorer families, as it was everywhere at that period, it certainly wasn't limited to them; it affected a number of the school families, among them the Athertons,Trevennors and Vivilantis.


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 Post subject: Re: A Head Girl's Difficulties
PostPosted: 07 May 2018, 06:13 
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I love this book and Rosamund seems more natural and her family a bit more normal in their interactions and the odd argument and issues they have.

Alison H wrote:
I cringe even more when the doctor differentiates between people of "your sort" and people in the poorer areas of town, but that's true to its time.


It is quite a sad commentary that that still happens today because poorer people sometimes can't afford the medication required or the time off work to recover properly.

When SARS hit Hong Kong, it spread like wildfire through public housing estates because of various lack of hygiene reasons, but also because the ill people continued to go out to work and shop in the area and when they coughed, they spread the disease.

SARS did affect people in wealthier areas but we were given access to face masks and told to wear them, and the buildings we lived in were constantly disinfected. The media did point out the disparity but, at the time, we were more concerned about not getting ill.

So the fact that the diphtheria was worse in the poorer areas, struck me as being more realistic than anything else. The doctor is quite brutal in his comments but he was probably very tired and over worked at that stage looking after lots of patients.

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