Lancashire Times
Weekend Edition
Features Writer
4:02 AM 23rd October 2023

Used And Abused: Our Ethel By Phil Batman

Wow! It’s been a while since I’ve read a book, front to back, quite so quickly. I know I use the word ‘compelling’ occasionally, but this defines it.

1953 doesn’t seem so long ago to me even though it does pre-date my birth but the opening of this novel feels like we’ve been transported much further back than that. As the title suggests, it’s set in the North, specifically, Yorkshire with an occasional foray to Rochdale, but it’s the people and events which matter, not the location.

The pathologist arrives at the lab to find two dead bodies waiting for him. The cases seem straightforward but despite his best efforts, his friends have to tee off without him. It had been a little ambitious to hope to make a 10.45am golf slot.

Her father is a mean sort and her mother, crippled with multiple sclerosis, lies in her bed in a downstairs room...
One of the bodies is that of a four-day-old baby, born to Ethel Slater, when she was alone one night, in her bedroom. Her father is a mean sort and her mother, crippled with multiple sclerosis, lies in her bed in a downstairs room. The baby, the doctor concludes, has been hit hard, twice – the second, a fatal assault. Ethel is arrested and the Inspector, a lazy man who does nothing to merit the reputation he has in the force, decides she is guilty. In his mind, she had means, motive and opportunity, and he pictures Ethel throwing her baby against the wall, hard enough to leave a crack in the plaster; all he needs is a confession to wrap this one up quickly. After being held for hours in the police station, Ethel signs the statement he writes for her even though she cannot read it for herself; she is grieving for her baby and wants to get home to her mother who, the Inspector has told her, has fallen down the stairs and needs her. He sees nothing wrong in the way he secures that statement if it means he has closed the case.

Ethel is a sad case and seems to be the victim of cruel men. She is “a fallen woman, from a rough family who grew up in a backstreet built on wasteland next to the railway sidings, so who cares?” Her early memories are of the war and of the house down the street being blown up; of Eddie who was her one true friend, and of the circus coming to town, and then of her dad coming home from war ‘to shatter the peace’. Her mother knew that Ethel had always been a disappointment to him because she wasn’t a boy and his pigeons get more love from him than she does. She suffers the shame of being pregnant outside of wedlock, the terror of knowing everyone seems to want to take this baby from her and the pain of giving birth alone. She is tricked, lied to and let down and the reader quickly feels sympathy for Ethel - we care.

The theatrical prosecution, the sincere defence, the Judge who is about to retire (I loved some of the asides) and the public gallery, hanging on every word, as local gossip is confirmed...
I do love the television programme Law & Order. It poses some difficult questions and the good guys don’t always get the verdict they want in the court room – the tension as you await the result is often palpable. Our Ethel follows a similar course. It is divided into five parts; the headings are clear and the reader can easily navigate the sequence of events. We are treated to a flashback of what actually happened, although there are one or two questionable details – enough to throw doubt on how baby William actually died, though obviously, not at the hands of Ethel. The court case, however, in which Ethel is facing a possible death sentence, has all the elements we could want: truth and lies, emotion and a twisting of the gut. It is the court case which is particularly compelling. The theatrical prosecution, the sincere defence, the Judge who is about to retire (I loved some of the asides) and the public gallery, hanging on every word, as local gossip is confirmed, dubious reputations ruined, and relationships damaged forever. The evidence is presented and we fear the worst. To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind. How can the truth be ‘twisted by knaves’ such that the reader wants to shout out in Ethel’s defence? Witnesses have their own secrets and fears but it is a legal world with which most of them are not familiar and do not understand.

We know little about the jury, only that there are two opposing forces at work who will no doubt bash heads when they are sent to debate the case. In the jury room, we learn a little more and see what ‘twelve good men and true’ (well, eight men and four women) look like. I don’t know if I simply read the end much more quickly than the rest of the book, intent on getting to the resolution, but if anything, I would have liked a little more of their deliberation – it could have been the main focus: the discussions, the arguments seemed underplayed, but then I might have complained that it was dragged out too long.

The main characters were well drawn: Ethel especially, but also her mother and father. Auntie Annie, Granny Sath, Olive, Eddie, Mr Joyce, Mr Cox and Justice Weaver are all principal players, all authentic and believable. Inspector Harrison, Doctors Lawson and Samuels, Linda and Ray, even Sergeant Thornton and Mr Waggett, along with other neighbours are the cast and crew, playing minor roles, but they are still characterised on the page and not just caricatured, adding depth to this small community.

Would I recommend this novel? I think you can reach your own verdict.

Our Ethel is published by The Book Guild