My Turn to Make the Tea by Monica Dickens – a young woman’s experiences working on a small town newspaper in the late 1940s republished by Virago

My Turn to Make the Tea by Monica Dickens

This is the third book in Monica Dickens’ series of fictionalised memoirs that recalls her actual experiences in various jobs. Coming from the Dickens dynasty, her background involved a good school, “finishing” in France and a return to be a debutante. Bored of the whole system, her experiences as a sort of cook and servant led to her first book, “One Pair of Hands” published in 1939. The second, which I have read and enjoyed, “One Pair of Feet”, related a version of her experiences of training as a wartime nurse. This book relates to her time as a junior reporter on a regional newspaper, as well as her time in a boarding house where her fellow tenants and landlady are sharply observed. Despite one or two tragic events, this is a novel which exhibits the humour amid the reality of working as a woman in an established but small newspaper, and the housing shortage which made for interesting times in the late 1940s. This edition is a reprint of the 1951 book and represents a fascinating look of the limitations of being a woman in a job in a fixed hierarchy, and living in a very mixed house. It is undoubtedly funny, yet also provides an insight into the hopelessness of a world still coming to terms with a difficult peace.

The great thing about the “Downingham Post” is that every week every page must be filled with local news , however trivial, repetitive, and even reworded from reports in neighbouring local papers. As the newest and only female reporter in the building, Monica has to do the boring and mundane jobs associated with the actual production of the paper, from filling inkwells to always making the tea for everyone. The only responsibilities she is entrusted with are the jobs no one else wants or can be bothered with: the wedding reports which she lovingly crafts from details proudly supplied which are reduced to the same as every other wedding report, brief reports from the local magistrates courts of minor crimes when everyone else has sloped off, and reports of gymkhanas featuring the same assembly of spoilt children and their ponies. This is far from Fleet Street but it is a paper taken by everyone, and unfortunate errors which feature in the early pages of the book are fiercely disputed. Not that the men in the office help, advise or reassure; when she returns to the office after a difficult (but funny) session with an irate reader, she records “Someone had drunk my tea, and the office cat had got my biscuit on the floor”. Monica’s voice in this book is honest, sharp and incisive in many ways, with a skilful turn of phrase and telling details. Apart from her difficulties of being the put upon junior in the office, she travels by bus (many wet bus stops) and being away from her family home, must find accommodation in a town where rooms are in short supply. She must brace herself to live in a faded room in the house of the hateful Mrs Goff, whose concern for her tenants is minimal if not cruel, and she is nervous of sleeping in a supposedly notorious room. She is not a highly trained journalist – faced with a road incident she says “I scribbled away in my homemade code substitute for shorthand, which sometimes made sense to me when I came to transcribe it and sometimes not”. Between acrobatic friends and sorting out the local sports results for the newspapers, Monica lives a full life if like everyone else still hampered by rationing and shortages.

This is a absorbing read of a young woman’s experiences which although fictionalised, have the bite of reality in all its silliness and human interest. I found the writing so easy to engage with, where there are few complaints but a winning acceptance of the trials thrown at the writer. There are the minor incidents associated with a local newspaper, but also the problems that are not deemed suitable for the loyal readership and their expectations. I recommend this book as written without the complex plot of novels, but with the daily realism of life for a young woman in a small town.   

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

Image result for one pair of feet monica dickens                        Image result for one pair of feet monica dickens      Image result for one pair of feet monica dickens

A selection of covers for a well established book. Curiously, I think the most recent one is the least enticing…

This is a 1952 book which looks back on the wartime year of a young woman who decides to train as a nurse to help the war effort. She does not need the money; she is not forced into the hospital by conscription, she “could not make up her mind what to be”. She finds many snags to each of the choices, A.T.S. requiring little work, the W.V.S involves ungrateful evacuees and the Land Army requires mangel- wurzel pulling in the early morning. The idea of nursing “Had always attracted me.” and she embarks on a journey to a hospital, any hospital who will allow her to start training immediately.

For those who may not relish the idea of a medical memoir, the writer is far more interested in her situation in the new way of life she discovers at the hospital. The other nurses of all ranks are discussed as some eat their body weight, others fall in love with local servicemen, some are determined to run the hospital on strict lines, or at least whichever ward Dickens is sent to in a haphazard way.  She works nights, fails to sleep during the day, and is occasionally invited away from the hospital for social engagements. One of the funniest situations is when she visits a school and is hailed as a source of a diagnosis of an odd rash. It is a funny book, despite or perhaps because of its setting. She assists at the last minute saving of a woman, and nurses private patients with their many and various requirements. There is a moment when the war seems about to intrude with extra patients, but as in many cases it is an anti climax, as is well suggested in the build up to the anecdote.

This is a well written, amusing book full of tales which have the suggestion of truth. It is not a sentimental tale, but more in the spirit of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” which is high praise.  As a tale of the Home Front it is almost modern in its humour, and is far from a grim recall of danger survived. Dickens emerges as an independent young woman with a keen flair for honest observation. It is of its time, but is well written and engaging, and given its subject matter, a surprisingly cheerful read. I found it a fascinating picture of war time life, cheerful in contrast with other books of the time, and can recommend it to anyone interested in the life actually lived by some of the people of Britain at a time of challenge.

At the moment life at the Vicarage is busy. Today Northernvicar and I went to Leeds to see a couple of museums as part of our M.A. course. We know how to live! Selwyn, the Vicarage cat, was so appalled by his abandonment that he fell down the back of a cupboard on our return…

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens is a popular author for those who enjoy mid twentieth century British Women writers, especially as many of her books were autobiographical. It is no wonder then, that Mariana was the second book published by Persephone, and reprinted in their “Classics” series. The date of original publication, 1940, may suggest war time novels, but much of this book is pre war, the story of a girl growing up and meeting the challenge of what seems like an intensely felt life. The beginning and end of this novel are set in the early part of the war, with all the heightened emotions and appreciation of danger, but this is essentially the story of a girl, a young woman, finding life and love.

The first element of the novel may strike a chord with anyone who spent childhood holidays in the same place, with the same people. “Mary” is the main character of these reminiscences; we see her experiencing childhood adventures and the first stirrings of romance with a relative, Denys, enjoying the predictable pleasures of childhood. An only child, she lives with her mother and actor uncle in a small London apartment and finds school challenging. This is no misery memoir as her decision to go to drama school is described in all possible detail, a very funny account of her struggles to conform to the idiosyncratic demands of the course, and the glorious final performance which distinguishes her career as a would be actress.

Throughout her life her mother is a permanent if fascinating character, allowing much experimentation in the face of her own romantic confusion and business endeavours. When Mary goes to Paris and gets engaged in a set piece of scenery and charm, her mother is accepting as always, being secretly perceptive to what her daughter actually wants from life. Marriage is seen as important, not just to be drifted into, even if it brings the potential for pain.

This is a gentle book about how women had choices in the interwar period that their mothers lacked. It is a funny and entertaining book, with characters who could be real, living in circumstances not all of their choosing, but making the best of things in this time.  The style is friendly, with no great melodrama but understandable emotions. I can recommend it for those who are keen on “middlebrow” novels, and I am glad that Persephone have kept this particular Dickens book in print.

I recently enjoyed rereading this book; for me it has become a comfort read, a novel that has many touching incidents. Heaven knows that we could all do with such a thing at the moment. I found one or two other Monica Dickens books on a forage in Barter Books; I am inspired to find out where they have been (double) shelved…