My rating: 10/10.
One had got to be something; that was obvious. But what? It seemed that women, after having been surplus for twenty years, were suddenly wanted in a hundred different places at once. You couldn’t open a newspaper without being told that you were wanted in the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force; factory wheels would stop turning unless you rushed into overalls once; the A.F.S. could quench no fires without you, every hoarding beckoned you and even Marble Arch badgered you about A.R.P.
The Suffragettes could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they had seen this coming. Men’s jobs were open to women and trousers were selling like hotcakes in Kensington High Street.
I could not make up my mind what to be. A lot of fanatics rushed into the most uncongenial jobs they could find, stimulated by a glow of self-sacrifice that lasted until the novelty wore off or the cold weather set in, but it seemed to me that, provided it was useful, it was no less patriotic to do something enjoyable. At first sight, the choice seemed so enormous that the trouble was to decide what not to be, but a closer inspection revealed so many snags that in the end the trouble was to find something to which I had a hope of sticking.
The Services? I didn’t think my hips would stand the cut of the skirt and I wasn’t too sure about my legs in wool stockings. Besides, I’d never been much good at drilling and all that. My school reports used to say: ‘Not amenable to discipline; too fond of organizing,’ which was only a kind way of saying: ‘Bossy.’ I might have been a success as a general but not as a private.
The A.F.S.? I did try that for a while, but at the beginning of the war there was not much doing and I got discouraged with sitting all day in the back room of a police station knitting and eating sticky buns with six assorted women and a man with a wooden leg. At the end of the week, we all knew each other’s life histories, including that of the woodenleg’s uncle, who lived at Selsey and had to be careful of his diet. Messenger Dickens had once been down to Roehampton to fetch the Commandant’s handbag and a small tube of soda-mints from the shelf in her bathroom.
A bus conductress? … The W.V.S.? … I worked in a canteen for a while, but had to leave after a terrible row with Mrs Templeton-Douglas, who could never subtract one-and-ninepence from half-a-crown. I sold some of her jam tarts for a penny instead of twopence, thinking they were the throw-outs we had bought at the back door of the A.B.C.
The Land Army? One saw oneself picking apples in a shady hat, or silhouetted against the skyline with a couple of plough horses, but a second look showed one tugging mangel-wurzels out of the frozen ground at five o’clock on a bitter February morning.
Ministries and Bureaux? Apart from the question of my hips again (sitting is so spreading), they didn’t seem to want me. Perhaps it was because I can only type with three fingers and it always keeps coming red.
The Censor’s Office I knew was in Liverpool, and I’d been there once.
Nursing? The idea had always attracted me, even in peace-time, but I suppose every girl goes through that. It’s one of those adolescent phases, like wanting to be a nun. It was reading Farewell to Arms, I think, that finally decided me, though what sort of hospital allowed such goings on, I can’t imagine. However, that was the last war…
So nursing it is, and Monica Dickens edgily and wittily documents the year she spent as a probationer at Queen Adelaide Hospital, and life on and off the wards, and the personalities she rubbed up against.
It is terribly difficult, I find, to write critically about an author whom one has read so often and with so much enjoyment, as I have read Monica Dickens. I will merely say that this book more than lives up to the first few pages excerpted above, and that it does not disappoint.
The author’s voice is two-thirds world-wearily cynical – as only a twenty-something writer can be! – and one-third completely sincere; “readable” is a mild recommendation, but very apt. Many of her sharper observations feel initially rather cruel, but Dickens is as hard on herself as on anyone, and often her most maligned characters are revealed to have redemptive qualities which the author displays with as much clarity as their failings.
Caveat lector: Several era-correct racial slurs in this one which may bring the modern reader up short. One character’s nickname is N_____, due to his curly hair, and several times the same term is used descriptively. There appears to be no intention to offend; I believe the usages here were completely accepted at the time of writing. I only mention them because it is a sensitive point with some modern readers.