20 April 2020

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

Margaret E. from Sauchie, Alloa in Scotland, your copy of this book has ended up at my house.  Isn't it interesting when a book from a second-hand shop reveals a clue about its previous owner?  Margaret also included her street address so within a minute I was looking at her one-time home at the end of a row, across the pond.  Originally published in 1942, my copy is a charming Mermaid edition issued in 1953; WWII was safely in the past.

During this time of a global pandemic, the attention on frontline health workers and the heavy responsibility they bear will be one of the most important stories of my lifetime.  With medical staff being the heroes of today, it made perfect sense to blow the dust off of One Pair of Feet, Dickens' memoir of her time working as a nurse during WWII.  I have no idea how long this book has been languishing on my shelves but it certainly made for a perfect read last week.

   '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 hot cakes in Kensington High Street.' 

After reasoning why other areas of service wouldn't be quite right (how one would look in the assigned uniform was mentioned) Dickens saw Madeleine Carroll in Vigil in the Night and was sold on nursing.  After sending out letters to several hospitals it was decided that she would start training at Queen Adelaide Hospital in Redwood, fifty miles north of London.  Monica Dickens was in her mid-twenties.

It would have been easy to launch into sterile observations about the clinical nature of Dickens' surroundings; the reader can be thankful she didn't.  But first things first....after arrival she describes the crockery and breakfast....strong tea, a brittle bit of bacon with the rind on, and as much bread and margarine as you could eat'.  There's enough mention of blancmange and Bovril to satisfy anyone's culinary curiousity but as the weeks go by, dire situations replace any notion of a nursery setting.  There are frighteningly serious doctors barking orders during surgery, a woman brought back to life who was all but left for dead, men seriously burned in a workplace accident and a ward maid with an addiction to pharmaceuticals.  On the other hand, I was astounded that beds were spared for an aristocratic hypochondriac, a group of homeless men who unpacked their bric-a-brac to decorate their shelves, and pregnant women admitted to hospital two days before their due date. 

As German bombs rained down on London, overloading the more central hospitals, the relatively healthy patients at Queen Adelaide were moved on.  Just as a note, if you're looking for a memoir full of the Blitz you won't find it here.  Yes there's a friendly Wing Commander, the anticipation of meeting soldiers at dances, a nurse pressured into accepting a marriage proposal before her boyfriend is posted elsewhere, and inner-turmoil over treating two German prisoners.    But this is primarily a memoir about Dickens' year as a nurse trainee.  And while she was more than capable, it's apparent the task at hand was an occupation rather than a calling.  Reading her biography, this is a woman who thrived on experiences....

   'When the sun was shining I always had a passing desire to throw up nursing and be a Land Girl and had to deliberately remind myself of pigswill and dirty chicken houses and sleeping in a loft with nine other girls in bottle green jumpers and shapeless breeches.'

One Pair of Feet is highly recommended for anyone looking for a cosy read with some very interesting social history, cutting wit, and insight into nursing from another era.  Gone are the days when nurses would give a patient a massage or brush their hair, much less whip up a package of blancmange before lights out.  Perhaps as a trainee, Dickens was spared much of the grittier aspects of nursing that went on during wartime, but her time was also well spent in collecting material for a very entertaining memoir.  Highly recommended!

6 comments:

  1. I'd love to get hold of this one for reading right now. Apart from the nursing it will just take me back so that I cowardly don't have to face the present!

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    1. Can I recommend watching Malory Towers on youtube? A new series featuring a girls' boarding school in 1947 England. It's charming, will make you laugh, and it's so cosy I've been going to bed early to watch another half-hour episode. It's a nice way to end the day. Take care!

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  2. I don't think I could read this right now myself although I loved it when I read it years ago!

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, LyzzyBee, and yes, a book set in a hospital wouldn't be an interesting venture given what's going on at the moment. I've just ordered three books by Stella Gibbons, supremely cosy and very much the thing for lightening the mood.
      Have a lovely day!

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  3. This has been on my list ever since I read One Pair of Hands, which is her hilarious account of working as a cook. I'm a nurse myself so I really would like to read One Pair of Hands as well.

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    1. Morning, Aileen! Oh this is a must-read for you and will supply no end of stories to share with your colleagues about the way things used to be. And thanks for letting me know how much you enjoyed One Pair of Hands....it's on my shelves!

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