Reviewed by Julie Barham
Monica Dickens wrote many novels, but her first three books were actually fictionalised memoirs of her first three “Jobs”, a varied collection. This book is the third, and represents her continued attitude of being willing to work hard but to challenge the rules at times. She came from the Dickens dynasty, and her background involved a good school, and “finishing” in France, only returning 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 at 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 to do 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, she 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 an 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; 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 a novel,but with the daily realism of life for a young woman in a small town.
Julie blogs at Northern Reader.
Monica Dickens, My Turn to Make the Tea (Virago, 2022. 978-0349015996, 256pp., paperback.
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