After a week with Henry Esmond, I really felt the need of something light, bright and sparkling, and I thought that Monica Dickens was just the thing. This is the third of her accounts of different (brief) careers (the first about working as a cook-general, the second nursing in World War II). I knew from reading her autobiography, An Open Book, that this is actually the least autobiographical: "I disguised the paper, since I meant to go on living in that corner of Hertfordshire, and I mixed some fiction in with the facts, since I felt that two autobiographical books was all people could stand."
I don't know if reading that pre-conditioned me, but I thought this book read more like a novel than the previous two. The book opens with Dickens at work, at the Downingham Post (standing in for the Herts Express). She is called to the downstairs office to deal with an irate reader, threatening a case for libel, because her name has been mistakenly published in the court reports, and demanding a retraction and apology. This is familiar Dickens territory: caught in a screw-up and frantically trying to set it right. And we know there will be more to come.
The Post is a small-town weekly paper, old-fashioned I imagine even when this book was published in 1951. Its offices are cramped, dingy, and overflowing with "old, old ledgers and files. Nothing much newer than the turn of the century." Dickens is the only woman on the small reporting staff, who spend an inordinate amount of time down at the pub playing darts, coming back to correct endless pages of proof. They are sent out to cover different events, though often they just crib stories from other papers and the morgue files. All the stories are local, about matters that affect the readers directly. There is little point in publishing even the biggest national stories, because as the editor points out, with a weekly paper "by the time we went to press, people would have read all about it in their morning papers." Dickens wants to do more than write up wedding announcements and magristrates' court reports and Women's Institute meetings. But she is squashed every time she tries to liven up her stories, or convince the editor they need a "women's section," or snare more exciting assignments. She is constantly told she doesn't have enough experience, and somehow, it is always her turn to wash the cups and make the tea.
Her work at the Post is only half the story here, though. The other half revolves around her room in a rather unsavory lodging house. Her landlady, Mrs Goff, is a bad cook and a worse housekeeper. Dickens is drawn into the lives and adventures of her fellow lodgers, some of which take a dramatic, not to say melodramatic, turn.
Sometimes the place seemed more like a nurses' home than a boarding house, with coffee brewing in an enameled jug on the gas ring and people in dressing gowns curled up on each other's beds, talking about themselves, until Mrs. Goff, like Night Sister, knocked on the door to inquire if we thought she was made of electricity.I've never lived in a boarding house. I don't think I could take that much togetherness. And though I don't have a huge apartment, I can't imagine having all of my life in one room. For one thing, the books would never fit! But all of this is part of the fiction in Dickens' account. At the time she was working on the paper, she was living in a cottage described in loving detail in An Open Book, where she was reveling in the solitude. So no boarding-house adventures, no cramped living conditions, but a peaceful life with dog and cats, family and friends visiting on the weekends. In addition to working on the Post (Express), Dickens was writing a weekly feature for Woman's Own, so she wasn't completely unfamiliar with journalism. She was also continuing to write her own books. She says in her autobiography that she left the Express to write My Turn to Make the Tea (a much less dramatic exit than in the book itself). She later sent copies to the editor and a reporter she had worked with. Getting no response, she finally called the reporter to ask what he thought of the book. "'I read some of it,' Arthur said. 'I thought it was silly.'"
I don't think this is a silly book, but I don't think it's the best of her "working books." I enjoyed the sections set at the newspaper office, and when assignments took her out of the office, however dull she found them. There's a lot of humor in the staff's constant procrastination (all those darts matches), not to mention the way everyone falls asleep in court, at theatrical performances, and during political speeches. Then they have to rush around like mad to concoct stories, correct proofs, and "put the paper to bed." Their frantic busyness then reminded me of the advertising agency in Dorothy L. Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, as well as my favorite fictional newsroom, in Terry Pratchett's The Truth. On the other hand, the stories of her fellow boarders weren't as interesting to me. They felt sometimes like padding. I don't know if I'd have felt the same way, if I hadn't know they were fiction. If so, I hope I haven't ruined the book for anyone else!