Saturday, 11 September 2010

One Pair of Feet

During a visit to the local Oxfam bookshop last week, I picked up a very old, tatty copy of Monica Dickens' book 'One Pair of Feet,' which was published in 1942 and is an account of her time as a probationer nurse during the early part of WW2. I last read it in the 1960s, long before I started nursing (at a time when I thought there was still some element of mystery and glamour to the job) so decided it might be worth re-visiting. It's autobiographical fiction, and could be regarded as a bit lightweight, but I found much of it surprisingly perceptive, and still relevant to my own training nearly thirty years later.

The book's Matron and ward sisters were acid-tongued petty tyrants, humourless, lacking in any vestige of sympathy or understanding, and hell-bent on keeping both staff and patients in a strait-jacket of rules, regulations and discipline. But it did seem likely that these women had something in common with the military nurses I've come to hold in such high regard. It's rather easy to view them through rose-coloured spectacles, but several Great War VADs, such as Vera Brittain and Enid Bagnold thought quite differently. Brittain, in 'Testament of Youth,' and Bagnold, in 'A Diary Without Dates,' both comment on how insular the professional nurse was, lacking any experience of life outside the hospital and devoid of interest in literature, art or politics. Monica Dickens certainly agrees with this when she writes:

Women were not meant to live en masse - except in harems. They inflate the importance of their own little centre of activity until it eclipses the rest of the world. Men manage to pigeonhole their life; work, domesticity, romance, relaxation, but a woman's life is usually as untidy as her desk. She either fails ever to concentrate on one thing at a time, or else fills one pigeonhole so full that it overflows into the others.
I don't know whether the nurses at Redwood were typical of the whole profession, but most of them had no interest in anything that happened a yard outside the iron railings. They never read a paper, except the Nursing times, and only turned on the Common Room wireless when the nine o'clock news was safely over. They were only interested in the war as far as it affected them personally - shortage of Dettol and cotton-wool perhaps, or jam for tea only once a week.
The ward beds had earphones fitted to them, connected with a central receiving set, and while I was dusting lockers, I used to enquire about the seven o'clock news. 'Why d'you always ask if there's anything on the news?' a patient asked me one morning.
'Well, I don't know - because I'm interested, I suppose.'
'Funny,' she said, 'I shouldn't have thought a nurse would be interested.'
That summed up the attitude of the outside world towards nurses and of nurses to the outside world ...

I have a feeling that many of the nursing sisters whose names and lives have become so familiar to me were as disciplined and un-bending as any of those at 'Redwood.' I suspect that a good number might not have made very enjoyable companions. But as a 'type' they were a fundamental part of the hospitals of the time, and essential to the management and smooth-running of military hospitals during the Great War. Let the artists paint and the authors write - without the professional nurse's single-minded, rather blinkered approach, the British soldier might not have been as well served.

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