In this excellent newspaper memoir-novel from 1951, it is always Monica Dickens’ turn to make the tea. She is a posh girl, the youngest staff member on the Downingham Post, and the only woman on this very small, local daily paper. She isn’t a campaigning career journalist: she’s really a writer rather than a reporter (she is Charles Dickens’ great-grand-daughter, after all). But there are things about this novel of the tricks of the journalist’s trade, a memoir of small-town post-war life in the 1950s, that produce some hard-hitting campaigning writing about living conditions after the war. Even the work in the newspaper office is absorbing, even when it’s deadly dull, because Dickens is above all a writer about people and their lives. She drew us effortlessly into wartime nursing in One Pair of Feet in 1942, because it’s the lives of the nurses we want to hear about, not the dramas and the tragedies. In this novel, we get drawn in again by human interest, not politics or corruption or sleaze or economic crises. The business of the local paper is based on human interest, which is all about what your neighbours are up to.
On getting her job at the Downingham Post, Dickens moved in with some friends she had met on a cruise, who had foolishly said ‘oh you must come and stay with us while you’re looking for somewhere permanent’. Obviously, a few weeks in, they turned out not to be friends at all, and decide to move to Switzerland. Clock ticking, Dickens hunts, with increasing desperation, for a room which she can rent that’s big enough to sleep in, and only finds one possibility, while she’s wearily interviewing the obnoxious and proud Mrs Goff, the mother of a girl who’s just got married, for details of the wedding. The girl is about to move out of Mrs Goff’s boarding-house to live with her new husband, and Dickens snaps up her room. Only later did she discover the hideous dark stain on the carpet underneath the bed, and the news stories about the foul murder done at this very address.
Dickens’ novel is the first I’ve read to really make me feel the miserable tension caused by a triumphant and domineering landlady over her cowed, captive, and trapped tenants. Some of these people were really very nice, prisoners of Mrs Goff’s caprices together, but all were at risk. With a permanent job, Dickens was relatively popular with the landlady, but the moment she had to come back to, or leave the house at an hour that did not tally with respectable working hours for a woman, like 9 to 5, she plummeted in the popularity stakes. Money, or the ability to pay the rent was nothing to the leverage caused by respectability, or the ability to make the landlady approve of you. A single man had the advantage over a single woman if the landlady liked a spare man or two about the house, but not if she didn’t.
I’m still puzzled as to how the exotic acrobat Maimie and her Japanese husband Mr Ling were even allowed inside the door of Mrs Goff’s censorious house. There was never any justice. The one thing that would guarantee an almost instant eviction by Mrs Goff was pregnancy, which now seems bizarre and inhumane, treating a married couple as if they were runaway servant lovers in a repellently Victorian manner. Myra, a married woman who comes to lodge in the house, is quite used to pretending that she isn’t married, because she’s a ballerina in a troupe run by another middle-aged female monster, who will sack any dancer who doesn’t confide in her enough, or show the slightest lapse in concentration for her Art. Dickens clearly felt very strongly about these extraordinary attitudes. This novel, if it is actually a novel and not just pasted wholly from life, we simply can’t tell because the seams are too closely and neatly sealed, is constructed to lead us slowly up a garden path of increasingly monstrous and dictatorial behaviour from the landlady to a terrible and heart-stopping conclusion.
As a piece of campaigning pseudo-journalism, My Turn To Make The Tea is also highly effective, since the episodes of human drama stick in the memory long after all the newspaper office stories have faded away. Stories of human behaviour also last longer than mere facts. Dickens’ colleagues are also human beings, of course, so the episodes about how they work, and how she works with them, stick because of their personalities. But even here, Dickens’ method of nailing petty injustice is to show what’s being done, and by whom, but not comment. The reader is given all they need to make their own minds up: no swaying needs to be done.
Those poor journalist colleagues are beaten into third place for Most Interesting Characters in the book, because the readers of the newspaper, and what they expect from it, are astonishingly powerful. The first chapter is all about Dickens having to apologise for getting a name wrong in a court report, and the demands for compensation from an aggrieved wife who wants all the details about her misnamed husband included in the paper’s apology. The hapless Dickens covers a good news story but she’s not allowed to print it because it’s come from outside the paper’s rigid parish-boundary-defined territory. Her editor, Mr Pellet, is convinced that no-one living outside the red line on his map of the area will buy his paper, so no stories emanate from there. And because she isn’t local, hasn’t grown up in the area, Dickens is hopelessly handicapped by not knowing the local notables, and by not having read all the news stories and gossip from the area for the past thirty years. If she had, she would never have lodged at Mrs Goff’s.
Where the journalist colleagues do come into play is when Dickens writes about the now deliciously old-fashioned and evocative way of putting the paper to bed. I first read about this method in Kipling’s Stalky and Co, when Beetle was running the school newspaper in the nineteenth century, so I find it comforting that a Victorian method was still being used in the outposts of English country newspaper-making sixty years later, despite all the technology changes. Court reporting is another fascinating eye-opener: if you’re used to reading about court cases, and coroners’ hearings, only through the English detective novel of the interwar years, reading the way these are reported will reverse your opinions of the silently scribbling journalists at the inquest. What they know, and what they’re thinking, is much more interesting than the detective’s surmises.