Clare Tristan Arctic Nurse by Joyce Case

So, let’s start with the dust wrapper. First of all: those eyes. I recognised them from somewhere else. Right enough, AE Batchelor, the artist, also illustrated the dust wrapper of my copy of Drina Goes on Tour by Jean Estoril and those eyes are Drina’s as well as this nurse’s. Next up, this is the cover of a romance, not a career novel for teens. And thirdly, what are Mark and Andrea (I assume it’s them) doing standing around outside in the Arctic dressed for the wards of a city hospital in the UK?

The eyes have it

And then we come to the blurb about the author. I know the book was published (by Brockhampton Press) in 1965 and I know that things have changed in the last fifty five years but it’s so politically incorrect! I’m not going to quote it but the terminology is outdated to say the least. However, we do discover that the author had nursed in the Arctic so we can assume that her descriptions of life in the 1960s are accurate.

So, to the story itself. You know that it’s bad to judge a book by its cover? Well, I decided to buy this one on the strength of its title. I love all things Arctic, especially if they’re also Norwegian so I took a punt. However, we’re in the Canadian Arctic here as we meet Clare Tristan, a new nurse on her way to Wolf Inlet where she will be working alongside Andrea Vaughn. She and we garner a lot of information as her journey goes on, we meet some Mounties and then the Eskimos (yes, I know they’d be described as Inuit in Canada today).

Clare and Andrea are described as the only white people in the settlement but some of the Eskimos speak English and have been exposed to other lifestyles. Many of them have European names as well as their own ones and the only really jarring note I found was Clare’s relief at this as she’s sure she’ll never be able to pronounce the Eskimo ones. In general, the author treats everyone, of whatever nationality, sympathetically. I did wonder though why the incomers to the community were all British rather than Canadian…

I was going to give you a synopsis of the book but it’s very linear with little plot development. Mostly, it’s a series of vignettes of life in a remote community. They’re well told and there’s some character interaction and development and I enjoyed those. Although I’ve shelved this book in my collection of career novels, it doesn’t really fit the usual description of one. It’s more a general novel in which the main character happens to be a nurse.

Shirley Anderson Sales Assistant by Patricia Baldwin

One of the things that has always puzzled me about the Victory Press career books is that there is hardly any mention of Church in them. For those who don’t know, Victory Press produced evangelistic and evangelical Christian fiction. The career novels were published in the 1960s and were all written by Patricia Baldwin about whom I know nothing. I grew up in the presbyterian branch of the Church in Scotland and my parents were firmly in the evangelical wing of it, in which the idea of a conversion experience, either slow and gradual or dramatic, was accepted as a norm. So the basic premise of the evangelistic strand of the novels was something I understood as a teenager in the 1980s. But the lack of Church was, as I said, a puzzle; so much of our lives revolved around it.

We meet Shirley in the village shop where she is a general assistant. She’s fifteen and pretty bored with her life, feeling that she’ll be stuck with Mrs Maws forever and never given any responsibility. Her mother, because of some undefined condition, is confined to a wheelchair and Shirley is unable to look for another job as it would mean leaving her mother alone too much. Her father is a railway worker, working nights. We learn early on that Mrs Anderson goes to the Chapel (that’ll be non-conformist, not Roman Catholic) and one of Shirley’s tasks is to take her there on a Tuesday afternoon.

Picking out wedding china?

Things move quickly after that. Mrs Anderson goes into a nursing home for treatment, Mr Anderson transfers his job to be nearer her and the family move to a big town where Shirley gets a job in Tomkins and Taylor, a department store. We hear about the training they give new staff and the chance to study part time at the local college; we learn about the stockroom, the staff pecking order and customer service. And Shirley meets the elusive John Putnam who fills more of her thoughts than is wise.

One day Shirley makes the terrible discovery that John goes to the Chapel. ‘John religious? He couldn’t be. A smashing fellow like that couldn’t be hoodwinked into all the rigmarole of church.’ From that, we understand that Shirley will become a Christian too and, of course, marry John. And so it is. A new girl, who is also involved at Chapel joins the department and through her Shirley is converted. The second part of the book is full of evangelism which is supposed to sound natural but, even to a believer, feels a bit artificial.

So that’s Shirley. It’s the first of the Victory Press career books I read and it’s not the worst but I can’t pretend that in literary terms it’s very good. There’s an imbalance in it; the first half is all about career and the second about faith and the two just don’t quite meld.

Hester: Ship’s Officer by Valerie Baxter

After yesterday’s debacle of a book, I decided to treat myself to a known favourite by an author who has managed to include a plot in his job description. His? Well, yes. Valerie Baxter is actually Laurence Meynell. Clearly Bodley Head felt it would be inappropriate to have a male writer of their career novels for girls – although he did write under his own name for Chatto & Windus. Kay Whalley, who, as Kay Clifford, wrote Career Novels for Girls, commented on another post that Hester: Ship’s Officer feels like bits of two books mashed together. And she might have a point as there’s a good bit of story before Hester realises what it is she’d like to do.

Like me, Hester’s first voyage was made when she was very young. In 1938, at the age of two, she and her parents set sail for Australia where her engineer father is to supervise work on a dam. As war intervenes, he is transferred to more pressing duties and the family settles in to life in Sydney where they remain for ten years. I would make the journey the other way, from Melbourne back to Edinburgh, just less than thirty years later. I was even younger than Hester, being yet unborn!

My first departure from Sydney

It is Hester’s return voyage to Britain in 1948 that makes the impression on her. Back in Blighty she is sent to boarding school where she excels at tennis and swimming and generally enjoys life. Having no idea what she wants to do with her life when she leaves school, she accepts her father’s suggestion that she goes to a commercial college for six months. Unenthusiastically, she agrees and does well. On the strength of this she gets a job as secretary to Julian Manners, the owner of The Wine House. (Somehow it is also relevant that his father is ‘Sir Wraybury Manners, the big surgeon’…)

Hester enjoys her somewhat unconventional secretarial position but she’s always beset by a nagging desire for more freedom. In the end, though, Hester feels forced to leave the Wine House by the behaviour of another of Julian’s employees, a widow with designs on the boss. With no good reason she is jealous of Hester and the two cannot work together. So Hester goes and, after a few months, gains a typing post at the offices of the M&E Steamship Navigation Company. She’s put on the sea-going list and settles down to wait until a post at sea becomes available.

Hester: finally a ship’s officer

We meet Hester’s flatmates: the steady Zoe and the racy and flamboyant Pat. Then there’s Hester’s new friend, Felicity, at M&E and her parents in the background. So Valerie Baxter gives us a proper setting and a bit of a storyline along with career advice. Pat is particularly unexpected in a book for teenage girls published in 1957. We see what we think is the last of her having an affair with a married film director. Her other flatmate follows a more accepted line and gets married the day before Hester finally makes it to sea.

She is given a job in the Deputy Purser’s Office on board the Mendip and will sail the round trip to Australia, leaving Tilbury in early September. It is pointed out forcibly to the reader that Hester is a stenographer and not an assistant purser. Women cannot aspire to such dizzy heights. But she is classed as an officer. And so, almost two thirds of the way through the book, Hester finally becomes a ship’s officer. If I thought I could, like Hester, have a single outside cabin, I’d definitely be looking for a job on board a ship. That I wouldn’t have such a thing is what puts me off.

MS Midnatsol: my ship

Hester quickly adapts to life at sea and gets on well with her fellow workers. She falls into the rhythm of life on board ship easily and can imagine no place she’d rather be. ‘Hester tried to imagine what she would do with the first leave that she had to spend in England and found…that the whole fabric and framework of her shore life now seemed so remote and unreal that she could scarcely work up any enthusiasm on the subject’. That’s exactly how I feel on board a ship, which is why this is one of my favourite books.

“The more the ship rolled the better she liked it; and the harder it blew the more exhilarating she found it.”

We hear about Hester’s routine, the funny ways of passengers and the ports of call, not that she sees any of them on the outward voyage. And then the ship arrives in Freemantle (yes, with a double e) and life once more becomes hectic. Few of the passengers disembark there but Hester has time for a quick sightseeing tour of Perth before heading on to Melbourne and finally Sydney. There she visits her old school and is promptly press-ganged by the headmistress into talking to the sixth form about her job.

Perth

The return leg of the journey proceeds much as expected and Hester begins to feel that she can take anything in her stride. However, she is stunned when the female part of the luxury suite, a self-obsessed, unreasonably demanding diva, turns out to be her former flatmate, Pat. A more pleasant diversion comes at Gibraltar with the embarkation of Julian Manners. Hester realises how pleased she is to see him and by the end of the voyage has agreed to marry him three years hence. In the meantime, however, she is immediately to take the place of a sick colleague on a Scandinavian cruise. Trondheim, Bergen, Oslo, Copenhagen and so on…

I didn’t mean to but I’ve reread the book as I wrote this and I’ve remembered all over again how much I enjoy it and how much I envy Hester her life at sea. There’s a lot of useful information crammed in but there’s a story and proper characters as well as a believable setting. I commend it to you!

Bergen

June Grey: Fashion Student by Lorna Lewis

As anyone who knows me can confirm, beauty and fashion don’t loom very large in my life. I’d certainly never have considered a career in either even if they had been offered to me as options. June Grey: Fashion Student is a fairly recent acquisition. In fact I bought it just over a year ago en route from Lossiemouth to Edinburgh as I moved house. I’m sorry. Why is it strange that I made a short detour to a secondhand bookshop?!

Fashion student without a story

I’m reading about June for the first time as I write this so you’re getting my fairly unconsidered and unfiltered thoughts. To say that the plot is slight would be vastly to overstate its nature. There is a very small strand of romance running through it (very small and straggly) and that’s about it. June is established as a conscientious and promising design student with an amiable nature and from that point there is no development. Her fellow students and co-workers are merely mouthpieces allowing the reader to find out all there is to know about different elements of the world of fashion.

Do I sound cross? Well, I suppose I am. I paid a lot of money for this book and it would have been some consolation if there’d been a story. Basically, June gets a placement at a fashion house for a few months as part of her course. Everybody is, deep down at least, helpful and pleasant to work with. June proves herself and when her course is finished, the same business gives her a job. Oh, and the romantic lead turns out to be the half-brother of someone important. That’s it.

Jane: Young Author by Valerie Baxter

This is my second go at collecting career novels. As a teenager I had virtually all the Bodley Career Novels but I got rid of them. It’s my biggest book collecting regret. Will I ever get my hands on Molly Qualifies as a Librarian ever again? Possibly not. It was one of my favourites and today’s choice was another. I used to daydream that my namesake could be me one day…

Although I enjoyed the book, it’s always seemed to me an odd concept. Being an author never felt like a career one could train for and that makes it quite different from most of the other novels. As well as hard work, excelling in the arts needs talent and, almost certainly, a lucky break. However, I’m putting all that aside and taking the book at face value.

Jane Fanshawe is at a loss. We meet her on her twenty first birthday and are given a potted history. She has been an orphan since the age of sixteen when her parents were killed whilst she was on holiday. Jane, who is at boarding school, falls under the guardianship of distant relatives and goes to live in their lifeless, loveless house. On leaving school she has no idea what she wants to do and eventually agrees to study medicine. (As we know from an earlier book, there’s nothing easier to get into!) But Jane knows she’ll never be any use in the medical world and so, now that she’s of age and has access to a little family money, she throws it up, moves into a flat with her friend Hester and gets a ridiculously underpaid job as maid-of-all-work at a publishing house.

And that’s when we discover that Jane thinks she’d like to write a novel. She is at least sensible enough to know that this isn’t a viable career at this stage of her life but she thinks that working in the book world might be a good starting point. In amongst the trivia of her working day at Hyde, Hessinger & Strong, Jane picks up bits and pieces about the technicalities of writing. Sadly, she also makes a terrible mistake over the editing of a short story and is sacked without notice.

However, as is the way in novels, on the same day she is contacted by Lucian Fenn, another publisher, who has read and enjoyed a short story Jane entered in a competition. He offers her a job in the editorial team and we all learn a bit more about writing from the publisher’s point of view. But the luckless Jane gets caught in the middle of romantic complications and Lucian, never a man to make his working life difficult, is delighted when the opportunity arrives to pass Jane on, professionally speaking, to author Stephen Traill.

Jane settles in well as his secretary, enjoying a good working relationship with him and becoming more like a member of the family as far as his wife is concerned. He teaches Jane (and us) more about the craft of writing and is encouraging when she tells him she’s writing a novel. To be honest, it all gets a bit tedious at this point and I may have skimmed through it… The book ends with a rejection letter for Jane’s novel which as the merit of being realistic. Stephen consoles her and encourages her to try again, this time writing about what she knows.

Sarah Joins the WRAF by Shirley Darbyshire

Although I was educated pretty much at the end of the runway of, and lived under the flightpath for, RAF Lossiemouth it never occurred to me that the service (or any of the other armed ones) might be a career for me. Lossiemouth was my third home town in the first eight years of my life but for the RAF kids I knew at school that was nothing. They were forever coming and going. I have always been interested in the RAF though. My Dad had done four years national service in Germany with them and had happy memories of that time which he shared with us. And, as I got older and began to take an interest in the Great War, I enjoyed reading about the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.

If Shirley Darbyshire is to be believed (and presumably her facts were checked) it was as easy as falling off a log to get into the ranks of the WRAF in 1955 and this is what our heroine decides to do after a passing meeting with a WRAF on a bus. Although she has the background to go for a commission, she decides it would be better to serve in the ranks first. Why, is never made clear but perhaps she needs to understand the lives of the less privileged. The book is full of unthinking snobbishness. Sarah is clearly better than many of the other recruits. Those she meets on the train to the training camp ‘could see that she was different from them; she was better dressed; she spoke without an accent; she had the easy assurance that comes from a secure background.’

Sarah doesn’t actually take off!

The training is tough but Sarah is determined and she passes without any trouble. Her problem is that she has no clear idea of what trade she wants to train for. She finally decides on storekeeping and is posted to Merrowford about fifty miles from her home. It’s not until page 131 that we hear any mention of flying! Sarah is given the opportunity to go as a passenger for the experience on a short hop to Wales and loves it. But no chance for her to fly professionally of course!

However she is able to fly to Singapore when she successfully applies for an overseas posting. From Lyneham she goes to Tripoli (‘Just imagine getting as far as that in one hop!’) and then on via Habbaniyah, Karachi and Ceylon. Imagine all those places being safe to fly through!! Sarah enjoys her time in Singapore but it is cut short when she is ordered to return to England to present herself at a Selection Board with a view to being given a commission.

I read this book as an adult and I was irked by all the class issues as well as by the rules which Sarah has to live by. I’m presuming that some things have changed in the last sixty five years but I’m sure there are still plenty of rules In the RAF. On balance, I think it’s just as well I never wanted to join up!

Air Hostess Ann by Pamela Hawken

The first time I flew I was already established in my career. I went on a school trip from Wishaw in post-industrial Lanarkshire to Schweinfurt in northern Bavaria and we flew from Glasgow to Frankfurt. Clearly I didn’t let on to the pupils that I was probably the only person in the group who’d never been on a plane. I don’t remember much about the journey. I was probably too busy counting heads all the time to make sure all of my group were still there!

Unlike me, Ann Gardner longs to fly. Not only does she want to see the world but she also wants to be at the forefront of this developing mode of transport. It’s 1952. At least that’s the publication date. One thing about that puzzled me when I first read the book MANY years ago. We know that Ann is twenty two; we know that she lived in Spain for four years; we know that the family moved there when she was nine. Even as a twelve year-old I knew enough history to realise that something wasn’t tallying. Would Mr Gardner’s firm really have sent him to Madrid in 1939?

Anyway that’s just an indication of how picky I am! Ann is of course accepted for training with British World Airways. She and the reader are both made aware that the course is tough and that there’s much to learn. Not only must the stewardesses (that’s their official designation, we’re told) be beyond reproach; they must also be able to cope with pilots who believe that women have no place in the air – even if, like some of the older stewardesses, they actually flew planes during the war.

Ready for take off

Once Ann has passed her course, she and four of the others rent a house (which they call the Chummery) near the airport and settle down into their new jobs. Ann is posted to the South American Line as she speaks Spanish and her first flight is to Nassau via Lisbon, the Azores and Bermuda. In these days when non-stop flights from London to Perth are being trialled it’s hard to remember how long it took to fly anywhere in the 1950s. My Dad flew from London to Melbourne in the mid sixties and then it still took days and many refuelling stops. Even my recent hurried and rescheduled flight back to Edinburgh from Auckland only took thirty six hours and that was with a stop in Bali and eight (long and weary) hours in Dubai!

But in 1952 the speed and ease of air travel was a marvellous thing and it’s perhaps easy to see why it seemed exciting and glamourous. Only the well-off would be travelling that way and airports were pictures of calm compared to today. Ann takes to flying easily and quickly gets over the tiredness that assails her on her first flight and becomes confident in her job. Needless to say she triumphs in looking after an unaccompanied child (well, you wouldn’t expect the chief steward to do that, would you?) and is the heroine of the hour in a crash-landing.

In between flights we get glimpses of Ann’s family and her friends in the Chummery – and First Officer Alan Royce whom Ann meets early in her career and who, it just so happens, is posted to the South American Line as a new Captain not long after Ann. We also hear about the introduction of jet liners which still needed to refuel in Lisbon but got there in a speedy two and a half hours

Pamela Hawken tells a good story. She makes sure that her readers understand that being a stewardess is hard work even if it is exciting, and she does give some practical information. However, this is not at the expense of the characters and plot. Ann and her friends and family have personality and presence. And the plot, whist slight, is real.