My Turn To Make the Tea is a witty fictional tale about the experiences of a young female reporter as she gets to grips with her first job at a small provincial newspaper.
Poppy is determined to prove she can knock out scoops and write stories brimming with drama and colour. Her editor and colleagues at the Downingham Post have other ideas so Poppy finds her days filled with writing “stories” about weddings and gymkhanas; craft sales and dinners organised by local societies.
Even when she’s sent to sittings of the magistrates’ court, she’s demoted to covering the most minor misdemeanours, the cases considered a waste of time by journalists from other newspapers.
I was only down for a school prize-giving, a round of the shops to report on Christmas buying and the price of turkeys, a lecture on “Bird Species and Behaviour in the Outer Islands” and a demonstration of gas stoves. I could see myself spending most of the week in the office reading proofs and rewriting pick ups about village dances and bazaars.
The Downingham Post is a very conservative newspaper with an aversion to anything that smacks of innovation. Readers don’t want to read “stuff like that” Poppy is told when she injects some human interest elements into her report of an Old Folk’s Tea. Mr Pellet, the editor — ” the most unliterary-looking person I had ever seen” — has very clear views about journalism and they don’t include Poppy’s idea of introducing a women’s page, He knows exactly what his readers want :
Do you know why people read this paper? Because they’ve been reading it for umpteen years, and it’s still more or less the same as the first copy they ever read. It’s safe. They know where they are. In Downingham they’ve been eating meat pie and chips on Saturday nights since the world began, and if they were suddenly asked to eat their joint on Saturday and their pie on Sunday they’d think the bottom had dropped out of life.”
My Turn To Make the Tea doesn’t have a plot as such. It’s more a series of anecdotes about Poppy’s assignments and her relationships with colleagues at the Downingham Post. Over time we see her idealised notions about journalism stripped away as the realities of getting a newspaper out every day take over. There’s no time for in depth reporting or initiative when there are thousands of inches of white space to be filled.
In the provinces you are not really a newspaper in the strict sense of the word. You are more like a parish magazine. You do not give your readers the news but only the news that affects them locally. Tremendous events may be afoot in the great world outside, but you are only interested in what happened within your fifteen mile radius. World-shaking events may be afoot in the great world outside but you are only concerned with what your local MP said to the Mothers’ Union about the cost of living.
Monica Dickens has a keen eye for observation, never more evident than when she shares her thoughts on the odd assortment of fellow tenants in the boarding house where she gets a room. It’s run by the gimlet-eyed Mrs Goff, a woman much given to rules and regulations. Lodgers must be punctual for meals or go without, no item of furniture must be moved and there must be no parties or jollity of any kind.
It’s generally light hearted in tone though we do get to learn of some of the challenges of life in late 1940s Britain, particularly the housing shortage and back street abortions. The novel also highlights how women were treated in the workplace — all the Downingham Post team are expected to fill inkwells, fetch paper supplies and wash the cups. But as the only female staff member “it is nearly always your turn to make the tea.”
My Turn To Make the Tea is based on Monica Dickens’ own experience as a junior reporter on a local newspaper. Though my own time on a local newspaper happened 30 years later, I could still relate to so much of this novel. I too did more than my fair share of re-writing wedding reports submitted by proud parents (if they’d had their way every guest would have got a mention); or listing all the prize winners at the annual carnival.
But some things had changed for the better. We all had typewriters where my predecessors had to laboriously write everything by hand. Telephones were more common so no need to physically trek around the district gathering information. More significantly — everyone, editor included, had to make the tea.
My Turn To Make The Tea is one of the books on my #20booksofsummer reading list.