Sarah Beeson’s memoir takes us back to the early Seventies in Hackney, where she was a trainee nurse. Flung into the deep end – caring for families living in lethal conditions, fractious gangsters and heroin addicts – Sarah has to find her feet quickly. She’s from a well-to-do family who have to be won round to accepting her clear-eyed, passionate belief in her desire and ability to become a nurse.
I thought this was a wonderful book – written in conjunction with the author’s daughter, a one-time student of mine and terrific writer, Amy Beeson. It’s a book told lucidly, matter-of-factly, and with a great deal of compassion. The past is evoked beautifully, I think – reminding us of the rather harsher living conditions of the era, and the feeling that Britain was only just ceasing to be some kind of latterday Victorian society. It’s a book that reminds us of what the NHS has always been about – and it’s a timely reminder: this book coming out just as everything to do with social welfare seems to be slipping backwards. It’s good to read a memoir about those who get on with committing themselves heart and soul to looking after us when we need them.
Sarah is a very likable character. She’s on the side of the angels in this: always fighting against the casual prejudices and snobberies and sheer injustices of some of the nastier figures she encounters in her early career. She’s also something of an innocent, surrounded by worldlier girls. I loved the scenes to do with her flat mates, whether they’re storming the Miss World competition and throwing shoes at Bob Hope or sneaking naked men into their flat. I loved moments such as Sarah and her boyfriend having dinner at the top of the Post Office Tower, slowly revolving over London, and then meeting her father at the Dorchester – a very touching scene in which he accepts at last that she has found her vocation. There are wonderfully moving episodes to do with Christmas concerts on the Children’s ward – and, my own favourite moment, when Sarah brings a record player back from the Portobello Road, and plays the treasured 45 of ‘Octopus’s Garden’ a little boy has been holding under his pillow.
It’s a very warm, touching memoir. It never becomes misty-eyed with nostalgia or sentimentality and I think this is a result of the quality of the writing but also Sarah’s gumption and determination to inspire others to the same or similar work. The book is saying that nursing is hard physically, intellectually and emotionally, and the reader feels throughout that we’re being told this by someone who has never for a moment lost her passion for that work.