There is a photograph of me, aged about two, distinctly chubby, frowning straight out of the picture, maybe on the verge of a serious tantrum. I am sitting on the swing in the back yard of our prefab and I am dressed in one of those toy nurse’s uniforms – I have an apron, a shoulder cape, and a cap with a red cross on it on my head. My mother always said that in spite of bribes, cajolery and eventual threats I flatly refused to smile for the photographer, who had been specifically engaged to take sweetly charming pictures of me. I look decidedly unimpressed and quite cross. Being a nurse was clearly not a childhood dream.
I don’t remember what my childhood dreams were – or even if I had any. I’m not sure I ever thought about work, let alone a ‘career’. On a rail track of constrained horizons, unambitious parents, and no family role models, I drifted through school – bright, but not stretched or stimulated. Like many working-class girls of the early 1970s, my future was not significant enough to plan. When I failed ‘A’ levels at 17, those failed exams could have been the nudge into the repeat experience of every woman in my family – a bit of a job, then marriage and children. But it wasn’t. Sitting on a wall in the school courtyard, miserably wondering to a classmate how I would ever get away from what felt like a ready-mapped future, she said something that would change things forever:
‘I’ve got a place to be a student nurse. I think they’re still taking applications. Why don’t you apply? Give it a go? The course starts in September, you can live in the Nurses Home, still get away. Go on, why don’t you just do it?’
So, I just did it. I applied and I was offered a place. The freedom I had longed for beckoned seductively. I wasn’t absolutely sure what I was freeing myself from – and I certainly wasn’t sure what I was moving towards – but movement it was.
Three months later, I was sitting in the back of the family car about to start a whole new life, looking eagerly through the rain-spotted window. Autumn sunshine lit the wet road and caught the golden leaves on a short avenue of beech trees – a left-over from when this land belonged to a Cadbury, of chocolate fame. We drove through a campus of large buildings, past glass-windowed blocks, and turned in at a barriered gateway. My father wound down the window (no electric windows in those days) and spoke to a uniformed man:
“I’ve brought a new student nurse! Where do we go?”
There was pride in his voice, I noticed it. I suspect more pride than if I had opted to go to university. The value of a university education was not something that would have made much sense to my parents. Neither of them had had, or wanted, education beyond sixteen. They were, as we all are, the product of their time, their families, their environment. My father was a steelworker for all of his working life until the decimation of manufacturing industries in the nineteen eighties. When the steelworks closed, a major part of his life, and of him, was gone. It made him angry and sad, and from time to time both helpless and hopeless. My mother was a housewife. She never gave any indication of thinking about anything else. She was impressed by ’a lovely line of washing’ and a clean house and being respectable. Careers were for others – we were solid, working people and we knew our place. Go to University? What for? They had no conception of the benefits of higher education, and so it seemed to them a waste of time and, more importantly, a waste of earning potential. But being a nurse was useful and respectable, something for them to be proud of.
Through the barrier we drove between more brick buildings; on the right, the main hospital, five stories high, a clock tower rising from the middle; on the left, the School of Physiotherapy, the School of Nursing (‘Look! Look! That’s where I’m going to be!’) and then a large, double -fronted building, with ranks of small-paned windows facing the road and a wide, stepped entrance. The double wooden doors stood open, and above the entrance the carved lintel proclaimed ‘Nurses Home’. We pulled up outside.
It was two days before my eighteenth birthday, and I was on the brink of a career that would last more than 44 years. Obviously, I had no idea at that point how it would turn out. I didn’t have much idea about anything, to be honest. A few months earlier I had been wondering what I was going to do with my life and now this seemed to be it.
My teen-age self was taking a chance on nursing, and fervently hoping that nursing would take a chance on me.