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Monica Dickens reads from and discusses her memoir "An Open Book"

BROADCAST: Oct. 1, 1981 | DURATION: 00:53:21


Discussing the book "An open book" with the author Monica Dickens.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Monica Dickens is the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, but that's of secondary importance really because she's a writer herself, and an excellent and prolific one, written about 30-some books, a number of children's books, a memoir which will be the subject of our conversation this morning, her reflections as well as novels based upon her observations doing a variety of different jobs. Of this in a moment. Her most recent work, a memoir, is called "An Open Book", by Monica Dickens, published by New Press Mayflower. So in a moment the reflections and the readings of Monica Dickens. [pause in recording]

Monica Dickens "This is not the whole story of a life. It is an attempt to recapture some of those elements of it which are the origins of books that I have written. So childhood must be looked at, not only because I have written children's books, self-indulgently for the child still within, but because it is both the soil and the roots of what grows later."

Studs Terkel And thus Chapter One begins. The basis of your books are your own life and observations, and it's a very endearing one, too, the memoir that Rebecca West has called, which is "Monica Dickens", writes Rebecca West, "Resembles her ancestor tremendously. It is life itself that is caught up in the pages of her books." And that's pretty much it, isn't it?

Monica Dickens Well, I hope so. That's what I'm striving for.

Studs Terkel You just describe your family in the beginning with a certain kind of family in a class-conscious country, England.

Monica Dickens Well, I suppose it was what you would call if one must put labels on classes, upper-middle-class, the bourgeoisie, really. We were no great shakes. Not aristocrats, but we were comfortable. And my mother was a true Victorian woman who had been brought up in a very repressed era when children and young girls were not allowed to make a name, not allowed to have jobs, not allowed to -- I remember her telling me that she and my father never had a day together alone until they were married. I mean, what kind of a marriage are you going to have when you really don't get to know the person? I [remind?] the most famous story about my mother was that, which illustrates how little she knew and how little they talked, this was very shortly after the great Oscar Wilde scandal when he was jailed for homosexuality. And as she turned and left the altar to walk in triumph down the aisle with her bridegroom, she dug my father in the ribs and said, "And now, will you tell me what Oscar Wilde did?" Which I is the most wonderful illustration of the Victorian

Studs Terkel You say, "I marvel at a childhood that I once took for granted." You say that, too. There was innocence, this was one of those last I suppose last moments of innocence, too,

Monica Dickens A very sheltered, a very sheltered, very secure childhood, and I do marvel at it now when I see what very different childhoods many people survive. I took completely for granted that I was a little queen in my own kingdom. All of the children were, with nannies and maids to look after us, our parents were rather fairytale figures. Our mother was somebody who came in to kiss us good night in a beautiful ball gown before she went out. We ought to have felt deprived, but we didn't. And I feel my mother was deprived, having brought have two children myself under very different circumstances, I feel that she was deprived of the pleasures of an

Studs Terkel Did your mother ever question her lot, that is, that she was a woman and there were certain things she could or could not do. She -- did she ever, you ever aware that any time?

Monica Dickens Yes, she did because actually she was a woman very much ahead of her time, and she did rail against her lot. She I think, if she'd been born later, would have been a writer and whatever talent I have I'm quite convinced comes from my mother, because I don't believe that the kind of talent which we really have to call genius of Charles Dickens is ever passed down. I think it's

Studs Terkel It was your father's, Charles Dickens, your father's grandfather.

Monica Dickens That's right. He was. My grandfather was Charles Dickens' eighth child and sixth son. He became a judge. He was the only one of Dickens's children who did make a success in

Studs Terkel There we go again, don't we, that Dickens, the celebrated figure, the gifted figure, and children, his children having trouble. To some extent as a res-- caused by it.

Monica Dickens How do you fight your way out being the child of a man who was the most famous man in the He was. Well,

Studs Terkel world? He was. Well, I guess at the time Dickens certainly the most famous writer in the world. His visit to America, his novels, everywhere.

Monica Dickens He was -- even to people who didn't read. He was famous. A very perceptive remark of Priestley's, J.B. Priestley, who's written a lot about Dickens was that the only man that you could compare him to in that sort of fame in his own lifetime perhaps was Charlie Chaplin.

Studs Terkel That's interesting, yeah.

Monica Dickens Interesting comment.

Studs Terkel International figures.

Monica Dickens Do you know, they even look rather alike. They're very much alike in that they appealed to the ordinary person. The appeal was completely over all classes and was universal, and they were both

Studs Terkel As you say that, their names of course became synonyms for something. So, you mentioned Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin's life in the slums of London was described as a Dickensian childhood.

Monica Dickens Yes. Absolutely it was. I mean, when you say a Dickensian childhood you know exactly what he means.

Studs Terkel You know what it means immediately, that's [throughout?] the names, so the children -- so here we come to your descriptions, too, of your mother's mother, and they're like photographs, Fanny's mother, that was your mother's, she was as remote as grandpa, but less than -- here's the description. "She was a bundle of clothes without legs, blacks and grays and mauves with a high lace collar held up by stays that looked as if it was pinned into her neck." Well, I immediately see a photograph. You know?

Monica Dickens Good.

Studs Terkel Of her.

Monica Dickens I, what I'm always aiming at in my writing is pictures. I have an image of my reader with a movie going across the front of their head because I think if you can't write in pictures, you haven't gotten the reader with

Studs Terkel Yeah. Well, right then, your grandfather, who was it? Who was reading Dickens. Henry Fielding Dickens. That was your grandfather.

Monica Dickens Yes.

Studs Terkel Now, that -- why don't you read that description, it's a great one. And of course it reminded me of somebody, you see. This, this.

Monica Dickens "Henry Fielding Dickens wore a geranium and leaned his elbow on the same velvet-covered reading stand as his father. He had listened to his father many times, and the elder one said he was amazing, they liked Charles Dickens. To celebrate his 80th birthday he went the whole way through 'A Christmas Carol' without a hitch, his teeth loosening at the melodramatic bits. 'I know him, Marley's ghossshht.'"

Studs Terkel You know, that's so funny as you say

Monica Dickens It's a famous occasion on which his teeth actually came out into the audience, which was very popular among the children.

Studs Terkel What comes to my mind as a reader of this book, of this passage, is someone I remember. A teacher I had in high school that was, by the way, of another century. It was high school, I went to the oldest in Chicago at the time, McKinley it was called, and it was 1925 to 28, and some of the old teachers were from the 19th century. Still there. One of whom was George W. Powles, P-O-W-L-E-S, Powles, and he had that trouble with his teeth. And I remember, remembered that so very often some of the kids are very wicked. They'd stand up [deliberately?] so he could say, "Shiddown!" Delivery. And he, a cigarette and always spoke -- he's the one who -- so I thought of your grandfather.

Monica Dickens "Marley's

Studs Terkel "Marley's ghost." So these men -- now we come to one of the key parts of the book, your own adventures. Now, you were living in the -- we know of "Upstairs, Downstairs" of course of Masterpiece Theater, a remarkably successful and evocative series. Upstairs, you lived an upstairs life, but you sought, you worked in a downstairs world. Why don't you describe that?

Monica Dickens I chose to go downstairs because I wasn't really making it in the upstairs world. When I first grew up, I was a debutante, you know, presented at court, went to the balls and was very shy, rather fat, not attractive. Nobody danced with me, my program was never full. Hated that kind of life. And I'd, for a long time I'd been troubled by believing that the servants and the waiters, for instance, and the people, the busboys in restaurants were having a much better time than I was. I still think that.

Studs Terkel Well, I'm not sure

Monica Dickens I still, I have a very hard time in restaurants.

Studs Terkel Some of them might say "I'll changes places with ya."

Monica Dickens They might, but I would prefer to be the one who's doing the waiting. And so when I got this revolutionary idea that I should have a job, which was not my parents' idea, in those days one I didn't have to, I went as far away from my own background as I could. I went to a domestic agency and told them that I was a cook, and it was just during the sort of change-over period when people still needed servants just before the war, and -- the second war. And but servants were hard to get, because girls had gone into being secretaries, working in factories, getting more money. They no longer wanted the life of slavery. So they were, it was a great demand for servants. I was taken for what I said I was, I my

Studs Terkel Did you know something about cooking?

Monica Dickens Well, I could boil an egg and make a hollandaise sauce. I think that was the extent of my -- good [stock? stuff? start?], really. And my sister and I wrote my references. We used to steal notepaper from the country houses of various friends, and I said I was a cook, and I learnt as I went along. I've always believed that if anybody asks you if you can do anything, if you know how to do something you should never say no. You should always say "Yes" and then go and find out. And the power of bluff, too, carried me through. I did learn as I went along. I didn't always last very long in some of the jobs. I was, I was what you call a cook general, if you know

Studs Terkel What is a cook general?

Monica Dickens A cook general is really a total slave, because I thought that if I was a cook in a household where there were other servants, the other servants would know that I had no experience and was quite hopeless, whereas I could probably bluff my employer. So a cook general I was in the house by myself. I was the woman who came in at seven o'clock in the morning and cleaned out the fires, got coal dust all over myself and everything else, lit the boiler for the master's bath, got the breakfast, cleared the breakfast away, washed the breakfast things, prepared lunch for madam to have her delicate little lunch party, made cakes for her tea party, walked the dog, did the shopping, cooked the dinner, changed my cooking apron for a parlourmaid's apron and a frilly cap, served the din-- washed up, left the house at about midnight

Studs Terkel Why am I laughing?

Monica Dickens Destroyed, and I earned 25 shillings a week.

Studs Terkel This was common, wasn't

Monica Dickens This was a common way that people had to live who had

Studs Terkel Now, in your case,

Monica Dickens I adored it.

Studs Terkel So what did you do? For a time, remember you had an alternative. You had a, what Reagan would call a safety net. Yet you could go back. What did you do with them when you finished -- how many hours did you put in the day?

Monica Dickens I put in, well, from about 14, 15 hours.

Studs Terkel Well, then would you go back?

Monica Dickens Then I would go back home and where there would be some supper left for me on a tray. I'd put out some story to the servants in the house of what my job was. It was some sort of important office job, and I remember in the morning at one time we had a butler, which was rather grand, rather outside our level, but we couldn't get any female servants, so we had this butler and he used to bring my breakfast in to my room in the morning on a tray delicately served, and I would then eat my breakfast, leave the house, drive in my car to the other side of the park where I was working and leave my car around the corner so they didn't see their cook had a car, and I would become something so much lower than the butler that he would have died if he'd known

Studs Terkel So you worked 14 hours a day as the slavey.

Monica Dickens Really a

Studs Terkel And then you'd come back to where you lived, your house, and your butler would serve

Monica Dickens It didn't seem funny at the time, because you know it's like somebody once said, "You never realize you're having an adventure until

Studs Terkel How long, you did this for a couple of years.

Monica Dickens For two years,

Studs Terkel You had a variety of these jobs.

Monica Dickens I had about 20 jobs. Sometimes I was fired, and sometimes I fired myself, then I would go, I would call up the agency and say, "I can't stand these people anymore. What do you have now?" And they'd find me something else.

Studs Terkel And so you kept it up, the masquerade, and it worked, you were doing the work. By the way, did you have any time off there?

Monica Dickens Oh, I, probably a half day a week, something like that.

Studs Terkel That was it. And then the different people you worked for, there was a mother and son, then you worked for an actress and that was a very funny experience.

Monica Dickens I worked for an actress who was at that time very well-known, Margaret Rawlings. She was acting in a play about Parnell, she was Kitty Parnell, and had a good time with her. I used to hear her part and we'd entertain other actors and actresses. She was having an affair with a well-known writer at the time, and I used to go in in the morning, get her breakfast, and if there was a dirty raincoat hanging behind the hook, I'd know the writer was in bed with her, and I'd serve them their breakfast in bed. And until one morning when I was kneeling in the grate, doing her fire before lighting it, for Madam to wake and get up, she sat up in bed and she said, "You know, I'm gonna break with him." She said, "You know, he's really a prig in bed." And from what I knew of the man -- and it was those things I think that kept me delighted with being a maid, because I was seeing life as it was really lived by people. Nobody dissembles in front of their servants.

Studs Terkel By the way, that's it. This became the basis of your first book, not, non-nonfiction called "One Pair of Hands". "One Pair of Hands". And obviously what it means, the one pair of hands.

Monica Dickens Well, that's what you always say to Madam when she asked too much, you'd say, [in cockney accent] "Well, I've only got one pair of 'ands, Madam, you know, I can't do no more, I'm doin' wot I can, just got the one pair

Studs Terkel One pair. You said that.

Monica Dickens That's right, yes.

Studs Terkel So you really were. Did you -- use a cockney accent, too? Oh, you kept the accent, too. Oh, that would have been a giveaway if you spoke as you spoke. Speak now.

Monica Dickens Well, now I speak kind of bastardised, half American,

Studs Terkel But it was kind of a working class, a

Monica Dickens Well, [uses cockney accent] "It's a little bit like that, you know, I mean, Madam, what do you fancy for lunch? I have, yes, we could have the beef, but I think it's gone off a bit. You know, I'd advise the chicken, really. Or how 'bout a nice bit of fish, my lady? You know, do you good, that would set you up."

Studs Terkel Were you think -- ever think of being an actress yourself?

Monica Dickens Oh, everybody wants to be an actress. Well, I was too fat, I was gross.

Studs Terkel You know, you said something, about they speak in front of a servant as they would not in front of others. Now, Black people who have worked as domestics here for a while know this very well. They say, "We know far more about them they know about us," and this is always -- and so it is in

Monica Dickens And this struck me waiting on table for dinner. You know, that people -- I was like an invisible person. Or there sometimes if there was something really outrageous they didn't want me to hear they'd speak in French, of course never occurring to them that I might understand French. It was "pas devant la bonne," you know, and so then they'd say it in French, "pas devant" -- "not before the maid."

Studs Terkel Not before the maid. So you knew that.

Monica Dickens And also they would reveal themselves in all their true slobbery and meanness to their, there really was no dissembling in front of the maid. I simply didn't count.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Monica Dickens But I liked that, it was what I needed at the time, I needed to be invisible. I always had a private idea that I was going to be famous. One time I thought I was going to be rich and famous, but that's too much to ask, but I knew I was gonna do something, but I didn't know what it was. I used to walk through the park when I, when I did get a few hours off, and I was lonely. I had no boyfriends and I was tired and droopy and I used to walk through the park and say to myself, "One day they'll know my name." I suppose everybody does

Studs Terkel But that, that became the basis

Monica Dickens Either as a murderess, or

Studs Terkel Now, what happened when "One Pair of Hands" came out?

Monica Dickens It was an instant success. I was incredibly lucky with it. Incredibly lucky, it was the right book for the right time. It was an era when people were reading books by people who had done things themselves.

Studs Terkel Well, then came another series of adventures, you worked as a nurse.

Monica Dickens Well, the war came.

Studs Terkel Although -- ah, that's it, there was, you joined the Red Cross. Wasn't that

Monica Dickens it? Right.

Studs Terkel And now comes the hospital experience.

Monica Dickens Then I started my nurses' training, I decided that I would be a real nurse and go through the training, and I worked for nearly four years as a nurse both in London and in the country.

Studs Terkel Now, this is before national health.

Monica Dickens Very much before national health, and nursing was very different. It was not as technical a job. We were, we did all the cleaning as well as all the nursing. We did all the bed nursing. We had no practical

Studs Terkel So it was a combination of what is hospital aide today

Monica Dickens It was again slavery.

Studs Terkel Again it was, again it was,

Monica Dickens But again I loved it. I think we were very good nurses, the training was excellent, but we were totally under the thrall of the matron of the hospital, we were not allowed to go out with men. We did, of course, but not by the front

Studs Terkel But then there was one matron. Matron, she's the -- in charge.

Monica Dickens Matron was the

Studs Terkel That's so funny, 'cause you know in prisons, the woman, the jailer is called a matron. So there was sort of a prison air to it, too. You described the scene of this one matron -- uh, there was a patient who was bleeding.

Monica Dickens There was a patient who was, who was bleeding and they couldn't stop the bleeding. And I was sent to get ice. There was no ice on the ward, there was no refrigerator in those days. And she said, "Go and get ice." So I was to go to the kitchen and this, but we had these long sleeves we wore, and we rolled them up to work on the ward. If you went off the ward, you were supposed to roll your sleeves down and look like a lady. "A grip on my arm like a gin trap jerked me to a stop. Assistant Matron's eyes were blazing. 'Where are you going, nurse?' 'To the kitchen, get ice, this man's bleeding to death!' 'Where are your cuffs?' 'It's an emergency, I told you, this man --' 'You never leave the ward without your cuffs, nurse.' With Matron watching, I had to walk back, run when I was 'round the corner, find my cuffs, roll down my sleeves, put on the cuffs since I ran down to the kitchen, and I finally got the ice." But for all I knew, the man -- I mean, he might have died. It was more important to her that I rolled my sleeves down than that I got ice for the man. It was like it was more important to Matron that the corners of the bed were tidy then that the dying patient was comfortable.

Studs Terkel So this matter of ritual over and above life.

Monica Dickens It was a matter of ritual with which these old bags really sustained their belief in the system, which is what kept them going.

Studs Terkel The old bags.

Monica Dickens Things have changed for

Studs Terkel So that was, that was -- then there was a man named Tucker. You call him Mr. Tucker. Wasn't he a doctor?

Monica Dickens They were -- Mr. Tucker was one of the chief doctors in the hospital. Mr., a surgeon in England is called Mr., not Dr.

Studs Terkel But his -- that was an unusual adventure you had. Now, what was it he would do? He had a special piece of a technique for

Monica Dickens Well, Mr. Tucker was a very religious man, and he, he used to, when things went wrong doing the operation he used to pray. Everything came to a halt while Mr. Tucker would go into a corner of the operating room, put his hands together in prayer and pray, and while we are desperately hanging onto the forceps trying to keep the arteries from letting go.

Studs Terkel He was praying.

Monica Dickens That was one of the hospitals that I was in in which we had a lot of people that were going to be missionaries, because they were also dealing with homeopathy, which is a very convenient way to carry medicine, being very small. Pills, and Mr. Tucker was a missionaries' doctor, he was teaching the student missionaries.

Studs Terkel But there was one patient who died, there was one, what was

Monica Dickens Well, he also -- I mean, this is common practice now. But he said that we had to get people up on their feet the day after the operation, which is now accepted as a as a good practice. And I had this man again, it was the war, we were very short-staffed, I was alone in charge of 20 or 30 surgical patients, and the man had to be stood out of bed the day after a partial gastrectomy, he'd had half his stomach removed, and he was in a lot of pain, but I had to obey orders and I helped him to get out of bed, almost had to force him out of bed. I was torn between what I wanted to do for the patient and trying to obey doctor's orders, and Mr. Tucker's stitches let go, and the everything ruptured inside. And the man instantly went into a severe attack of peritonitis and died, which almost finished my career as a nurse, because fact I have never really got over that feeling of responsibility

Studs Terkel Did that alter Mr. Tucker's approach any?

Monica Dickens Not at all. It was covered up. I remember we had a post-mortem and it was quite obvious what had happened, that the surgery hadn't been very good, it was probably one of the days in which he was praying, and I was the only person in the hospital who could type, so I was asked to type the report. And I remember halfway through, the person who was dictating it stopped and said, "Let's not do any more," and I know that it was covered up. I know that a lot of things like that still are covered up when doctors make a mistake. I felt that I carried the whole load for the responsibility of that man's death.

Studs Terkel And of course there came a book, "One Pair of Feet", and I'll ask you about what happened when that book came out and the repercussions on your further adventures now that you were known as the author of the -- did you write under a pseudonym or always

Monica Dickens No, I wrote under my own name.

Studs Terkel And so "One Pair of Feet" deals with the life of a nurse.

Monica Dickens You nurse with your feet more than any other organ of your body, I think.

Studs Terkel You mean the walking back and

Monica Dickens -- Yes, and those endless long Victorian wards in the hospitals I worked in.

Studs Terkel My guest is Monica Dickens. As you can gather, it's a -- well, I use the word endearing book, it's a very moving one, too, and well, it's quite obvious, parts are very funny book, too. "An Open Book" it's called, and indeed it is. Mayflower Books are the publishers, it's a new publishing house. We'll resume in a moment. [pause in recording] And so resuming the conversation with Monica Dickens and her memoir "An Open Book". And so, as a result of your nursing experience, you wrote "One Pair of Feet". What happened?

Monica Dickens Well, what happened was, which amazed me, the hospital was absolutely shocked and horrified because nurses in those days, it was almost like being a nun. I'd say it was a cross between a nun and a slave. We were not supposed to be running the slave and the slave. We mustn't set ourselves up in any way and them to have written a book which laughed at the conventions and bigotries of the nursing profession at that time was absolutely beyond the pale. I had to leave the hospital that I was in. I spent a year then in an aircraft factory working on Spitfires. It was that time of the battle of Britain working on the engines of Spitfire fighter planes but of course I desperately wanted to go back to hospital. It was really in my blood and I remember I couldn't even bad a visit to anybody in the hospital because I couldn't bear that smell and not be part of that marvelous smell of carbolic was the pervading hell in those days. So I tried to get back in but I was still this horrible person who had written this awful book which laughed at the nursing. It wasn't what I tried to tell the truth really. But there were a lot of it was funny and I read about the funny things and no hospital would take me. I tried going under assumed names but of course in those days we all had identity cards ration cards and finally hospital that was very short of nurses agreed to take me as long as I didn't corrupt any of the other nurses had a very hard time and my name for years afterwards was anathema in the National World. People told me that new student

Studs Terkel nurses Between

Monica Dickens Nun and a slave. We mustn't set ourselves up in any way, and to have written a book which laughed at the conventions and bigotries of the nursing profession at that time was absolutely beyond the pale. I had to leave the hospital that I was in. I'd spent a year then in an aircraft factory working on Spitfires. It was the time of the Battle of Britain working on the engines of Spitfire fighter planes, but of course I desperately wanted to go back to hospital. It was really in my blood, and I remember I couldn't even bear to visit anybody in hospital because I couldn't bear that smell and not be part of that marvelous smell of carbolic was the pervading smell in those days. So I tried to get back in, but I was still this horrible person who had written this awful book which laughed at the nursing prin-- but I mean it wasn't -- I tried to tell the truth really. But there were a lot of it was funny, and I wrote about the funny things, and no hospital would take me. I tried going under assumed names, but of course in those days we all had identity cards and ration cards and finally a hospital that was very short of nurses agreed to take me as long as I didn't corrupt any of the other nurses. Had a very hard time and my name for years afterwards was anathema in the nursing world. People told me that new student nurses were warned what would happen to them if they read

Studs Terkel Know what this reminds me of? Jessica Mitford's book about the funeral industry, "The American Way of Death", and what happened to her name in that industry to watch out for her, so you were -- they were told to watch out

Monica Dickens That's right. They were told to watch out to me and avoid me because I was a corrupting influence.

Studs Terkel By the way, since we're talking about memoirs, hers has recently been reissued, "Rebels and Daughters".

Monica Dickens Yes!

Studs Terkel Family she came from was a pretty eccentric one indeed, and a remarkable one.

Monica Dickens A wonderful book.

Studs Terkel And so we come back to further books. In the meantime, you were writing fiction now, too.

Monica Dickens I was writing -- I had started writing fiction before the war and I kept on writing all during the war. I used to roam around the hospital looking for a place where I could put my typewriter. Usually ended up in the emergency operating room, which was in the basement for air raids, and invariably there'd be an air raid just when I was getting into my writing, and I had to pick up and move so that they can start operating. But I somehow managed to keep writing, and

Studs Terkel And you've written about seven or eight children's books.

Monica Dickens I had -- I started writing children's books when somebody pointed out to me that since I'd spent my life with horses and that since there was this enormous potential market of little horse-crazy girls, why didn't I do, put the two together?

Studs Terkel By the way, there's just -- pause for a moment. I notice this in families fairly affluent, middle-class too, that girls and horses. More is that -- has that always been part of the fashion? I see it more now than ever. Families not that rich, but there little

Monica Dickens Every little girl is in love with horses. I think it's a biological need. I've heard it referred to as a kind of pre-sexual attraction and I think that there may be something in this. A dream of a horse is supposed to be a sexual dream. You see very clearly that a girl, as she begins to get interested in boys, is no longer interested in horses. She goes two ways. She either rejects boys and stays with horses and perhaps becomes a professional rider, teacher, or she will leave horses alone for a bit, get her sex life settled down, and then go back to horses. That's what happened to me. It's a passion. I was -- my life was horses between the ages of about 9 to 14.

Studs Terkel I thought it might have been also something of status as well, too.

Monica Dickens No. Not at all. And the curious thing is as I discovered when I started writing books about children and horses that, children who are passionately reading these books, some of them had never even seen a horse. Never even seen a milk pony.

Studs Terkel So now we come to another aspect, writing children's books. In the old days, children's books written a certain way, with exceptions of classics, the great ones. They were patronizing books. Today you can't do that. It's a little different, isn't it? I mean, it's almost though you're writing for an adult, isn't it?

Monica Dickens It's exactly, it's just as difficult I think as writing for an adult, and needs just as much care. I think why people, one reason why people write children's books is because it gives you an excuse to go back into your own childhood. You are allowed to be a child again, which is a great luxury, to think like a child. Somebody pointed out to me the other day that the children's books I've written are about, have a slightly 20-year-old quality that they appear slightly dated, and I think it's because I am living them as a child myself.

Studs Terkel I also see the writing too, I think like Madeleine L'Engle is a very celebrated writer of children's books. Yet they're adult almost in their feel, nature, and the kids are very bright, kids who read them like them very much.

Monica Dickens They have to be. Yes.

Studs Terkel That's we're talking about. They also there's a changing attitude as in family life just as you describe that family as almost Victorian in nature, yours. Considerably different today. Oh, before -- we'll drop the other shoe, and then on to another interest of yours, a big one. The nurse sit-- the job of nurse today and attitudes, since National Health has come into being. Has there been a change in that respect?

Monica Dickens Well, I think the whole status of nurses has risen. There's no question about that. The pay is better, working hours are better, nurses are now unionised, and the whole picture is quite different. I am glad that I was nursing when I was, because I really enjoyed the bed nursing and the very close contact with the patient. Now, as you develop in your nursing training, you get a little farther away from the patient, because all the dirty work let's say is done more by the nurses' aides and the practical nurses, but the person who carries the bedpan, gives the patient his bath is the one who really sees what's going on.

Studs Terkel Then of course, a new life for you. You married an American sailor just after the war, and now your life is here, and so now there was an adjustment to the American scene.

Monica Dickens Tremendous adjustment. I married the day after I landed here, new kind of life, new country, new adventure, and I've lived here now almost 30 years. Very much at home here. Frequent visits to England so that I'm not completely cut off.

Studs Terkel And so while you're writing you do have another interest in a group called the Samaritans, and now we come to this aspect. The Samaritans.

Monica Dickens The Samaritans is an international group which is dedicated to helping people who are suicidal, helping people who are lonely, despairing, desperately need someone to talk to. I got interested in them initially because I wanted to write a book about what they were doing. I'd constantly written books, one every two years, and I was on the lookout for some sort of good strong theme for a book. I went to interview the Samaritans about the kind of people they talked to, got hooked in, volunteered to work with them, took their training, worked with them to get my material for the book, and then found that my whole life was hooked into it and I wanted to go on doing this work. I became convinced that this befriending by ordinary people which is the kind of service we offer was an effective way of helping suicidal people, coordinated with professional services helping people to get the help they needed as necessary. But first and forwards -- foremost giving them another human being to talk to in confidence, and I began to wonder why nobody had started the Samaritans in the United States. And I got, you know, "English people don't really know much about America." They -- I have, the sort of response I got was, "Well, you know in America everybody has their own shrink." They're all sort of professional-minded, that sort of service would never go over there. But I thought it would, and in my innocence I started a branch of the Samaritans in Boston just sort of with the idea of putting in a phone and taking a few phone calls trying to help a few people. The Boston branch is now the busiest, second busiest in the world. They get about 300 calls and visits a day.

Studs Terkel Really?

Monica Dickens Have about a hundred volunteers

Studs Terkel The nature of the calls -- isn't

Monica Dickens A lot of them are from people who are suicidal.

Studs Terkel What, they, the person's "I'm just about to?"

Monica Dickens Sometimes "I am going to kill myself. I'm sitting here, I have a gun, the gun's loaded, but I just thought -- I heard your number on the radio and I thought I'd call to see if anybody cares." You might get a call like that.

Studs Terkel It's really a call for help.

Monica Dickens It is a call for help, even though the person is saying, "Right, I'm going to do it. This is the night. I've been saving the pills. Tonight is the night." They're really saying, "I'm afraid I might do it. For God's sake, you know, will somebody"

Studs Terkel They're really saying also "Stop me."

Monica Dickens They really are. And once you realize that, the calls are not difficult to take, because a person who starts a call, "I'm going to kill myself" is really much easier to help than somebody who starts, "Well, I don't know why I called. I guess I shouldn't have bothered you. Oh, I don't know. I don't know what's wrong." The very depressed person who can't articulate what's wrong, where you really

Studs Terkel At the other end of the phone

Monica Dickens Well, you say, "You know, I have a feeling that something is desperately wrong, you sound very unhappy," whatever you can to get the person to talk. Someone to talk to is so badly needed, someone who will pay total attention, who will really listen without saying, you know, "Oh, I know just how you feel because when my mother died I --" you know, and carry on about yourself, which is the way most conversations go. You have to learn to listen. Hard for me to learn, as you can see I talk too much. I've had -- I'm still having to learn that, I still consciously have to clap my mouth shut, because listening is what really helps. What a luxury to be allowed the air to talk to somebody who cares about what you're saying.

Studs Terkel And so that person is talking. And of course the more that person talks, the more that person is with somebody, you, or

Monica Dickens The closer you get, you get very close. Some of those conversations in the night with a very suicidal person, you are almost in love, you're so close.

Studs Terkel You mentioned loneliness, of course. And [need?] a friend or the voice. There's a song. This does not deal with a suicide, it's [usually?] a lonely person. Now, see if you can picture her. It's called "Victoria Dines Alone". Hear this and I want you to just -- your reflections on hearing this song.

Tom Paxton [Song - "Victoria Dines Alone"]

Studs Terkel That song. Is that familiar, that figure?

Monica Dickens It certainly is. Victoria might be one of those people who are found one day on the bathroom floor or in bed dead of an overdose of drugs. And everybody says, "Why, we never knew. Who would ever have thought she would do a thing like that?" And it's because no one knew that. I mean, I -- there is a picture, that's a beautiful song, and it is a picture of a potentially suicidal person who may die from lack of human contact.

Studs Terkel Just loneliness.

Monica Dickens Just loneliness. The kind of person let's say Victoria works in a big office. Maybe she does. Nobody really knows anything about her when she leaves. We always get an increase in calls on say a three-day weekend or any weekend to which most people look forward. But if you are truly alone, it's just one more day of solitude. Do

Studs Terkel Do you get more calls also during Thanksgiving, Christmas season?

Monica Dickens We do. We do.

Studs Terkel A holiday. One that has a spirit of merriment to it or celebration. Accentuates the loneliness.

Monica Dickens It accentuates the loneliness, accentuates the depression, the depression your lack of people in your, in your life. Somebody like that who -- the loneliness increases, it sort of feeds on itself, because if you have very few friends, you begin to believe you are not befriendable, and if people make gestures of friendship, you're very likely to reject them. You become self-isolated and we, we pray that somebody like that will call us, so that we can provide at least one contact, a voice in the night. It's better than nothing. It's not going to change their lives, but it may be better than nothing.

Studs Terkel There are branches throughout -- there's Boston.

Monica Dickens We have five branches in New England at the moment, and there is a branch starting here in Chicago, which will be open in a few months before the end of the year.

Studs Terkel Called

Monica Dickens Called the Samaritans.

Studs Terkel And trained well, as you answered, you [started it?]. There are people who'll work with you. Is there a training or not

Monica Dickens --? There is a training, a course, we're very selective about the people we take. We're looking for people who are good listeners. Ordinary people, not high-powered people who know all the answers, but ordinary people who can keep

Studs Terkel I was just about to say, now you hit something. We know there are telephone solicitors. The voices we hear, and that's, it's sad. I mean, that's their job and sometimes young people -- and it's pretty horrible. The work they have to do. We know there are salesmen on the phone; the operators, you know. But this is something exactly the opposite, because they would be deathly.

Monica Dickens They would be awful because they don't listen. Have you ever tried saying to somebody, "I never buy over the phone," and having them talk right through you. You can't, any more than you can turn off somebody whether religion to sell or puts his foot

Studs Terkel But you see ordinary people, people who have a -- well, empathy is part of it, too, I suppose.

Monica Dickens Well, people who probably have suffered pain themselves. People who've been through it. Sometimes people who have been callers originally will, when things get resolved, become volunteers themselves, make excellent Samaritans.

Studs Terkel Now, who is Chad Varah?

Monica Dickens He is the man who started the Samaritans in England 25 years ago, and the movement has spread all over the world now. There are branches all ov-- all working in the same way.

Studs Terkel Is

Monica Dickens No, he's actually English. It's an Indian name. But all working in this using volunteers, using the approach of befriending rather than counselling, not in opposition to professional services, but in cooperation. As we get better known, we begin to get a lot of referrals from doctors, hospitals, social workers, because we can do what they don't have time to. We can be there day and night for anyone who need someone to talk to.

Studs Terkel And so listeners, by the way, you did then. This time you've become very much involved in contrast to cooking and to the nursing, [not that them is part of it?] -- nonetheless a book did come forth as

Monica Dickens I wrote a book which was called "The End of the Line" over here because Taylor Caldwell wrote a book called "The Listeners". It's called "The Listeners" in England, it was called "The End of the Line" which was published here in I think 1970, and that was my first impressions of being a Samaritan. I would never write the book now, the whole -- I used to think I had a grip on why people became suicidal, but now the more, the longer I go on, the less I know about suicide and the more convinced I am that each person is entirely different. Each person's problems are different seen from a different angle. You can more or less tell whether a person is imminently at risk from suicide or whether perhaps you have quite a lot of time to work, but you can't prejudge just what's going on. And I think I would not presume to write a book about the Samaritans now.

Studs Terkel That was written when? That was written

Monica Dickens Nineteen seventy. Nineteen sixty-eight. When I started it was a brash beginner's book.

Studs Terkel I was thinking, you still -- how does it work now? Oh by the way, what the Samaritans do, I just happened to come across this page. These are cases, and perhaps you might even read some of that. Suppose I do, suppose I do the person.

Monica Dickens You be one and I'll be the other.

Studs Terkel All

Monica Dickens I'll be the Samaritan.

Studs Terkel "This is Jimmy. I don't know what to do. I walked out of school but I can't go home, my mum would kill me."

Monica Dickens "Did something happen at school?"

Studs Terkel "It always happens. I'm always in trouble, and it's worse at home. Everybody hates me."

Monica Dickens "It must be awful to feel like that."

Studs Terkel "I wish I was dead."

Monica Dickens "Oh, Jimmy."

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Monica Dickens "It's all right. I'll wait. Don't worry. Crying's all right. I'm here. I'll wait 'til you can talk."

Studs Terkel Yeah. These, the various -- here's one that's interesting.

Monica Dickens "Samaritans. Can I help you?"

Studs Terkel "Yes. I want to know, if a person took ten Valium and some aspirin, what would that do?"

Monica Dickens "Well, it would depend. Can you tell me why you need to know?"

Studs Terkel "Well, there's this woman I know. She's got some pills, and I'm afraid she's going to take them."

Monica Dickens "Does she want to die?"

Studs Terkel "I don't know. She's very mixed ---" By the way, may I ask you a question here? Is this person talking about some other woman, or does he/she mean herself?

Monica Dickens You'll see.

Studs Terkel Oh, we'll come to that. I'm sorry. Yeah. "Does she want to --? Oh.

Monica Dickens "Does she want to die?"

Studs Terkel "I don't know. She's very mixed up. She doesn't know what she wants. She's done it before, taking pills I mean. Someone found her."

Monica Dickens "Was she glad?"

Studs Terkel "I don't know. I don't know how she felt. I told you, she's very mixed up."

Monica Dickens "Are we talking about you?"

Studs Terkel "Yes."

Monica Dickens "Can you tell me what's wrong?"

Studs Terkel "I want to make sure I do it right. My therapist told me if I overdosed again, he'd put me back in the hospital. I couldn't stand that. I'd rather be dead." And now we come to something interesting [unintelligible]. I jumped the gun.

Monica Dickens It was her. You jumped the gun, smart old you.

Studs Terkel Now

Monica Dickens Very often people will present it as somebody else until they get a feel of you to see whether it's safe to say it's themselves.

Studs Terkel It's always someone. Like girl says, "I have a friend who's in trouble, and she needs an abortion." So in a

Monica Dickens Oh, always.

Studs Terkel So in a way this is, so often it's that person talking about himself/herself and but using a third person.

Monica Dickens Or sometimes in the same way presenting you with a with a problem, but it isn't the real problem. You know, whether I got bad grades in school or my cake didn't rise or something like that, and when you when you really investigate the person is on the point of suicide.

Studs Terkel Yeah. Perhaps one last -- this is almost a classic, I suppose this is the opening one. What is -- you say what is Samaritan, most of them, listen. And so he/she, whoever this is, says "I've got to talk to somebody."

Monica Dickens "I'm here. Please talk to me."

Studs Terkel "I can't go on like this anymore."

Monica Dickens "Like what? What's wrong?"

Studs Terkel "Everything. I can't stand it any longer."

Monica Dickens "Tell me about

Studs Terkel "I can't. It's too awful."

Monica Dickens "Is it so bad that you are thinking about killing yourself?"

Studs Terkel "Well, yes. Yes I am, but I've never told anybody. I don't know why I'm telling -- do you trace calls?"

Monica Dickens "No, of course not. You're perfectly safe. Tell me what's wrong."

Studs Terkel "Everything." Oh, this is a girl. "This man and I, well, we've been together for about a year, and [we'll? well?] -- I'm going to lose him. He doesn't know that I know. I guess he was seeing his wife again, but he was too much of a coward. No, that's not fair. He's not a coward. He's trying to make it easier for me. I suppose, well, I'll make it easy for them."

Monica Dickens "By killing yourself."

Studs Terkel "Yes."

Monica Dickens "Have you thought what you'd do?"

Studs Terkel "I've got pills. Enough."

Monica Dickens "Have you taken anything? Do you need medical help now?"

Studs Terkel "Took one. One or two. I'm all right. I'm afraid, though."

Monica Dickens "It's all right. Don't be afraid. I'm with

Studs Terkel "Is it all right if I -- I mean, I'm so alone, alone. I can't stand it. I've got to talk to somebody."

Monica Dickens "I'm so glad you rang us. We'll talk for as long as you want." Now.

Studs Terkel Now. "I'll make it easier for them." Another thought occurred to me. Sometimes to get even with somebody, too, isn't it?

Monica Dickens It may be. There is sometimes an element of revenge in a suicide attempt. A suicide attempt, a suicidal gesture, the tragedy is that sometimes those gestures that are meant to be attempts go wrong. I'm convinced that most suicides are accidents anyway, the person didn't really mean to be dead. Let's say this girl, who is having an affair with a married man, she's decided she can't go on with it and she'll take an overdose perhaps an hour before she's expecting him to come around and he doesn't come around, and she may die by mistake. That happens very

Studs Terkel They're asking for help, and the help doesn't come. And the other aspect, I suppose, often we [are?] told that or a person talks that's everything [worth?] they're not going to do it, but it's not true. They do do it.

Monica Dickens I think it's the opposite.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Monica Dickens I mean, looking back on the suicide, it's almost always found that the person has given out clues that

Studs Terkel Is there a seeing -- this is telephone we talk about now. Is there an actual face-to-face?

Monica Dickens Oh, yes. People -- the centers are always open, we want people to come in if they will, but a lot of people value that anonymity of the phone. A lot of people we never see, we may talk to them for years and never see them.

Studs Terkel Yeah, Monica Dickens. This is one aspect of you, we're talking about your memoir "An Open Book", and we come to the end of the hour and we really talked about the book, and there are other aspects we haven't touched, too. So here we are. The book that Rebecca West has said is "It's life itself caught up in the pages of her books," and reminds us of her ancestor, tremendously -- of course you do tell a story. We come back to your great-grandfather Charles Dickens. What was

Monica Dickens He was a superb storyteller. He was also a superb journalist. His observation was incredible, and his being able to delve into a situation and pick out of it what he needed. Remarkable. The, the economy of language. I mean, even though the books for nowadays reading are overwritten, as far as a lot of people are, if you analyze his descriptions of people, it is all there in one adjective. Sometimes where another person would have taken two paragraphs and told you what kind of car the man drove and what he had for dinner and you still would have no picture of it.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about it, I suppose is also even, not just a phrase but became part of our language. Pecksniffery. [Leading?] with the names of people he used, but again the phrase I'm not using is patronizing. Ordinary people. I remember this cockney waitress, Mary Parparos, was describing a character, and she "Just like Dickens!" Says, "Just like

Monica Dickens And she may never have read Dickens, but if a Dickens character walked down the street, she'd know him. I mean, if Micawber walked down the street today, you'd know

Studs Terkel Yeah. Micawber of course. I call myself "Micawber," I'm waiting for things, "Oh, wait'll things will take care of

Monica Dickens I'm like that too, and they do, don't they?

Studs Terkel But there again, and so we come to you. You are his great-grand daughter definitely, not simply by blood, but writing. Giftedness. "An Open Book". Monica Dickens. And it's a new publishing house, Mayflower, and any postscript you have to -- anything you have to add to what we've said or haven't said?

Monica Dickens Well, there's always a postscript, isn't there? And with you there are always more things to talk about. I would like to spend the whole evening with you and find out more about you. As well as telling

Studs Terkel You may not want to find out too much, but thank you.

Monica Dickens Well, a lot I know, but I'd like to find out

Studs Terkel "An Open Book" by Monica Dickens my guest, and Mayflower the publishers, available and thank you very much.

Monica Dickens Thank you.