The Editing of Kathleen Johnstone’s A Nurse’s War by Patricia & Robert Malcolmson

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Nurse's War

By Patricia & Robert Malcolmson

The editors of almost all diaries play a major role in determining the character of what emerges as a book. Most diaries in the original (handwritten or typed) are not suitable for complete and unabridged reproduction. Many are way too long for a book. Most are in some respects repetitive, and readers are unlikely to want to hear again and again about routine matters in the diarist’s life, or to encounter passages recording, repeatedly, the same prejudice or frustration or opinion of, say, a family member or public figure. There may also be subjects of compelling, even obsessive, interest to a diarist that are of little interest to contemporary readers, though exactly how to deal with these requires editorial judgement. There are, then, many good reasons for leaving a lot out. Almost all published diaries represent, of necessity, selections from the original. And every diary poses different challenges for editors in making these selections.

Kathleen Johnstone (b. 1913) wrote her diary between June 1943 and September 1946 for the social research organization Mass Observation (MO). MO saw its diarist “Observers” (around 480 of them during the war) as akin to cameras, capturing life as they, individually, experienced it. Diarists were given free rein by MO as to what to write about and how personal or impersonal to be in what they said. Some wrote in the spirit of journalists, focussing on the outside world. Some of this writing reported mainly on the wartime news of the day, which was not always noteworthy (for us) because so much of it was censored. Other diarists were at least occasionally self-disclosing, revealing intimacies that they may not have revealed to anyone else. Many diarists quit writing after a few months, finding they lacked the discipline or the time or the aptitude for daily writing. A few proved to be very good at it. Kathleen Johnstone, a nurse-in-training in Blackburn, Lancashire in 1943 and later a state registered nurse, was one of these, and readers can now enjoy a diary that was – like most diaries, almost certainly – never intended for publication (excepting some by politicians and other public figures).

Nurse's War

This is a diary that is rich and diverse in subject matter. Kathleen often records details of everyday life. We read of bad food, cheerful Italian prisoners of war, debates concerning the literal truth of the Bible, engaging books (Kathleen was a dedicated reader), managing the sugar ration, children’s toys in wartime, American soldiers with money to burn, the cinema as a centre of leisure life, the trials of public transportation, the blackout as a major cause of fractured bones, pleasure-seeking crowds at Blackpool, and “Holidays at Home” (designed to discourage people from travelling) – the “Holiday Queen” in Blackburn in 1943 was employed at a laundry. The village of Downham, near Clitheroe, where Kathleen’s parents lived and where she spent most of her days off, is beautiful and was much loved by visitors, but still backward in sanitation. Grimy Blackburn was a city where people lived who (for the most part) had no other choice. Still, the labouring people there supplied about half of the funds that kept Kathleen’s voluntary hospital, the Blackburn Royal Infirmary, afloat. They also made up most of its patients. A Nurse’s War is full of vivid details and portraits of daily life and of people of all sorts managing their lives, with varying degrees of success, in the intensity of wartime.      

Kathleen Johnstone’s diary covers a wide range of emotions. There are moments of hope, and moments of fear. Some patients in hospital die; others, happily, recover. One newborn was not expected to survive but to everyone’s amazement did. Nasty accidents had to be dealt with. There were births to celebrate, grieving relatives to console. In the summer of 1944 Kathleen administered penicillin, the new wonder drug. She joked about cheekily breaking some rules. She mentioned frivolities on April Fool’s Day – a neophyte was sent in search of the Grave Digger’s Journal – and instances of oddball behaviour. Serenity and stoicism were often in evidence. She was sometimes self-deprecating and aware of the quirkiness of life. She and almost everybody else took pleasure in going to dances. Still, a devastating war was drawing to its conclusion and the huge losses of life were on her mind. The arrival of German casualties to be treated in Blackburn in August 1944 caused much consternation, even uproar, in her hospital. And while all this was going on Kathleen was worrying a lot about Bill, her POW fiancé in Germany (since June 1940), and whether he would survive his ordeals and return to marry her. Other men had courted her, she hints, but she remained loyal to him.

Kathleen Johnstone did not aspire to be a published author. However, she proved, in the pressure-cooker of wartime, to be a thoughtful and observant writer. The task of her editors has been to shape her writing in ways that will ensure that others can fully appreciate her talents as a diarist.

(c) Patricia & Robert Malcolmson

A Nurse’s War, edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson, is published by HarperNorth.

About Kathleen Johnstone’s A Nurse’s War:

Nurse's War

The remarkable wartime diary of nurse Kathleen Johnstone.

‘Warm, chatty and endlessly absorbing, this delightful diary brims with intelligence and humour.’ Wendy Moore, author of Endell Street: The Women Who Ran Britain’s Trailblazing Military Hospital

The second world war could not have been won without the bravery and selflessness of women on the Home Front. Women like Kathleen Johnstone.

This first-hand story of one extraordinary but unheralded member of Britain’s ‘Greatest Generation’ brings home with extraordinary lucidity and compassion the realities of wartime Lancashire.

In 1943, Kathleen, then thirty, was a nurse-in-training at the Blackburn Royal Infirmary. For the next three years she kept a meticulous diary of her day-to-day existence, leaving behind a vivid record of the real-time concerns of a busy, thoughtful woman on the frontline of the war at home.

Kathleen’s days were never the same. She writes in clear and lively prose about life in the hospital: of her fellow nurses, her patients, about death and dying, and the progress of the war as wounded soldiers returned from Normandy in the summer of 1944. She muses on being working class, wartime austerity, and her anxiety about examinations. Here too are dances, Americans and a POW boyfriend in Germany. Kathleen’s observations are witty, wry and astute – but above all relatable, even today.

Poignant and engrossing, Kathleen Johnstone’s tale of trauma, romance and friendship will leave a lasting impression.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Patricia and Robert Malcolmson are social historians who have edited several diaries for publication. They have edited three different volumes of the diaries of Nella Last, the inspiration for the award-winning drama Housewife, 49: Nella Last’s Peace, Nella Last in the 1950s and the collected edition The Diaries of Nella Last. Patricia and Robert’s other books include The View from the Corner Shop: The Diary of a Yorkshire Shop Assistant in Wartime (the diary of Mass Observation writer Kathleen Hey) and Women at the Ready, a history of the Women’s Voluntary Service on the Home Front during the Second World War. They live in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada.

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