As a teenager, Maggie Groff had never considered nursing as a preferred career choice. But, from her small-town southern English home of Fareham, the pull of the city was overpowering. As she writes in her memoir, Not Your Average Nurse, while studying for her A-levels, she knew high school wasn’t at all where she wanted to be: ‘What I really needed was a Vidal Sassoon haircut, an Ossie Clark dress and a fantastic boyfriend in London.’
It all started with a harmless lie on her application to the prestigious School of Nursing at London’s King’s College. Contrary to what she’d stated, Groff had not descended from a long line of dedicated nurses. But when she arrived at for the interview, and caught a glimpse of the other students, she knew it was a future she wanted to embrace. ‘I found myself in a lounge area packed with nurses just a little older than me,’ she writes. ‘They were chatting and laughing and drinking from white cups. I thought they looked smashing in their uniforms − mature, attractive and self-assured. One girl was smoking a black cigarette with a gold tip. Another had kicked off her shoes and was sitting sideways in the chair with her legs dangling over the arm. What sophistication! What class! I so wanted to be a part of that scene.’
Here Groff describes what happened in the nervous moments that followed.
Shaking like a whippet, I sat on a hard wooden chair in an enormous sitting room under the highest ceiling in the world and faced two of the most frightening old women I had ever seen. Starched-stiff and baggy-bosomed, they were wearing dark-green nurse uniforms with white cuffs and collars. Each wore a white linen bonnet perched atop her tightly permed head. I could smell lavender eau-de-Cologne. They could probably smell fear.
After staring at me for some time, the zeppelin-sized one on the right, whom I guessed was the top banana, demanded, ‘Why do you want to be a nurse, Miss Johnson?’ Her voice would have frozen spinach.
I swallowed hard and looked straight at her. Fortune favours those who have prepared, and, ever the Girl Guide (leader of Fuchsia Patrol), I was ready for this question. ‘I’ve always wanted to be a nurse and care for the sick,’ I lied boldly. ‘I think it’s the most brilliant thing.’ Then I sighed and glanced coyly down as though imparting a secret. ‘For as long as I can remember, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.’ Miraculously, lightning didn’t strike me dead.
Both women continued to stare, and I was convinced they had seen through my act. At seventeen, I was unsure of the world and the people in it, and I worried the hospital might have some sort of secret government access to my teachers and personal diaries. My entire knowledge of technology was informed by Dr Who, so to me anything was possible.
Anticipating a grilling, I squirmed on the chair, fiddled with the hem of my purpose-bought Marks & Spencer skirt, and hoped an unexploded bomb would be found in the car park and we’d all have to be evacuated.
‘Nursing is a vocation,’ the top banana abruptly announced. ‘It is held in high regard and requires strength of character, commitment to hard work and adherence to the values of the profession. It is not for the faint-hearted!’ Far out. This was amazing. I was exactly what they were looking for.
But then came the question I was dreading.
‘Why don’t you wait another year and finish your A levels?’
Hmmm. Uneasy ground. Explaining that I was desperate to pursue my calling, I asked if they would take into consideration my current academic achievements. For icing, I threw in the Human Biology AO level (a syllabus graded between A and O levels) that I had recently acquired and my Royal Society of the Arts Mathematics award, which a garden gnome could have passed. It sounded impressive, but it wasn’t three completed A levels.
There was more scribbling and then the bottom banana asked if I was in good health. I replied that I was, and she asked if I was married or engaged. Honestly, I plumb near fell off the chair at that one. Picturing my mother helpless with laughter, I couldn’t hide a grin.
Mistaking my expression for cheek, the top banana looked disapproving and explained with almost evangelical fervour that only single women who were committed to the rigours of the exceptional clinical nurse training offered at King’s College Hospital would be considered. This was accompanied by a sterling dissertation on the privilege bestowed on those girls allowed to grace the hallowed floors of King’s world-renowned wards.
Suitably chastised, I pretended to look thoughtful while my future lay in their chapped, ringless hands. Eventually the top banana leaned forward and told me that a girl had recently withdrawn her application, and as I would soon turn eighteen, and there was now an unexpected vacancy in the September set, I could start in a few weeks.
I tried not to appear exuberant while the bottom banana explained that I would live in the nurses’ home, be provided with uniforms and laundering of same, receive an allowance, and spend the first eight weeks in PTS at the School of Nursing, where I would learn anatomy, physiology and basic nursing procedures. She didn’t mention that it would be some time before I actually set foot on one of those celebrated wards at King’s College Hospital.
‘You can go,’ the top banana said dismissively.
I stood up. ‘Thank you,’ I said and smiled triumphantly.
A short time after the interview, I changed into brown suede hot pants, a lime-green polyester top and platform shoes. To complete the transformation, I applied lashings of blue mascara and pale pink lipstick.
Looking like an accident in a paint factory, I caught a bus to Marble Arch, purchased a lava lamp in Selfridges and, with a renewed sense of purpose, pranced up and down Oxford Street like I owned the place.
Later, I learned that the tutors at King’s School of Nursing had been attending a meeting elsewhere, and as I was the only latecomer to be interviewed, the task had been handed to any available ward sisters.
I was too young to know that my silly lie in the application letter didn’t matter. And I would come to learn that the important consideration was that I was healthy and strong and, at hardly any cost, could be allocated to work in areas of the hospital that were difficult to staff. I also looked like the sort of girl who would do as she was told.
To this end, I had surprise on my side…