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I’m not Complaining joins that list of VMC titles that I loved so much, that I will forever envy those discovering it for the first time.

Our narrator; Madge Brigson is a Nottinghamshire primary school teacher in the 1930s, a neighbourhood dominated by large factories and increasingly plagued by high levels of unemployment. Madge is thirty, with ten years teaching experience she considers herself sensibly mature, well past any silly dreams of romance. Madge is a little sensitive about the tag of old maid schoolteacher, she knows people smile wryly at unmarried schoolmarms (though married women are not allowed to be teachers) and it humiliates her. When she is forced to report a crime to the local police – she sees their barely concealed smiles of derision and it rankles for weeks.

The novel starts a couple of weeks into the new school year, each of the five teachers have a class of at least fifty pupils to get to grips with. Madge’s colleagues are; Jenny Lambert; Madge’s pretty, promiscuous friend, kind middle aged spinster Miss Jones, Freda the earnest communist and Miss Thornby who is in charge of the infant class. Their headteacher is Miss Harford. Together these women must face the day to day existence of school life, which includes the awe-inspiring legality of the daily register, and the ever present threat of the school inspectors.

“We were all at loggerheads that day because the Scripture had been inspected. It seemed silly, because the Scripture is the one inspection that does not matter at all from the point of view of one’s career. It is the merest matter of form. … if you care to teach the children that Jesus Christ lived in the Ark with Noah, the only thing that will happen to you is that some old parson, without any power at the Office at all, will gently remonstrate with you, and the next inspection will be by a member of some religious sect who probably believes something equally odd about Bible history himself. So I did not worry.”

Each day they ride the trams out of the town to a nearby garden suburb where they live – Madge sharing a bungalow with two other young women, Jenny in two rooms above a grocery shop, watched over by a suspicious landlady.

Madge and her colleagues are realistically unromantic about their charges and the families they come from. They are by now too used to the nits, the squabbles, the combative parents to expect much. The Hunt family are especially notorious – a loud, undisciplined bunch with a child in each class. Their eldest girl, unemployed and apparently prostituting herself now, even turns up in the night school class Madge takes to earn more money. Madge can be a little bit judgmental; she looks down at the Hunts and their ilk – but then so does everyone. She has deep suspicions about the school caretaker, suffering shell shock from the war, and determines to get him dismissed. She is hardworking though, and deep down she does want the best for the children in her care, she is often horrified by the gaps present in the society she sees around her, both fascinated and repelled by the politically motivated violence she witnesses on the way to catch a tram one evening. Brought up in the country – where she often spends the school holidays, she finds life in this industrial town hard sometimes.

“It was the last mild day. At the end of that week the winter began in deadly earnest, as though the cold days before had been merely a temporary substitute for the real thing. I had a persistent sensation, as we plunged deeper into those short, icy days, with their lowering fogs, that the town was plunging down with us. It was frightening. We all seemed to be one — the huge husks of the great factory buildings whose heart-beats had stopped — the grey, stained houses round them, the tragic men who stood for ever at street-corners, and the children who came to school in fewer and fewer warm clothes, because as the weather got colder they were pawned for food. I would like to have been detached from it — a visitor, coming down to work and then going away. But I could not get the feeling of detachment. I was part of it, bound irrevocably to their miseries because my work was their children.”

 Madge looks forward to a time, when her hard work means she can afford a little cottage in the country.

As the novel opens it becomes obvious that Jenny, a few years younger than Madge; has become pregnant by the Professor she’s been having an affair with. Madge, deeply disapproving, is drawn into the drama, which includes a weekend visit to the young Professor and his wife to talk about their problem. Mr Gregory the rabble rousing, political curate has offered to marry Jenny, but she decides on another, less conventional solution, not ready to give up her independence.

“I lay awake for a long time that night, but not planning for Jenny. Instead, I thought about myself, from my well-disciplined childhood as the daughter of the village schoolmaster, through the bewildering, over enthusiastic friendships of college, through the ten years’ teaching which had left me with a third share in a little bungalow in the suburbs, a hundred pounds in the bank, and an expert knowledge of how to teach Mental Arithmetic – nothing more. I was sorry for Jenny, and frightened for her, and terribly jealous of her. Hardworking, contented women like me get this longing, from time to time, for all the experiences that have passed us by.”

Meanwhile the spinsterish Miss Jones, is delighting in the letters she is receiving from her sailor friend – who she is excited to be seeing soon when his ship docks. When a large factory is closed and the unemployment money is cut – dissent and demonstration begin to sweep the town, Mr Gregory becomes involved in the fight which also ignites Freda’s politics.

I’m Not Complaining is a wonderful novel – which would appeal to fans of writers like Winifred Holtby and E H Young. The people of Ruth Adam’s second novel are clearly drawn from life – they are the people she knew growing up the daughter of a Nottinghamshire clergyman. From what I read in the introduction to this edition, this realism is present in her other novels too, they however, seem virtually impossible to get hold of, although I have just tracked down one for a mere fiver – though I know nothing about it.

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