Diary Without DatesA Diary Without Dates
by Enid Bagnold

LibriVox is busy producing an audio collection of short nonfiction pieces to commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI. It’ll take awhile to complete; LV is aiming to have it ready for release in July. But meanwhile, it’s been influencing my reading, as I browse through the available material. I signed up for three slots in the project, and one of the items I recorded was a chapter from this book, which proved so interesting that I had to go on and finish the entire book.

If the name is familiar, it’s because Enid Bagnold wrote that childhood favorite, National Velvet.  But nearly 20 years earlier, she wrote this little memoir reflecting on her experience as a V.A.D. in a military hospital during WWI. The V.A.D. was a Voluntary Aid Detatchment, a civilian volunteer. V.A.D.’s were nurses, hospital ward assistants, cooks and kitchen workers, laundry helpers and office clerks, filling the need for staff in wartime hospitals. As civilians, they fell into an odd middle ground, subject to the regular hospital disciplines yet not part of the military. While some served in field hospitals, the majority were in homefront hospitals and convalescent homes for wounded soldiers. Bagnold’s book is based on her life in a hospital in Woolwich, England.

It’s an intriguing book, because it reads more as personal musings than as organized reportage. In researching material for the LibriVox project, I found many other WWI medical memoirs, most of which tried to be complete, explanatory, factually descriptive. This one felt very different, as though the author wrote for herself alone at the time of writing, just to clear her mind of thoughts. When it came to publication, the raw writings were allowed to remain raw, without attempts to revise, expand, clarify, or explain what had been written.  For instance, I had to look up the meaning of the acronym V.A.D. and what a V.A.D. actually did on my own, because the book never explains these matters. The book doesn’t explain anything. The incidents simply float up out of the passing days into conscious memory, without systematic efforts to pin them to times, places, dates. The mood of the writer, sometimes weary, sometimes amused, sometimes sad, sometimes philosophic, colors the way each incident is remembered.

Because of this personal style of writing, this book drew me very deeply into the hospital experience. The bigger picture, the larger hospital structure, the world outside the hospital, the conduct of the war itself, were “out there”, where the author — and with her the reader — rarely glanced at them. The ordinary details of the daily hospital routines had become her whole life. Because of this inward-turned sight, small incidents were experienced so intensely that they revealed depths of meaning.

I don’t really know that there’s anything I can write about the book that would be better than simply reading what Bagnold herself wrote —

  • Let them pile on the rules, invent and insist; yet behind them, beneath them, I have that strong, secret liberty of an institution that runs like a wind in me and lifts my mind like a leaf. So long as I conform absolutely, not a soul will glance at my thoughts—few at my face. I have only to be silent and conform, and I might be in so far a land that even the eye of God had lost me.
  • It unsettles me as I lay my spoons and forks. Sixty-five trays. It takes an hour to do. Thirteen pieces on each tray. Thirteen times sixty-five … eight hundred and forty-five things to collect, lay, square up symmetrically. I make little absurd reflections and arrangements—taking a dislike to the knives because they will not lie still on the polished metal of the tray, but pivot on their shafts, and swing out at angles after my fingers have left them. I love the long, the dim and lonely, corridor; the light centred in the gleam of the trays, salt-cellars, yellow butters, cylinders of glass….
  • One has illuminations all the time! There is an old lady who visits in our ward, at whom, for one or two unimportant reasons, it is the custom to laugh. The men, who fall in with our moods with a docility which I am beginning to suspect is a mask, admit too that she is comic. This afternoon, when she was sitting by Corrigan’s bed and talking to him I saw where her treatment of him differed from ours. She treats him as though he were an individual; but there is more in it than that…. She treats him as though he had a wife and children, a house and a back garden and responsibilities: in some manner she treats him as though he had dignity.
  • He has time before him. But in a hospital one has never time, one is never sure. He has perhaps been here long enough to learn that—to feel the insecurity, the impermanency. At any moment he may be forced to disappear into the secondary stage of convalescent homes. Yes, the impermanency of life in a hospital! An everlasting dislocation of combinations. Like nuns, one must learn to do with no nearer friend than God. Bolts, in the shape of sudden, whimsical orders, are flung by an Almighty whom one does not see. The Sister who is over me, the only Sister who can laugh at things other than jokes, is going in the first week of next month. Why? Where? She doesn’t know, but only smiles at my impatience. She knows life—hospital life. … Impermanency…. I don’t wonder the Sisters grow so secret, so uneager. How often stifled! How often torn apart!
  • To-night, as I went quickly past him [Mr. Wicks] with my load of bath-towels, his blind flapped a little, and I saw the moon, shaped like a horn, behind it. Dropping my towels, I pulled his blind back: “Mr. Wicks, look at the moon.” Obedient as one who receives an order, he reached up to his supporting handle and pulled his shoulders half round in bed to look with me through the pane. The young moon, freed from the trees, was rising over the hill. I dropped the blind again and took up my towels and left him. After that he seemed to fall into one of his trances, and lay immovable an hour or more. When I took his dinner to him he lifted his large, sandy head and said: “Seems a queer thing that if you hadn’t said ‘Look at the moon’ I might have bin dead without seeing her.”  — “But don’t you ever look out of the window?” The obstinate man shook his head.
  • I knew what was happening down at the station two miles away; I had been on station duty so often. The rickety country station lit by one large lamp; the thirteen waiting V.A.D.’s; the long wooden table loaded with mugs of every size; kettles boiling; the white clock ticking on; that frowsy booking clerk…. Then the sharp bell, the tramp of the stretcher-bearers through the station, and at last the two engines drawing gravely across the lighted doorway, and carriage windows filled with eager faces, other carriage windows with beds slung across them, a vast Red Cross, a chemist’s shop, a theatre, more windows, more faces…. The stretcher-men are lined up; the M.O. meets the M.O. with the train; the train Sisters drift in to the coffee-table. “Here they come! Walkers first….” The station entrance is full of men crowding in and taking the steaming mugs of tea and coffee; men on pickaback with bandaged feet; men with only a nose and one eye showing, with stumbling legs, bound arms. The station, for five minutes, is full of jokes and witticisms; then they pass out and into the waiting chars-à-bancs. A long pause. “Stretchers!” The first stretchers are laid on the floor. There I have stood so often, pouring the tea behind the table, watching that littered floor, the single gas-lamp ever revolving on its chain, turning the shadows about the room like a wheel—my mind filled with pictures, emptied of thoughts, hypnotized.
  • The hospital is alive; I feel it like a living being. The hospital is like a dream. I am afraid of waking up and finding it commonplace. The white Sisters, the ceaselessly-changing patients, the long passages, the sudden plunges into the brilliant wards … their scenery hypnotizes me. Sometimes in the late evening one walks busily up and down the ward doing this and that, forgetting that there is anything beyond the drawn blinds, engrossed in the patients, one’s tasks—bed-making, washing, one errand and another—and then suddenly a blind will blow out and almost up to the ceiling, and through it you will catch a glimpse that makes you gasp, of a black night crossed with bladed searchlights, of a moon behind a crooked tree. The lifting of the blind is a miracle; I do not believe in the wind.

This book felt as though the writer came to me in a dream — and in the dream took me by the hand and silently showed me her world.