Saturday, 11 July 2020

Short skirts and shorthand: Secretaries of the 1970s

It was at an event for The Secret Diary of a 1970s’ Secretary, that I was approached by two older women who were delighted that someone had, at last, written a book about what it was like to have worked as a secretary, although that hadn't exactly been my intention. This intrigued me. I felt sure the subject must have been covered already. As it turned out, during the 70s there was an interest in secretaries in academic circles which spilled over into the women’s pages of newspapers, but since then little has been published about them.

Four years later, Short skirts and shorthand has been published.

Drawing on the reminiscences of more than 60 former secretaries, this book describes the everyday working lives of secretaries in the 1970s, and compares them with their depictions in popular media and by feminists of the time. What emerges is a more nuanced picture, one that is revealing, authentic and amusing. It vividly evokes the world of typewriters, telephones and Tippex, and is a must for former secretaries and anyone with an interest in social history. 

Available as an ebook or in Print.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Reading between the lines ...

A little while ago I attended a meeting of a local book club, whose members had just read the secret diary.  After an interesting and stimulating discussion the final question was, 'What did you and Frank actually do in the lift?'

Even so many years later I didn't feel comfortable with answering that one in great detail (who would!) but I answered her question and it has since occurred to me that a clarification should be posted here too.

When I first re-read the diary I noticed that, to begin with, 19-year-old Sarah is only too happy to describe in detail the early stages of her relationship with Frank Browne. She sees it as both an exciting romance and an opportunity to learn about what that involves.  But as 1971 wears on, her comments become more cautious.  Some things, she says, are too private to write, even in the diary, so she resorts to generalities about it being 'beautiful' instead.  Yes, there were developments, but it would be wrong to assume that they imply wholesale shagathons between floors in the Langham. 

Editing the diary, I thought it best to stick with what was written then.  If this girl was sensitive enough to want to avoid writing everything down at the time, it would be wrong to elaborate forty years later and end up using risible anatomical descriptions.  I was happy to leave readers to draw their own conclusions. After all, it didn't matter what we actually did, it was the emotional side of the relationship and how young Sarah matures as a result of it that is interesting. 

Unfortunately, it seems that some readers have jumped to the wrong conclusion. Sorry, but I must disappoint them.  It wasn't that simple.  By June, when Frank returned to work after his operation, I knew that I wanted to enjoy as much of being with him as I could but also draw boundaries to protect myself.  Meanwhile, Frank was petrified that if we were caught he would lose his job, so he didn't want to risk doing anything too serious either.  Hence his repeated invitations to visit his flat, all of which I refused.

Brought up during the 1950s, I thought you only had sex once you were married and not before.  By the time I wrote the diary I'd updated this rule to thinking you should only have sex when you were in a relationship that had the potential to become long-term.  Hence the diary reflects my struggle to decide where to draw the line with Frank, married and unsuitably old, yet alluringly good humoured and fun to be with.

I might have been daft to have got involved with him, but in the end I was sensible, even that evening under the Westway, and came out of the relationship unscathed.  As I wrote in the Afterword, I will always be grateful to Frank.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Date for your diary: July 7th 2019

I'm delighted to have accepted an invitation to the Steeple Morden Literary Festival on July 7th.  If you would like to hear more about my Secret Diary and ask a few questions, do please join me.  Venue and time to be announced in due course.

Steeple Morden is in South Cambridgeshire, just off the A505 near the border with Hertfordshire.  Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Frank Browne's Paddington South

This post gives a bit of background to the life of Frank Browne, the lift man who appears throughout the Secret diary.

In 1956 he and his wife Bridget appear in the electoral register as living at 6 Waverley Walk, Readings Ward, Paddington South Division. (They are also there in the 1963 and 1965 electoral registers.)

Waverley Walk was originally called Waverley Road, as it is here on Charles Booth's 1889 map, but was renamed around 1938.  It ran parallel to and immediately south of Alfred Road where Frank and Bridget were living in 1971.  

This is a part of London which has changed significantly since the 1950s.  Waverley Walk was demolished a year or two after 1965 as part of a slum clearance scheme when the Warwick Estate was built.  There is an interesting post about this on the Kensington & Chelsea Archives blog.


This photo from 1955 is of the corner of Harrow Road and Waverley Walk.

Thanks to the Facebook page for 'Paddington. Past caring' for two more photos of Waverley Walk in the 1960s ...


and this from 1909 (long before Frank arrived there!)

Well-known photographer Roger Mayne took many photos in this area; here are two he took on Waverley Walk in 1957. The boy on the bombsite one has been often reproduced.
Copr Roger Mayne
Copr. Roger Mayne
The Kensington and Chelsea Archives site has more information and photographs of the area.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

The secret's out in paperback!

The paperback edition of my 1971 diary will be published on 2nd November 2017 (see retailers links below).  At under a tenner it's a copy for you and maybe a Christmas present for a lucky someone else too? 

The Hive (independent bookstores)

The title has been altered to "The secret diary of a 1970's secretary" (see post).  I'm delighted with the new, slightly brighter cover, and especiallythe endorsements from Joan Bakewell and Gyles Brandreth. 

An audio version, read by Anna Bentinck, will be available as a download from Audible; its already borrowable from public libraries.

The hardback edition, 'Portland Place', remains on sale too.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The mysterious case of the vanishing BBC ...

In November 2017 my diary for 1971 will be published in paperback as "The secret diary of a 1970s secretary".  Observant readers will note that this title has changed from the hardback one by ditching “Portland Place" and the reference to a "BBC" secretary.

It's no particular hardship to me, a rose by any other name and all that, and I'm not entirely sure of the reasons for the change myself, but it raised a few thoughts.

Portland Place: The Langham, All Souls & Broadcasting House

We originally chose “Portland Place” for the title because it was the classiest one that conjured up the London area around Broadcasting House and the Langham, where so many of the events take place.  “1971”, the title of the original self-published version, had just been taken by David Hepworth with his excellent book on rock music, “1971: Never a dull moment”.

But does “Portland Place” make you think “BBC”? It turned out that even older folk didn't always connect the address with the corporation, despite the frequency with which the address used to be mentioned on air. Nor was it memorable enough.  Perhaps my husband was not alone in calling the book on more forgetful days, “Peyton Place”?

More than that, maybe book browsers who licked their lips at the prospect of juicy backstage gossip were disappointed to find themselves reading the ramblings of a junior secretary. 

Perhaps it's just that the idea of the BBC in the seventies has become too toxic.  That makes me cross.  I've gritted my teeth on a number of occasions, answering questions which presupposed that a romance on BBC premises between two lowly members of staff must be considered in the same light as the abuse of children by sociopathic, highly-paid, popular entertainers. Our secret, charming, curious romance could have taken place in any office, then and (possibly) now, and the fact that it developed in a department making sex education programmes for schools is a hilarious irony.  Ours was a consensual relationship. I was not a victim, Frank Browne was not a manipulator and … well work it out for yourself: Who got most out of that relationship?

Above the entrance to Broadcasting House

It's true the BBC, local radio stations and the BBC Alumni Group apart, has been jittery about the book. Characterisations of the bosses in the diary may have offended some of the BBC elite, but given a little thought I am sure they saw that what is unique about the diary is the author's youthful candidness.  Besides, I'd like to think that the diary goes some way to redefine the reputation of the Corporation by offering an authentic account of what it was like to work there in those days;  bureaucratic, friendly, worthy, anxious and occasionally boring.

So, which title do you prefer?  How important are book titles?

Twitter: @Dymvue