Monday, 18 October 2021


to the blog for the book, 'The Secret diary of a 1970s' secretary'*, the actual diary for the year 1971, written by 19-year-old Sarah Shaw in her first year working as a secretary for the BBC in London.

The diary describes her everyday office life, trips out to the cinema, extensive takeaway curry-eating and life in a girls' dreary hostel; it also follows the developing consensual relationship between herself and a much older man.


Take a look at these videos 


If you're my guy

and browse the posts and pages here for photos and background information.  

The book is available from all good bookshops and online.  

*paperback title. The hardback is called 'Portland Place: secret diary of a BBC secretary', see here for more info on the change. 

I've also published a book about secretaries, including recollections from more than sixty women who worked in that role.  It's called 'Short skirts and shorthand: secretaries in the 1970s' and is available from Amazon.

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.

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.

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

“Portland Place” was chosen as the title because it was classy and conjured up the area around Broadcasting House and the Langham, where so many of the events take place.  But does it make you think of the BBC? It turned out that not all older readers connected the street with the corporation, despite the frequency with which it used to be mentioned on air. And, as it turned out, many readers found it a bit misleading.  Maybe my husband was not alone in calling the book on more forgetful days, “Peyton Place”?

Perhaps the publishers changed the title because, in the wake of the Savile scandal, the BBC in the seventies has become toxic?  I've gritted my teeth in several interviews, answering questions which assumed that any romance on BBC premises between two lowly members of staff had to be seen in the same light as the abuse of children by sociopathic, highly-paid, popular entertainers. The consensual romance between Frank and me, secret, charming and curious, could have taken place in any office, then and (possibly) now.  The fact that it happened while I was working in a department making sex education programmes is an additional irony.  But I certainly wasn't a hapless victim.  Interestingly, virtually every reader has assumed that Frank achieved his ultimate aim, but if you read the book carefully you will see that this was not the case.
So, who got most out of that relationship?

Above the entrance to Broadcasting House

However, the BBC, apart from local radio stations and the BBC Alumni Group, has been jittery about the book. Was this a consequence of an abusive email I received from someone who should have known better - a relative of Miss Sharp and respected journalist, married to a high profile BBC presenter - whom I suspect may have tried to have the book supressed.  She told me she hoped it would vanish without a trace, anyway. Certainly a feature about the book for a Radio 4 magazine programme was pulled at short notice.
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.
It's disappointing that for whatever reason 'BBC' has vanished from the title of the book, but nonetheless, the book has pleased many readers; for which I am very grateful.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Ode to The Langham

This brilliant poem was sent to me by one of the authors, Sarah Holmes (@CalmHolmes).  It appeared in the BBC staff newspaper in 1979 and describes so well what it was like to work at the Langham.

Ah, the 'leisurely jaunts' in the lifts ....!  Thanks to Sarah for letting me reproduce it here.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Long ago in far-off London

Gill in 1972
'Portland Place' - a verse review!

Long ago in far-off London
Swinging sixties just gone by,
Sarah Shaw, a fledgling author,
Joined our band of fliers high.

Portland Place was our location,
Education was our game.
Stately BBC was 'Auntie'
Still upholding Lord Reith's name.

In the schools across the kingdom
Our broadcasting could be heard.
In the classroom not a whisper,
Children switched on by the Word.

But what is this? Sex education
To be introduced in schools?
Mary Whitehouse ranting madly,
Bringing out her sharpest tools!

But it's only frogs and tadpoles
On the television screens -
Hardly any frames with humans -
Yet Mrs Whitehouse raises screams!

'The thin end of the wedge is coming -
Children know not how to sift!"
Sarah, meanwhile, penning diary,
Was being switched on in the lift!

Thus it was a secret diary
Came to light in Sarah's home
And her yesterday became her present
So now I broadcast - and recommend - her tome!

by Gill Bazovsky

Gill worked at the SBC in 1971 and appears throughout my diary.  She later became a writer and teacher of English Literature at Swansea University.  Sadly she died in 2020.

Friday, 14 August 2015

The pleasure of unintended consequences

I've never much gone for predestination. Life seems to me to be a random series of unintended consequences; like, you go for a job at the BBC and six months later you find yourself in the arms of an Irishman; or you dig out an old diary from the loft and … well, all sorts of things can happen after that.

I certainly never expected when I published the diary that it would prompt correspondence with readers, still less that many of them would be people I hadn't met before. It's been such a pleasure to hear from them, especially the kind lady who journeyed from Norwich for a delightful chat and a coffee, the social historian who Skyped me about the early 1970s (I felt very old by the time that conversation finished) and the lovely people I have got to know a little better via Facebook and Twitter.

Another new avenue opened up when I got in touch with Lesley Tan, who had set up a Facebook group for former members of the BBC's Audience Research department, which was also based in the Langham.  In return for a plug for my book, she cunningly inveigled me into becoming a co-Administrator of the Group and we expanded the membership to any BBC people who worked, slept, ate or drank at The Langham, quite a large field if you include the last option.  Getting on for nearly 100 members now, it has been fascinating and fun to share memories.  Although quite a few of them remember the Art Nouveau lifts I have yet to find one who can remember Frank.

Luckily I have kept in touch with three friends whom I first met when I was working at the School Broadcasting Council.  They have been enormously supportive, and patient in responding to tedious email enquiries (eg, “Gina, can you remember what it was about the vending machine on the fourth floor that caused you to complain?” Answer: “No,  I think I was rather fond of getting worked up about these things - that's how I didn't get the Personnel attachment I applied for”). I hadn't met two of these friends for about twenty years but, partly as a result of these feverish communications, I've managed to meet all three of them this summer and ransack their memories. There is a whole supplement to the diary in the stories they can tell about those days.

Finally, here are the three of them, forty-four years on from 1971. 

I forgot to get a pic of myself with Gill, sorry, but here she is on her own.

With "Penny" outside the Langham Hotel.  We nipped in for a cuppa and a scone.  Expensive, but very amusing, as we marveled at the changes to the building since we worked there.  (And yes, we had a look at the lifts.)

And here I am with Valerie having sunk a delightful lunch, but not at the Langham.