I couldn’t put it down, even though I knew what happened in the end! – Meeting Sarah Shaw

1972 SS outside BHThis week we’re meeting Sarah Shaw whose wonderful book Secret Diary of a 1970s Secretary is the year long diary she kept in 1971. It chronicles 365 days of her time as a junior secretary at the BBC’s School Broadcasting Council (SBC), a year in which they made a sex education programme, she turned 20 and fell in love with Frank…



GFS hostelYour diary begins in 1971 – what made you start a diary then?
I was living in a girls’ hostel in London and didn’t go out a lot, so I thought it might be a good way to occupy myself in the dull evenings.  I suspect I thought it might be fun to read again when I was older.

What was your life like at the time?
I enjoyed living in London during the week, going to work and meeting friends; I was less happy about not having a boyfriend, going home at weekends to my parents and being bored.  There was always a feeling that somewhere else a great party was happening to which, inexplicably, I hadn’t been invited!  Perhaps that’s usual at that age.  So I read a lot, listened to music of all sorts, played the guitar and wrote songs.  I waited for interesting things to happen.

You wrote every day – how hard was it to keep it going?
Not very.  I think a few entries were written a day later.  Some entries run on to pages that I took out of a notebook and stuck in.  The diary was my confidential friend that year because there was a lot I had to keep secret.

Have you kept a diary since?
I threw out my diary for 1972, which is a pity because it might have been useful.  From 73-75 I kept a journal in which I jotted down odd things that happened but it isn’t very interesting.  Since then, no.

In the book you talk about discovering the diary again and having an urge to transcribe it. How did you feel when you read the diary again in adulthood?
I was surprised I couldn’t put it down, even though I knew what happened in the end!  I could remember where I was and what happened that year, but once I began reading the diary all sorts of sights, sounds, smells, odd moments came back very vividly.  I realised the diary recorded a lot of events differently from how I had remembered them since.

What made you decide to publish your diary and what approach did you take?
I typed it all into the computer and sent the file to friends who appear in the diary and with whom I am still in touch.  Gill Bazovsky, who now teaches English Literature at Swansea Uni , wrote to me and said Did I want to do something with it, like turn it into a novel?  I said no, because that would be too much like hard work.  But her interest did encourage me to edit the diary for self-publication.

Gill Portland Place

I decided the key thing was that the diary had to be readable.  I took out the repetitive bits and people who only appeared once and didn’t add anything much to what was going on.  I linked some of the note-form jottings into sentences so that they were easier to read, and added material where I could remember clearly about an important moment.  Then I read it all through out loud, which is a good way to identify anything that is awkward to read.  I self-published it on Lulu.com and from there it took off, eventually finding its way to Little, Brown.

What challenges did you face along the way?
There were several decisions I had to take when I edited the diary:

  1. Was Frank Browne still alive? (No)
  2. Was my husband ok about it? (Yes)
  3. Did he (husband) think there was anything unpleasant about the story of Frank and me, i.e. from a male point of view? (No)
  4. Did I want what happened between Frank and me to be made public? (Yes, after some thought.  It happened a long time ago and it was such an extraordinary story, one which only my friend Gill and my stepmother had known about. Also, I suspect that it’s more common than people think.)
  5. Should I leave any of it out? (Decided to keep everything in because if I started changing bits my thoughts and actions wouldn’t make sense.)
  6. Should I use pseudonyms? (Yes, except for myself, Frank and friends who had agreed to their real names being used; also one or two who slipped through but were not particularly important to the diary.)

The publication process with Little, Brown went very smoothly.  I was afraid they might want me to change bits, but their editor was very helpful and supportive and we made a few amendments, mostly the more explanatory bits in brackets.

What kind of reception have you had?
Astonishing!  Some readers enjoy the social history aspect, either because they remember the early 1970s themselves or because they are interested to know what it was like ‘in the old days’!; some readers are interested in the story of Frank and me.  To begin with I had very positive comments from friends, which was welcome of course, but it was when enthusiastic messages arrived from readers whom I had never met that I realised the book had a much wider appeal.  I’m so grateful to those readers because it made me feel more confident when the offer from Little, Brown was made.

1972 Val Pam and Gill outside BH
Val, Pam & Gill outside BH 1972

Who of the people in your world at that time have read it and what did they think?

Direct quotes!

Gill:  ‘It immediately conjured up our time at the SBC very vividly.  Obviously I paid attention to the bits that concerned Kaz! Your friendship (!) with Frank makes fascinating reading – it was a particularly special time for you, I think.  It certainly took me back some 44+ years!’

Penny: ‘I couldn’t put it down. Your self-effacing, humorous writing style carried it along with brio..’

Valerie: ‘Am now reading the diary closely to see if you have offended me – it is good writing I think (in my humble opinion.  However I have read a lot of books, more than I should; avoiding the housework!)’

Mr Chaplin (SBC Education Officer mentioned 4th November): ‘I really did enjoy the different perspective of the support workers’ view of SBC proceedings. It must have been really mystifying for secretaries to understand what the precise contribution was that the BBC was making to education. I thought the book captured the feverish mood that pervaded as a result of the sex education broadcasts of the time. We had to deal with a tidal wave of vitriol from Mrs Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association.

thatcher to control bbc ed-page-0I did not use the manned lifts very often at the Langham but I do remember Frank, although I did not know his name then. Frank was an affable Irishman much given to cheery asides, especially when obvious management-types were not on board. I certainly never imagined he had such interesting rest periods.  The other manual lift operator was a much more Eeyore-like individual who thought life was constantly against him and was rather reluctant to have anyone in his lift.

Thank you for writing a book which so perfectly captures the era and recalls good friends and eccentrics now sadly no longer with us.’

Langham 1971 origina;Langham 1971

Anything you didn’t feel brave enough to share?
No. (But would I tell you if there was?)

What do you think your diary has meant to those who have read it?
Hard for me to say.  I think you have to read the reviews.  It seems to have evoked memories for a lot of people, I hope that’s good.

How does that make you feel?
Delighted, grateful, amazed.

What do you think of yourself when you look back at what you wrote?
Like most diarists I recognise myself, but as a different person to who I am now.  (If I hadn’t changed after 40-odd years there would be something wrong!) I wish I had understood more of what my parents were going through, and that I had done more to help them.  Also, I should have taken Zelda more seriously on the Isle of Wight.  Apart from that, I think I did OK.

Vera 1972
Sarah’s Step-Mother

Some people are bound to judge you, Frank and the relationship you had – how has that felt?
I discussed this with several friends before I self-published the book, and one pointed out that no one was badly hurt by it, so I should go ahead and publish.

It’s up to each reader to make up her/his own mind about that relationship.  I never expected everyone would react in the same way, or necessarily like the book.  Like many other women I have had nasty experiences of unwanted attentions;  Frank was nothing like that, he was very considerate.

Our relationship is very much seen through the eyes of an inexperienced 19-year-old who is completely fascinated by this Irishman, she’s never met anyone like him before.  As I edited the book I began to wonder if I were his age and with his kind of life, and I’d met a young girl who thought I was wonderful, what would I have done?  How would I have behaved?

If you could go back to 1971 and give yourself some advice what would it be?
Scrambled eggs don’t go with Ryvita!

What’s next for you and the secret diary of a 1970s secretary?
I’m currently working on a book about secretaries in the 1970s. There is the possibility of a film/TV version of the Secret Diary, which is a very exciting prospect but there’s a way to go with that.

I read a review that talked about a TV version, what do you think of that idea?
It would be an extraordinary consequence to finding an old diary in a loft!

Sarah in Dorset July 1971 (3)
Sarah in Dorset, July 1971

Secret Diary of a 1970s Secretary is published in paperback by Little, Brown and is available in all good book stores. You can find my review of it here



Secret Diary of a 1970s Secretary by Sarah Shaw

Sarah ShawI’m always on the hunt for people who are brave enough to share their private diaries with the public. Especially when those diaries were never written with an intention for anyone other than the author to read them. So you can imagine my thrill to have stumbled across Sarah Shaw’s Secret Diary of a 1970s Secretary.

Covering all 365 days of 1971 Sarah’s diary was kept when she was 19 and working for the BBC. She had recently left home in Chipstead and moved to London living in a tiny room in an all-female hostel. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s enjoyment by revealing too much of what happens throughout the year, however, what I enjoyed most were the three aspects of the diary
Firstly there’s some insight into the workings of the BBC (in particular the controversy surrounding the sex education programme they had recently created which runs throughout the book) and there’s what it’s like to live and work in London.

Secondly, as you’d expect, you get to know the day to day mundanities; what she ate, what she bought and what it cost, what she watched on TV and what she gossiped about with friends. This to me is one of the most interesting aspects of diaries, what she chose to record because it was important to her at the time, it’s like what’s happening in the background of a photograph, sometimes much more interesting than the actual subject.

Finally there’s Sarah’s love affair which dominates most of her year. I won’t say too much but it’s touching, frustrating, addictive and revealing.

The diary really is of another time which in reality is not that long ago – no 19 year old of 2017 could be so naïve – yet the absorption and thrill of being in love is no different back then as it is today.

The diary entries are caringly bookended by Sarah’s reflections from this distance in time which make it a beautifully rounded piece; one that evokes another era and takes you to a different place, has humour and depth and a genuine intimacy that is hard to come by in other genres.

The 80s Annual Vol. II by Sarah Lewis

AnnualIt’s a massive thrill to have extracts from my dairies featured in Sarah Lewis‘s second 80s Annual. I love the way they’ve been illustrated and given a “scrapbook feel”. However it’s not just my diaries that make this a fantastic book!!

Here’s my review from Amazon.

Remember the eighties? And remember the annuals you used to get every Christmas? Well this is a perfect tribute to both! It’s bright and colourful, superbly illustrated and has a variety of content that will appeal to a wide audience.

It’s got some really interesting and revealing interviews with your favourites from the decade including Nik Kershaw (and yes, Sarah asks him about snoods!), Jason Donovan, Grange Hill’s Zammo, The (Bucks) Fizz (who are hilarious!) and many others. Sarah’s also included other writers to bring us ace features on Radio One and its DJ’s, ten reasons 1988 was great as well as an amusing and affectionate look back at la-la-la-la-Look In magazine. In addition to this there are some really challenging quizzes and even some puzzles to keep you amused. It wants for nothing (although a contents page would have been useful).

It really looks like it’s been a labour of love and you can tell it’s been put together with great care and affection for our favourite decade. My copy arrived just before lunch and I’ve spent most of the afternoon reading it, and I’ve nowhere near had my fill. I know I’ll be picking it up time and time again until I have read it cover to cover! Fingers crossed there’ll be a volume III next year! It could become the longest running series since Now That’s What I Call Music!!

P.S. It also includes extracts from my diaries, and yes they’re mega, but this hasn’t influenced my views on the annual. My mum always said if you can’t say anything nice you shouldn’t say anything at all, not out loud anyway (I write what I like in my diary!) – the Annual really is fandabbydozy!

Here are a couple of the pages that my diaries are featured on. If you fancy reading more about Sarah, author and self-confessed 80s obsessive, you can find her on her blog and Twitter.

Real life doesn’t tend to make neat stories – Meeting Sarah Tipper

thumbnail_Cleo Howard Comic book effectThis week we’re meeting Sarah Tipper the self confessed metal head and author of the brilliant Cleo Howard “Metal Diaries” trilogy.


As our readers may know Cleo rather than you tell us something about yourself.

  1. I’m forty-three
  2. I love reading and writing
  3. I love going to see live music (mostly metal, but sometimes rock and blues too).
  4. My favourite season is autumn.
  5. I joined Twitter initially just to find out when a new series of Red Dwarf started but I’ve stayed because it’s full of interesting people doing creative things.
  6. I don’t like mild cheese.
  7. I have a tattoo of a rabbit with a chainsaw.
  8. I think pirates are overrated.
  9. I once accidentally ordered thirty-six packets of Wotsits from Waitrose.
  10. I never really know how to introduce myself so I babble on about inconsequential things.

You started writing with your Eviscerated Panda series, what was your inspiration?
I started writing the first book in the Eviscerated Panda series not knowing it was the first book in a series. A friend whose band I reviewed told me I should write a book and so I did! I haven’t stopped writing since 2011, I don’t think I can stop now because my brain writes stories when left idle. My inspiration was how much fun I’ve had hanging around with people in bands and seeing live music. I’ve seen some brilliant and ridiculous things that I like reliving through the prism of fiction.

What reaction have you had to that?
The Pandas saga has had a great reaction from heavy metal websites and magazines. People have read it on their way to concerts and at festivals and have tweeted quotes at me. The characters feel like old friends to me and I’ll be a little sad to finish the saga.

Then you’ve taken one of the characters from Eviscerated Panda and created her teenage diaries, why Cleo Howard?
I chose to create Cleo Howard’s diaries because so often we hear about musicians, but not so often do we hear about the audience. Then I chose the diary format because (a) I loved Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole diaries and (b) I regret not keeping a teenage diary.

Very.jpg   mega.jpg   Mill

The diaries are brilliantly hilarious and also moving, so much so I wasn’t sure if they were actually real at first, how much of them is autobiographical?
Cleo Howard’s diaries are probably about one-third autobiographical. Often I’ll take a situation that happened and didn’t go the way I wanted and change that in Cleo’s world. The trouble with real life is it doesn’t tend to make neat stories. I love how the priorities of teenagers are not the priorities of adults. I also love the drama and import teenagers give to minor things, like having an unfashionable coat. Although Cleo is fictional, most of her concerns, and those of her friends, are the concerns of many teenagers.

You were a teenager in the eighties so what made you decide to set them in the nineties, starting in 1997 in particular?
I set the Cleo Howard diaries in the nineties for consistency with Cleo’s age in the Eviscerated Panda saga. I use a sort of blended reality where I write about real events, such as concerts, but there is fiction in what happened to my characters at the events.anthrax-t

How different was your eighties compared to Cleo’s nineties?
My eighties weren’t all that different to Cleo’s nineties, Vienetta spanned both decades because it’s delicious! My Mum used to nag me to bring my dirty mugs downstairs and the most important thing on my mind was usually what I’d wear to go to the pub that week…

What made you decide to recreate diaries as Cleo’s rather than publish your own?
The Cleo Howard diaries are based on some truth, but I didn’t keep a teenage diary, I just have a good memory. I have kept a diary since 2008 though, in part inspired by reading Pamela Des Barres’ “I’m With The Band – Confessions of a Groupie”. Also I decided to record myself in character as Cleo Howard reading the Very Metal Diary Of Cleo Howard 1997 and create YouTube videos because I think the intimacy of reading a diary could also be had if someone listens to my reading with headphones in.

What freedom or experiences did you give Cleo that you didn’t get?
I gave Cleo the freedom I didn’t get to go to gigs and festivals. It was 1991 before I went to a big gig in London (The Wonderstuff at Brixton Academy).

How did you go about maintaining accurate historical detail?
I’ve conducted many strange web searches! Also, there is a great BBC website that tells you what was on telly; I read magazines from the time I’m writing about and watch old adverts on Youtube.

What’s next for you and Cleo?
I’ve recently written about the 80s in a few short stories; I’ve written a readable advent calendar called Tales To Take You Christmas. It has a story called “Late Night Thursday” which is set in 1988 and a story called “The Bell” which is set in the early 80s. I’m writing more of these short stories at the moment and I’m sure I’ll find myself in the 80s again soon.

As for Cleo, after The Y2K Diary Of Cleo Howard and Eviscerated Panda 6 have been written then we’ll part company. The Y2K Diary sees Cleo go successfully off to university. Eviscerated Panda 6 – The Number of the Panda will end happily for her so my work will be done.

Which other diaries have you read and what have you liked about them?
I’ve read a lot of other diaries; Rae Earl’s My Mad Fat Teenage Diary, Kenneth Williams’ Diaries, David Sedaris’ Theft by Finding, George Grossmith’s Diary of a Nobody and Jamie Days 1984 Diary.thumbnail_diaries-read.jpg

Finally, how often do you buy Kerrang! these days?
I haven’t bought a Kerrang! for ages!! But I do subscribe to Terrorizer and Devolution magazine. Thanks for asking me to do an interview for your blog. I’m honoured and I love your 1980s diaries!

Even if you’re not a fan of Heavy Metal (as you’ll know I’m not having had my childhood tortured by an older brother who was into it!) you’ll still love Cleo’s diaries. With a nod to Adrian Mole and Rae Earl they really do deserve a place up there with them as an icon of the diary format.

thumbnail_Cleo Howard

The Very Metal Diary of Cleo Howard 1997 by Sarah Tipper

VeryThe Very Metal Diary of Cleo Howard takes you inside the secret world of a teenage heavy metal fan growing up in the late nineties. You become her “Dear Diary” with whom she shares her innermost thoughts and the details of her day; what went off at school, what happened down the pub, some reflections on the world at large and why oh why isn’t she going up a cup size?

I really don’t like Heavy Metal and so I wasn’t sure if this would work for me. I’ve never knowingly listened Type O Negative and never read Kerrang! but it doesn’t matter. Cleo’s experiences, preferences and annoyances about who is on the cover of Kerrang! what is popular and what is not are completely transferrable to whatever your own teenage obsessions were (who was doing better than Madonna in the charts and who was on the cover of Smash Hits for me!) this means it feels relatable and genuine.

Sarah manages the restrictions of the diary format brilliantly. Some of the stories develop gently in amongst the more isolated snippets of the day to day; and they also come from nowhere, just as they do in real life, causing you to re-read to make sure it did say what you thought it said. Her writing is so effective I wasn’t sure if it was fiction at all and wondered whether I was reading genuine excerpts from a real life teenage diary. She’s created a likeable and interesting set of characters and as with all diaries, you know more than the writer does as you read between the lines of her accounts of what’s happened.

There are the occasional untruths (neither Echo and the Bunnymen nor Natalie Imbruglia were no.1 in 1997) but it doesn’t matter because it’s fiction and as anyone who keeps a diary knows, what we record in there isn’t always true either.

If you’re a fan of diaries, real or fictional, then this is definitely for you. With a nod to Adrian Mole and Rae Earl it deserves to find its place among them as a true icon of the diary format.

thumbnail_Cleo Howard Comic book effect