This 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…
Your 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.
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:
- Was Frank Browne still alive? (No)
- Was my husband ok about it? (Yes)
- Did he (husband) think there was anything unpleasant about the story of Frank and me, i.e. from a male point of view? (No)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.
Val, Pam & Gill outside BH 1972
Who of the people in your world at that time have read it and what did they think?
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.
I 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.’
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.
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
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.