Sarah Stamford was born in Purley, Surrey, in the early 1950s. Her older brother died in 1961, and her mother died in 1965, after which her father remarried. Sarah attended a private girls’ school, and then a secretarial college in South Kensington, London. Her first job was as a junior secretary in the School Broadcasting Council, an outpost of the BBC, after which she went on to work on radio programmes and television plays. She married twice (latterly becoming Sarah Shaw), and brought up two children. Later in life she took an Open University degree, a post graduate librarian qualification and worked as a librarian at Selwyn College, Cambridge.
Having retired, Shaw was preparing to move, to live in Bridport, when she found an old diary she had kept when 19, in the year of her first job. She told the Bridport News, how she contacted some friends from her BBC days to have a laugh about the diary and how they suggested she do something positive with it. So, she self published the manuscript in 2015 through Lulu.com, titling it 1971: The secret diary of a BBC secretary. One of her friends passed the book on to a literary agent, and - she told the Bridport News - ‘It snowballed from there, it was totally unexpected.’ Constable released the book as Portland Place: Secret Diary of a BBC Secretary earlier this month. The Daily Telegraph gave it major coverage on 29 May, rather tastelessly, in my opinion, using a quote from her memory of the past about Jimmy Savile in the headline.
According to Little Brown, ‘Sarah’s diary describes the life of a suburban girl who certainly wasn’t ‘swinging’ but who was, ironically, not only working on a cutting edge BBC survey on sex education but also in the throes of an unlikely affair with middle-aged, working-class, Irish lift attendant, Frank. Sarah talks humorously and frankly about what it was like to be a young, working woman at the time as well as life at the BBC during the 1970s and the difficulties of navigating her first romance. She is funny and self-effacing with a self-knowledge that only few attain. Her innocence and naivety are hugely charming and the diary forms a valuable snapshot of a time not so far away that is now lost to us.’ Now lost to us? Really!
This is a strange book to be published under the Constable imprint, which, after all, dates back to the late 18th century when it was first established and brought out Walter Scott’s famous works. Shaw’s diary is easy to read, mildly interesting, sweet, but so what? Most diaries considered worth publishing by major players - such as Little Brown - are by significant figures in the political or artistic worlds, or have a wartime connection, and certainly cover more than a single year. Diaries by those who are not celebrities, who are not in the public eye, should be considered for publication more often - but surely there are far more interesting and significant examples than this one.
Several pages of Portland Place can be viewed on Amazon, and these extracts are taken from there.
4 January 1971
‘Snow. Got up in the cold, dark morning and walked over the golf course to Chipstead Station to get the train to London. It was eerie in the dark, and I nearly fell over. The commuters are an odd lot. all freightfully jolly. They come in two types - thin, cold and distinguished, or round, warm and fond of a pint.
Louise is still on holiday so there wasn’t a lot for me to do today.
Gill (secretary to the Senior Education Officer) was back at work but busy, so I had lunch with Adrienne, who works for one of the officers. She comes from New York. As I am a fan of George Gershwin, I really wanted to ask her if she knew anything about him or his family, but I lost my nerve as I didn’t want to bore her or sound stupid. I think we both see each other as specimens of a type: she is a New York Jewess and I am a solid old English girl. Her earrings and clothes tickle me. It’s amazing how Americans dress - you can spot them a mile off.
For lunch we usually go over to the canteen at Broadcasting House, which is open twenty-four hours a day. The food is OK; their salads with chips are good. During the day we get tea and coffee from the BBC Club on the ground floor of the Langham: in the evenings they open up a bar in the rooms beyond, which smell of booze and cigarettes. In both places there’s always the chance of spotting a celebrity: only being so close to BH, the home of radio, you find yourself ignoring someone until he speaks and then you recognise the voice. I’ve seen John Timpson from the Today programme in the Club, also Pete Murray and David Jacobs [Radio 2 DJs], and a few months ago I saw Cliff Richard talking to someone in Portland Place outside BH.
The BBC has lots of societies staff can join, all of them free of charge. I’m thinking about the Film Club. Gill and I have already joined the chess section, which meets every Monday after work downstairs in the Langham. Several tables are laid out with boards and pieces, around which various middle-aged men. mostly with beards, sit like cats watching mouse-holes.
Gill and I have a different approach. We play our games at two or three times their speed, and wash them down with a few glasses of wine. Gill is very good at chess, and she kindly pointed out to me when I had won a game. Her husband Kaz, a Hungarian artist, came along as well, but he is of a better standard so he plays with the mouse-hole men. He has a slightly nauseating sense of humour. Still, that’s a first impression.
Back to the hostel in Francis Street, near Victoria Station. This is run by something called the Girls’ Friendly Society, which sounds alarming. The rooms are strung along the corridors like prison cells, all smelling of disinfectant and boiled vegetables. When you need to go to the bathroom, there is always the possibility you will run into a shuffling old woman with bits of last week’s breakfast down her jumper.
Each room has a cream door with its name in black paint, like Badges, Heartsease, Charles and Olivia, Peace, Hope, Suffolk Archdeaconry and my favourite, The St George and Hanover Square Bourdon lodge Committee. My room is called Robinson. It has a bed, a small wardrobe and chest and my little bookcase, and is so narrow that I can stand with my arms outstretched and touch both the side walls.’
5 January 1971
‘Got a prospectus from the City Literary Institute. Decided to leave it until the Whitsun term as I seem to be too late for the current series of classes.
Did some work for Miss Handley in the Publications Office. She must be about forty and is quite funny. She’s pleasant-looking. but her eves never seem to be firmly fixed into her face. She keeps saving how I am being so helpful, but actually I am just pleased to have something to do. Or maybe she is simply being polite. Lunch with Gill and Adrienne, then went shopping with Gill in British Home Stores. In the evening I went to the cinema to see Start the Revolution Without Me with a couple of old school friends. One of them is going to work at the British Film Institute in the stills archives. Funny, because that’s the sort of job I would like to do, but I’m probably better off in the long run at the BBC. I might leave the SBC in a year or so - I don’t think it would be healthy for me to stay for too long. I might die of boredom.’
13 January 1971
‘Finished checking the document with Gill, who will now have to retype some of it because, in true SBC style. Miss Sharp and Mr Jones wish to rewrite their sections. As I had a dental appointment in Purley, I left work at 3 p.m. and headed off, reading Photoplay. It is cheaper than Films and Filming and has colour photos. I arrived too early so I wandered around the town a bit, peering at the old houses. So many looked sad and ashamed of their gardens. My dentist is my Uncle Rupert, my mother’s brother, so an appointment is a family as well as a medical occasion. He did a filling for me and then we came back together on the bus. He told me stories about the family including how, in the 1910s when he was a boy living in Purley, and they used to hoist a flag over Reedham Orphanage to show which university team had won the boat race, he would run upstairs to his bedroom to watch out of the window for the signal. Can’t imagine anyone being that excited about the boat race nowadays. Stayed at Chipstead overnight.’