Review: Radio Girls

9780749020682RADIO GIRLS
Sarah-Jane Stratford

The Great War is over, and change is in the air, in this novel that brings to life the exciting days of early British radio …and one woman who finds her voice while working alongside the brilliant women and men of the BBC London, 1926.

‘If we have the sense to give [broadcasting] freedom and intelligent direction, if we save it from exploitation by vested interests of money or power, its influence may even redress the balance in favour of the individual.’

Hilda Matheson, Broadcasting (1933)

Did you know talk radio was started by a woman? Did you know she wrote a handbook for radio broadcasting in 1933? And was also an agent of MI5? And worked with Lawrence of Arabia and Lady Astor? Does it sound like too much to pack into a novel? Are you now shouting aloud, ‘Why has no one told me about this amazing woman before!’ because I certainly was. Hilda Matheson was a pioneer, a visionary, spy, writer, insightful revolutionary, lover of Vita Sackville-West — well, it’s all gilding the lily a bit. If she hadn’t existed, you’d have wanted to invent her.

In this novel Stratford does a very wise thing: she looks at Matheson through the eyes of a young Canadian-American expat whose life is transformed by working with her. In so doing she gets to use all the fun of a novel (adventure, romance, intrigue, friendships) to show the glories of the beginning of the institution that is the BBC. It was once full of women who were over time systematically driven out. As I’m also immersed in early electronic pioneers Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram, it’s easy to see how women keep getting nudged out of history by neglect because men are trumpeted for genius and women are loathed for it.

Stratford’s protagonist, Canadian-American Maisie Musgrove, is gauche and a bit overwrought at first, but this allows us to see the peculiarly British system that makes up the BBC. It’s one that has the latitude to offer opportunities to women — when everyone thinks it will fail — and then squeeze them out casually once the power of the institution becomes clear.

Musgrove’s transformation is gradual and affecting. Though desperate for a job, any job, at the start she soon comes to realise the power of sound and voice. She begins to listen to the people on the trams, the click of heels on lino, and appreciates the artistry but also the science behind the broadcasts. When an emergency requires use of the old 2LO transmitter, Hilda introduces Maisie to its intricacies and she’s captivated by its magic ‘but it wasn’t magic. It was better. This was the result of endless questions, the search for answers.’

The pace is breezy: I read two-thirds of it in one evening, but there’s a lot of history and information here too. In the lead up to the second world war, there are a lot of people who want to commandeer the power of the new medium and very real intrigues went on behind the scenes. Matheson’s determination to keep the plurality of voices represented is something, alas, the BBC seems to have lost.

I appreciated the author’s note at the end and just ordered Kate Murphy’s Behind the Wireless: An Early History of Women at the BBC which Stratford recommends. The book is out in the US too (though the cover isn’t as pretty, as usual). A very fun read that’s also chock full of interesting history.

Out Now: The Big Splash!

The Big Splash by Kit Marlowe - 200Out now!

The Big Splash

Introducing the world of Constance & Collier by Kit Marlowe

It’s London in the Jazz Age: the times are fast and the women faster. Constance Wynne Hare has men eager to throw themselves at her feet—so why does she pine for the one man who takes her for granted?

A new novella from Tirgearr Publishing that kicks off the slightly racy (but never rude!), madcap adventures of a young woman with more money than sense and the sensible woman who pulls her bacon from the fire more times than she can count. It’s a dash of P. G. Wodehouse with the breathless pace of Winifred Watson and a whole lot of lively shenanigans with the Bright Young Things of the Big Smoke.

And next? Monte Carlo and The Big Spin!

An excerpt:

“Constance, I am preparing a luncheon, you could not have called at a more inconvenient time.”

“Mother, I’m desperate!” Constance wailed. “Miss Emery has bolted.”

“Oh, Constance, not again.” Her mother’s disapproval seemed to snake right through the telephone cord to admonish her. “Why can you not keep servants?”

“I have had the cook for three months now,” Constance said with some tartness.

“Only because you never eat at home,” Mrs. Wynne Hare countered, successfully silencing Constance for the moment. “Whatever shall you do now?”

Constance pouted. “I rather hoped that you would have some motherly advice.”

“You know what my advice will be, Constance. Stop behaving like a raving lunatic and be a sensible girl. Marry a nice young banker and settle down in the country.”

Constance winced. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t anticipate the use of the phrase. This phrase formed the foundation of Mother’s perennial advice, after all. But the words had been delivered with such a ringing attitude of certainty that her own will wavered if but for a moment.

An ordinary girl would have quailed before the commanding maternal tone. Constance, however, was no ordinary girl. What a robust constitution and plenty of parental latitude in the past had not provided, a generous trust fund account finished off. This proved a freedom one would not easily relinquish.

She tried another tack. “How on earth could I snag a banker if I don’t even have a lady’s maid to call my own?” Check, Constance added silently.

Her mother’s sigh sounded suspiciously like defeat to Constance’s ears. “Well, I suppose that is true enough,” her mother said.

“Of course it is! Now whatever shall I do? I don’t think the agency will give me another so soon.”

“You appear to have been born most undeservedly under a lucky star,” Mrs. Wynne Hare said after a minute pause. “Miss Vanbrugh’s lady’s maid has recently left her employment.”

“You mean Mrs. Baird’s employment.” Constance corrected her mother.

“Indeed,” Mrs. Wynne Hare’s tone indicated clearly she did not appreciate the correction. Constance winced. She would pay for the slip later. “In fact, her marriage rendered the position no longer suitable, it seems. Collier has an abhorrence of working for married ladies.”

“Collier?” Constance tried to conjure an image of the person in question and found herself unable to recall a thing about Miss Vanbrugh’s lady’s maid, which spoke well on her behalf. The ones you noticed often provided unpleasant shocks. A good lady’s maid should be as flattering as a well cut chemise and just as unobtrusive.

“Yes, Collier. I must say it seems the height of irony that all of her charges seem to end up married rather sooner than expected.”

Constance could not help but notice how the glow had returned to her mother’s tone. Check for the other player this time. This peculiarity of habit or luck on the part of the lady’s maid did not bode well for the acquisition, but Constance was in a bind. “Well then, can you phone and have her sent around? Things are a shambles here and I am meant to be lunching with Mr. Wood in less than an hour!”

“I do not approve of that young man,” Mrs. Wynne Hare sniffed. “He is decidedly louche.”

“I know, Mother, but until I can snag a suitable banker, I do enjoy amusing myself with the likes of Mr. Wood.”

“Your inability to ‘snag a banker’, as you vulgarly put it, may be due entirely to the amount of time you are seen gallivanting around town with the likes of Mr. Wood.”

“I need the strong guidance of a good lady’s maid,” Constance countered with surprising smoothness, which impressed and cheered her no end. “Do please ring Collier and send her around, there’s a dear, Mother.”

“Well, all right.” Her mother sighed with the requisite weariness.

“Heavens, I am going to be most horribly late for lunch.”

“Oh, Constance, when is that not the case?”

“But what should I do to occupy myself while I’m waiting?”

“Can you not read a book or something?”

“Mother, be serious,” Constance said, her eyes wide with shock.

“For heaven’s sake! Take a bath, Constance.”

The Big Splash by Kit Marlowe - sm banner