Sarah-Jane Stratford Radio Girls

ISBN 13: 9780451475565

Radio Girls

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9780451475565: Radio Girls
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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. American-raised Maisie Musgrave is thrilled to land a job as a secretary at the upstart British Broadcasting Corporation, whose use of radio—still new, strange, and electrifying—is captivating the nation. But the hectic pace, smart young staff, and intimidating bosses only add to Maisie’s insecurity.
 
Soon, she is seduced by the work—gaining confidence as she arranges broadcasts by the most famous writers, scientists, and politicians in Britain. She is also caught up in a growing conflict between her two bosses, John Reith, the formidable Director-General of the BBC, and Hilda Matheson, the extraordinary director of the hugely popular Talks programming, who each have very different visions of what radio should be. Under Hilda’s tutelage, Maisie discovers her talent, passion, and ambition. But when she unearths a shocking conspiracy, she and Hilda join forces to make their voices heard both on and off the air...and then face the dangerous consequences of telling the truth for a living.
 
 
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About the Author:

Sarah-Jane Stratford is an author and essayist who has written for the Guardian, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, Salon, and Guernica, among others. She is also a member of WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media).

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright ©2016 Sarah-Jane Stratford

CHAPTER ONE

November 1926

Although everyone in the boardinghouse had seen the letter and assured Maisie that it was genuine, she couldn’t help continually unfolding and rereading it, until the typed words along the creases were nearly illegible, only five days after she had received it.

“You ought to be careful,” advised Lola from her perch on the straight-backed bedroom chair, where she was buffing her nails. “You’ll soon have that in pieces, and aren’t you meant to present it at your interview?”

The interview. After months of unemployment, with only the occasional two or three days of work that everyone was sure would turn into something more substantial and never did, Maisie was at last invited to interview for a full-time position. A junior secretary was needed at the BBC.

“I do hope it’s for whoever it is who puts on the plays and things,” Lola said at least once a day, with some variation. Maisie promised faithfully that, if this was the job on offer and she secured it, she would make every effort to have Lola brought in to broadcast. Privately, however, she hoped the job was as far away from the “plays and things” as the BBC’s offices in Savoy Hill allowed.

She read the letter again. The letterhead was a plain, modern type, giving the address and exchanges for phoning (Temple Bar 8400) or sending telegrams (Ethanuze, London). The text was in the succinct, formal style she associated so fondly with Britain, directing her to arrive at the office at three o’clock Thursday, November twenty-fifth, and ask for Miss Shields. She was to bring “appropriate references.”

“I wish I knew what they meant by ‘appropriate,’” Maisie said, running her finger up and down her pointy chin. She had a note from Sister Bennister, head matron of the Brighton Soldiers’ Hospital, pronouncing Maisie an effective and considerate nurse—generous, considering Maisie had scarcely been more than a nurses’ aide. The certificate of completion from Miss Jenkins’s Secretarial College was more relevant but less impressive, as it was dated 1924, from New York, and there was no great way to explain her failure to provide anything else.

“Ah, don’t fret so much,” Lola advised. “They have to say that sort of thing, don’t they? But I don’t reckon those references matter so much. It’s really all about the impression you make when they meet you.”

The longer Maisie studied herself in the black-stained mirror at her dressing table, the less encouraging that prospect became.

Both Lola and their landlady, Mrs. Crewe, had been nonstop fonts of advice since the ceremonial slitting of the envelope. Even the other boarders, women who rarely seemed cognizant of Maisie’s existence, shared the thrill. Listening to the wireless was a sore subject in Mrs. Crewe’s house, as that intractable lady pronounced the whole concept a “nonsensical passing fancy” and refused to spend her hard-earned money on such a thoroughly unnecessary and, she emphasized, unnatural contraption as a radio.

“Why on earth would anyone want to hear bodiless voices? Sounds irreligious to me, not to say dangerous. Who knows what they can do, if they can speak to you through some machine or other? First cinema, now this. It’s not right.”

Not right it may be, but Mrs. Crewe was a stout champion of “her girls,” as she described her boarders, and was willing to put aside some of her hard feeling in the cause of Maisie being properly employed.

“And once you’re working there and not growing two heads or whatnot, she’ll have to agree it’s all right and buy us a wireless!” Lola crowed. “Of course,” she went on more musingly, penciled brows furrowing, “like as not we’ll have moved somewhere a bit more smart by then, I’d think, don’t you?”

Maisie did, though only because Mrs. Crewe wasn’t likely to buy a radio anytime before doomsday.

Lola and the other boarders all had friends willing to host “listening in” parties, where everyone gathered to enjoy something or other from the BBC, usually the plays or music, but of late the Talks. Maisie was not so lucky, which was part of why she was so interested to know more. She secretly agreed with Mrs. Crewe that there was something terrifying about a disembodied voice, and it was bizarre that it could originate from another part of London and yet sound as clear as someone sitting across the table. A lot of people were afraid of the wireless, certain that all this new technology was a harbinger of evil spirits, or a means of bridging the gap to the spirit world. Maisie wasn’t sure what she believed.

What she knew for an incontrovertible fact, however, was that her funds had dwindled to one pound, thirteen shillings, and ninepence. Despite her nonpareil expertise with frugality, this little pile of coins represented a week of food and shelter. Her family, such as it was, lived in New York and Toronto, and none of them would respond favorably—or politely—to a request for assistance. There was nothing else for it. She had to get this job.

“Let me put some makeup on you. All those BBC girls wear makeup, I’m sure,” Lola insisted. Maisie demurred. She couldn’t risk the unknown Miss Shields thinking she was fast.

Or stupid enough to think makeup would improve me. Maisie sighed, focusing on the nose people called “Roman” when they were being kind and wishing her gaunt face boasted at least one other notable feature. I suppose I should be grateful I haven’t got a boil.

She saved her gratitude for the popularity of the bob. It was a great gift to women like herself, cursed with fine, lank hair, and she wholeheartedly embraced it. Her hair might be dull and dirty-dishwater brown, but was less offensive for being short and unmoving on her head, with a severe fringe laboring hard to give her face something approximating a shape. She wished she had a decent cloche, something with a rhinestone flourish near the ear, or perhaps a little feather. Her tired black wool hat was so plain and obviously cheap. But it was clean, and careful brushing masked the worst of the patchiness.

The forcibly English tones of her Toronto-born and raised grandmother echoed as Maisie rolled her stockings up her thighs and clamped them in place: “Well? Aren’t you going to thank me?” And Maisie was grateful that the woman’s passion for thrift and sharp things had given her the skill to mend her black wool stockings so well. Modern women wore beige or pastel stockings—some of them silk!—but black was still acceptable and these weren’t too awful, so long as no one looked closely.

Lots of luck there. She frowned at her skinny, shapeless legs, wishing she’d appreciated longer skirts more when they were still in style.

As for her shoes, she would just have to keep her feet flat on the floor to hide the holes. The cheap Oxfords had tarried valiantly for five years, but even if they could be repaired again, she couldn’t bear it. Every time she put them on, she wanted to cry.

As she tied the laces, she remembered one of the few pieces of advice her mother, Georgina, occasionally offered: “It is always best to have less if one must, so long as everything you wear is of good quality.”

Fine words from a woman who, as a struggling young actress, wore skirts to the ground and was now successful enough to always have what she called a “sponsor” to keep her in all the silk stockings she wished.

Maisie stood and put on her coat.

“Gosh, Maisie, I wish you’d borrow something of mine,” was Lola’s response as Maisie presented herself for inspection.

“Your clothes would never fit me,” Maisie said, with perfect truth. Lola was shorter than Maisie, and though she made assiduous use of straps to render her luscious figure more fashionably boyish, she wore her dresses as low-cut as daylight hours allowed. If Maisie tried to wear one, she would look like a chorus girl in a sideshow.

“Well, I suppose no one cares what anyone looks like for radio anyhow,” Lola said in her most comforting tone. “At least take a taxi there. No, you must. You’ll feel awfully grand. Here, I’ll lend you the fare.”

The coins glinted in Lola’s palm, shiny temptation. Maisie had never set foot in a cab and couldn’t imagine such extravagance, but the sudden vision of a cloth rose to pin to her hat arrested her. She might find a milliner’s on the Strand. Her hand hovered, but refused to land. She could not be pretty or smart, but as she was, she looked steady and practical. Someone must appreciate those qualities in a secretary. Besides, she hated being in debt if she didn’t have to be. She had no idea what next week was going to bring.

“Thanks awfully, but that’s all right. It’s only two o’clock. The tram will get me there in plenty of time,” Maisie assured Lola.

“Well, good luck.” Lola grinned. “They’ll want you. I’m sure of it.”

Parting with one of her precious pennies for the fare, Maisie hoped Lola was right. No one had wanted her in a very long time, and those that had taken her hadn’t kept her any longer than Richard the Third kept Anne Neville in Shakespeare’s invention.

Georgina always said Maisie didn’t belong in London.

I can’t have her be right.

Outside the handsome stone building with the brass sign reading: British Broadcasting Company beside the door, Maisie had a sinking feeling that Georgina knew whereof she spoke, though she had only ever visited a London suggested by stage sets. Maisie laid her fingers on the dark wooden door, feeling the pull of a place bursting with life. She forced her hand to stop shaking and to remember how to work a doorknob.

The door opened onto a vast reception room, vehemently modern, with a marble floor polished to the gleam and hazard of a skating rink and wallpaper featuring incongruous tropical trees. Two women in a corner, swathed in fox furs, twittered and chirped to each other, rhythmically tapping ash from their cigarettes into a burnished brass tray.

A clatter heralding imminent devastation—the earthquake of San Francisco, come to London—sent Maisie’s arms around herself in feeble protection as two men pelted down the stairs, cramming on hats and straightening ties, faces glowing with purpose. They zipped past on either side of Maisie, close enough to knock her both east and west, a billiard ball on a table, and sprang out the door, never seeing her.

Maisie straightened her coat, congratulating herself on staying upright. She sidled up to the cherrywood table, where the much-Marcelled receptionist turned away from the telephone to appraise her.

“Have you an appointment?” the receptionist asked in a deep voice, pleasant enough to be welcoming and authoritative enough to be respected.

“Please, I’m . . . I’m to see Miss Shields at three o’clock,” Maisie whispered, unfolding the precious letter to prove her credibility.

“Hum,” came the answer. A bell must have been rung, because a moment later a plump young boy with a shock of red hair appeared. He could not have been more than twelve, and bore himself with the imperiousness of a courtier.

“Ah, Rusty,” the receptionist greeted him. “This is”—a glance at the letter again—“Miss Musgrave, for Miss Shields, right away, please.”

“Yes, miss! This way, please, miss.” An exuberant wave of the arm, inviting Maisie into the bowels of the BBC.

“Did you want to take the lift, miss, or the stairs? It’s up at the top, you see.”

She knew she should save her strength where she could, as it was hours before supper, but there was a buzz emanating from all those floors above and she wanted to walk through as much of it as she could.

“I don’t mind the stairs,” Maisie assured Rusty, and was rewarded by an approving grin.

The BBC had existed only four years, so Maisie didn’t expect the sort of ponderous grandeur that characterized a steady establishment, places that filled her with awe, wonder, and desire. The sort of places she dreamed of spending her days in, and her nights, too. Savoy Hill was a different narcotic. The bright, pulsing energy of the new, of a staff enveloped in a technological marvel, in a venture that might turn in upon itself and disappear tomorrow—though they would all battle like they were at the walls of Agincourt to prevent such defeat. Behind some of these doors, people were certainly shut in soundproof rooms, speaking out to the nation. But in the corridors, it was a rush of thundering feet and rustling paper and rapid conversation.

“Did you hear? Old Matheson landed us Anthony Asquith?”

“Pah. I’m holding out for Tallulah Bankhead coming to broadcast.”

“You’d likely pass out stone cold!”

“Worth it, depending where I land.”

The colloquy buzzed and whirled around Maisie’s head, cloudier than perfume, and just as dizzying.

“I say, anyone fancy the American tonight?”

Maisie stumbled.

The bar, you idiot. He means the bar at the Savoy. Was that the sort of place these people went after work? Her presence on its pavement would provide the doorman with a good laugh before he directed her back to the main road.

The voice continued. “They’ve got a new bartender, straight from the 300 Club in New York!”

“Any man can mix a drink, he puts his mind to it. Tell me when they’ve got that Texas Guinan and her girls!”

He pronounced it “Gwynen.”

Quite unintentionally, Maisie stopped and spoke into the din.

“Guy-nan. Her name, it’s pronounced Guy-nan. And she’s not one of the . . . er, dancers. She owns the club.”

And was, allegedly, a friend of Georgina, though a life’s experience had taught Maisie to query any information that sprang from the maternal fount. Georgina described Texas Guinan as “no actress, nor beauty, but she has a force of personality, child (which Maisie still had to be, as Georgina never aged). Well worth cultivating” (because what else were people but hothouse lettuces?).

Through the vapor of her rising mortification, Maisie felt several people staring at her in amused interest, spurring a sudden fondness for her own well-cultivated disguise of Invisible Girl, the foe she had made friend, usually so useful in cloaking her. Even Rusty had abandoned his sacred duty to gaze upon his charge in wonder.

A young man loped up to her, all sunshine grin and summer freckles. His hair flopped over one side of his head in untidy brown curls, and he wore fashionable baggy trousers and what Maisie guessed was a school tie.

“You’re American?” he asked in a well-bred accent. “Are you from New York? You are, aren’t you?”

Maisie struggled to remember how to breathe. That grin. Those freckles.

“Well, I . . . sort of . . . I mean, I lived . . . grew up . . . in New York, but . . .”

Rusty, remembering himself, intervened. “Ever so sorry, Mr. Underwood, sir, but I must deliver the miss to Miss Shields for an interview.”

“Oh!” The young man looked stunned. “I rather thought you must be a Matheson acquisition.”

“Not likely,” someone said, and sniggered. A chorus of whispers ensued.

“Well, enjoy Miss Shields, then,” Mr. Underwood encouraged. Sapphire eyes smile...

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