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Authors: Sarah-Jane Stratford

Radio Girls

BOOK: Radio Girls
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“Sarah-Jane Stratford's
Radio Girls
is an achievement of historical fiction so believable that you'll wonder if the author has access to a time machine. Maisie's trajectory—from mousy, fearful underling into assertive, independent powerhouse—mirrors that of the nascent BBC for which she works. The promise of postwar prosperity and the looming threat of fascism make for an engrossing background against which Maisie finds herself involved in international intrigue and national rights movements that will make the reader turn the pages frantically, utterly enthralled until the very end. By turns funny and fascinating,
Radio Girls
is a triumph.”

—Allison Amend, Author of
Enchanted Islands

Radio Girls
carries readers on a memorable, eye-opening journey to London in the 1920s and '30s, a pivotal time in the history of women's rights, politics, and the arts. Sarah-Jane Stratford's storytelling skills are on vivid display throughout, and the strong, believable, and immensely human Maisie Musgrave is the best imaginable guide to that vanished time and place.”

—Joseph Wallace, Author of


Published by New American Library,

an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

This book is an original publication of New American Library.

Copyright © Sarah-Jane Stratford, 2016

Readers Guide copyright © Penguin Random House, 2016

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Names: Stratford, Sarah-Jane, author. Title: Radio girls/Sarah-Jane Stratford. Description: New York City: New American Library, [2016] | Identifiers: LCCN 2016000672 (print) | LCCN 2015047085 (ebook) | ISBN 9780451475565 (softcover) | ISBN 9780698195295 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: British Broadcasting Corporation—History—20th century—Fiction. | Radio broadcasting—Great Britain—History—20th century—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION/Historical. | FICTION/Literary. | FICTION / Biographical. | GSAFD: Historical fiction. Classification: LCC PS3619.T7425 (print) | LCC PS3619.T7425 R33 2016 (ebook) | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


“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

London 1930

he ran, weaving in and out of the startled pedestrians, but her pursuer was still close on her heels.

All their meticulous planning, all that work in spinning the web and catching all these flies, but they hadn't factored in this possibility: the chance that the papers in her bag were worth so much that someone would chase after her to get them back.

Chase after her with a gun.

She heard it, heard the click, even above the sounds of shoppers, of traffic, of her own pounding feet and pounding heart and the steady gallop of the man behind her.

He didn't know, though, that she wasn't alone. A small comfort, as she leaped over a pair of Yorkshire terriers and ducked around their sable-clad owner to sprint down the alley, but she would take what comforts she could.

And he had no idea what she was about to do. No idea of the power she really wielded. He was like all the bullies who had chased her as a child, hoping to frighten her. They had succeeded. He would not.

She ran harder, knees high, sure-footed as a gazelle, and gazelles didn't wear well-polished heels with fashionable double straps.

Thank goodness for short skirts. Ten years ago I'd have been dead by now.

She just needed to get to the car. He was getting closer, though. She put on a burst of speed.

Would it help to scream? No, it never helped to scream. Besides, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing she was afraid, just as she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of getting the papers he wanted so badly.

She tightened her grip on her handbag, slick with sweat, and ran harder.


November 1926

lthough 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,
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 forcible 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
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: B
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.”

BOOK: Radio Girls
9.45Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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