Last week I had the privilege of hosting Harry Bingham from the UK, discussing a breakout memoir. This week he shares an even more exciting story. This is proof that if you have a story to tell, don’t keep it in your head. Write it down.
I wrote recently on this site about John Fenton and how I and my colleagues were able to help him bring his memoir to fruition. Yet his was not the most remarkable story we’ve handled.
That honour has to go to a lovely lady, Barbara Tate, who was 83 when I first met her. Back in the 1970s she had written a length memoir of a two year period in 1948-49, when she had worked in Soho, the heart of London’s sex industry. Barbara had come from an ordinary middle class family, but one that was very cold, very unloving. So chilly was this family that on “Victory in Europe” day 1945, when the rest of Britain was celebrating victory over the Germans, her family refused to show any sign of celebration at all, on the theory that such shows of emotion were ‘common’ and ‘undignified’. After six years of total war. Amazing.
Anyway, as a 20-something young woman in London, Barbara was working as a waitress in a Soho cafe. There she met the most beautiful, impulsive, kind-hearted and glamorous woman she had ever met. That woman was Mae, one of London’s most successful prostitutes. The two women made friends instantly. Mae asked Barbara to come and work for her as a ‘maid’. Barbara said yes.
For two years, they were the closest of friends. Mae taught Barbara something about human generosity and love. About friendship. Barbara – well, she came to see that Mae, in addition to her many real virtues, was self-destructive and wilfully blind about some of the horrors she was getting herself into. Barbara did what she could to keep Mae away from trouble, but you might as well try to keep rain from falling. In the end, the friendship collapsed. Barbara realised that she didn’t belong in Soho. She would always love Mae and honour her for all that she had taught her, but it was time to move on.
Barbara was a passionate painter and went back to art school … and before too long her career as a painter took off. She became well known, becoming the President of Britain’s Society of Women Artists. When she completed her memoir, she made one short attempt to get it published, but was uncertain about exposing her family to the fact that she had once worked in Soho. So it wasn’t until her 83rd year that she actually took the steps necessary to get the book published. We helped her edit the work, sold the book for her, and it was picked up by Orion, one of Britain’s top publishers. That book, West End Girls, went on to become a bestseller … though not, alas, before Barbara had died. Nevertheless, she knew the book was going to be published and she said to me – not once but repeatedly – “Harry, that book will be the crown of my life”.
For me, it was an honour to help with that book and to help honour that life story. Barbara was a wonderful, amazing woman – and at the heart of a memoir was a story about a loving friendship between two very different women. Truly, a remarkable work to have been involved with.
Harry Bingham is an author and the boss of the Writers’ Workshop,