Monday, May 14, 2012

Duncan Barrett & Nuala Calvi's "The Sugar Girls"

Duncan Barrett studied English at Cambridge and now works as writer and editor, specializing in biography and memoir. He most recently edited The Reluctant Tommy (Macmillan, 2010) a First World War memoir. Nuala Calvi also studied English and has been a journalist for eight years with a strong interest in community history pieces. She took part in the Streatham Stories project to document the lives and memories of people in South London. They live in South London.

Barrett applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Sugar Girls: Tales of Hardship, Love and Happiness in Tate & Lyle's East End Factories, and reported the following:
The Sugar Girls tells true stories of women who worked at Tate & Lyle’s sugar and syrup factories in the East End of London, in the years following the Second World War. Based on interviews with over fifty women, it is written in a mainstream, novelistic style, and focuses primarily on the lives of four key women, while drawing on anecdotes and details garnered from all our interviews.

Page 99 [below left, click to enlarge] is quite typical of our approach in writing the book. It is part of a chapter about a girl called Gladys Taylor – one of our core characters – but weaves in anecdotal material from other interviews. At the top of the page, the ‘man in an old-fashioned uniform who stalked around with an umbrella and walking stick’ is in fact a ghost – one of many factory legends that we heard about in our interviews. We were keen to find an appropriate place in the book to mention such a juicy nugget, and Gladys’ chapter – which details some of the injuries (occasionally fatal) suffered by workers at the factory – provided a good excuse to drop it in.

Many of the small details of East End life mentioned in the book were described over and over again in our various interviews. For example, at the bottom of the page, the key dangling on a piece of string inside the letterbox was common practice at the time, and many interviewees referred to it as a sign of how different things were in the 1940s and 1950s – an era when people knew their neighbours and had no fear of being robbed. Gladys’s story of waking up her orphaned colleague Betty in the morning provided the perfect opportunity to drop in this historical detail.

Page 99 is also typical of Gladys’s chapters in The Sugar Girls, in that it is the beginning of a short amusing anecdote: Gladys arrives at Betty’s house to find her still in bed, and despite her best efforts to rouse her and get her dressed, the two of them miss their bus to work and are docked pay for arriving late. Of all the women we interviewed, Gladys and her friends had the funniest memories to share with us, and often it was the small ups and downs of everyday life as much as the big dramas – family suicides, unwanted pregnancies – that provided the heart of the book.
Visit the official blog of The Sugar Girls for pictures, excerpts, reviews and more.

--Marshal Zeringue