The Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi is a social history of women in London’s East End who worked in the Tate and Lyle sugar factories after WW2. The book takes the stories of four women as a focal point and weaves in snippets of other people’s lives and memories. I haven’t been reading a lot of non-fiction since leaving university but I really think this is worth a look – especially for young women who don’t realise how much life and opportunities have changed for them since the fifties.
I spoke to one of the authors, Duncan Barrett, about how the book came to be written, stories that didn’t make the final cut, and collaborating with co-author Nuala Calvi.
“At the end of February 2011 we were commissioned to write a book about women factory workers in the East End. We went to Canning Town, Custom House and Silvertown, where many of the women who used to work in the factories now live, and found former Tate & Lyle workers everywhere, many of them with wonderful stories – so we decided to focus on the two Tate & Lyle factories in the area.
Unlike a lot of the other factories that lined the Thames in that area in the 1940s and 1950s, Tate & Lyle is still a household name, so we felt that stories of life there would resonate well with readers, even those who knew nothing about the East End.
We planned everything in great detail – we spent nearly a week with hundreds of index cards laid out on our dining table, working out the structure for the book and what would go into each chapter. Then we divided the chapters up and wrote them individually, checking back over each other’s work as we went along to see that we were maintaining a consistent style.
Once we had a draft of the whole book, we began going through each chapter in detail, suggesting changes, improvements and other rewrites – so in the end, we had both worked very closely on every page of the book.
Collaborating on a project like this means you can work faster, and also it’s a great support to have someone constantly on hand to discuss and debate ideas with. On the downside, you do have to be very methodical. Working alone, you can rely on your own memory to an extent, but with a partner everything has to be written down and organised so that both of you know where to find it. It’s a great pleasure, though, to know that you’ve created something together.
Creating a narrative from different memories and research was a real process of boiling things down – choosing the best stories, and ones that complemented each other, then working out how to hang other details or background information off them so as to paint the broader picture. We didn’t want the book to seem too much like a worthy history, so we were keen never to lose track of our four main women’s stories, but within that structure we tried to pack the book with as much interesting material from other sources as possible.
The four main women featured in the book were all sent a copy of their chapters before the book was published so they could let us know if we’d got anything wrong, or if there was anything they didn’t feel happy about. For the most part, they were really pleased with what we had written, although some were more picky than others. Writing a book like this – telling true stories but in a novelistic style – you do have to embellish around the details that people remember, imagining the actual dialogue of conversations and so on. Some women said we had captured their memories exactly, others wanted us to change little elements here and there.
All our interviewees were wonderful in different ways. Gladys and her friends Betty and Eva were probably the funniest – and as a group of old friends, they would wind each other up and the stories would flow very easily. But some of our interviewees told us much more intimate, personal stories which were incredibly moving – Lilian spoke about the desperate poverty that her family endured when she was growing up, and Joan about her experiences of an unexpected pregnancy. It was such an honour interviewing all of them about their lives, including the many women whose stories didn’t make it into the book.
There are so many stories we wished we could fit in. We regretted losing one in particular, which was in an early draft but had to be cut for length. It was about a woman who worked at the factory during the Second World War and arrived late one day because she had discovered an unexploded bomb on her way to work and rushed all along the back yards of the street it had landed in, getting people evacuated out of their houses. She was celebrated in the local paper for her bravery, but that didn’t stop her having her pay docked for turning up late to work!
We did speak to many male workers, who gave us lots of useful background information, and there are some male viewpoints in the book – for example ‘Dave’ (not his real name!), who had a string of sugar-girlfriends and entertained them privately in his storeroom. But it was always clear that the focus would be on women’s work. There is certainly a sequel out there waiting to be written about the male workers– they were just as naughty and fun-loving as the women, and they generally stayed at the factories for longer.
We’re discussing a couple of possible follow-up ideas with our publishers at the moment, but they’re under wraps right now. We’re hoping to get started on something soon though, and it should be out some time next year. We can say that it will also focus on ordinary women’s experiences in the past, but that’s about all we can reveal at the moment!”