Barbara Tate’s memoir West End Girls is a totally absorbing and revelatory memoir about the author’s two-year stint working as a maid for the Queen of Soho – aka 1940s prostitute Mae.
It’s a remarkable glimpse at a lost Soho – grubby, still a residential neighbourhood with small businesses, seedy and with an air of criminality.
Barbara is a wide-eyed 21-year-old who has escaped a miserable childhood and has ambitions to be an artist, when she is invited by Mae to earn a lot of money as her companion, security guard and tea-maker.
I read this book as research about Soho in the 1940s, the background for a series of shocking murders that may become a book and/or TV documentary. It is informative, revelatory and hugely enjoyable.
Bondage, cross-dressers and ponces
Mae is a charismatic force of nature and introduces young Babs to her twilight world of bondage devotees, cross-dressers, punters, Maltese ponces and sister prostitutes. Barbara would eventually become a successful artist but reveals herself here to be a fantastic, empathetic writer.
She is never seduced into joining the sisterhood, but is a witty, non-judgmental and loyal observer throughout. Her recollections of Mae’s world are not for the faint-hearted, but, my goodness, it is hilarious, while ending on a tragic note. A brilliant and unforgettable read.