In September 1970, I finished recording the memoirs of a retired London lavatory attendant. He lived, with his wife Johanna, in the dank basement of a house in Pimlico where I’d rented a bedsitter.
Moving a year later to a bedsitter a few streets away, whom should I find living there in another dank basement, with her husband Jock, but Marjorie Graham, a retired female lavatory attendant, as happy to reminisce as her male predecessor. Coincidence, Luck or Fate, call it what you will, by the end of 1973 I was ready to offer publishers my brace of memoirs which would make a fortune for all concerned. My attempts, though, to arouse interest were firstly rejected out of hand. One editor replied, ‘Write to us again when you’ve recorded an attendant that’s a hermaphrodite and we might publish them as a trio.’ Marjorie and her male counterpart were only taken on seven years later, along with other books I’d taped, by the publisher Dennis Dobson, to the delight, I’m glad to say, of many readers. The going had often been rough for me. A whole book per person takes more stamina than a short portrait . . .
Ronald Blythe wrote of Marjorie as a ‘dancing, easyish, drinking lady whose fate it was never quite to get through’; reading her was ‘like eating meringues sprayed with “Evening in Paris”’. Though he failed to mention her sparkle and her sense of fun in face of tragedy, I prefer John Betjeman’s enigmatic ‘deeply moving and authentic and compulsive reading. Her story has the full gloom of Tottenham Court Road Underground Station and the precariousness of being alive. The lady is loveable indeed. My word what a good book.’
Sadly Marjorie died of a heart attack aboard a bus in Victoria in 1974 before seeing her name up at least in literary lights. But now they are to be up – I hope she is looking down – in lights that are even brighter. Macmillan approached me last year about bringing out a new edition. At the time the book was recorded, Lawrence of Arabia was showing at the British Film Institute, South Bank. Long ago, Marjorie was queen of lavatory attendants during the showing of that film at the Metropole Cinema, Victoria. ‘Synchronicity’ is another of those words one might consider apt.
Clive Murphy, 19.02.13