The Sugar Girls by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi

by Amy Pirt

It is almost 2200hrs and I am sat in my car (don’t ask) in what I imagine is a former miners’ or council estate in Tenterden, a well-to-do town as far removed from the East End as possible. The houses surrounding me, despite their former use, sell for as much as £235,000 for only 3 bedrooms, due largely to their location in this particularly pretty market town. Despite my own location, I can almost hear the giggles of the Sugar Girls, those eponymous ladies of HarperCollins new and bestselling biography, and feel Tate & Lyle’s sugar between my toes like sand. Such is the power of these East End factory women’s stories, brought, as Melanie McGrath says on the cover quote, ‘vividly to life’ by biographers Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi.

This is not the sort of book I would normally read: I suppose that, like Call the Midwife, I would have dismissed it as ‘heartwarming’ and therefore not for me and moved onto another novel. But right from the start, my regional manager could see that there was something very special about The Sugar Girls, and now I can confirm that he is absolutely right. For what can be more interesting than social history? Facts are here too, but it is The Sugar Girls themselves who really bring to life the noisy, hot atmosphere of the Tate & Lyle factory.

That is not to say that you won’t learn anything from this book, although that will, of course, depend on what you know already. I, for one, had no idea that Tate & Lyle used to be two separate companies, and that they only amalgamated in 1921. I was aware that women, for the most part, had to give up work when they got married, but I did not know that the pay gap was as bad then as it is now: Tate & Lyle women earned only 75 per cent of their ‘male counterparts’. More worryingly, I also had no idea that the factory had a bar which could be frequented throughout the working day, and that even those working on machines were allowed to visit this bar and resume working afterwards. Henceforth, dear reader, I expect never to hear the phrases ‘nanny state’ and ‘health and safety’ in conjunction again: consider yourself lucky to be working in modern times.

But, as I said earlier, it is not the facts, but rather the Sugar Girls themselves, which endear you to the Tate & Lyle story. In particular, it is the four women around whom the biography centres, Ethel, Lillian, Joan, and Gladys, for whom you really root whenever life gets rough for them.

As with fiction writers who switch perspectives, such as Sarah Rayner and Karrie Fransman, The Sugar Girls’ structure means that although you find yourself immersed in each individual woman’s story, conversely, you never tire of any of their tales. This is because just as you find yourself desperate to know what the consequences will be of Gladys’s latest work prank, or whether or not Lillian will hear from Reggie, the authors move us on to Joan’s wardrobe or Ethel’s ‘coveted white coat’. They are all quite different women, but are all united by one factor: their love for, and loyalty to, Tate & Lyle.

Be warned, however: this is a real tearjerker. It is best not to read it, therefore, when you are already feeling low. Having said that, with only a Bee Gees concert as my alternative distraction while waiting for the recovery truck, I chose to finish The Sugar Girls. I just had to be sure that Lillian’s, Gladys’s, Joan’s and Ethel’s lives turned out, if not as sweet as the sugar which they used to pack, then at least as successful and memorable.

Thanks to Sarah Patel at HarperCollins for a review copy of The Sugar Girls, and both to Sarah and Tate & Lyle for sending sugar packets and syrup tins for Waterstones Tenterden to use in their window display.