A book variously described as a memoir, a biography and an autobiography, West End Girls details the lives of Soho prostitutes through the eyes of a virginal, innocent but forthright narrator (I have great empathy with the author, as I used a similar narrator in my novel, Breaking Faith, so my review could be a little biased; please bear that in mind).
Written with humour and displaying an extraordinary naivety mixed with a growing worldliness developed along the journey, this memoir is full of empathy for the girls and young women the author meets, befriends and serves. Set just after World War II, the atmosphere is remarkably evocative and brilliantly brought to life by Barbara’s candid observations. If you’re a man reading this, be warned: men do not come out well from this volume. The author’s view of the gender is clearly skewed by her exposure to those men who habitually resort to the services of prostitutes, so it is hardly surprising that she has a somewhat one-sided view of us. Only later in life did she meet and marry a man who was able to balance her view and, to give her credit, she clearly realised that her former attitude was rather biased.
I read this book with a growing sense of amazement at the peculiarities of the human condition and the sexual proclivities of both men and women. I’m no innocent; though my only exposure to prostitutes has been accidental contact: once whilst looking for a photography business in Southend and once whilst hitch-hiking through London. On neither occasion was I tempted to take up their offers of ‘comfort’. Barbara has introduced me to the idea of the prostitute’s ‘maid’, a sort of bodyguard-cum-accountant-cum-general dogsbody; something I had not previously encountered, even through fiction. She also talks of ‘ponces’, the Soho equivalent of the ‘pimp’, which in her era had a slightly different meaning.
Her accounts of her own life and those of the women of pleasure around her are warm, detailed and almost impartial. The descriptions of Soho, especially the underbelly where these women operate, are full of observations that bring the shoddy, shabby but superficially glamorous place to life. The author was a gifted artist and this shows through in her acute observations, her ability to paint a picture with words.
Her gradual loss of innocence, though she is never physically corrupted, permeates the account and allows her to provide more and more detail of actual events. However, she shows a distinctly personal view of what she can and cannot write for public consumption, so that her narrative is full of unanswered questions to which the reader suspects she has almost too any answers.
Given that this is story of the lives of people engaged in a sordid lifestyle for all sorts of reasons, it manages to rise above the murk and muck to provide a picture of a warm, generous and affectionate world, albeit peppered with violence, usage and abuse.
I am glad I read this, both as writer and reader, and have no hesitation in recommending it to all but those with insincere pretentions to sensitivity.