Victoria Purman – The Radio Hour

HQ Fiction, an imprint of HQBooks, a sunsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers, Australia, 2024
Cover design by Christine Armstrong
Cover image ClassicStock/Alamy Stock Photo

The Radio Hour is set at a time of transition in Australian social history, with the impacts of World War 11 still very much present in families and the wider society. It is a time of gradually changing attitudes to women in the workforce and their role in society, but of entrenched male dominance, sexism and misogyny in all spheres.

Barbie spoke to Victoria Purman about The Radio Hour

Fifty-year old, unmarried Martha Berry, our heroine, is a long-time employee at ABC Radio in Sydney. She is efficient, loyal and intelligent, an excellent reader of people, polite (far too polite to point out…) as was the expectation of the day for women.

Despite her fine qualities, she has never been promoted or given a pay rise, but rather she has been shunted from position to position, providing secretarial and administrative support to men of varying degrees of capability and incompetence, and training younger male colleagues to take positions she could very well have filled herself given the chance.

Enter Quentin Quinn, a young man brought on board to write a new radio serial, which is to follow the time spot after the long running and immensely popular Blue Hills. A serial called As the Sun Sets has been announced, devised with a suburban setting and encompassing music and dancing (‘and so on’) to attract younger audiences and entertain’ the ladies of Australia’. It soon becomes apparent that he is not up to the task and Martha steps in to save the day.

Without giving away the plot entirely, suffice it to say that she brings to the role of ghost writer a whole new world of issues of interest to women which cause outrage in some quarters – menopause, domestic violence, workplace sexual abuse, to name key ones.

She is morally supported by April, May and June, young colleagues she dubs her calendar girls. These three young women also serve to illustrate both the changing mores of the era and those that remain considered sacred pillars of society, notably the expectation that girls will prepare for marriage as their priority, paying attention to their appearance and attractiveness to males before any career considerations.

At home with Martha and her mum, we see the post-war domestic struggles and repetitive tasks that filled the lives of women left widowed or otherwise bereaved by the war and post-war poverty. Martha looks after her ailing mum and entertains the neighbouring women who cheer her on quietly from the sidelines.

As time goes on, we gain more and more insight into the levels of inequality in the workplace, such as the marriage bar which was lifted much earlier in the UK than in Australia, preventing married women from continuing in their public service jobs. We also see sexual abuse in the ABC workplace, abuse which is never reported and which the ‘blokes’ consider to be all good fun.

Not everyone remains too polite, the glorious Joyce Wiggins expressing her feelings of disgust and disillusionment about the ABC workplace culture in no uncertain terms. The actors in the new series similarly provide moral and substantive support for Martha despite their own fears for the future as the spectre of television looms ever closer. Will TV kill the radio star? Not for a while it seems. Neither will the wrongdoings of the small minded and badly behaved go unpunished.

Victoria Purman writes with a ferocious humour and a keen eye for social injustice. She develops characters we believe in as thoroughly as radio listeners believed in the cast of Gwen Meredith’s Blue Hills. We applaud their successes and are frustrated at the obstacles they encounter. It’s history after all, not fiction and some of us are old enough to have lived it!

This is a wonderfully satisfying book which depicts the lows of the times with the lightest but most impactful of touch. The author has a subtle hand and a well-honed capacity to portray a world not all that long gone (and not entirely gone at that).

She is sympathetic, judging when it seems entirely appropriate and allowing the mores of the age to excuse those who act without spite, though often cluelessly – Martha’s kindly boss for example. He acts without hesitation when the need is greatest but has been oblivious up till then of what was happening around him and the working conditions of the women on his staff.

Younger readers of today will have much to learn from this work about the struggles that have brought us to where we are now. I commend it to them for this reason as well as for its sparkling literary merit.

For older readers, much will be their history, but they will doubtless enjoy the fictional victories that eventually come for Martha if they did not for everyone of the time. Bravo to Victoria Purman for telling these hefty stories of industrial and social reform and in such an enjoyable and stylish manner.

Thank you to HQ for my review copy and to Victoria for speaking with me about the important medium of radio, the changes and challenges in women’s lives over the post war decades in Australia and this excellent book.