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Copyright © Margaret Forster 1954
Editorial material © Hunter Davies 2017
Designed by Anna Green at

Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies have asserted their right to be identified as the authors of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

First published by Chatto & Windus in 2017

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library


About the Book
About the Author
Also by Margaret Forster
Title Page
Diary 1954
January 1954
February 1954
March 1954
April 1954
May 1954
June 1954
July 1954
August 1954
September 1954
October 1954
November 1954
December 1954
Cash Account
Statistical Summary


MARGARET FORSTER was the author of many successful and acclaimed novels, including Have the Men Had Enough?, Lady’s Maid, Diary of an Ordinary Woman, Is There Anything You Want?, Keeping the World Away, Over and The Unknown Bridesmaid. She also wrote bestselling memoirs – Hidden Lives, Precious Lives and, most recently, My Life in Houses – and biographies of Daphne du Maurier and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She was married to writer and journalist Hunter Davies and lived in London and the Lake District. She died in February 2016, just before her last novel, How to Measure a Cow, was published.


In 1954 in Carlisle lived an ordinary 15-year-old schoolgirl called Margaret. She would go on to become an acclaimed writer, the author of the novels Georgy Girl and Diary of an Ordinary Woman as well as biographies and memoirs. But this is her diary from that year; her life. Hers might be a lost world, but her daily observations bring it back in vivid, irresistible detail.



Dame’s Delight

Georgy Girl

The Bogeyman

The Travels of Maudie Tipstaff

The Park

Miss Owen-Owen is At Home

Fenella Phizackery

Mr Bone’s Retreat

The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury

Mother Can You Hear Me?

The Bride of Lowther Fell

Marital Rites

Private Papers

Have the Men Had Enough?

Lady’s Maid

The Battle for Christabel

Mothers’ Boys

Shadow Baby

The Memory Box

Diary of an Ordinary Woman

Is There Anything You Want?

Keeping the World Away


Isa & May

The Unknown Bridesmaid

How to Measure a Cow


The Rash Adventurer

William Makepeace Thackeray

Significant Sisters

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Daphne du Maurier

Hidden Lives

Rich Desserts & Captain’s Thin

Precious Lives

Good Wives?

My Life in Houses


Selected Poems of

Elizabeth Barrett Browning



My wife Margaret Forster, novelist and biographer, wife and mother, died on 8 February 2016. It was a year before I got round to clearing her writing room. It wasn’t superstition, romance, ghoulishness, fear, respect. I just never got round to it. I was so busy. I did tell our two daughters to clear out all her clothes, which they did, a week after the funeral, quite forgetting Margaret had a wonderful pair of Biba boots, purple canvas, laces tied right up to the knee, awfully fashionable in 1965 and now a collector’s item. Some lucky Oxfam shop got them.

Then at Christmas I started to go through her desk and files. I found 60 pages of an unfinished novel, marked ‘27’, as it would have been her 27th novel. It was on the top of her desk, so I could hardly miss it. I should have moved it in February after she died, put it in a drawer, as all summer the sun had rained down through her window at the back of the house and the top pages had curled and the ink fast faded. She wrote in ink, all her life.

I eventually put it away safely, then I opened her two top drawers – and found one million words. These were her diaries, which I had never read. They start with three schoolgirl diaries, one when she was eleven in 1949, then at the ages of fourteen and sixteen. From 1973 until not long before she died she wrote a massive diary for a year every five years, filling a whole page every day, all in her immaculate handwriting, each diary coming to about 100,000 words.

They were not a secret. Our children and I knew she kept a diary, but she always dismissed it, saying it was purely family trivia, only about the children, as they were growing up, their funny little ways, not about herself. Now and again over the decades, during our fifty-five years of marriage, if we were arguing about what age Jake could read and write, or when Flora had her first tooth, Margaret would go up to her room and check her diaries. With a bit of luck, the answers would be there.

Slowly I began flicking through. I quickly discovered that though the diaries were indeed mainly about the children, as she had always told us, they were more than that. They were also about her struggles trying to fit in her work, observations and thoughts about our relations, neighbours and friends, the world outside, about herself and me.

Her adult diaries begin when Caitlin, our oldest child, was nine, Jake six and Flora just a newborn baby. They had me laughing with tears in my eyes. They brought it all back.

Margaret, in all her novels, did not really do humour, play things for laughs. Her books were almost always about women, their relationships with each other, or with their parents and children, fairly serious, sensitive stuff, though she was very good on dialogue. Sometimes, as in Have the Men Had Enough?, a novel about Alzheimer’s, the dialogue was witty and amusing. But mostly, when I read the final proof of a new novel, which I was never allowed to do until it was all over, as she did not want to hear my boring opinion, I would say, ‘Not many laughs in this one, pet.’

In real life, telling us stuff round the kitchen table, she was always amusing, describing scenes she had observed, conversations she had overheard, even when we knew she was exaggerating, flamming things up, but in her novels she tended to stick to what she was intending to stick to, the unravelling of a character and a relationship, novels which proved remarkably popular in Germany, the USA and in Britain.

So that was the first big surprise in reading her grown-up diaries – laughing aloud. The second was her strong opinions, about other people – summing them up, getting to the heart of them – and with equally strong opinions about the books she was reading.

The third element, running for forty years, through almost all her adult diaries, was cancer, which first struck in 1975. She records the awful black comedy of cancer, but more often the fear, worrying whether it would strike again.

The three schoolgirl diaries are of course totally different, in a different style. I hadn’t even known that they existed. So what a surprise. And a delight. The 1954 diary, when she was fifteen/sixteen, is especially illuminating, revealing her emerging personality, her many talents and her cleverness, her strong opinions and fierce ambition. Where did it all come from? Or had it always been there?

Margaret was born on 25 May 1938, on the Raffles council estate in Carlisle. Raffles was quite a showcase when it was first erected, before the war, but it soon became a sink estate, one of the worst in the north of England.

Margaret later used her own family background, as described in her schoolgirl diaries, in two of her most popular non-fiction books, Hidden Lives (1995), and Precious Lives (1998). She agreed to go back to her old house in the 1980s for a Daily Telegraph feature about writers going back to their birthplace. The ground-floor windows were boarded up, a woman upstairs was selling drugs from an open window, a beat-up car had been driven through the front hedge and dumped in the front garden which her father Arthur had so lovingly tended throughout her childhood.

Margaret’s father, Arthur Forster, 1900−1996
Margaret’s father, Arthur Forster, 1900−1996

Arthur Forster, born in 1900, went off on his bike each day in his boiler suit to the local Metal Box factory. He had originally been a motor mechanic then changed to being a fitter, oiling and cleaning the factory machines, working on them when they went wrong.

He did not go in for small talk, disliked social occasions, could be very gruff and abrupt, kept himself to himself. When he took Margaret out as a little girl, if they met any neighbours he would instruct her to ‘say nowt’. This was partly the influence of the war – when we were told walls have ears, and the Germans could be listening – but also reflected his personality. He did not want to engage or get mixed up with others. Margaret, in later life, was rather similar. Arthur kept himself to himself, but at the same time he had very strong opinions, things he would do and not do, people and behaviour he disapproved of. He was, however, devoted to his wife Lily.

Her mother Lily, née Hind, 1901−1981
Her mother Lily, née Hind, 1901−1981

Lily Hind, like Arthur, had left school at thirteen. She could have gone further, if she had had the educational opportunities, but she did secure an office job as a secretary in the council’s health department. She had to leave this rather good job the moment she married Arthur in 1931, which was normal for married women at the time.

Their first child was Gordon, born in 1932, so he was six years older than Margaret. On leaving school at fourteen he went to work in Haley’s photographic shop and then into the RAF to do his national service. He was a keen Boy Scout, and became a King Scout, the highest honour for any Scout.

Pauline, Margaret’s younger sister, was born in 1942, four years after Margaret. She was called Pud or Pudding by Gordon, which wasn’t very kind, but the nickname stuck with her for many years, long after it was no longer remotely applicable.

Margaret, right, with sister Pauline and mother
Margaret, right, with sister Pauline and mother

In 1949, when Margaret was eleven, and the first diary begins, she is still living in Raffles, at 144 Orton Road. She and Pauline slept together on a sort of wooden bunk, made by Arthur, in an alcove in a wall, hidden by a curtain. She and Pauline attended the nearest primary school, Ashley Street, one of the more deprived schools in a deprived area, from which very few pupils ever passed the eleven-plus.

The eleven-plus, created after the war, was an examination to be taken by all eleven-year-olds to decide which school they would go to. In Carlisle, the exam was known as the Merit and the top 20 per cent – which was roughly the same proportion throughout the country – went to the Carlisle and County High School for Girls, or to Carlisle Grammar School, which was for boys.

In her 1949 diary, the eleven-plus is therefore hanging over her, but for most of the year her time is taken up with school friends, helping her mother, and the interests of normal ten- and eleven-year-olds, especially eating, and loving sweets. She writes in ink, in neat but rather childish handwriting, in a small Girl Guides Diary. It has sixty printed pages at the beginning on the Girl Guides Promise, plus information about artificial respiration, boating orders, cleanliness, Morse signalling, and what every girl should carry (answer: sharp pencil, small notebook, length of stout cord, small first-aid case, clean handkerchief). She uses the language of the times, picked up from the books she was reading, such as Enid Blyton and schoolgirl stories, so almost everything is ‘super’ and ‘wizard’.

She also records what was in the news, on the radio, in the Daily Express, the books she has read, the films she has watched. What was happening in the wider world gets mixed up with doing her homework, helping her mother with the housework, worrying about whether she should get her mop – her hair – cut.


She is ten when the year begins, and in her last year of primary school. On 1 January they go to Grandma’s and have ‘a lovely tea of salmon’. A week later they go again and have more salmon which this time she says is Grade 1. Tinned of course. Tinned salmon was a great treat. She plays a lot with a boy who lives nearby called Colin Gillespie. He lives in a private semi-detached house, as opposed to Margaret’s council house. He is an only child and his mother is very keen on their friendship. Margaret loves going there because Colin’s house is nicer, has more space, and his mother supplies lots of art and drawing materials and games for them.

She is not in the Guides, despite having a Guides Diary, but is in the Brownies.

On 23 March 1949 she is furious to learn that Margaret Bell is going up to the Guides. ‘Afraid I am rather jealous.’

Two days later, Margaret Bell is still going on about it. ‘Margaret Bell Swanked.’

Polyfoto of Margaret aged twelve, in her first year at the Carlisle & County High School for Girls
Polyfoto of Margaret aged twelve, in her first year at the Carlisle & County High School for Girls

She gets dressed for Easter, as most Northern girls did at that time, and lists her new clothes. She has a medical check at school and her best friend Doreen tells her that she has heard the doctor say after examining Margaret that Margaret ‘is a fine girlie’.

On 20 February, Down Your Way, a very popular BBC radio show, comes to Carlisle and a girl she knows, Marion Gosling, is on it. And probably swanking.

On 2 March she writes in large capitals: ‘MERIT! MERIT! MERIT! MERIT! MERIT! MERIT! Hope I have PASSED!’

On 13 June she writes: ‘Everybody on pins, results come out any morning.’

Next day, she writes: ‘Not this time.’

Then the next day: ‘Or this time.’

But on Thursday 16 June, the results do arrive. ‘HIGH SCHOOL HURRAH.’ The next day she adds that Colin, her friend nearby, has passed for the Grammar School.

After this, from July onwards, the 1949 diary entries get thinner. Often she simply writes ‘USUAL’. Perhaps the excitement of getting ready to go to the High School was taking up all her time and interest.

School photo − Margaret to the right, behind the man at the front
School photo − Margaret to the right, behind the man at the front

In 1952 she used a larger-format book, an exercise book, not a printed diary, so she had to write in the month and date herself, usually just writing the date when she began a new week. She is thirteen, and in her third year at the High School.

On the inside front page of the diary, and at the back, she again has a list of all the books she has read that year. The average, she works out, is fifteen per month. At the end of the year she tots up that she has read 136 books. A huge amount, considering how busy she is during the year – not just with schoolwork but swimming, getting up early to go to the baths and train. Her speciality is breaststroke, not speed but style. It never left her, her immaculate, classy, regimented breaststroke.

Another early morning session at the baths for Margaret, right
Another early morning session at the baths for Margaret, right

She is also obsessed by gym work, which surprised me. Throughout 1952 she is endlessly saying how super gym is, how good she is at it. And also playing hockey and tennis. That was all new to me. She never played any games in all the years I knew her – which began properly from the age of eighteen. I wonder what made her give up? Too many other things? Deciding she was an intellectual, not a sportswoman?

During 1952, she is beginning to express more opinions, becoming more assertive, but still very much of her times – so young, innocent, fresh, no boyfriends, no interest in boys or pop culture, apart from reading Woman magazine and Girl