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Dame Beryl of Camden Town


They buried Beryl Bainbridge today after a service at St Silas the Martyr, the Catholic church she attended in Camden, not far from where she lived in Albert Terrace. She moved into the house in 1963, a northerner in exile and single mother with two small children (a third came along two years later). Finding herself strapped for cash she went to work down the road at Belloni’s Wine Warehouse. Some of the people she met there turn up in her novel about Italian immigrants in London, The Bottle Factory Outing, though its main English characters – two women: one timid, another, feisty – are both self-portraits. The book won the Guardian fiction prize in 1974, bringing early critical recognition and making her an enthusiastic regular at the paper’s literary lunches from which she was often last to be hustled out. As those likenesses in The Bottle Factory Outing suggest, Bainbridge was a peculiar mix of shyness and conviviality, at one year’s Guardian luncheon, holding court under the grand piano.

Perhaps she found it easier to commune with the presences in her home, her many effigies, curiosities and relics. A stuffed bison graced the hall and and in the living room, adorning the fireplace, there was an altar’s worth of saints.  She also had Greek statues, religious icons and a life-size model called Neville Chamberlain. Bainbridge enjoyed the theatricality of these props – her own first dramatic role came at the age of 11 in the Northern Children’s Hour radio show, and in 1961 she appeared in an episode of Coronation Street. Long after her stage career was over she continued to describe herself in Who’s Who as an actress and writer.

At the church, set in the middle of a modern housing estate, shirt-sleeved photographers lurked in the doorway, discussing the celebrity potential of everyone who shuffled up. You could see them fretting over the elderly mourners: was that someone who once was someone or just an old codger that lived on Beryl’s street? They needn’t have worried, mingling with the churchful of family and friends were Paul Bailey, Joseph Connelly, Mark Lawson, Melvyn Bragg, Michael Howowitz, Terry Waite, Richard Ingrams, A.N. Wilson, Sue McGregor and Ronald Haywood, as well as a clutch of literary editors past, small press editors and journalists, some of whom had also known her friends – the Welsh novelist Bernice Rubens, who died in 2004, and Alice Haycraft (who wrote as Alice Thomas Ellis), who died the following year. Coming so close together, these losses were hard for Bainbridge but she responded with her own brand of quirky resilience, saying of Haycraft, “I don’t think of her as dead … more that she’s just not answering the phone.”

In an essay on death, Bainbridge wrote that, other than family, all that mattered to her were “tolerance, patience, regard for others and the love of labour”.  And she laboured heroically, producing 16 compact novels, two volumes of stories and four of non-fiction. Her fiction divides into halves. There are autobiographical works like The Bottle Factory Outing and An Awfully Big Adventure, based on her experiences at the Liverpool Playhouse which she joined after being expelled from school for writing smutty poems. Like much of her writing it manages to be both bleak and funny, giving an account of Stella-by-starlight’s calamitous sexual relations with members of the theatre’s provincial bohemia. (A 1995 film adaptation has an unusually good turn by Hugh Grant as a catty director.) But it was with histories of other people that Bainbridge found her forte, and a larger audience.

Young Adolf  imagines Hitler working as a waiter at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, Every Man for Himself is about the Titanic sinking, Master Georgie, the Crimean War, and her admiration for Samuel Johnson gave us According to Queeney, a sidelong view of the great man from Hester Thrale’s young daughter. There was also a TV series tracing J.B.Priestley’s journey, 40 years earlier, back home to Liverpool, in which she accuses Thatcher of desecrating the city. She was particularly appalled by the fate of the Albert Docks, finding its proud history overrun with nightclubs. As a rebellious teenager Bainbridge converted to Catholicism, but as an adult she came to miss the drama that originally attracted her: “No more Latin or sin or confession or penance. There’s no longer any point to it.” The “emptiness” she experienced as a result was linked to her feeling about the destruction of her hometown. “I have great deserts now in my mind”, she told Laurie Taylor in 2004, “Blank spaces.”

When some of the younger members of her red-haired tribe finally carried in the coffin, heaped in lillies, it was hard to imagine such a vivid character was no longer alive and among us. True to her younger self, she had asked for the full Latin Mass, and in his homily, Father Rowland recollected the amiable eccentricities of Bainbridge’s daily life, also speaking of “her great generosity…the many ways…she found to give of herself” – a sentiment echoed in the local paper,which described her kindnesses to people in surrounding streets; her heartfelt joining in with campaigns for tenants’ rights and single mothers.

Beryl Bainbridge receiving the 1974 Guardian Fiction Prize from W.L. Webb

She was part of her community in a way few people are now – let alone writers, notorious for their self-absorption – and was often to be seen in the Mornington Arms, the Ferreria Deli on Delancy Street, up and down Camden High Street (particularly enthralled by the varieties of things on offer at the 99p shop), or taking a favourite walk down to St Pancras Old Church. (Here, she would have found much for her imagination to play on: the three lives joined in the one grave of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and his second wife, Mary Jane; the modest pillow stone marking the fate of Johann Christian, “the English Bach”; the Hardy Tree, around which, the young Thomas – then an apprentice in architecture – arranged the headstones of graves exhumed to make way for the Midland Railway in 1860; or even the innovative domed structure of Sir John Soane’s mausoleum and its influence on the design of the telephone kiosk). She liked to amble around, often working up her pavement encounters for columns in the Spectator. In Camden Town, a book by her neighbour, David Thomson (the Woodbrook author), portrays her with a sack of clothes on her back, calling out on her way to the laundrette , “Any dirty washing?”, as if she were collecting it. Many people were amazed to learn this raffish local figure was a famous writer.

Bainbridge was a friendly woman but equally, at times, quite a proper one. She thought it important to dress properly, speak properly, and later in life, brushed away suggestions of bohemianism: no serious writer could live erratically, she chastised a succession of misguided interviewers. There was a fuss when she proposed that schoolkids take elocution lessons, as she had as a child (part of a well-rounded education that included Latin and tap dancing). This tension between informality and order had something to do with the remnants of her Catholicism, sustaining the warmth and tolerance bestowed on family, friends and street acquaintances, who were at the heart of her life in Camden, but also making her a respecter of certain kinds of tradition. In 2001 when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire, she was pleased as punch to meet the Queen, while the year before she gave a defiantly old-fashioned view of sexual politics to the Paris Review: “I’ve never been put down by a man, unless I deserved it, and have never felt inferior. It seems to me that a mutually beneficial relationship between a man and woman requires the man to be dominant. A sensible woman will allow the man to think he is the most important partner.”

This reverence did not extend to literature, however. In one interview when she was reminded that Howard Jacobson said writing had “transcendental significance”, she replied quick as a flash: “Oh yes. He did. But then he’s a fellah. And it matters to fellahs.” It’s a telling comeback, skewering men without appearing to. She acknowledges there are different ways of looking at the world, but in that “it” – mattering so much to “them” – there’s deflation. Women did not speak in such lofty terms, she thought, but were more likely to gossip about what their grandkids were up to – unless “one had a few drinks”, and then the talk would be not of aspiration to other-worldliness, but of hope for this one: the desire to be “moving to something better…the desire to be good.”  Almost in the same breath, though, she acknowledges the immaturity of this idea, recognising its roots in childhood, when she was told “you have been a very good girl”  and felt “so proud.” Female interest in virtue may not be altruistic, she implies, but tied to the need for approval, and is, in its own way, just as delusional as men’s fixation on transcendence or overcoming. If her deference was born of respect (for city, religion, royalty – for an idea of England), there was about it, often, the whiff of impersonation, a sense she was only carrying on in the role of dutiful daughter or subject. Perhaps it was this kind of subterfuge the historian Roy Forster had in mind when he called Bainbridge, “a great novelist of repression”.

Inside St Silas it was soon misty with incense, the thick perfume hung in a cloud over the congregation, seeping into the skin and nostrils, making the throat sore. Above this, the choir in the balcony sounded with the clarity only church acoustics seem able to produce, while down below we sang with thicker voices – our unexpected homage to Bainbridge’s cigarette huskiness. The hymns were both Parry settings: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, from John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, The Brewing of Soma, and Blake’s Jerusalem. Lastly, for those carried by red double-decker bus to the graveside in Highgate Cemetery, there was a final sending off: the Edwardian song Rolf Harris popularised, Two Little Boys, a kitsch and tender tribute to comradeship whose singing contrived to cheer everyone up.

At the end she wanted beginings. What Beryl liked best, Father Rowland said, was a baby. She would always stop on the street to talk to any she came across. And on her deathbed she asked to look at photographs of babies – any babies – to cheer herself up.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Stuart Rose permalink
    21/07/2010 2:29 am

    “At the end she wanted beginings. What Beryl liked best, Father Rowland said, was a baby. She would always stop on the street to talk to any she came across. And on her deathbed she asked to look at photographs of babies – any babies – to cheer herself up.”

    How poignant. I welled up when I read that.
    An interesting and touching piece on Bainbridge. Thank you.

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