- The Liverpudlian novelist, who died this week of cancer, at 75, was dark, mischievous and misunderstood, says a long-time friend and fellow writer
Beryl Bainbridge was a comedian of prodigious aplomb. Her best novels – The Bottle Factory Outing, Injury Time (my own favourite), Harriet Said, The Dressmaker – are all deftly distorted versions of autobiography. How much her friends believed Beryl's version of events, or how much she believed in them herself, was somehow beside the point. She had long been in the habit of converting experience into art. The bullet-hole in the ceiling of her staircase was given as evidence of the day her mother-in-law tried to shoot her. Did the incident ever take place? I am not saying that Beryl was a liar, because I do not think she was. But she was a novelist, and the crafted versions of events always came to have more substance than mere facts.
Even as she lay in considerable pain, on what she had been told was her death bed in hospital last week, Beryl was trying to dictate the last few pages of her final novel – a fantastical version of a journey she took across America 42 years ago. It was yet another Beryl story of her somehow or other having become mixed up with an unsuitable chap – a man whom she came to loathe as the car made its way across the prairies. I have not read this book yet, though her devoted publisher, Richard Beswick (not a man given to hyperbole) tells me it is very good. I wonder if it is finishable? Some years ago, she developed a dread that she could no longer write.
"The words used to come so easily. It took about three months to finish a novel. I've been working on this bloody thing for three years," she said. Did she fear that, when the last book was done, she herself would be over? Maybe. I think she was afraid that the gift of translating experience into her own distinctive comedic prose had simply gone. She worked hard to get the sentences right, but in the days of her strength she could hear the words before they reached the page. She said them aloud. They had a particular rhythm, what she called the "Da-dee-da". This phenomenon had left her years ago, so that the grind of writing had become almost intolerable.
Beryl, who began in the Liverpool rep as an actress at the age of 16, was adept at playing roles. Some people, including her publishers at Duckworth, Colin Haycraft and his wife, Anna (who wrote as Alice Thomas Ellis), made the mistake of patronising Beryl and believing that the various masks she wore – the timid-little-girl Beryl who was totally lacking in social confidence; the illiterate scouser who could not spell and needed editorial help to finish a sentence; the Gin Lane slag who keeled over at parties – were "real".
The Haycrafts liked to suggest that they were an essential part of the Beryl Bainbridge production line. Anna, herself the author of novellas with a cult following, claimed that she was the one who somehow crafted Beryl's raw material. Colin, snooty about fiction, as about much else, said that novels belonged to the "distaff side of the business". But he was perfectly happy to pocket the profits from Beryl's novels – the only commercially successful books he ever published. She saw almost none of this money and it was a dark day when – Duckworth being in trouble – Haycraft came and asked Beryl to sign over her house. For a few hours she seriously considered this monstrous demand. Then the steely common sense surfaced – helped by her friend Bernice Rubens shouting from the sidelines – and that spelled the end of Beryl's association with Duckworth.
Here is perhaps not the best place to air Beryl's complicated relationship with the Haycrafts, who were both, in their different ways, monsters. She love-hated them both. In her morphine-induced trance in hospital last week, she imagined that she was dancing with Colin through a crowd of Hollywood film stars.
I felt that Colin's distaste for fiction had a bad effect on her work. Skilful as some of her historical reconstructions are – such as The Birthday Boys, about Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition – I never felt they drew on such deep wells as the self-projections, such as her Liverpool-rep novel, An Awfully Big Adventure. That book, made into a superb film with Alan Rickman, was really a masterpiece.
In her fiction, and in her life, Beryl liked the role of the wronged woman. Stella, the would-be actress, who is seduced in An Awfully Big Adventure, wants to tell all to her mother. But the only way she gets to hear her mother's voice is by dialling the Speaking Clock, which her mother professionally reads. ("'There was this man who seduced me.' 'The time,' mother intoned, 'is 6.45 and 40 seconds precisely.' 'It wasn't my fault,' Stella shouted, 'I'll know how to behave next time. I'm learning.'")
While the Haycrafts thought they were manipulating Beryl – Anna by supposedly improving her novels, Colin by playing the Sir Jasper role of total cad – some of their friends could see the dynamics of the infernal trio working very differently. Beryl was not short of men who fell in love with her. The two fathers of her children did not last long. There was no shortage of suitors to follow them. And this went on deep into old age. Woodrow Wyatt, for example, was nuts about her and would send round the chauffeur-driven car to whisk her off to lunch at the Savoy.
But Beryl wanted her own fiefdom – the weird house in Camden Town with the buffalo in the hall, which (an emblem, surely) made entry all but impossible. She loved her children and grandchildren, and they were devoted to her. Her puppet-shows, and plays, put on with the children in her bedroom, surrounded by taxidermy and statues of the Sacred Heart, were high points of life for friends and neighbours. But the writing life came first.
The house was crammed with figures who were easier than husbands – plaster saints, and a life-size model of Neville Chamberlain, who sat rather ominously in her bedroom window. Here she sat too, among the lifeless figurines, bringing her own characters to life on the page. Like Anna Haycraft, she had embraced Catholicism in the Liverpool of the 1940s, when it was the equivalent of taking crack cocaine, about the most annoying thing you could do to Protestant parents. I do not think Beryl believed much, or indeed any, of it. She thought the modern Catholic church "bloody wet" – a phrase which was also used of non-smokers.
The plaster saints were not real. Dickens was her real patron, and she was the only writer of our day who had a truly Dickensian gift. Like Dickens, she used all the buried ghosts of a presumably unhappy childhood to produce a gallery of literary comedy. She would sometimes stand in Bayham Street, Camden Town, and a look of real reverence came over her face as we recalled the child Dickens leaving from that address each morning on the long walk down to the boot-blacking factory in the Strand.
Some years ago, I was sitting in a pub with Beryl Bainbridge and Peter Ackroyd. No one was drunk, exactly speaking, but an atmosphere of Gin Lane hung about our table. At this point, a beautiful, pure young woman, who, as Beryl shouted, was "a mere child", came into the bar. She approached our table with a collecting-tin, which she rattled. "Cancer Research". Beryl said that she had no widow's mite to contribute. Ackroyd shouted smut. The pure one looked a bit wounded, perhaps because her Cancer Research tin was scarcely visible through the haze of tobacco smoke being created by Beryl's and Ackroyd's fags. To console her, Beryl called her back.
"I'm sorry we've no small change, pet," she said. "But if it helps…" she waved the ignited cigarette melodramatically in the air, "I have got cancer."
When I said I felt sorry for the charity collector, Beryl coquettishly pretended I had designs on the girl. "You're very rude," she said in her ickle-girlie voice.
A comparable moment occurred some years later. I had not seen her for about a month and met her for a fried breakfast in our excellent local café, which she cruelly christened El Sordido. "How have you been?" I asked. She paused, with a bit of fried egg on her fork, literally dripping with fat. "I forgot to tell you, pet," she said excitedly. "Since we last met, I've had a heart attack."
Like the heroes of her later novels, Captain Scott or Dr Johnson, she stared death in the face – defiantly, and comically. At the very end, when the guard was dropped, she displayed what she would have considered pompous in her days of health, a tremendous natural dignity.
A writer's life: the key chapters
1934 Born 21 November in Liverpool. Her father, once a successful businessman, goes bankrupt, and her family life is marked by discord.
1948 Expelled from Merchant Taylors' school after a dirty limerick is found in her pocket. Studies drama at Cone-Ripman near Tring, before starting life as an actress at the Liverpool Playhouse.
1954 Marries Austin Davies, with whom she had two children, Aaron and Jo-Jo. They split up shortly after Jo-Jo's birth.
1961 Appears in Coronation Street as an anti-nuclear protester.
1963 Davies buys a house for Bainbridge and the children in Albert Street, Camden Town; she lives there most of the rest of her life.
1967 Brings out Weekend with Claude, her first novel to be published. Falls in love with writer Alan Sharpe, who leaves her immediately after the birth of their daughter Rudi.
1972 Harriet Said, the novel she wrote first, is finally published by Duckworth. Bainbridge becomes close friends with her publisher, Colin Haycraft, and his wife, novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, who is also Bainbridge's editor.
1973 The Dressmaker is the first of her novels to be shortlisted for the Booker; a further four nominations follow, but she never wins the prize.
1974 Wins the Guardian Fiction Award for The Bottle Factory Outing.
1977 Wins the Whitbread for Injury Time.
1984 Makes her first television documentary, English Journeys.
1991 Publishes The Birthday Boys, her first historical novel, based on Scott's final expedition to the South Pole.
1995 An Awfully Big Adventure is made into a film, starring Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.
1996 Wins her second Whitbread award for Every Man For Himself.
2000 Receives a DBE.
2003 Has vasculitis and, under doctor's orders, gives up smoking. This results in severe writer's block.
2010 Dies 2 July, in London, while working on her final novel, The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress.