Beryl Bainbridge: Echoes of a rackety life

Beryl Bainbridge, the grande dame of English letters, is sure she'll die at 71. Is that why she's finally given up smoking?
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If anyone is the patron saint of smoking, it is St Beryl of Camden Town, in the old borough of St Pancras. Devotees burning the holy weed may not have made pilgrimages to her house (which has no number, identified instead, she says earthily, by having "two knockers" on the door), but wherever Beryl went the incense of tobacco trailed behind. She even spent most of the evening at one of her own book launches on the steps outside the venue, as smoking was not allowed inside.

If anyone is the patron saint of smoking, it is St Beryl of Camden Town, in the old borough of St Pancras. Devotees burning the holy weed may not have made pilgrimages to her house (which has no number, identified instead, she says earthily, by having "two knockers" on the door), but wherever Beryl went the incense of tobacco trailed behind. She even spent most of the evening at one of her own book launches on the steps outside the venue, as smoking was not allowed inside.

But now the unthinkable has occurred - she has given up, on doctor's orders. One consequence is a severe case of writer's block, which has left her unable to continue the novel she is working on. Seventy this year, she is not far off the age of 71 at which everyone in her family, apart from her brother, died of heart problems. She has talked in the past as though she expected that to be the number of her days, too.

So I wondered how she would be, this Dame of English letters who has become a national treasure, garlanded with affection and reviewers' praise - if, famously, never the Booker prize - when I squeezed past Eric, the stuffed buffalo who lives in her hallway. I worried that she might be a touch anxious, or slightly sorrowful. But the Beryl who answers the door is relaxed, benign and chatty, considerate as always, and unmarked by whatever misfortunes she may have recently endured. Not only does she claim not to miss the fags at all, she has even allowed one of her grandsons to make a film about "the last year of her life".

First, the question posed by millions of addicts: how did she manage to give up? "Well, I woke up one morning around Christmas," she explains, "went as far as the shops, and when I got to the corner I felt this violent pain in me left leg." (The occasional "me" for "my" is one of the only traces in her accent left from a Liverpool childhood.) "I mentioned it to my daughter and she took me instantly to the hospital. It turned out it was vasculitis [which involves inflammation of the blood vessels]. In other words, you can have your leg off."

A trip to a consultant confirmed that the veins in the offending leg had become blocked, and that if she didn't stop smoking, amputation might be necessary. "My theory was that I could work through it; just tell it to go away, as it were. But the children were saying, 'Don't be ridiculous.'" So Beryl acquiesced and, spurning suggestions of hypnotism, patches and pills, simply gave up. "I didn't need them. I didn't do anything, I just suddenly stopped. It is peculiar! I suppose I didn't always enjoy them. It was just a sort of a habit." A habit, though, that turned out to be inextricably linked to her facility for writing. "I can write journalism, but it takes days," she says. "It would only take a few hours with a fag in my mouth." Work on the novel has stalled completely.

While rueing the fact that she no longer benefits from tobacco's medicinal qualities - she is of the firm belief that smoking aids the immune system - Beryl is pleased by one result of her decision. "I went to have my teeth cleaned," she says, "because once you give up smoking you might as well go the whole hog. There was a loose tooth that the dentist took out, and it was clean, which was a surprise."

Gleaming gnashers are not quite part of the Bainbridge image. But then neither is the extremely tidy ground floor with its kitchenette at the back and capacious leather sofa and dining table (covered by crisply starched linen) at the front, all dark wood and endless bookcases, warmed by a glowing fire on a rainy day.

The house is unusual, to be sure. Crammed with photos, pictures painted by her, her children and grandchildren (she has seven), and, naturally, more books, it also contains odd statues, such as one of Hitler in the middle room. "That's from when I was writing Young Adolf," she explains, "although he's dressed as Neville Chamberlain now. When the children were younger they'd go to school and say, 'We've got Adolf upstairs,' which didn't go down well. So we changed it to Neville."

Then there's Emily. "When I got a telly we had no aerial, but I discovered that if I or one of the children stood by it you could get a picture. So I had to make a statue that could stand by the telly. That's Emily." Now retired to the bathroom, and pretty and blonde from a distance, closer up Emily looks like her left cheek has been hit by shrapnel. "The grandchildren don't like her. I have to turn her around because they won't wee with Emily watching. She's the image of me Auntie Margo," she adds, caught on one of the gossamer threads of reflection that float by our conversation.

A house of curiosities, yes, but chez Bainbridge is not the chaotic tip that some have suggested, tapping a little too easily - and lazily - into the idea of Beryl the eccentric. Just as there is order and discipline in that mind, I bet she knows exactly where everything is in her house.

To be fair, the caricature is not without substance. The party-going Beryl is known to take a drop or two; at one Whitbread dinner, she and the late "Fat Lady" Jennifer Paterson brushed away the wine waiters and ordered double whiskies all night. The "rackety life" she concedes she's lived includes expulsion from school for having a mildly risqué rhyme in her pocket, a stint as an actress at the Liverpool Playhouse, a marriage (to the artist Austin Davies) of which her parents did not approve, and periods of near penury when she worked sticking labels on wine bottles (inspiring her novel The Bottle Factory Outing).

Her two children with Davies, Aaron and Jo-Jo, were followed by Rudi, whose father turned up after the birth, said he was going out to fetch a book, and never returned. (While Davies remarried and moved to New Zealand, the rest of the family, much of which lives near by, is close. Aaron, an architect, former actress Rudi and Jo-Jo, an artist and midwife, are regular attenders of Beryl's book launches, sometimes collecting up various other guests and heading for one of their homes to continue partying into the night.)

The alcohol-tinged world of another novel, Injury Time, which won the Whitbread novel prize in 1977 - a world of mortal, not gym-honed, flesh and of tender moral compromises - was once Beryl's world. Boyfriends, many married, came and went. Up the road, at the home of her friends Colin and Anna Haycraft, who were her publishers at Duckworth, there were innumerable parties. "They were terrific carry-ons," she recalls, "meeting people all the time. All the professors from Oxford, all the literary chappies." The sparkling wine laid out before the guests' arrival always contained a healthy (and hidden) dose of the strongest brandy. "Sometimes it went too far," she says, "and people didn't know what do they'd been to." Her tastes are also not what one would necessarily expect of a great novelist; an animated discussion between her and the pop musician Tom Robinson (as in "Glad to be Gay") on the relative merits of EastEnders and Coronation Street springs to mind.

Her views are defiantly old-fashioned. She caused a great stir a couple of years ago when she declared that all children ought to have elocution lessons so that "ugly" regional accents would be wiped out, along with class distinctions. "Men are superior to women," she says to me at one point, very matter-of-factly, as though there is nothing controversial about the statement at all. And to her, there isn't. Women with children should stay home to look after them, and men should be providers. That is the natural order, as far as she's concerned.

Her own behaviour towards men who have mistreated her has been extra-ordinary. She once presented a man who had tried to rape her with a volume of poetry when she ran into him in a bookshop the next day, explaining later that she'd felt sorry for him. While working at the bottle factory, she tells me, she had to put up with going downstairs to be "fumbled" regularly. "It seemed impolite to refuse," she laughs. "That's not normal, is it?"

No, it's not. But then, neither was her childhood with a distant, cruel father, broken by the shame of bankruptcy, and a mother who felt she'd married beneath herself. Young Beryl used to sleep with her mother and her brother with her father so that the parents could be spared the prospect of intimacy. She would feign illness so she could remain at home to protect her mother from her father's temper. Such an upbringing, I think, made the naturally spirited Beryl strong, but also made her yearn for the stability of the normal family life she'd lacked. She only briefly achieved that herself - she threw her husband out after discovering his infidelity, an action she later regretted - but the reservoirs of love and generosity she possesses have never dried through not being drawn on by a constant male partner. Many testify to Beryl's kindness, which perhaps she sometimes dispenses too readily but which remains one of her most endearing characteristics.

As things stand, however, the next launch party will be a long way off. For the first time, she cannot finish a novel. In fact, she cannot get past page 40. Entitled Dear Brutus, the story she hopes to complete draws partly on the death of Princess Diana. Having once visited Paris aged 17, Beryl returned recently to stay at the Ritz and inspect the underpass where the princess was involved in the fatal car crash. "It's something like - I'm 17, and having supper at the Ritz (which I never did)," she says, sketching the novel's plot, "and then I go back with a group of people in 1997 and dine at the Ritz the night it all happened. And it's either my fault or that of the chap who's driving me. I don't know, I've only done 40 pages." It sounds fascinating, I tell her. "Well, it could be," she replies evenly. "Maybe I'll have to take up smoking to write it."

Until the writer's block ceases, which she's confident it will, she goes for walks to help her afflicted leg, tends her garden, has been a judge for the Ondaatje prize, and sees her family. But this is not enough for her - "I used to spend my time writing," she says, "and now I hang around" - but she does not seem in the slightest bit irked by the idleness imposed on her.

And despite regularly having talked of 71 as the age at which she would die - 10 years ago she printed cards inviting friends and family to come to her house to divide her furniture after her death - she now cheerfully defies the Grim Reaper. Isn't it a bit morbid to have the "last year of her life" filmed? "No, no. Another of my grandchildren, who's four, asked me the other day when I was going to die. But I'm not worried about the 71 thing. I'm incredibly healthy. I don't think I'm about to die."

So we leave Beryl in her home of more than 30 years, seemingly alone, but surrounded by memories, by Adolf and Emily, and by the voice of her mother, which she hears sometimes when she walks down the stairs. Whichever ghosts call out to Beryl, they must be friendly ones, for she is a woman extraordinarily at peace.