Boyd Tonkin: When disaster struck, Nina Bawden showed how a writer can be a hero

The Week in Books

Sometimes writers choose to take a stand on public issues because conscience and commitment draws them into the debate. And sometimes fate, however cruel, makes speaking out less a choice than a necessity. The novelist Nina Bawden died last week aged 87, after a 50-year career of unfussy excellence in fiction for both adults and children (she wrote more than 40 novels). Of course we ought to remember enduring works such as the Booker-shortlisted Circles of Deceit, The Ice House, Walking Naked, Family Money and (for younger readers) the evergreen Carrie's War.

But it would be hard for any tribute or memorial to forget the day, late in her life, when a disaster of insupportable cruelty arrived – and not simply a random blow of fate, but a grotesque event intimately bound up with the twisted politics and values of the times. She responded to it not only heroically – but with a bravery and eloquence that derived specific strength from her vocation as a writer.

Bawden lost her husband, the retired BBC journalist and executive Austen Kark, to the Potters Bar rail crash of 10 May 2002. Travelling on the train with him, she suffered grave injuries and spent months in hospital. Seven people died: the others were Alexander Ogunwusi, Chia Hsin Lin, Chia Chin Wu, Emma Knights, Jonael Schickler and Agnes Quinlivan. The now-defunct maintenance firm Jarvis – later chaired by Tory politician Steve Norris – was responsible for the faulty points on the line that caused the crash. They had 83 separate defects. After endless delays, Jarvis never faced a criminal prosecution. Last year Network Rail, which inherited its liabilities, paid a piddling £3 million fine, nine years after the "accident" – or, perhaps, the mass homicide.

Bawden fought with other survivors over many years for the justice they deserved. They never got it. In 2005, she published a book about the crash and its aftermath. Dear Austen took the form of a letter to her husband. Its moving picture of their life together reveals just what is lost in every such calamity. Then, as she recalls the long months of conscience-free stonewalling and buck-passing by shits in suits after her bereavement, Dear Austen grows into a quietly devastating indictment of high-handed corporate might, cemented in place by spineless politicians.

"Own up to a fault, apologise and the share price goes down": such was the door slammed in her face. The Labour government – and in particular Gordon Brown – had contrived the mammoth PFI swindle that put spivvy, derelict shirkers such as Jarvis (which went bust in 2010) in charge of crucial services. Bawden, a Labour member for nearly six decades, eventually resigned from the party. It failed to respond to her letter.

When, in Dear Austen, Bawden flayed the "snakeheads" (her name for the unaccountable fat cats who gorge themselves on public contracts), she sounded like a lonely voice. By the time of her death – and oddly, with a Conservative-led government in power – the weather had changed. In the wake of the G4S security débâcle, the Olympics – deplored by some in advance as a cash-machine for corporate sponsors and monopoly suppliers – turned into an unabashed celebration of social solidarity and the virtues of the public realm. Another kind of nation, the one to which Nina Bawden belonged and enriched for so long, rose up and decapitated the snakeheads.

Or rather, it did for a fortnight. Now we return to privatised business-as-usual with the sordid spat between FirstGroup and Richard Branson's Virgin Trains over control of the West Coast main line rail franchise, with its taxpayer-funded windfalls. Our public institutions still bankroll private interests. Meanwhile, it took a novelist – representative of that most solitary and self-sufficient of callings – to make the case for what we have in common.

A budget flight for the business-class mayor

As this column has twice noted, the Mayor of London – as a HarperCollins author - continues to pocket the Murdoch shilling. But for all the tycoon's largesse, and his newspaper earnings, Boris Johnson hasn't quite lost the common touch. A week ago, coming home, I found myself waiting behind a familiar blond mop in the duty-free at Dubrovnik. And there, in the slow, non-priority queue for easyJet, was the Mayor again. I hope he enjoyed beautiful Croatia. But, please: no plans for airport-hub Boris Islands off the Dalmatian coast.

A cheer for Mozart's script-writer

Thanks to the BBC licence fee, I bought a great seat at Glyndebourne this week for roughly the price of a pizza. To be exact, I saw Glyndebourne's superlative The Marriage of Figaro at the Albert Hall: the Sussex opera's house's annual visit to the Proms. It may sound perverse, but again I came away from hearing one of the most sublime of scores wanting to cheer the writer too. Lorenzo Da Ponte's trio of libretti for Mozart – Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte – flash and dance with a wit and verve that allow the words to matter and to move. And what a Mozartian life the old roué enjoyed. Da Ponte, a Venetian, Jewish-born ordained priest, emigrated to US aged 56, sold books, ran a grocery, became Columbia's first professor of Italian and (aged 84) founded the first US opera company. It went bust. Anthony Holden tells the tale con brio in The Man Who Wrote Mozart.

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