A singular life dedicated to prose and the party circuit

The death of Beryl Bainbridge brings to an end a brilliant and prolific literary career. John Walsh remembers her.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Dame Beryl Bainbridge, one of the finest, most prolific and most loved British novelists of the 20th century, has died of cancer, aged 75. Of her 17 novels, five were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but she never won.

Guests at Booker dinners at London's Guildhall – the highlight of the literary year – grew accustomed to the sight of Beryl, cigarette in hand, smiling bravely, resigned to being the bridesmaid but never the bride.

She never complained, though. She never took herself, or her writing, seriously enough to complain about missing the glittering prizes.

She was one of the most eccentric writers to flourish after the Second World War. Wide-eyed, gamine, her dyed black hair worn in a schoolgirl fringe, she was a fixture at literary parties in the 1980s and 1990s, drinking red wine, smoking furiously and gossiping in an urgent, girlish whisper.

She told brilliant stories – about, for instance, the time her mother-in-law visited her in London, pulled a gun from her handbag and narrowly missed shooting Beryl dead.

She lived in considerable squalor in a house in Camden Town, where visitors had to negotiate their way past a huge stuffed bison in the hallway; a tailor's dummy with a Hitler moustache was a fixture in her bedroom.

She wrote her books at the top of the house, seated at an old-fashioned school desk with a lid and inkwell. When engaged in a novel, she would closet herself away from the world for four months at a time, living on fry-ups and takeaways, obsessing over the musicality of her sentences. Between novels, she went partying. Many literary journalists can tell stories about book launches where Beryl would invite them to slip away with her for drinks elsewhere. She was published by Duckworth, whose headquarters was an old piano factory in Camden. The firm was owned by Colin Haycraft, a raffish, chuckling figure who threw fabulously rackety parties at his home in Gloucester Crescent.

Oliver Sacks, the legendary neurologist, came to one, bringing with him a sufferer from Tourette's syndrome; Dr Sacks had just published a book on the subject and was on a publicity tour, using the patient as a kind of show pony. The youth was a handsome teenager, to whom Beryl naturally gravitated, full of cooing sympathy.

Driven by an uncontrollable surge of attraction, the boy suddenly clamped his hand on Beryl's left breast. Dr Sacks spotted him. "Stop that at once!" he shouted. "Oh, leave him alone," breathed Beryl. "He isn't doing any harm ..."

Mr Haycraft's wife, Anna, wrote under the nom de plume of Alice Thomas Ellis and was Beryl's editor. Despite the fact that Mr Haycraft's publishing advances were famously ungenerous (Beryl never received more than £2,000 for any book), the two women were inseparable friends.

Beryl was born in Liverpool and brought up in Formby. It was a tense, uneasy childhood, of family rows and slammed doors; Beryl evoked it movingly in A Quiet Life (1976). She left school early and never went to university, a fact that she often brought up in interviews. Her first career was acting; her years at the Liverpool Playhouse became the background for one of her Booker-nominated works, An Awfully Big Adventure, later filmed with Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.

She appeared in Coronation Street in 1961, playing an anti-nuclear protester. As parts dried up, she began writing to pass the time, using her edgy childhood memories as raw material. After several rejections, she was signed by Duckworth in 1972. When her fifth novel, The Bottle Factory Outing, won the Guardian Fiction Prize and narrowly missed the Booker, she was lionised by literary metropolitans.

In the early 1990s, her books changed in subject and style. Rather than the slender, quirky fictions about slender, quirky women, unfaithful men and claustrophobic domestic settings, she began taking her subjects from history: the maiden voyage of the Titanic in Every Man For Himself, the latter days of Dr Johnson in According to Queenie. "Had I not written my books I would probably have been in a mental home by now," she told an interviewer in 2004. "Writing gets rid of everything. That is the only reason I ever began to write. I wanted to write out things that happened in childhood. There was no other reason at all ...

"And then I thought I would do the history books. And that meant getting a different voice. And that was difficult... And I found that the 'me' that was there before has totally gone. I can't find 'me' anymore."

Not all her works will survive to amuse posterity; but her later, historical works will be read by generations unborn as brilliantly terse evocations of English character at times of stress.