Honour at last for a 'Booker bridesmaid'

Literary prize created for Beryl Bainbridge
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The Independent Culture

A five-time loser of Britain's most prominent literary prize will be recognised almost a year after her death. Dame Beryl Bainbridge, who died last July, was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize five times but never won.

Organisers are asking readers to vote for one of her five shortlisted novels to be awarded a special prize called The Man Booker Best of Beryl.

The prize's literary director, Ion Trewin, said: "Dame Beryl was a very gracious non-winner and no Man Booker dinner was complete without her. She may have been the eternal Booker bridesmaid but, with this prize created in her honour, we are delighted to be able finally to crown her a Booker bride by letting the public choose what they believe to be the best of her books."

Bainbridge, who was born in Liverpool, wrote 17 novels, two travel books and five plays for stage and television. As a child, she enjoyed writing and at school was good at history, English and art (she continued to paint all her life and made a painting to mark each of her books); but she was known as "Basher" Bainbridge, as she got into a lot of fights. She was eventually expelled from Merchant Taylors' Girls' School in Crosby after being caught with a "dirty rhyme" (as she called it), written by someone else, in her gymslip pocket.

In her Who's Who entry, Bainbridge described herself as "actress, writer", a curious order of listing for someone who won acclaim as a novelist. However, after her expulsion she boarded at the Cone-Ripman stage school at Tring, Hertfordshire. She then appeared in rep in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and appeared as the leftish, ban-the-bomb girlfriend of Ken Barlow in Coronation Street, having started her acting career in the BBC Children's Hour in Manchester, where her co-stars included Billie Whitelaw and Tony Warren, the creator of Coronation Street. She also wrote a good deal of journalism, and was a valued theatre critic for The Oldie. Her good friend the biographer Michael Holroyd says: "A really original voice, Beryl was a genuinely serious comic writer, all of whose books end in tragedy."

For many years, Bainbridge's work was edited at her publisher's, Duckworth, by Anna Haycraft, better known as the writer Alice Thomas Ellis, whose regular column for The Spectator magazine often featured her deeply eccentric, chain-smoking, hard-drinking mate, Beryl.

Her novels fall into two distinct categories. Before the 1990s she drew chiefly on what Holroyd calls "her autobiographical capital", novels she herself said were written in order "to make sense of my upbringing. . .to discover what was going on in my family". The subjects were her childhood, her acting and life in the scruffier parts of Camden Town. She then turned to history, writing about Scott of the Antarctic, the Titanic, the Crimean War and Dr Johnson.

Bainbridge's Booker shortlisted books were The Dressmaker (1973); The Bottle Factory Outing (1974); An Awfully Big Adventure (1990); Every Man for Himself (1996) and Master Georgie (1998). An Awfully Big Adventure, set in Liverpool theatre company, was adapted for a film starring Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman in 1995.

Her daughter, Jojo Davies, said: "Beryl did want to win the Booker very much, despite her protests to the contrary. We are glad she is finally able to become a bride, no longer the bridesmaid."

An online poll, on the awards website at www.themanbookerprize.com, opens today and the winning novel will be announced in April.

Last year, organisers created a one-off Lost Man Booker Prize awarded for the greatest novel of 1970, a year in which changes in eligibility rules meant some books slipped through the net.

This year's Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland, will be announced in October with the winning author collecting a £50,000.