Cold Call: Beryl Bainbridge

Jack O'Sullivan rings Beryl Bainbridge
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The Independent Culture
"HELLO BERYL. Are you OK for a chat?" "Just a minute, Jack," replies Beryl Bainbridge, possibly Britain's most eccentric novelist. "I'm seeing someone out." In the background, there is a commotion. Her guest is apparently manoeuvring himself around the large stuffed buffalo in her narrow hallway.

"How lovely," declares Beryl as she returns. "That was A N Wilson. He just dropped in to say congratulations." Beryl is delighted with herself. Her latest novel, Master Georgie, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. "I've been lying down. I get terribly excited the day they announce the shortlist. It's always between 3.30pm and 6.30pm. You can't bear to be away from the phone. So I attacked the vodka. Then I had to go out to dinner. Now I'm feeling very groggy, but cheerful."

But isn't she worried about being once more the bridesmaid, never the bride? This is, I mention, her fifth shortlisting - a record. Yet, she has yet to win Britain's richest literary prize. "Oh, no. That doesn't bother me," she says. "In the old days, ours was the only table at the Booker dinner enjoying ourselves. We didn't think we would win, so we had a good night out. My publisher didn't mind, because it meant he didn't have to print any more books."

But wasn't winning the big prize always her dream. "No, no," says Beryl. "You see, I wasn't part of that world. Growing up, I didn't know anyone who was a writer. Until about 12 years ago, I didn't realise books were translated. I thought Proust wrote in English. When I was 15, I was mad about Francois Mauriac. I didn't realise the books were originally in French."

So she doesn't get embarrassed about repeatedly being a runner-up? "I'm just embarrassed if I don't get on the shortlist, especially if everyone says the book will make it. I'm embarrassed, not for myself. It's for the publishers that I get agitato, because the Booker means so much in terms of sales. Now I feel fine. I can relax. Once I've got over today, I'll be back writing again."

There's another knock at the door. "Oh dear," says Beryl. "Hold on." And, in the background, a voice booms out. "What's that bloody horse doing in your hall?" "It's not a horse, it's a buffalo," comes a faint reply, as the door is swiftly closed. "Oh dear," laughs Beryl, as she picks up the phone again. "That was a bit scary. People just don't seem to have any respect these days."

Clearly, I say, her success in being shortlisted is valued. Surely she aches then for all-out victory. "Well I have won in the past," she says. "I won the Whitbread once, maybe for The Dressmaker. I can't remember. I got a cigarette case with my name on it. I put matches in it, and my uncle's medal from the First World War.

"Actually, I've suggested to the Booker that they should give medals to the runners-up. Usually, I buy something just for myself, something to keep."

And this year, I wondered, what will she be buying to mark her latest shortlisting? "Not this time. I don't need anything anymore," replies the slightly wearied Booker veteran. "At my age now, I'm shedding things."