How We Met: Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens

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The Independent Culture
Bernice Rubens, 64, grew up in a Jewish family in Cardiff. She worked as a teacher, then turned to writing and directing documentary films. She won the 1970 Booker Prize for The Elected Member and has just finished Autobiopsy. Divorced, she has two daughters and two grandsons. Beryl Bainbridge, 58, grew up in Liverpool and began her career as an actress, before turning to writing. She has published many award-winning plays and novels, and has just put together a collection of her journalism. She lives in London, and has two daughters, son and two grandsons.

BERNICE RUBENS: I met Beryl in spirit a long time before I met her in person. I come from a musical family, and in the Fifties my younger brother, Cyril, had just started his orchestral career with the Liverpool Philharmonic. Beryl lived in Liverpool and was married to a painter called Austin Davies who saw my brother in the orchestra pit and decided to paint him. I remember the picture hanging in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Years later when Beryl and I became friends I took her to meet Cyril, and now she's part of my family.

We finally met physically on a writers' trip to Israel about 15 years ago. There was Fay Weldon, William Trevor, Ted Willis, Iris Murdoch, Melvyn Bragg and Beryl, who made an impression on me immediately because she was wearing a hat and was quite clearly out to lunch. I warmed to her because it was pretty apparent she was cuckoo.

She was frightened of flying - sheer terror emanated from her. She may have been intimidated by all of us, but she didn't give that impression. I think I was preoccupied the whole of that trip bumping into relatives. If you're Jewish, everybody is related in Israel, and a lot of my Russian relatives have settled there.

We still get asked on these promotional trips and gradually over the years we've become friends. We didn't become friends because of the trips, rather despite them. We got together because we realised we had a lot in common, we both live in north London and we both have two grandchildren about whom we talk endlessly. We meet once a fortnight for breakfast at the Cafe Delancey, just around the corner from Beryl in Camden Town, and we talk about her two grandsons, Charlie and Bertie, and my two, Josh and Dash. We talk about other things too: we gossip, we talk about our work.

What I value about Beryl is the fact that she's the only person to whom I can talk about my own work. Although I have many friends who are writers, I don't want to talk about it to any of them except Beryl, because - like the Midland Bank - she listens, and she is terrifically loyal. I know one writer who only praises writers who are foreign or dead because they're not rivals, but I've never heard Beryl talk evilly about anybody.

We also have our smoking in common. I think she possibly smokes more than I do. Last year I gave up for four or five months. I could see my virtue getting to her; it made me nervous and I could almost see the friendship fraying at the edges, so I started smoking again.

We have also both been living on our own for a long time. I'm addicted to it and I'm convinced we've both become unfit to live with. I'm divorced and a loner by nature. Of course I sometimes feel lonely, but it's not a loneliness that has anything to do with not having a man around, and is certainly not a sufficient reason to remarry. We ring each other up if we're feeling down.

We do get invited to a lot of parties and book launches and things - probably too many. We're both very bad at saying 'no', although we're trying hard to learn - I'm better at it than Beryl. As she doesn't drive, I do the driving. I always pick her up as, even if she's coming round to my flat , she'll say 'It's on your way isn't it?' - she has absolutely no sense of geography. I know she hates my driving.

Beryl is undoubtedly eccentric, but she has her head screwed on and, despite the water buffalo in the hall, is very house-proud. I also love her because she's the only person who has ever been able to explain VAT to me.

BERYL BAINBRIDGE: Unfortunately I don't remember much about the very moment I met Bernice, which would have been at the airport leaving for our cultural trip to Israel, because I disgraced myself. The flight was delayed because Jim Callaghan was going somewhere on Concorde so we were all shunted into a hospitality lounge. I was wheeled to the aircraft on a luggage trolley and slept on a small bed at the back.

It was a very glittering group of writers and I was very much the new girl and rather nervous. I didn't even get going as a writer until 1971 and Bernice had won the Booker Prize before then. I had read her and was quite in awe of her and the rest of the group.

The trip was a great laugh. Ted Willis had just been ennobled so we referred to him as His Lordship, and absolutely everywhere we went somebody who knew Bernice would appear over the horizon shouting and waving.

She's a lovely companion and we do lots of what we call 'gigs' together. She drives me to the ones around London and her driving is appalling. She is perpetually going the wrong way down one-way streets, and then she swears and backs out again. Bernice always gets lots of ideas driving - especially round Marble Arch - and then develops a real sense of urgency to get home and write them down before she forgets.

What I admire most about Bernice is that she won't allow a remark to be passed which is against any minority: she has enormously strong convictions. I think it has something to do with growing up in a Jewish family. I'm not Jewish, but her upbringing in Cardiff was similar to mine in Liverpool. They were both matriarchal societies, which I'm sure is a link between us.

When Bernice and I were on a gig in Cardiff we went to visit her sister, and you could hear wonderful music pouring out of the house from way down the road; a string quartet was in full force mid-morning. They do it the whole time. I annoy Bernice by referring to her cello as the banjo, but they're an extraordinarily talented family: one daughter, Sharon, is a composer and the other one, Rebecca, is a painter. Her grandchildren all play banjos too.

Bernice and I worry about our grandchildren constantly over our cafe breakfasts and over the phone. One used to worry about the children and when they passed 30 assumed they could take care of themselves. But actually you still worry and then there's the additional anxiety of the grandchildren.

I can't imagine ever quarrelling with Bernice. There is no rivalry between us, and if one of us is miserable then we ring the other. I got drunk at one of her dinner parties and she rang me the next day because she knew I'd be feeling remorse, to tell me I behaved beautifully, which wasn't true. If one of us sees a slighting review about the other then we'll ring and not refer to it directly, but support the other in a roundabout way.

(Photograph omitted)