Obituary: Paul Berry

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS in July 1942, at a Food Relief Rally in Trafalgar Square at which she was the most prominent speaker, that Vera Brittain first met Paul Berry. "Charming young man," she noted in her diary, "with a distant look of Winifred" (Berry was a remote cousin on his mother's side of Brittain's great friend, the Yorkshire novelist and reformer Winifred Holtby). "He is in a bomb-disposal squad at Acton - [a] compromise between being a conscientious objector and being in the Army." On an impulse she invited him back to supper with her, and he stayed until after ten.

It was the beginning of a friendship which would last almost 28 years, right up to Vera Brittain's death in March 1970; and it was a relationship that in another sense would continue for the rest of Berry's life. Appointed as one of Brittain's literary executors, he pursued the aim of rescuing her literary reputation from years of neglect, with a combination of extraordinary dedication and loyalty to her memory.

In 1978, Berry oversaw the triumphant republication by the nascent Virago Press of Vera Brittain's classic account of the First World War, Testament of Youth (1933); and the following year, having sold the dramatic rights to the book to the BBC (in preference to the playwright Simon Gray, who was also keen to dramatise it), he was able to savour the wide acclaim of the BBC's five-part adaptation, which starred Cheryl Campbell and which went on to sweep up most of the leading television drama awards for that year. The success of the BBC version made the book a best-seller in Britain for a second time, and helped to establish Testament of Youth definitively in the canon of First World War literature.

The friendship between Brittain and Berry had been an unlikely one, and yet it was for both of them among the most important relationships of their lives (as the scores of letters which she sent him testify - they are soon to be donated to Somerville College, Oxford). Shy and withdrawn, Brittain found intimate friendships difficult. At the time of their meeting, she was beginning to experience the suspicion and obloquy of the pacifist in wartime, and she was also suffering from the devastating blow of being prevented by a government ban from visiting her son and daughter who had been evacuated to the United States.

In Berry she found a young man who shared many of her views - he remained a lifelong pacifist - and who in some ways fulfilled the role of surrogate son. In 1944, when she was writing her novel Born 1925 she drew closely on Berry's experiences as a bomb-disposal soldier, visiting his wartime London billets in Chiswick and Balham, for the character of Adrian, who became a composite of Berry and Brittain's son, John. When the book was published in 1948, Brittain dedicated it to Berry and also gave him a cut of her royalties.

For his part, Berry was drawn, as others had been before him, to the vulnerability in Vera Brittain's character. He saw a sweeter and softer side to her personality which rarely surfaced in public. This made him protective of her, and also led him to imbue their relationship with an almost romantic aura. One of the first gifts he sent her was a box of violets, in direct imitation of those she had received from her fiance Roland Leighton, killed in 1915 (though Berry was appalled, many years later, by the suggestion in a tabloid newspaper that he and Brittain had had a love affair, and sharply denied it).

He was also drawn to Brittain out of respect for his own mother whose "sanctity and strong matriarchal influence" had, he claimed, made him a feminist. Berry was the eighth of ten children of a Midlands farmer and his wife. Soon after leaving school, he served in the Royal Engineers, and later the Royal Ordnance Corps.

On leaving the Army he worked for a time at Donald Soper's Kingsway Hall mission, helping to run the rest and feeding centre there: throughout his life Berry would always go to great lengths to help anyone in trouble or distress. He wanted to join the probation service, but when this proved impossible he settled on a career as a teacher of secretarial skills, eventually becoming a Senior Lecturer at Kingsway-Princeton College for Further Education until his retirement in 1981.

His major ambition, though, had always been to be a writer. During the difficult years when he divided his time between a taxing job in London and the home which he and his partner, the distinguished potter Ray Marshall, had established at Stedham, near Midhurst (where Marshall ran a pottery from 1952), he made some forays into publishing his work. Vera Brittain introduced him to Allen & Unwin, who published Daughters of Cain (1956), the study of the nine women executed in Britain since 1923, which he had co-authored with Renee Huggett; and in 1970, through Brittain's introduction to Muriel Box of Femina Books, he published By Royal Appointment, a biography of Mary Ann Clarke (1776-1852), the mistress of the Grand Old Duke of York.

But the book he most wanted to write was the one which nearly defeated him. Originally intending, at Brittain's request, to complete her third volume of autobiography, left unfinished at her death, he subsequently conceived the idea of a memoir, and then, as Brittain's reputation revived, of a fully-fledged biography. He had always experienced difficulty writing - though he was an accomplished and indefatigable correspondent - but found himself, understandably, floundering in the morass of material which Brittain had left behind. "It's the one thing I want to do before I go on my way - and do really well," he told Carmen Callil at Chatto & Windus, "and it's soul-destroying finding it so terribly difficult."

In 1985 he co-edited, with Alan Bishop, a selection of the journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby for Virago, Testament of a Generation, which was very well received; but his "block" about the biography continued.

In 1986 Carmen Callil and Shirley Williams, Vera Brittain's daughter, conspired to find a solution to the problem. I was introduced as co- author, and what was initially intended as a year's work to complete the book turned into almost eight years of research and writing as together we examined every aspect of Brittain's life and work.

Berry was constantly torn by his desire on the one hand to protect Vera Brittain and on the other to be as honest about her faults, as well as her virtues, as he could. The documentary sources were voluminous, but what Berry provided that no one else alive could, was an unerring insight into Brittain's character based on years of personal knowledge. Vera was published in 1995, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Award, the Fawcett Prize, and the NCR non-fiction award.

It was difficult not to love Paul Berry. His mischievous sense of humour, his generosity - which meant that he gave far more money away than he ever spent on himself - even his awkward stubbornness, all made him a memorable character. He also possessed a quiet integrity which struck everyone who knew him. After the death of Ray Marshall in 1986, he spent the last years of his life in happy companionship with the artist Eric Leazell.

Mark Bostridge

Paul Frederick Berry, writer: born Weston-by-Welland, Leicestershire 25 December 1919; died Haslemere, Surrey 12 May 1999.