Beryl Bainbridge turns to face us. The face, gaunt, intense, tapering, is rather seamed and crumpled looking as if it's spent too long beneath the old horse-hair mattress on that cast-iron-bed up in the attic. She is wearing a flower-print frock underneath an almost ankle-length coat with high, puffed shoulders that looks as though it might once have belonged to one of the highway men that frequented these parks - until the motorcar killed them off.
She switches on the intense light of her smile, switches it off again, and then apologises for herself, quite needlessly. "Although it is partly set in Liverpool, I'm not going to read this," - she shakes her new novel, Master Georgie, about in the air a bit to get some light into it - "in a Liverpool accent," she says, this famous daughter of Liverpool. "For a start, I was sent to elocution classes as a little girl... and, anyway, the kinds of accents you hear on television these days - Brookside or Cilla Black - are pure pastiche...", she hisses disapprovingly. She bends towards the audience as she reads, one hand propped against the back of a chair. The other swarms around in the air, gesturing, stabbing out. She speaks vehemently, matter of factly, as if this is the plainest of plain tales, and it's just a matter of ramming it down our throats. Her mouth is very mobile, and often very wide open, too, when she reads.
The novel is set, in part, during the Crimean War. When she describes the dead man with flies buzzing at his mouth, his flesh the colour of bad meat, she pauses, biting down on her lip. There is not a word to spare about this writing, and to hear her reading it is like watching someone unpack a fine set of precision tools.
When it comes to questions, she belts them all straight back. She's sitting on the chair now, but leaning forward and out of it, alert, combative, which means that the chair is on two legs the whole time. No, she's not much of a reader of contemporary fiction. Why should she read Rushdie? She doesn't know a thing about India, and she doesn't want to know. It's so far from Liverpool. She's never read Evelyn Waugh either. She found him so peculiar because he never actually described anybody. Then she thinks for a minute, chewing on that lower lip again. "When I was young, I read that chap who died on a motorbike - was it Dermot Walsh... Welch? I don't remember a thing that he wrote now though."
Her own first novel, Harriet Said, seemed a marvel to her, so lyrical, such a wonderful evocation of her own childhood - until she suddenly realised that it had no plot. So she pinched one from a newspaper: that story about the two little girls who killed their mother in New Zealand years ago. Every novel needs a plot just like a piece of sculpture needs an armature - something to hang the whole thing on. And newspapers are very good places to find them. And does she ever go back to Liverpool? Asks a young Liverpudlian girl, speaking in an accent that sounds suspiciously like a pastiche of Cilla Black's. She used to - but not anymore. "I've finished with Liverpool," replies Bainbridge. "It's all gone, all the old streets. Everybody's died..."
Then she glances around, half expectantly. Her eyes swim behind her spectacles. "Apart from the ones that keep turning up at book talks." She stabs at the table with her finger end. "Do you know why we came down here in 1963 in the first place? Because my brother had been peed on in the playground, and they thought the schools would be better in London. How laughable." She gives us a cheeky wink.Reuse content