Hot on hellfire, strict on syntax

Unravelling Beryl Bainbridge's personal credo is an awfully big adventure, E. Jane Dickson found
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Beryl Bainbridge's north London home resembles a refuge for distressed saints. In every corner, sorrowing virgins turn up their eyes at the sins of the world. At the turn of the stairs, a life-sized statue of Jesus ushers you into the drawing room with the discreet and self effacing gesture of an undertaker. Photos of Pope John Paul II, smiling and blowing kisses for all he's worth seem shockingly, almost indecently cheery in the Gothic gloom.

"I'm not really a lapsed Catholic," says Bainbridge, with a touch of the Norma Desmonds. "It was the Church that lapsed, you see, when it threw out all the Hell Fire, which was the bit I liked. All this", she goes on, waving her cigarette at the company of saints, "is just because I like the look of it." She is, she explains, not just a lapsed Catholic but a lapsed convert which of course makes her preoccupation with God and godlessness all the stronger.

Bainbridge's new novel, Master Georgie is set at the time of the Crimean War, a period in English history when the old religious certainties were undergoing a seismic upheaval.

"Researching the book, I discovered that between 1800 and 1850, not a great deal of science went on, compared to the post 1860 period when science just went barmy. People started learning about geology and evolution, and religion just shot out the window.

"Of course, there were loads of people who didn't wholly accept the new ideas. Somehow they managed to accept the facts and retain a sense of mystery. But we've gone too far for that now. We know about the moon controlling the tides and all sorts of scientific stuff that we hardly understand. We're pumped with information all day long about carcinogens, viruses and things that can go wrong with us - I spend my time visualising all these germs creeping towards my grandchildren.

"The problem for our century," Bainbridge concludes, peering out the window as if a particularly nasty bio-organism might at this very minute be marching up her front steps, "is that we know too much."

At 63, with some 15 novels under her belt, Beryl Bainbridge is enjoying a much-belated surge of popularity. She has had three Booker shortlistings and has twice won the Whitbread Prize for Fiction. Four of her novels - The Bottle Factory Outing, Sweet William, The Dressmaker and An Awfully Big Adventure - have been made into feature films. However it was her 1996 novel, Every Man For Himself, set aboard the Titanic, that really excited public and media interest.

"Popularity is such a shock at my age," she says, a shade ruefully. "For years I had a kind of cult following, but my books didn't actually sell. I think it's only because of the Titanic that things have gone a bit mad - even a rotten book about the Titanic would sell - and once that happens people go back and read the other books and say 'Oh, this isn't bad, is it?' and you feel like saying, 'Well no, it never was bad'."

Which is how London Weekend Television came to send Bainbridge to the Crimea to record her thoughts for a special South Bank Show tribute to be aired this Sunday. Bainbridge has her doubts about the show: "You don't think that it's maybe a bit self-regarding?" she asks. In fact, the sight of Bainbridge sitting up straight in her best suit to be catechised by Melvin is oddly touching. Her 'at home' manner is more glamorous. Bainbridge started out in theatre (an autobiographical seam expertly mined in An Awfully Big Adventure) and still smokes in the style of a 1950s starlet, with much wreathing of smoke and audible exhalations. The extreme prettiness of her youth has given way to something more interesting; her sculptural features still have the look of a work-in-progress, as if the clay had yet to be thumbed into place by the sculptor. Her speech, too, has a kind of period rakishness; "barmy is a favourite epithet", but Beryl's own, rather studied barminess completely fails to conceal a rigorous intellectual discipline.

"In my day, everything was geared to getting educated properly. Children had to work hard at school to get on in the world and the great thing in Formby [the suburb of Liverpool where Bainbridge grew up] was elocution classes. It wasn't that our parents wanted to ape their betters, it was just that speaking properly was considered a good thing. Now, I walk around Camden Town and see these wonderful young people, really beautiful, with lovely skin and dressed in the latest fashion and then they open their mouths and it's just horrible. It's not a question of how we speak - regional accents are fine - but if you really can't string two words together gramatically, then how on earth can you do anything? You can't really have any communication with your boyfriend or girlfriend or your children if you only speak in grunts and shouts. Poverty these days seems to me to be a poverty of the mind, not of food or hot water or clothes. I honestly think that standardising speech would wipe out the English class system at a stroke."

However stern her stance on syntax and Hell Fire, Bainbridge is first and always a libertarian. The most engaging character in Master Georgie is Myrtle, a foundling who grows up in a middle class household as a semi- servant and goes on to bear the eponymous young master's children when his wife is found to be infertile. In an age when the ethics of surrogacy and assisted conception are endlessly debated, Bainbridge sees Myrtle's situation as a frankly practical arrangement.

"It helped the family and it was a leg up for Myrtle. Until quite recently these things were managed fairly discreetly. I dare say people talked about these things among themselves, but it wasn't in the newspapers or on the telly, so you could get away with it. Just look at how many children of my generation thought their mother was their sister. I'm not suggesting that was a good thing, but if you're told early on about the circumstances of your birth, you just take it for granted. There will be a time when children will be asked 'who is your father?' and they'll just say 'Oh, I don't know. I'm a test tube baby' and it will be completely normal."

One cannot help but wonder what Bainbridge's papal pin-up would make of such flexible morality. "Morality?" she asks, "Oh God, it's just struck me that in the last forty-odd years, I've gone a million miles away from morality."

She sounds almost wistful, but stiffens her resolve with a deep drag on the Silk Cut. "It's not a matter of morality" she insists. "Most things aren't. It's a matter of truth."

The South Bank Show, this Sunday, ITV 10.45pm.

'Master Georgie' will be published by Duckworth in April.

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