Nina Bawden: Author who drew deeply on her own experience in her novels for adults and children

 

A consistently excellent novelist who always wrote with quick intelligence as well as emotional honesty, Nina Bawden produced over 40 novels for large audiences of both adults and children in a period of 50 years. Keen-witted, attractive, kind and compassionate, she suffered three major tragedies in her life, each time with stoic courage. Loved by many friends and legions of readers, she adorned the times she lived in. But she could be sharply critical when she felt that the high standards she demanded of herself as an author went missing in the works of others.

The domestic mysteries of Bawden's childhood read like one of her own novels, and certainly acted as inspiration for a number of them. Her marine engineer father, Charles Mabey, had a previous marriage that ended with the death of his wife. As a baby, Bawden was brought up with Pat, the daughter of this union, until this nine-year-old girl was for some reason expelled forever from the house. Bawden only discovered the existence of this half-sister 25 years later.

Born in 1925, Bawden and her two younger brothers grew up in Goodmayes, Essex, near the London Docks in Ilford, an area she later described as "featureless and ugly". Her father was more often at sea than at home and her handsome but demanding teacher mother, brought up in Swaffham, Norfolk and briefly long-jump champion of the county, never took to suburban life. Sharing this discontent, Bawden retreated into stories or plays written for her model theatre, preferring invented elephant hunters and princesses in disguise to characters based on the bank clerks and shopkeepers living around her. One of her plays was performed at assembly in her primary school. She wrote her first novel at the age of eight.

Coached for the scholarship exam by her mother, Bawden duly won a place at Ilford County High School for Girls. This she loved, but when she was 14, war was declared and the school was evacuated, first to Suffolk and then to South Wales. Always in the company of her best friend, Jean Bennett, Bawden had seven different billets in all, each one eccentric in its own way and all memorably described in her autobiography, In My Own Time (1994). She also distilled some of this experience into Carrie's War, her best-known children's book. Carrie's lack of self-pity was typical of the author at this age, by now increasingly outspoken and not altogether sorry to be getting away from home. There was also the ceaseless interest in trying to piece together other people's lives from the various clues left around where they lived. The future novelist was already squirreling away invaluable impressions for the years to come.

Returning to London in 1943, Bawden went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she read French before changing to Philosophy, Politics and Economics. She got to know fellow-undergraduates Richard Burton and Margaret Roberts. Described by Bawden as "a plump, neat, solemn girl", the future Prime Minister's political ambitions were obvious even then and very different from the socialism Bawden favoured. In one photograph of Roberts posing with the other Somerville undergraduates of her year, Bawden stands immediately on her right, looking somewhat belligerent.

After finishing Oxford, Nina got engaged to Harry Bawden, a returning ex-serviceman and classical scholar some years older than herself. Baby Niki arrived in 1948 and Robert three years later. But two years after that, Nina fell for Austen Kark, a dashing ex-naval officer, now a journalist and also married. Bored and restless in her marriage, she found with him the happiness she was looking for. They married in 1954 and Bawden's third child, Perdita, was born in 1957. The family lived in Weybridge, with Austen, a loving husband and stepfather, eventually becoming managing director of the BBC World Service.

Bawden's writing career began with Who Calls the Tune (1953), a quirky detective story involving a pair of incestuous twins, one of whom has a wooden leg. Another crime novel followed, but after that Bawden broadened her scope, exploring the domestic satisfactions, foibles, tensions and occasional mysteries experienced by her characters during childhood, marriage and old age. Sticking to the middle-class backgrounds she knew best, she was adept at telling a good story, rarely judging her characters and often keeping a surprise twist for the last chapters.

She was particularly good in revealing how the past continues to play its part in the present, especially when this involved a secret only half-known and understood. Settings often followed holidays taken by her and Austen: Kenya in Under the Skin (1964); Morocco in A Woman of My Age (1967); and Turkey in George Beneath a Paper Moon (1974). A Nice Change (1997) reflects an affectionate knowledge of modern Greece, where the couple had bought a house in Nauplion, which was to give them much pleasure. In contrast, Afternoon of a Good Woman (1976) draws on Bawden's experience as a magistrate, an office she gave up when the family moved to Islington to live on the banks of the Regent's Canal.

But The Birds on the Trees (1970) has its origins in a reality both tragic and intimate. This story about a young man who leaves home to live an aimlessly chaotic life in a London basement closely follows the experience of her son Niki, who was eventually diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. Defeating every orthodox or way-out psychiatric attempt to help him, he was found drowned at the age of 34, having disappeared for nearly a year. Another fine adult novel, Circles of Deceit (1987), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, draws on painful memories of this time. This loss haunted Bawden for the rest of her life.

Bawden's parallel career as a children's novelist started with The Secret Passage (1963), a sprightly adventure story featuring young characters far more emotionally volatile than was usually the case at that time. It was an instant success, leading to many more children's stories, each one now alternating with a novel written for adults. A Handful of Thieves (1967) is about children trying to put right a crime and getting hopelessly muddled in the process. The Runaway Summer (1969) starts with a pre-teenage girl behaving badly towards her long-suffering aunt. But readers soon understand that this is because the child is miserable about the collapse of her parents' marriage. Later, she pals up with an illegal immigrant – an unfashionable character for the time. Squib (1971) featured the life of a sad, abused child living in poverty. There is a happy ending of sorts, but its dark tone was too much for some critics. It now seems to presage the greater realism commonplace in today's children's literature.

Her two best children's books were still to come: Carrie's War (1973) and The Peppermint Pig (1975). Both drew on family memories and were successfully adapted for television. A second televised version of Carrie's War was broadcast over Christmas in 2003, with this moving and wise novel by now acknowledged as a classic. Already a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Bawden was awarded a CBE in 1995. Continuing to produce a novel a year, Ruffian on the Stair (2001) was a typically witty and understanding story about a wily centurion with important decisions still to make.

But on 10 May 2002, in the company of Austen, her husband of 48 years, she boarded the 12.45pm train at King's Cross for a journey to Cambridge. The train was derailed at Potters Bar after going over some loose rails. Seven passengers were killed, including Austen. Bawden, aged 77, suffered a broken ankle, arm, leg, shoulder, collarbone and several ribs.

Incredibly, she made an almost full recovery, within a year taking a long journey abroad while conducting a modified social life at home. She now had Jarvis – the controversial contractor responsible for maintaining the track – firmly within her sights, and gave many interviews saying what she thought of this company. Its refusal to accept liability for the crash in favour of unsubstantiated accusations of sabotage led to protracted court action. Bawden soon became a leading force in this fight, not just for herself, but for everyone else affected who was left for so long without compensation. The government's failure to hold a public enquiry led to Bawden tearing up her Labour Party card. When David Hare included this whole shabby episode in his play The Permanent Way, Nina was in the National Theatre audience for the first night. She saw Network Rail's ultimate decision to take track maintenance back in-house as a final victory.

Firmly but lovingly supported principally by her daughter Perdita, she continued to entertain friends at home and make visits to the theatre, despite the odd panic attack. In 2005 she wrote Dear Austen, an account of the whole ghastly rail crash and its aftermath in the form of one long letter written to her dead husband. Describing herself as an angry survivor rather than a mere victim, Bawden lacerates the various corporation and government "snakeheads" attempting to escape their own blame for this disaster, while dealing frankly with her own feelings of grief and loss. The book was an extraordinary achievement in combining the personal and the political.

Previously inclined to be impatient of anything getting close to what she considered excessive praise, either for herself or for others in her craft, Bawden greatly enjoyed the success of this last work. But her final years were blighted by yet one more disaster, with the sudden death of her daughter and main support, Perdita, from aggressive cancer earlier this year.

Looked after by a succession of temporary carers now supervised by her son Robert, Bawden herself suffered from increasingly poor health, but always maintained a brave face to the end. Sharply intelligent, affectionate, positive and always up for something new, her irreplaceable presence will be sorely missed.

Nicholas Tucker

Nina Mary Bawden (Mabey), author: born Ilford, Essex 25 January 1925; married first 1946 Henry Walton Bawden (one son, one son deceased), second 1954 Austen Kark (died 2002, one daughter deceased); CBE 1995; died London 22 August 2012.

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