Michael Horovitz: My friend Beryl Bainbridge

She was one of Britain's most-loved authors and a fixture at all the best literary parties. The poet Michael Horovitz recalls a supremely original talent

Sunday 04 July 2010 00:00

My earliest recollections of Beryl Bainbridge date back to literary/bohemian parties round London in the 1960s. She would usually have got a bit tiddly after the first half-hour, and continue for another hour or two gossiping, laughing and sometimes abruptly switching to earnestness on this or that topic she cared about with this or that particular pal or sparring partner.

When dancers took over these parties, she was among the last to make an exit, and quite often I would notice her still lurking in an intimate cranny, chain-smoking and gassing ardently with a confidant, who quite often turned out to be her fellow adventuresome novelist, the late Bernice Rubens. They welcomed me to join their conversations, which though invariably a bit surreal and alcohol-crazed, were always charming and provoked a desire (if not always the capacity) to emulate and extend their flights of improvisation. After just a few of these encounters Beryl got into addressing me as Horri, and never called me anything else thereafter.

When she noticed me arriving at a Private Eye bash at the posh National Liberal Club, she strode up and sternly tweaked the lapels of my evidently moth-beloved dinner jacket, torn from a long-neglected wardrobe corner at the last minute, and declared "You can't stay here like this". She made me take it off, produced a thick black Pentel pen from her bag and proceeded with remarkable efficiency to blacken every one of the many white mothmeal relics so that not even the most punctilious detective on the lookout for them would notice.

In my experience, she was a creature of extremes, quite swiftly moving from quite prim and proper good manners (she was enormously chuffed on becoming a Dame!) to bursts of quite racy and hard-hitting mickey-taking not always out of earshot of its targets. She became in certain quarters (in)famous for being suddenly taken drunk – and just a few times she did pass out at parties and needed to be carried home. And yet the most cursory acquaintance with her literary output, in addition to her many demonstrably industrious and disciplined journalistic and thespian achievements, proves she cannot reasonably be categorised as any kind of piss-artist. The phrase "tired and emotional" meaning horizontal from booze, if not first inspired by Beryl, was certainly liable to be used in reference to her by the looser branch of London's media commentators on any get-together graced by her presence.

Over the years she was generous in giving time and energy to participating in my Live New Departures, Jazz Poetry SuperJam and Poetry Olympics events, in venues ranging from Ronnie Scott's and the 100 Club to various bookshops and the Royal Festival Hall.

However long over-running, wild, woolly or worse some of the other diverse performers occasionally got, her own spots were never less than at once supremely professional, scintillatingly spontaneous and intimately communicative. She also remained one of the fellow writer-troupers I was keenest to feature because, however small or obscure the venue, when Beryl had been booked and advertised, the gig would be certain (as quite a few of them never were) not to risk organisers, performers and their dogs outnumbering auditors, because a quorum of her family members and fans would have been commissioned by her to show up or else.

When such events bombed badly, she and I tended to compare notes philosophically – she more recently reminded me that after the very first performance she gave for me at Ronnie's she "had to make a contribution to enable the band to get back home". Despite the increasing popularity her novels attracted from the early 1970s on, she would frequently and wryly recall her more missionary years when trekking back from readings with backache from the weight of unsold copies had been the norm.

A decade ago, on assembling a special Poetry Olympics festival and anthology, I asked her if she might draft a few words about poetry. It was soon after she had completed her lovely reconstruction of Dr Johnson's relationship with the vivacious Mrs Hester Thrale, According to Queeney. In the very next day's post I received a characteristically incisive, detailed and revealing series of reflections dashed off on blue A5 letter-pad paper in her slightly gangling but just about legible hand, as follows:

"I know little about poetry, possibly because at school I was given to understand it was a separate discipline from that of prose. To this day I know by heart 'The Slave's Dream', 'The Lady of Shalott', 'A Highwayman came riding ...' and 'They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead ...' In my head – which, although dependent upon my heart, is further away from it – I hold bits of TS Eliot, Auden and Louis MacNeice, most especially that poem by the latter which begins, 'The sunlight on the garden / Hardens and grows cold ...'

"Beyond these few examples, all learnt in childhood, I remain ignorant, and yet without them I would find it difficult to write prose, for I rely on the sound and rhythm of words when endeavouring to construct a sentence. To try to achieve this I say aloud everything I intend to write down, and not until it seems to me that the 'tum-te-tums' of what I am reciting have the right sound, do I commit the words to paper.

"For instance, when composing a paragraph to do with a post mortem of Dr Samuel Johnson in 1784, I originally wrote – 'Reaching Windmill Street the cart was pulled into the yard of William Hunter's School of Anatomy. The carpet was carried to the top floor and laid on a dissecting table ... In the corner of the room, a dog, half-flayed, hung from a hook in the ceiling. Grey heavens touched the skylight.'

"This was eventually changed to – '... Arriving in Windmill Street the cart trundled into the yard etc ... In the corner of the cosy room, a dog, half-flayed, hung from a hook in the ceiling; above, the grey heavens nudged the skylight.'"

When I called her on receiving this, overjoyed at the extent to which she had managed to far exceed even my very high hopes, we exchanged our usual shares of laughs, including a particularly delighted guffaw at Tennyson's line: "'The curse is come upon me,' cried the Lady of Shalott." It seems likely that Beryl's mind ticked over at a higher rate of knots than those of many people I know, in whatever area, and her personal loyalties and responses to her friends was near-unbelievable given how much she must have been up to all the time.

Once, I had spoken rather tremulously on a Radio 4 Any Answers? broadcast, trying not to excuse but to try to understand why Palestinian women contemplated becoming suicide bombers, given that their mistreatment and the effects upon their nearest and dearest of violence and oppression left them with nothing to lose or to live for. Immediately after the programme Beryl rang up to thank and congratulate me – not that I felt I had put the case very well.

In one of our last conversations about a year ago, she had just been out around Camden market and canalside and said how infuriated she was with the way youngsters prowling the streets seemed to have no idea of how to speak properly. Having been impeccably trained in elocution from her early grounding in theatre and spoken arts, and having largely supplemented this by voraciously educating herself, she did sometimes get very stroppy with others less preoccupied with keeping up standards of this kind.

Her love of and almost limitless talents in English language and literature will remain exemplary for as long as reading, writing and spoken-word arts survive. Sorrow at the loss of her will be enduringly compensated by our memories and continuing abilities to read her supremely original and breathing body of work.

I remember her speaking in St James's Church, Piccadilly, at a memorial celebration of Elizabeth Smart in 1986, saying much the same thing of Elizabeth, for whom, Beryl said, everything was "just beginning to come up roses", in terms of her work getting the widespread readership and recognition it deserved.

Ta ta for now, Beryl: look forward to seeing you again and again, every time we open one of your lovingly completed books.

A life of books and bullets

Dame Beryl Bainbridge was more than just one of Britain's most prolific post-war novelists. As well as the 17 novels she leaves behind, of which five were short-listed for the Booker, the memory of her raucous conversation and impish figure, usually clutching a glass of red wine and a cigarette, will remain with all who met her over 50 years on London's bohemian literary scene.

Born and raised in Liverpool, where she died of cancer on Friday, Bainbridge was initially an actress. She moved to London in the 1960s, which would remain her home, though both cities would feature in her work. She was never paid more than £2,000 for any book, and lived amid stuffed animals and high-Victorian paraphernalia in a house in Camden Town. Here, evidence of her helter-skelter lifestyle included a bullet hole in the ceiling, caused by her mother-in-law, who went to shoot her but missed.

Bainbridge married, divorced and had three children, and her greatest joy were her grandchildren. She expected to die at 71, as 11 relatives did. In the event she was 75.

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