We have a framed photographic print on our wall, bought some 25 years ago in London, of three people at a table littered with luncheon dishes in the middle of a tree-lined allée. The man on the right, tilted comfortably back in his chair, wears a dashing hat and puffs on a cigarette. The woman opposite him wears an equally-stylish hat. Her right arm is delicately perched on the table. She’s seems in the midst of telling a story. A third man sits at the foot of the table. Everything points to a meal enjoyed on a distant summer afternoon in Provence. It’s called “Memories of Avignon,” and it was taken by the Irish photographer E. Chambré Hardman. The people in the photo are, to the right, Harold Hinchcliffe Davies, a Liverpool-based architect; his wife, Norma Davies; and, odd man out in the wide-brimmed hat, Fred Jenkins, identified by Brendan King, in his new biography of British writer Beryl Bainbridge, also as an architect. It was only in reading the biography that I discovered that Harold and Nora Davies were the parents of Beryl Bainbridge’s first husband and the father of her first two children, Jojo and Aaron. Having known Bainbridge’s books for so many years, and then having come to know the author personally in the late 1970s, I felt like I’d come full circle. All along Austin Davies’s parents have been hanging on one wall or another over a succession of apartments and houses.
Still little known in America, Beryl Bainbridge was, at the time of her death in 2010, a Dame (yes, like Judi Dench and Helen Mirren) and, as sometimes happens in Britain, deemed a National Treasure (like Alan Bennett). Her works are witty, dark, disturbingly funny, and utterly memorable. I’d discovered her in 1973 when I picked up a copy of The Bottle Factory Outing in a London bookshop and saw the accolades on the back, especially the rave from Graham Greene. I read it twice and then began to order her books as they were published by Duckworth & Co., a small London publisher with offices in The Old Piano Factory, a quick walk from Bainbridge’s house. I’d never read novels like hers before. Sharp and acerbic like Muriel Spark, she brought a different kind of originality to her fiction: something true and dark, full of accident and humor. You reread her and try to figure out how she does it, and you end up like one of her characters: lost in a plot not of your own devising.
The books were short — somewhere around 135 pages — and all of the jackets had been designed by Bainbridge, from the photo of the two girls on the cover of Harriet Said, her breakout novel (actually a photo taken of Bainbridge and her brother when they were much younger; Bainbridge had inked in pigtails on her sibling), based on New Zealand’s Parker–Hulme murder case, in which two teenage girls killed the mother of the older girl; to The Bottle Factory Outing, featuring Bainbridge, a friend, and her publisher, Colin Haycraft; to the book she had just published when I met her, Injury Time, featuring a photo of her house, the door wide open, and what appears to be a very drunk or very menacing Haycraft about to stagger into it.
Once I’d read The Bottle Factory Outing, we began a trans-Atlantic correspondence that lasted the better part of a year. Alas, the letters, aerograms from each side, have been lost. I brought them to London with me when we moved there and had set up an interview with her for The New York Times Book Review, which was afterwards spiked. Yes, I should have had it in writing and at least received a kill fee. Lesson learned.
I rented a small tape recorder and took the Tube up to her place on Albert Street. She greeted me at the door and introduced me to a little redheaded 12-year-old girl, Rudi, whom she described as “my Sweet William baby,” familiar to those who’ve read the book or seen the film adaptation. Rudi’s father was the novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp, whom she never married, best known for his script for the movie Night Moves. Rudi was complaining about her breakfast, and Bainbridge suggested, in the time-honored British way, to “put some sauce on it, love, all right?” Rudi became Ruth Davies, the actress, now retired.
As we headed up the stairs, Bainbridge stopped me and pointed to a small hole on the ceiling. “That’s where my mother-in-law tried to shoot me.” According to Brendan King’s biography, she told everyone that. She told everyone, journalists especially, pretty much the same things every time. That morning I was just the latest to hear them.
My tapes of our conversation, which lasted the better part of three hours as we sat across from one another in her cluttered study, its walls covered with framed antique photos and paintings (Bainbridge was also a talented artist whose paintings were exhibited at London’s Somerset House in 2014), are also gone. (Long story short: we stored a whole box of belongings with friends when, after five years, we moved back to the States, and both belongings and friends have fallen by the wayside.) But I remember a good deal of it, even after all these years. She set an ashtray down between us. I was smoking Silk Cuts #4, while she was smoking another of their line, “Mine’s got something like cabbage leaves instead of tobacco. You see, I’m trying to give it up. May I have one of yours, then?” Over a pot of tea, we together polished off my entire pack over the course of the morning. Bainbridge, as her biographer points out quite often, could resist neither cigarette nor drink. Towards the end of her life, by then a famous writer, Bainbridge got so drunk that she once fell asleep on the curb not far from her home. When she went to the Booker Awards dinner whenever a title of hers was shortlisted she’d be in a state of near collapse, as though she knew she’d be bested by a fellow writer, and needed to be sozzled enough to let it roll off her back.
Her most famous line to journalists was that all of her work was based on her own experiences. She found it impossible, she said, to make things up. I asked if that included all of the rather grotesque deaths in her novels, and she admitted that, yes, that part was fictional, but that, as writers, weren’t we all rather obsessed with death? “Whenever I finish a new novel I go out and buy a book on Victorian murder. Victorian death. Can’t get enough of it. Anyway, isn’t death the great mystery? What else is there for us to write about?”
She had no airs about her; she enjoyed nothing more than having a drink or three at her local pub with a friend, or bumming smokes from a young interviewer while explaining how she was trying to quit by puffing on her foul cabbage-leaf cigarettes (I tried one, and never repeated it). For her, being a writer was simply about the end product, not the person behind it. The cult of personality, so much a part of American literary culture, didn’t exist then in Britain. You could open a telephone directory, she told me, and find not only her name, but the names of all the top writers and actors. “Ralph Richardson, he’s in it.”
She had what sounded like a wonderful relationship with her publisher: she’d deliver her manuscript by May, work with her editor for several weeks at their office (where she was allotted a typewriter and desk), then see the novel launched in September. As she said to me, “Kingsley Amis and Margaret Drabble have to wait something like 18 months to see their books in the shops. Mine are published four months later.” There was a catch, as King points out. Bainbridge’s books were selling in increasing numbers, but the royalties weren’t flowing in a commensurate fashion. Duckworth & Co. was essentially funneling much of her royalties back into the company. She was losing in a big way, and it was one reason, after the company chairman Colin Haycraft died, that she moved to a new publisher. It was then she began writing her excellent historical novels, The Birthday Boys (about the ill-fated Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole), Every Man for Himself (the sinking of the Titanic), Master Georgie (set during the Crimean War, and easily the finest of her later works), According to Queeney (Samuel Johnson and his coterie), and the unfinished The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, based, as Brendan King points out, on diaries Bainbridge had kept during an earlier trip to America, all leading up to the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Brendan King’s biography deals less with her work than with her loves, and there were many of them: appropriate men, inappropriate men, married men, the singularly unmarried. Yet she was never completely satisfied. Relationships fizzled to nothing, or the men returned to their wives, or she was nudged into despair by their abandoning her. But Beryl Bainbridge will always be remembered for her books, which truly stand alone in 20th-century English fiction. Hers was a talent that no one ever quite equaled, and those of us who have in one way or another been influenced by her return to her novels often. Each time we see something different: another shade of darkness, another perfectly-timed line of dialogue. There is a case to be made that she was one of the great modern writers, one of the truly original voices of English prose. Shortlisted — and many believe robbed — five times for the prestigious Booker Prize (various of her books had won other prizes), her brilliant Master Georgie was awarded a special Booker prize, The Man Booker Best of Beryl award. The fact that it took her dying to earn this is something very much in keeping with Bainbridge’s sense of irony. She would’ve loved it.