Beryl Bainbridge: the finest kind of reactionary

Dear Beryl Bainbridge died today at the age of 75. She was a wonderful woman – a wonderful English woman – and a wonderful writer. She was also a Catholic for a while – a traditionalist who did not delight in the changes to the liturgy or in the downgrading of sin and penance.

I got to know her very slightly when I worked for the Spectator. It was always a pleasure to deal with her. She never answered the phone, at least not to me. You got an answering machine and you left a message saying you were awfully sorry to bother her but could she do 1,200 words on…” She always could. She’d ring you and tell you to expect the copy the next morning and could you please look out for spelling mistakes and stuff? She did not use email but faxed her pieces. They were always spot on and to length, full of droll observation, and the spelling was pretty good, too.

She was a reactionary of the finest sort: in other words, she was dead against change, but never became a political bore, a hanger and basher. Here she is in a diary for the Spectator in March 2006:

“What a mistake change is! Who needs those ghastly new buildings which have taken over Swiss Cottage? Why was Peter’s bookshop in Camden Town done away with, and the off-licence and the pet shop and the Delancey Café? Worst of all is the disfigurement of King’s Cross caused by the construction of the new Channel Tunnel rail terminal. There are so many questions that are never answered. Who went to someone or other and said they needed to build another line to get to Europe, and why didn’t somebody tell them there was a train from Waterloo? I took my youngest grandson to see the destruction and told him it was sad when buildings were erased. It made one feel lonely. He said if I felt like that I could come and live with him. I mentioned we all needed our privacy. ‘You can have mine,’ he said.”

She wrote many good novels. Her first, Harriet Said, was about two murderous schoolgirls. It was written in the late Fifties, but was considered too disgusting for public consumption and was not published until 1972. She wrote theatre reviews for the Oldie that were usually generous and sometimes appeared after the play had closed.

She was part of a now almost extinct generation of bohemian north Londoners. Her good friend Anna Haycraft (who wrote for The Catholic Herald and Spectator as Alice Thomas Ellis) was part of the gang. Alan Bennett was once a neighbour.

Beryl liked to smoke and drink. Last year, when asked about her health by the Guardian, she said: “I’ve had both a heart attack and cancer, but I’m fine now, as I take so many pills. I had TB as a child, but didn’t find that out until about seven years ago. I’ve always had a cough.”

The Telegraph website has a first-rate obituary today. This paragraph captures Beryl perfectly:

“[She] had a clever monkey face with big sad eyes and soaring cheekbones. Her hair, with its chunky fringe and tufts around the ears, had a home-cut look. She had a sing-song voice peculiarly unsuited to her morbid ruminations and spent most of her adult life in Camden, north London. There she became a familiar figure on the streets at night, when she wandered around in a shabby raincoat inside of which she had secreted a bone-handled carving knife in case of muggers.”

The late Jeffrey Bernard once said that Beryl was always falling asleep in skips, but that was not strictly speaking true. The truth, I am told, is that Beryl was once feeling a bit sleepy and, seeing a mattress in a skip, decided to have a bit of a lie down, and nodded off.

Beryl was friendly with the late Jennifer Patterson, the cookery writer and one of the Two Fat Ladies. Beryl and Anna visited Jennifer in hospital not long before Jennifer died. They turned up at about 9.30 in the morning and the three of them were soon getting stuck into the whisky. (Jennifer had a splendid Requiem in the old rite at the Oratory. She used to cook for the Oratory fathers once a week and a portrait of her hangs in the kitchen of Oratory House.)

Beryl was a Liverpudlian. Her mother and father fell on hard times during the Depression and she was not happy at home. She was sacked from school at 14 when some of her illustrated dirty poems were discovered and it was decided that she was “a corrupting moral influence”. She became an actress when she was very young, and once appeared in Coronation Street. She also became a Catholic, but fell away from the faith.

At the beginning of 2004 she gave an interview to the New Humanist, a magazine for “free thinkers”. She said that she’d had a relatively austere Protestantism upbringing, and was romantically overwhelmed by the sacramental ritual of Catholicism: the Latin, the incense, the confession and communion. “All gone now,” she laments. “All the things I liked about Catholicism have all gone. No more Latin or sin or confession or penance. There’s no longer any point to it.”

Very well, but I like to think that she never entirely abandoned belief. That may be just my sentimentality, of course. God knows. May Beryl Bainbridge – Dame Beryl Bainbridge – rest in peace.