I first met Beryl Bainbridge in 1982, when I went to interview her friend and editor Anna Haycraft for Books & Bookmen. I was later to discover that Beryl practically lived at the Haycrafts’ house in Gloucester Crescent, North London. I remember her wandering into the kitchen and, without preamble, pouring herself a glass of red wine from a two-litre bottle of Valpolicella.
Anna (who wrote novels under the nom de plume of Alice Thomas Ellis) and I were discussing Catholicism and its role in her imagination. Beryl sat at the kitchen table, chin tilted on one hand, and suddenly said: ‘You’re a Catholic, aren’t you? I can tell.’ I admitted that I was indeed brought up in the faith, although sadly . . .
‘How did your parents meet?’ she asked, in a fine non sequitur. I explained that they’d met on a pilgrimage to Rome in the Holy Year of 1950, and that my mother had beguiled my father by sharing a Thermos flask of Martini Bianco at the back of the coach.
Beryl tapped a fresh Marlboro Red on the wooden table. ‘Go on,’ she said, ‘tell me everything.’
It occurred to me in hindsight that my parents must have sounded, for a moment, like characters from a Bainbridge novel: a bit lost, tentative, keen to connect with each other but uncertain how to do it (although with the prospect of drink and sex close by). Beryl was, as it were, welcoming them into her world of eccentricity, awkwardness and stories drawn from real life. I always loved her delight in gossip, anecdote and tall tales.
Her novels are much more than stories, though. They’re devastating tales of family dysfunction. The characters find themselves puzzled by the chaos of their lives; they try to make sense of them but invariably fail. There’s hardly a single novel of Beryl’s that doesn’t end in tragedy. But the books are driven by sharp digs of black humour at the characters’ predicament.
Her fiction falls into two halves: the
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