The day I dropped in on her at her Camden Town home, Beryl Bainbridge was feeling a bit below par. The previous day (a Sunday), she had found herself in the kind of situation that might have been patented by Binny, the heroine of her Whitbread award-winning novel, Injury Time. An ex-boyfriend of her daughter had invited her to lunch but had pointedly not invited the rest of the family. Come Sunday, Beryl’s brood are usually broke, so she likes to spring to the rescue by having the family round for a good Sunday lunch. Somehow she had both to prepare the food for her slightly piqued offspring and at the same time to slip off discreetly to her own luncheon engagement. She scrambled there only to discover that it was the kind of lunch party where, when you arrive, the hosts are still in bed and show minimum inclination to adapt themselves to any other position. Beryl sat alone for what seemed like hours with only a double bottle of gin for company. She lost no time in doing what most of us would have done under the circumstances. She was amazingly lucid on the Monday all things considered.
Beryl Bainbridge is one of the most lethally comic novelists to have emerged since the war. Her imagination is dark but gleefully so. All her novels contain acts of violence or the threat of violence and are much possessed by death, but their tone is an ambivalent mixture of the comic and the grotesque. You frequently find yourself laughing out loud instead of gagging with horror at the appalling events they describe. In Another Part of the Wood, a small child accidentally dies of an overdose while his father and friends act out their antagonisms at the Monopoly Board. In Injury Time, an adulterous couple give their first semi-clandestine dinner party at the woman’s home. A situation already fraught with comic tension topples into near tragedy when the dinner-party is hijacked by a gang of vicious runaways from the police. The novel runs the risk of being thought callous, but the Bainbridgean tone helps us to appreciate that succumbing to the absurd is often the only way of coping in distressing or potentially disastrous situations. She has the characteristic Liverpudlian talent of being able to talk of the totallv bizarre as if it were pathetically commonplace. Her earliest novels, Haniet Said, and A Quiet Life, grapple with her childhood experiences in Liverpool and Formby and characterise in their heroines her own outrageously headstrong and wayward behaviour as a girl – a reaction to the stifling, tense and verbally violent atmosphere of her parents’ home.
Latterly, doubtless because she has to some extent written out her childhood, she has turned her attention to topics outside her personal experience. Young Adolf (1978) fictively followed the callow future Führer through experiences which may partly have happened, when, attempting to evade Austrian conscription laws in 1911, ‘he visited his half-brother Alois at his Liverpool home. Watson’s Apology (1984) expands novelistically on a real-life murder. The Rev J S Watson, a Victorian clergyman of hitherto impeccable morals and scholarship brutally clubbed his sixty vear-old wife to death and seemed to show an abnormal lack of remorse at his trial. Bainbridge’s novel speculates about the reasons why. She has also become a superb anti-tourist. English Journey (1984) retrod (or rode) the path ridden exactly fifty years previously by J B Priestley in his book of the same name and was hilariously glum about the state of the realm. Winter Garden (1980) is a novel which hauntingly and hysterically records the traumas and irritations of being a guest of the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Culture. Most recently she has brought out her first selection of short stories, Mum and Mr Amitage. One of these, ‘Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie’, in which a middle-aged man breathes his last at a performance of Peter Pan just at the moment when the dying Tinkerbell is being revived by the audience’s noisy act of faith in the existence of fairies, gives the reader a tantalizing foretaste of future work, a projected full-scale novel on the theme of Peter and the Lost Boys.
Bainbridge’s house is an outward projection of her inner life. She confesses in English Journey that had her mother not put her on the stage as a child, she would have been much happier engaged in something to do with mortuaries. Sidling past Eric, the vast stuffed water buffalo which majestically dominates her hallway, one can well believe this. During the interview a pert little terrier, which, but for the benefits of taxidermy, would have re-entered the nitrogen-cycle decades before, sat at my heels grinning. It’s a stunningly beautiful house, stuffed with Victorian objects which she rescued from the scrap-heap when the Walker Art Gallery had a purblind clear-out about twenty-five years ago. It must be a nightmare to dust. The loo seat is a jigsaw puzzle in itself.
Your novels thrive on high adrenalin states and there’s a real relish in their obsession with death. If I were suddenly to produce a meat-cleaver from my bag and attempt to have a go at you with it, would a bit of you be thrilled?
I’d be terribly frightened, but actually I’m very good at sensing that kind of thing, I think. I’d know if you’d got a meat cleaver in your bag. I’d be ready for you.
Do you seek out situations like that in order to write about them?
No, I don’t. I loathe them and that’s all to do with my childhood. My father was a violent man – not in the sense that he ever hit anybody – but verbally he was very violent; he had terrible tempers. But because I learned to dread violence so much then, I can always see a situation coming now and avoid it. The fact that I’m so keen on writing about murder and cemeteries has, I think, a tremendous amount to do with being taken as a schoolgirl to see a film of Buchenwald and Auschwitz just after the war. The effect it must have had on me at seven or eight was such that I’ve never been able to forget those places. In a peculiar way for years I used to get every book I could out on the camps. Then when I had children of my own I couldn’t read them any more and afterwards I began to find that if I ever returned to look at the photographs I was getting an almost pornographic thing from them. So I stopped and I’m not so much interested in them any more. My father knew a lot of Jewish businessmen in Liverpool and I remember when I was very young he lifted me up to put my fist in the hole of Mr Jaffey’s (a Polish Jew’s) head. Apparently a storm trooper had tried to kick it in. What’s odd is that there were two of us children, myself and my brother. He’s a solicitor now in Montgomeryshire and about four years ago I discovered he’s the County Coroner. You don’t have to be if you’re a solicitor. It seems very strange to me that out of one family, one child became a coroner and the other’s nuts on murder.
Some artists contemplating the horror of the camps (people like Geoffrey Hill) have written about how this forces the artist into a principled distrust of the imagination but, funnily enough, the writer who most reminds me of you is the Elizabethan ‘novelist’ and pamphleteer, Nashe. He wrote in a time of mass death from the plague and his imagination responds to the experience of horror in rather similar ways. There’s the same bracing, apparent unconcern with bodies except as inert matter that can be moulded to grotesque comedy (I’m thinking of things like your description of the brain-operation in Winter Garden.) It seems to follow from this that whenever your characters reflect on the prospect of their own death, it’s as though death were frightening simply because it’s an abrupt end to animation. They think about heaven, hell or judgement, which even atheists and agnostics must occasionally do, if only out of idle interest. Does this reveal anything about you?
Probably. I once became a Catholic for about ten minutes, but I’ve never really thought about things like that. I think the reason I like a sudden end is that I’m more interested in leaving the reader curious about what it’s like for the people who come across the dead bodies left behind. I’m not interested in heaven or hell because that’s the future and I’m scarcely interested in next week. I’m only actually concerned about the past.
That’s interesting because in Watson’s Apology you have Watson writing movingly from his prison cell that ‘Tragedy is an affirmation of life’; but surely that’s only true if you accept some framework of value that transcends a mere life-span, or subscribe to the notion that it’s possible for a person to do something that would so diminish him in his own eyes that death would be a preferable alternative to living.
But one could say that I feel so diminished already that there’s nothing I could do that would actually make that feeling worse. I have no moral judgement on anyone else either, ever. There are certain things that I can’t do myself because I feel they would be wrong. Sometimes, you know, I’ve thought this was the other side of the coin. If you feel that nobody could ever do you a wrong that would morally outrage you, it might stem not so much from humility as from boundless superiority and egotism. For example, it never worries me when people think badly of me unjustly.
This seems to be a characteristic shared by some of the women in your books – Dotty in Another Part of the Wood, Brenda in The Bottle Factory Outing, Maggie in A Weekend With Claude and to some extent Bridget Hitler in Young Adolf. They’re all pestered by fairly appalling men whom you might suppose they’d be intelligent enough to despise. One senses that they don’t think they have the right, yet feel inwardly superior.
But this is what happened to women of my generation. You’d be amazed at the amount of propositioning that went on, and you went along with it because you’d never have dreamt of saying no. You really felt they were doing you a big favour. Afterwards you might think, ‘Thank God that’s over. ‘ Even when you were very young, you’d find yourself being chatted up by men who were your father’s age and older, like the girls were in Harriet Said.
Does this account for the sexual precocity of Madge in A Quiet Life and the girls in Harriet Said, which some of the early reviewers found either incredible or distasteful?
I think so. I was expelled from school at the age of nine because of some dirty rhyme. I’ll always remember my mother taking me to the Liverpool Playhouse to see Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and the Seven Deadly Sins were cavorting round the Pope. When it was Lechery’s turn, I asked my mother what Lechery meant, and she looked at me and said, ‘Really, Beryl, I thought that that was one thing I wouldn’t have to explain to you.’ And when I got home, they confronted me with this rhyme. My mother had kept to the proprieties of the birthday treat but afterwards she and my father went straight to the school. My brother wasn’t allowed to talk to me because I was a moral degenerate and, as my mother and I shared a bed at the time, we had to occupy the extreme edges. For several days my meals were brought up on a tray.
Despite what you say about these early encounters with men, I don’t think it’s stopped you from being wonderfully accurate when you attempt to see women through a man’s eyes, or at assessing what it is about women that men find infuriating. Is it technically something you prefer to do these days, write the novel from a man’s point of view?
Yes. It was something my editor at Duckworth, Alice Thomas Ellis, suggested that I try. I originally thought I’d never be able to manage it, but now I feel much comfier with it. It’s another mask, I suppose. I know certain feminists who, to say the least, would disrespect you for that position on the grounds that you’ve got to be a particular gender before you can write about it valuably – the kind of approach that tells Shakespeare where to put his Cleopatra. God Almighty, what will they think of next? I once gave a reading with some other women writers – Fay Weldon, Caryl Churchill and others – and I usually go down well with audiences. First of all I was alarmed to find that it was an exclusively female audience. Women with male children were literally turned away. Then I made a big mistake of saying that I thought my father had had a ‘barren’ life. Before I knew where I was, some feminist was on her feet, yelling at me to withdraw that word, as if it was some kind of insult to womanhood. I felt the hairs on my neck rising in anger. Fay, who’s very good at that sort of thing, had to intervene to prevent a fight. But it’s a funny thing feminism: it’s crept in in all kinds of ways of which one is hardly conscious. The other day I was with some people and a man started telling a story about trying to mate his bitch with a dog. One of the women got up and left the room, but the strange thing was that I felt a bit uneasy too. A few years ago I wouldn’t have given a damn.
In which direction is your work going now? In Watson’s Apology it seemed to me that you were striking slightly different notes. The tone was graver, less high-spirited about low spirits than in the other novels. You seemed to be attempting to tackle love much more directly as a topic.
I think that was something I touched on first almost by accident in Winter Garden at the moment when Ashburner strikes the match in the Russian monastery and appears to have a vision of the missing Nina and suddenly he experiences a flood of love towards her. You see, I can write about tension and family squabbles off the top of my head by now, but I find writing about love much more difficult. I think in Watson this happened purely because I had much more time to think about it, since I had to give myself much longer than the usual fourteen-week period in which to research things like the Victorian school system.
Is it anything to do with just getting older?
In a way I think it’s taken me all this time to recognise just how much my father loved my mother. He had a real passion for her, but she just didn’t love him. Family tradition has it that she married him on the rebound when he was a successful business man. Of course you don’t realise these things when you’re a kid. I think that accepting this must have had some effect.
You’ve never written about the period of your life between the age of twenty and thirty. Is this because of some supressed pain from that time? Also it strikes me as very odd that none of your novels deals with theatre, given that you spent quite a few years in rep around this time, and because you enjoy writing about people who are thrown together in enclosed, slightly arbitrary social groupings, like weekend holidays, outings, dinner parties. In a sense, there could be no more arbitrary or absurd social grouping than a lot of people arranging to meet every evening on a stage to pretend to be other people.
Well, technically I like writing about tight groups because of the problem I have doing time. I can’t write about long periods. If I send some characters upstairs, say, I can’t just leave them there. I have to describe them coming down again and if I had to write about several years, that would be an awful lot of going up and coming down. The time problem was a real headache in constructing Watson. As far as the theatre’s concerned, I think one leaves home initially in order to assert one’s strangeness and individuality, but if one goes straight into the theatre, everybody’s strange in depressingly similar ways.
And I suppose technically it gives you no real backdrop of apparent normality against which to set off the subtly lunatic or bizarre. There are some writers – Iris Murdoch for one – who seem to write about little else but the kind of people who can go on for several hundred pages dazed out of their skulls with love, throwing up in Covent Garden etc. Do you find that kind of writing convincing or true to experience?
Not in modern novels. Only when it’s been written about in the past.
One thing that can be said about your books, which certainly could not be said about Murdoch’s, is that they never embarrass the reader. Your humour is a gambit for holding at arms’ length the emotions you write about. Do you think that’s in any sense a limitation?
Yes, I do. I want in future to write much more directly and seriously. I was very surprised when they first started giving me this humour tag. Injury Time, for example, started off as an attempt to write about a very serious siege. Well I, for one, am grateful you got side-tracked. I want to do more books that I have to research. Writing Watson gave me a real taste for libraries and newspaper cuttings and things. Remember, I left school at fourteen and I still have incredible pockets of ignorance. In a way, I’m completing my education. You probably won’t believe this but it was only about six or seven years ago that I first realised that great foreign writers like Goethe and Proust hadn’t written their works in English. And my geography! Even after going on that English journey, I still don’t know where anything is.
What’s in the pipeline at present?
Well, I’ve just done another telly series. This time it’s on families in different parts of the country. The trouble now is that people have got too good at appearing on television. They do their bit of jollity and evade all your questions and just when the cameras has stopped rolling, they come out with something really interesting and off-guard. The effect that television’s had on us is tremendous. Another way I’d thought of doing Injury Time was as a novel about a woman who wanted her life to be exactly as if she were on the telly. I remember one time there was a woman up the road here whose husband had just attacked her with an axe. A few of us stood outside as she was led to the ambulance. But when she appeared with a bloodied turban wrapped round her head, I remember thinking, ‘No, this won’t do. It’s not as good as on the telly.’ Somehow she wasn’t a star.
And what about novels?
What I really want to do is write a novel about Peter Pan and James Barrie, on whom I’ve gone nuts. It could be called something like An Awfully Big Adventure – The Lost Boys has already been used. I love the bit where Peter brings down a Mummy to the boys and one of them shoots her and says something like ‘Oh, Peter I’ve always wanted a Mummy, and now when you’ve brought one, I’ve shot her, Peter! ‘, although God knows how I’m going to write a book that I can get that into. Perhaps I could set it in a rep company.
Have you ever considered writing a novel which hinged on AIDS? A gift topic for you I’d have thought.
I did once start a novel about the spread of NSU. Actually I don’t really believe in AIDS. I think it’s the environment that is breaking down and they’re too scared to tell us.