'That's for the fellahs!': Laurie Taylor interviews Beryl Bainbridge
Beryl Bainbridge, who died on 2 July 2010, talked to Laurie Taylor in 2004, about death, religion and the novelist's search for higher meaning
For years now I've regarded Beryl Bainbridge as a close personal friend. It was only when I mentioned to a few acquaintances that I was about to interview her for the New Humanist that I realised I had a lot of company. Nearly everyone who's met her seems to feel that they enjoy some sort of special relationship. They've all got stories about the great time they had with her at this or that party or book launch. I think it must be her conspiratorial manner which causes all the confusion. At social gatherings she's always lurking on the edge of the proceedings looking slightly furtive. I used to think that this was because she was always endeavouring to find some ingenious way to subvert the no-smoking policy: begging the kitchen staff to find her an ashtray, asking a large passing guest to stand in front of her so that she could have a quick secret drag. But there's more it than that. Her natural mode is complicit. Even when you're alone with her in her own front room in Camden with an ashtray and fags readily at hand, she still folds you into such an intimate conversational embrace that you can't help but feel that you've being singled out for her special confidences.
I still, though, want to press my claim. We must be good friends. After all, we have so much in common. We're about the same age. We both grew up in Liverpool where we both had aspirations to be actors. (Beryl made it as far as the Liverpool Playhouse whereas I had to be content with walk-on parts at the Merseyside Unity Theatre). We both have good Liverpool friends in common and only a few years ago we were actually in the same courtroom in the town arguing against a planning decision that was going to destroy yet another part of its already gutted centre.
I mention all this because of the slight awkwardness I feel about interviewing her. When you've spent so many years gossiping with someone over gallons of red wine and thousands of Camel Lights, it's a little tricky asking if you can pop round next Thursday and record their considered views on religion and transcendence. But when I ring, Beryl is wonderfully helpful. "Of course, it would be alright, darling. Of course. Yes, if that's what you really want to do." I decide that she's not so much humouring me, as being obliging. But I still feel rather like a husband who's proposed a little bit of S&M to his long-suffering wife. "Of course, darling. Whatever you fancy. How long did you say it would take?"
I've made a resolution not to talk too much about her childhood. In part this is because I feel I know so much about it from her early work (books like Harriet Said and A Quiet Life) but also because I've read somewhere that she now feels she's exhausted that period of her life. There's nothing left there which she can use in her fiction. And that's why in recent years she's turned to history in search of new sites on which to exercise her imagination, to the story of the Titanic (Every Man for Himself), the Crimean War (Master George) and Samuel Johnson (According to Queeney).
But we still talk briefly about the differences between her relatively non-dogmatic Protestant upbringing and my strict Catholicism. We chat about how much her father hated Catholics - "they wouldn't stop breeding" - and about how, as a teenager, she became converted to Rome as a result of visiting a church in central Liverpool with some of the actors from the Playhouse. After the relatively austere Protestantism of her youth, she 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."
So what was there for her now? Had anything taken the place of Catholicism? Did she have any sort of belief in a superior being, in some prime mover, in any sort of God or divine being? She paused for a moment as though opening and shutting drawers in her head. "No, I don't have any of that. I now mostly feel empty." "Empty?". "Yes. I've always had this theory that the best of me happened before I was fourteen. And that after fourteen all those sort of thoughts in my head disappeared. It's as though everything that was worthwhile in my mind has been destroyed. I have great deserts now in my mind. Blank spaces. That's perhaps why I can't stand the way they knock down old buildings. It wipes away more of my landscape. Like in Liverpool."
But didn't she ever now think about the great affairs of life and death which were at the centre of the Catholicism she once embraced? She looked as though she was straining to think of something, anything, that might help me. "Well, something fascinating did happen the other day. Someone gave me a book by a chap called JW Dunn who had a theory of time. He influenced JB Priestley when he was writing his time plays. Now, when you think about Priestley, that very left-wing, strong Yorkshire lad, full of common sense. And there he is saying there might just be something after death. Now, for him to say that really did cheer me up in a funny sort of way. Not because I believed it. But because it was him saying it. That was the reason it cheered me up."
My uneasiness about the interview was beginning to surface again. Why on earth, I asked myself, was I feeling mildly irritated by Beryl's apparent inability to find anything transcendental in her life (apart from an odd remark from JB Priestley) when it was exactly this refusal to be portentous and high minded that had made her such great company in every other conversation that I'd had with her. What I'd always relished so much was her bawdy demolition of anyone who put on airs and graces. There was one particular incident that I always got her to talk about. There'd been this programme on the television about the importance of the novel. It was presented by the wholly admirable Howard Jacobson who spoke very well about how the novel was a supreme human achievement, about how it provided us with an alternative take on the world, a way of absenting ourselves from convention and normality.
This all meant, said Jacobson, that novelists had to take their craft seriously, to recognise their unique role in the world (I'm paraphrasing very badly: I only want to get across the seriousness of Jacobson's message). A number of other writers were wheeled in to support this elevated thesis but we were then rather suddenly confronted with a shot of Beryl Bainbridge sitting next to her great friend and fellow novelist, Bernice Rubens. (They looked, I remember, for all the world, like two naughty schoolgirls on a park bench). Jacobson invited them both to support his thesis. I don't recall their exact words. But I know that both of them resolutely refused to play. No, they didn't think of themselves as special beings. No, writing was just something they did. No, it simply didn't have the transcendental significance that Jacobson was so anxious to hang around its neck.
I thought it might help matters along if I told Beryl about my flashback. "Remember that Jacobson interview. About how writing fiction had a higher meaning, how it belonged to a special domain of human endeavour. He certainly had ideas about there being something transcendental about writing." "Oh yes. He did. But then he's a fellah. And it matters to fellahs."
"But you'd want to think of your writing as having some sort of enduring significance, wouldn't you? You'd want to see it as containing some higher truths?" "Higher truths? Oh no. Not at all. If it has any higher significance, it's only to me and not to anyone else. Had I not written my books I would probably have been in a mental home by now. Writing gets rid of everything. That is the only reason I ever began to write. I wanted to write out things that happened in childhood. There was no other reason at all. And now I'm going through a dilemma. I've done all that stuff about childhood. It's all written out. And then I thought I would do the history books. And that meant getting a different voice. And that was difficult. But now I've decided that I can't repeat myself with another history thing so I will set my next novel in the 1950s. And I found that the me that was there before has totally gone. I can't find me any more."
"You can't find the emotions?"
"No, I can't find the voice. For me that is the emotions. Whatever I am has completely disappeared. I keep thinking, where am I? I can't hear any voices from the fifties. I'm wondering if those people, including me, don't exist anymore."
Perhaps, I suggest, it's because those voices from the fifties won't come back that she can't also remember the time when she sat around with friends talking about the meaning of life, the time before her present sense of emptiness. "Yes, I do remember when I used to talk like that. But I don't any more. It's different for women. It's not like Howard Jacobson. Women talk about the way their children have turned out. I suppose if one started a conversation about what one was doing here, about the point of life, and if one had a few drinks as well, and if you let your mind flow a bit, I suppose in a funny sort of way, you could get tears springing to your eyes when you began to talk about the idea of there being something better, of moving to something better. I don't mean after death. I mean the desire to be good. To have goodness. But then I put that back to childhood again. When my parents said to me, 'You know, you have been a very good girl. A very good girl.' And you are so proud of it. So proud."
Beryl often talks about valuing the opinions of others. She often appears almost eager to defer. But there is something fiercely independent about the way she lives. Her house retains every one of its highly idiosyncratic features (including the large stuffed bison in the hallway). She smokes and drinks as she wants. She writes what she likes. And even though friends told her for twenty years that she was being seriously ripped off by her publisher, she stuck by him through thick and thin. I remind her of that loyalty. Was it a moral decision? "Oh yes. I have very strong moral rules for myself. Not for anyone else. I am terribly hung up about money. I think it is wrong to get interest for your money. I would prefer to be exploited than to feel I was making money out of people. Don't forget my father was a hidden bankrupt and that destroyed an awful lot of my childhood."
But despite such independence she was, she proceeded to tell me, even now, getting ready to oblige one of her relations by making the supreme sacrifice. "I have a grandson and he is making a documentary about my life. And I told him, which was perfectly true, that my mother and father, my two aunts, my two grandparents on both sides, they all died around the age of seventy. They just went. Some drank. Some smoked. Some didn't. And ever since he's been doing this I've been getting odd pains everywhere. I've got a pain in my back. Sudden pains in my head. Being me, I am so suggestible that I could drop dead just for the sake of the film. The film of the last year of my life. It's a question of being obliging."
Would she mind dying? Would it be terrible to know that you weren't going to be able to write any more? "No, I never think about writing. Sometimes, if I am a bit stuck on the next one, I pick one of my books up that I haven't read for years and I think, 'How did I do that?' I never think of it as important. The only reason I go on doing it is because what else am I supposed to do? I can't really believe in an afterlife. Although it does seem foolish that you should go in your seventies. Why on earth should that be the time? Why should that be the cut-off?"
She seemed to have become sad. I apologised for talking so much about death. She reciprocated by apologising for not having more philosophical thoughts. "I might have been better if I'd gone to university or something. But I left school very early. There was, though, a time about fifteen years ago when I mixed with some philosophers because of my publishing house. Freddy Ayer and all that lot. I used to listen. Couldn't understand half of it but you catch on. I always remember being absolutely stumped when one of them turned to me and said 'but surely that's an a priori'. That really finished me off."
"Thanks, Beryl. Let's try and meet up soon and have a normal drink." I pack up the tape recorder and make my way to the front door. The photographer struggles to get his equipment through the narrow hallway. "I like your buffalo," he says, squeezing his way through. "Bison," I correct loudly.