In the 1970s my mother did book production at Duckworth’s, the publishers in Camden Town where Beryl Bainbridge had once worked and which had published her first novels.
Colin Haycraft, the Duckworth’s supremo, was an emollient, cigar-smoking figure in a tweed jacket his wife Anna (the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis) was stylishly Gothic in dark, stretchy clothing. I did part-time work packing books at the octagonal Old Piano Factory in Gloucester Crescent where Duckworth’s had its premises.
Beryl and Anna were the first real novelists I ever met and, aged 15, I thought them unbelievably louche, stylish and soignee. Of course, I was absolutely right. Beryl had recently published The Bottle Factory Outing, that dark journey into the heart of office life which, thankfully in my view, failed to win the Booker Prize.
The cover of the original hardback (I still have it) featured a photo of Duckworth’s staff and, indeed, it was a publishing company outing to Windsor, rather than a bottle factory, that was the inspiration for the novel.
Duckworth’s parties were legendary, hard-drinking affairs with authors, staff and hangers-on all gathering in the circle of Dexion shelving where the product was stacked before packing and dispatch. You could see Oliver Sacks accompanied by one of his Tourettic patients-cum-subjects, Alan Bennett blinking owlishly and Quentin Crisp holding forth in a cloud of face powder. On one memorably drunken occasion Beryl kissed me full on the lips — I was smitten for life.
She was an unusual, angular and yet deeply compassionate woman, whose fiction reflected the idiosyncratic angles of life she tenanted for her 75 years. As I say, I am glad that she never won the Booker: this would have been too conventional a seal on what was a life far less ordinary than consensus. Beginning with dark and macabre shadings-in of the untenanted corners of the social psyche, Beryl’s writing opened out into quite astonishingly achieved acts of period ventriloquism, a million miles away from the chocolate box portrayal of historical epochs.
I cannot claim to have seen a great deal of Beryl over the years — although she gave my own first book a generous push, for which I was hugely grateful. But I was still more grateful for the impromptu speech that she gave at my mother’s funeral. When asked if anyone wanted to say anything she was the first to break that dreadful silence, and her voice — arch, husky, achieved — was as inspiring as what she said was heartfelt. I feel privileged to have known her enough to be able to appreciate that her prose style was an intimate outgrowth of a rare spirit.
I last ran into her in Flask Walk in Hampstead a couple of years ago — she with a grown daughter, I with a small son — and after the unusual pleasantries (nothing she ever said to me was commonplace), we avowed that we would meet up. Sadly we didn’t — and now, of course, we never will.