The kindness of Beryl

A personal appreciation from a much younger friend.

At a Christmas party in north London some years ago I found myself on a sofa alongside Tom Robinson and Beryl Bainbridge, and in the middle of a long and, for their part, knowledgeable, discussion about the relative merits of Coronation Street and EastEnders. That the songwriter and former gay rights activist should have found himself tackled on this subject by Beryl was not a surprise. She was such a keen follower of soaps that if ever she missed an episode, she would call her friend and fellow-novelist, Bernice Rubens, at her home in Belsize Park, up the hill from Beryl's Camden house, to catch up -- and vice versa. I haven't seen any mention of this particular enthusiasm of hers in the notices since Beryl's death last Friday, however, and although the tributes have been generous -- AN Wilson wrote an especially perceptive piece in the Observer on Sunday -- I wonder how much of the life of this most treasured of novelists will appear in the recollections, or how fully the picture of her character will be painted.

The rackety side will be there, naturally; and this was not without truth. I can vividly remember the Whitbread Prize dinner in 1997 where Beryl, who had won the Novel category, was in contention for the overall prize. From the moment the waiters attempted to fill our glasses, strict instructions were issued: wine would do fine for me and for her publisher, Robin Baird-Smith. But for Beryl, her daughter JoJo and the former "Fat Lady" Jennifer Patterson, large whiskies would be required, and at regular intervals throughout the evening. It was, as one of us later observed, perhaps just as well that Beryl did not end up taking the evening's laurels, as her speech might have been recorded in the annals of exuberance, or quite possibly incomprehension, rather than in those of great oratory.

On other occasions, this appetite for good company, drink and nicotine manifested itself in many a long and joyous evening. At the party for her next novel, Master Georgie, I told Beryl how much I'd liked it. "How many times have you read it?" she asked. "Once," I replied, thinking I'd done rather well in actually managing to finish a book before going to its launch (and, since it was Beryl, I had made a special effort). "You have to read it at least twice to understand it," she told me, although not harshly. The gathering at Hatchard's, Piccadilly, moved on to a pub round the corner, and several hours later a diminished group of us carried on at the home of one of her children in Kentish Town. I have a vague memory of dancing to "The Return of the Space Cowboy" by Jamiroquai at about 3am, but when I left, the party and Beryl, were still going strong.

To that aspect of Beryl, many can testify. And it is for others, more qualified than I, to appraise, and doubtless praise, her writing and analyse her influences. I would like to add something about her extraordinary personal consideration, one instance of which I will never forget. In 1996 her novel about the Titanic, Every Man for Himself, came out to such acclaim that it marked a renaissance in her already glittering career. Shortly before, a mutual friend, the journalist Robert Tewdwr Moss had been murdered in the Little Venice flat I had previously lived in, too. Robert was beloved of Beryl -- she had a framed photo of him in her house -- and was like an older brother to me. As I walked up the cramped, steep stairs of 2 Brydges Place, the club where Beryl's new novel was being celebrated, a stream of literary luminaries waited in line to greet the author. Among the likes of, as I remember it, Antony Beevor and Antonia Fraser, I felt deeply insignificant. But as soon as she saw me, Beryl rushed over and took me aside. "You poor boy," she said, giving me a big hug, "are you all right?" Other grandees of the book world were ignored as she took the time (quite a lot of time), on the evening of her greatest triumph, to talk to a 24-year-old who was of practically no consequence at all in the world of journalism, let alone the realm of letters. It was an act of such kindness I still find myself moved whenever I remember it.

But it was typical of Beryl. Nearly a decade later, I had a weekly interview slot at a newspaper and was under pressure to find subjects famous enough for the section editor's satisfaction. So I rang Beryl. Now most novelists are only willing to be interviewed when they have a new book to publicise, and Beryl was very much between novels at the time. There was really nothing in it for her at all, and she'd also have to put up with a photographer asking her to pose all over her house for 40 minutes. "Well, Sholto," she said, "since we're friends..."

I would have been enormously proud to have called Beryl my friend (although I was immensely fond of her, the presumption implied meant I always hesitated to describe myself as such). I'm still more honoured that she should have chosen to use that word for me. If the coverage of her life carries the respect owed to a very considerable novelist, and the warmth due to a woman who long ago became a "national treasure", it is no less than she deserves -- and those of us lucky enough to have experienced the kindness of Beryl know that behind the puckish, Bohemian exterior that made her so loved, there was also a great heart.

 

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
John MacDougall/Getty
Show Hide image

Attention millennials: we have reached Peak Unicorn

There is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation.

If you have been on the internet recently, you may have noticed the unicorns. Social media has become saturated with pastel pinks and blues, sprinkled with glitter and transformed into a land of magical rainbows and prancing, mystical creatures. For adults.

Young women post pictures of themselves with lilac-and-turquoise-tinted “unicorn hair”, or holographic “unicorn nails”, and put up photographs of rainbow-coloured and gold-leafed “unicorn toast”. The beauty industry has something of a unicorn problem, with brands issuing identikit ranges of shimmery, unicorn-themed cosmetics and perfumes with names such as “I Heart Unicorns”. When it comes to millennial commodity capitalism, no depth of unicorn-related paraphernalia has been left unplumbed. You can buy sparkle-laced gin advertised as “Unicorn Tears”, body glitter branded as “Unicorn Snot”, and even a lipstick tinted with “unicorn blood” – which is presumably aimed at the niche market for Goth unicorns.

In the past few weeks, the world has officially reached peak unicorn, following Starbucks’s limited-edition release of the selfie-friendly, Instagram-baiting “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Despite being described by tasters as “the worst drink I have ever purchased in my life”, and “like a combination of the topical fluoride used by dental hygienists and metallic sludge”, pictures of it were shared on Instagram more than 150,000 times in the single week it was available.

But why do unicorns have such seemingly inexhaustible popularity among millennials – many of whom, despite entering their thirties, show no signs of slowing their appetite for a pre-teen aesthetic of prancing ponies and mythical fantasy? Certainly, there is a strong current of Nineties nostalgia at play here – though it seems to be a nostalgia that blends the ironic celebration of childhood kitsch with wilful self-infantilisation. There is something terribly earnest about the language of unicorns; its vocabulary of rainbows and smiles is too embarrassing to sustain genuine irony.

The sickly-sweet copy issued by brands starts to feel unhinged, after a while. (A £28 body “Wish Wash” that tells you “Unicorns are awesome. I am awesome. Therefore I am a unicorn”, anyone? That’s not how logic works and you know it.)

God knows there’s room for a bit of crayon-coloured twee in our dark geopolitical times. And if my generation is to be denied any conventional markers of adulthood, in the absence of affordable homes or secure employment, I’ll cover myself in glitter and subsist on a diet of pink lattes and sugar sprinkles as much as I please. But in our post-truth age of Trump, Brexit, Twitter trolls and the rise of the alt right, advertising that maniacally shouts that “UNICORNS ARE REAL! UNICORNS ARE REAL!” has a flavour of deranged escapism.

Yet maybe there is an element of knowingness in countering the rising tide of global hate and uncertainty with a pretend sparkly magic horse. Perhaps unicorns are a particularly fitting spirit animal for Generation Snowflake – the epithet given to young people who have failed to grow out of their instincts for sensitivity and niceness. Eighties and Nineties kids were raised on cartoons such as My Little Pony, which offered anti-bullying messages and a model of female strength based on empathy and collaboration. By identifying with creatures such as horses, dolphins and unicorns, young girls can express their own power and explore ideas of femininity and fantasy away from the male gaze.

And perhaps these childhood associations have shaped the collective millennial psyche. For the generation that is progressively dismantling the old gender boundaries, unicorn aesthetics aren’t just for women. On Instagram, lumbersexual hipsters show off their glitter beards, while celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Jared Leto rock pastel-tinted dye jobs. Increasingly, young people of all genders are reclaiming styles once dismissed as irretrievably girly – as seen in the present media obsession with “millennial pink”. Pink is now performing the double feat of being both the unabashedly female colour of fourth-wave feminism and the androgynous shade of modern gender fluidity.

Let’s be frank: there are limits to this kind of ideological utopianism. The popularity of unicorn aesthetics and millennial pink is due in no small part to one simple thing: they are eye-catchingly appealing on social media. In an age dominated by visual media, bubblegum shades have the power to catch our attention.

Starbucks knows this. The company has explicitly acknowledged that the Unicorn Frappuccino was “inspired” by social media, knowing well that Instagram users would rush to capture images of the drink and thus giving a spike to their publicity free of charge.

But predictably, with the vagaries of the fashion cycle, Starbucks has killed the unicorn’s cool. The moment that corporate chains latch on to a trend is the moment that trend begins its spiral towards the end – or towards the bargain basement from which it will be redeemed only once it has reached peak naff. Unicorns are now “basic” – the term the internet has given to the rung on the cultural capital ladder that sits between hipster and ignominy.

Yet already the next mythical creature is waiting in the wings for us to pass the time until the inevitable heat death of the universe. If Instagram hashtags are anything to go by, the trend-setters are all about mermaids now.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

0800 7318496