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.