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Diary

Diary

Beryl Bainbridge on revolution and the revolting

4 March 2006

12:00 AM

4 March 2006

12:00 AM

I was revolting from a very early age and more than once thought of taking over a radio station and starting a revolution. In those days the wireless exerted far more influence than the newspapers, at least in our house. I can still remember the opening sentence of my call to arms. Rise up, rise up, the moment is at hand. At this distance I can’t recall what particular cause provoked the necessity for an uprising, but I do know I’d been reading Red Eagle by Dennis Wheatley and that in my satchel I had a picture of Marshal Budenny, a man with a moustache straight out of a pantomime. Recently I have again felt a surge of rebellion owing to various issues that occupy both airwaves and press, among them smoking, sex, the amount of water we put in the bath, the emerging Channel Tunnel rail terminal at King’s Cross, and the use of ‘unnecessarily insensitive’ language.

I was forced to give up cigarettes two years back after the nail on my big toe turned grey. This was apparently due to a vein in my leg beginning to clog up with fumes, but then I always did inhale rather deeply. Which is why I’m taking an interest in the smoking problem, and have thought up subtle ways of solving it. When advertising for staff in pubs, clubs, restaurants etc., why not simply state that non-smokers need not apply? Those who want to continue with the habit could sign a form saying that in the event of lung cancer or heart trouble they would not expect to be given free medical treatment — that is if the cause of the illness could be proved to be due to the weed. On the other hand, those who gave up could sue if they developed Parkinson’s disease or severe colitis. Why not make it a criminal offence to be caught either selling, buying or in possession of a cigarette? Perhaps not, as there might be an increase in young people committing acts of violence simply to be sent to a place where they could light up in peace. Several years back I gave a talk to the inmates of a maximum-security prison in a room hazy with smoke. My subject was a Victorian clergyman, headmaster of Stockwell Grammar school; he murdered his wife, but I rushed over that bit. When the warden took me back down the corridor, we passed dozens of young men with ciggies in their mouths. I wonder if any of them are still alive.


The changes in attitudes to sex could be likened to advances in science. Anything is possible and almost everything permissible. The other night, by mistake, I twice prodded the number 9 button on that box attached to the TV and observed several naked young women being rude with one another. It only lasted a few seconds before a notice came up saying I had to send £58 somewhere or other if I wanted to see the rest. This reminded me that I was expelled from school, aged 13, after my mother found a slip of paper in the pocket of my gym slip and took it straight to the headmistress. I was called a rotten apple in the barrel; it was a verse about having sex against a wall. More than 100 years ago a Madame Fontaine was pilloried in the press for riding in her birthday suit upon a heifer attached to a balloon drifting across London. In her defence she pleaded that she was only trying to earn a few bob depicting an airborne Lady Godiva, and that she had been too high up for her intimate parts to be properly viewed. Today Madame Fontaine would be instantly hailed as a celebrity and asked to present children’s television programmes.

We are all being urged to go easy with our use of water. A recent gardening programme even provided the names of plants that don’t mind being parched. Outside my house seven weeks ago a leak sprang up from a bit of road next to the drain positioned exactly outside my house. Next door’s cellar started to flood. Both my neighbour and I rang Camden Council and were told to ring Thames Water, who advised us to ring Camden Council. Four weeks later a huge lorry arrived with two men who smashed a hole in the road, filled it in again and went away leaving a muddy mess. The leak is much reduced and now only trickles into the kerb and possibly into the foundations of my home. I’m beginning to wonder if the recent extension of our licensing laws has something to do with a shortage of water.

What a mistake change is! Who needs those ghastly new buildings which have taken over Swiss Cottage? Why was Peter’s bookshop in Camden Town done away with, and the off-licence and the pet shop and the Delancey Café? Worst of all is the disfigurement of King’s Cross caused by the construction of the new Channel Tunnel rail terminal. There are so many questions that are never answered. Who went to someone or other and said they needed to build another line to get to Europe, and why didn’t somebody tell them there was a train from Waterloo? I took my youngest grandson to see the destruction and told him it was sad when buildings were erased. It made one feel lonely. He said if I felt like that I could come and live with him. I mentioned we all needed our privacy. ‘You can have mine,’ he said.

In 1871, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, the entire Cabinet debated the exact meaning of a few lines of Latin scribbled by an old schoolmaster on trial for the murder of his wife. Was ‘Saepe olim amanti nocuit semper amare’ good Latin or bad? Last week our government expressed its concern for the ‘powerless ones’, those brought up in ‘workless households’. Need I say more?


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