For almost three decades the novelist Beryl Bainbridge, who died last week, wrote book reviews and diaries for The Spectator. They were, without exception, brilliant. It has been said over the last week that she was the best novelist of her generation, but she was also (though a life-long Labour voter) the best sort of conservative: ‘What a mistake change is!’ she wrote in a diary in 2000: ‘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?’ Which Spectator reader would disagree? In one diary she confessed to taking a carving knife with her during her long midnight walks, ‘in case anyone is out there aching to do a spot of mugging.’
Here is one of her best diaries, from 15 January, 2000.
On approaching the side entrance to my high street Marks & Spencer — I needed sausages for the following day — I was confronted by the usual sight of an apparently homeless person slumped on the kerb alongside his well-built and far from dozing Alsatian. I would have given a coin to the unfortunate but for the fact that he lives in rented accommodation nearby — I know that because I’ve often seen him swigging from either a bottle of turpentine or Sparkling Vimto while letting himself into a flat on the ground floor. Besides, he should have leapt up and tugged at his forelock as I passed by. In the old days there used to be a more courteous sort of con-merchant, my own grandmother for one. Partial to a drop of the hard stuff paid for by innocent bystanders, she took to going into town and coming over all faint, particularly outside a better class of public house. Acknowledging the concern of those around her, she would murmur that a little glass of brandy would see her right and, drooping pathetically, allow herself to be helped inside.
Friday night I took three grandchildren to the glorious Hackney Empire to see Cinderella. Prince Charming was very good about inviting the poor into his home, though, of course, that was because he wouldn’t have found Cinders if he hadn’t. When the glass slipper fitted and they kissed, my little grandson shuddered and said it was disgusting. The next morning, after they’d complained about the sausages, he and his cousin Esme got married. Instead of a honeymoon they asked to watch a video of The Rescuers Down Under. It’s about a mouse called Bernard who’s madly in love with a lady mouse called Miss Bianca who spends all her time doing good and saving children who get into trouble after disobeying their mothers. Just as we got to the part when the baddie fell into the river, a neighbour known as Mad Joe banged on the knocker. I went into the hall and cried, ‘Go away,’ at which he tried to kick the door in. I shouted for him to retreat to the gate, then hurled a ciggie, a £5 note and an old mince pie down the path. ‘Forgive me,’ I called. ‘I have young ones in my care.’ In my absence crocodiles were moving in to gobble up the baddie. We didn’t see him being eaten, just heard him bawling for help — rather in the manner of Mad Joe — as life whirled him downstream. Later, the newly-weds went under the table and the bride had babies. Oddly enough, they were of the canine kind, 101 in all, who yapped a lot. Needless to say, when the happy pair were fetched by their parents, the offspring were left behind. I did consider a mass drowning, but have since thought of a more humane solution, namely taking them round to that Alsatian outside Marks & Sparks.
After weeks of wheezing and hawking, I tried to get through on the telephone to book an appointment with the doctor. Nothing but a taped message telling me the lines were busy and I should call back later. I contemplated going round in person and demanding a little drop of brandy, but old habits die hard. I was brought up to believe you had to be dying before troubling the doctor and, even if that were true, you had to scrub the house from top to bottom before letting him over the doorstep. My mother did just that when I got pneumonia during the May Blitz. I couldn’t be taken into the shelter any more, so I was bedded down under the dining-room table. Just before the doctor was due to call, she rolled me back and forth so that she could hoover the carpet. Actually, what I really had was TB, but I didn’t know that until four years ago. I expect I got it from the milk, which we fetched in a jug from Tommy Rimmer’s farm, straight from a cow standing knee-deep in dung.
Medical treatment being unavailable, I set off to visit the Hunterian Museum, always a place to restore one to health. Inside is housed a magnificent display of monstrosities, foetal abnormalities, diseased kidneys, calcified lungs. I feel at home there. Today the garnering of such items would be frowned upon, which is possibly why all those infant organs were found hidden in the basement of that Liverpool hospital. Hunter was alive at the time of Dr Johnson — middle 1700s. Medical science then knew everything that we know today; it just hadn’t yet discovered the best treatments. I went into the museum library and browsed through a book of case histories. I was looking for something on scrofula, but got sidetracked by the dilemma of the Revd Mr Shepherd and the wounding of a soldier called Thomas Thruber. The latter got stabbed in the loins by a bayonet, through the tendon of the Latissimus Dorsi and the fleshy part of the Sacro Lumbales. The wound was four inches deep and was not opened, but instead draped with cloths dipped in vinegar. ‘He healed soon but was stiff in buttocks for four weeks.’ The Revd Mr Shepherd had only himself to blame. On his very first night in the city — he had come to London from Gloucester in order to listen to sermons — he ‘fell in with a low woman and had connection’, probably in the doorway of an 18th-century equivalent of Marks & Spencer. By the third day he couldn’t pass water. Fearing the worst, he consulted Dr Hunter, who flushed out his bowels with a corrosive sublimate, injected him with something called Saccharian Saturni, and then made him stand with his willy over a bowl of steaming brandy. This latter procedure did him a power of good, as well it might, and sent the sinner home determined never again to stray from the path of righteousness.
I’m still coughing and hawking but have decided to cure myself by lying down with a hot toddy and listening to that opera in which the young woman’s tiny hand is frozen. There’s always somebody worse off than oneself.