Beryl Bainbridge

Diary - 18 October 2003

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The Man Booker Prize dinner was held on Tuesday in the Egyptian room of the British Museum. It’s something of an ordeal for the six on the shortlist who have to wait until the pudding to hear who’s won. I’d only read one of the books, but they send you a disc of readings from them all, so that when I was asked — several times — who I thought might win I was able confidently to announce that it would be a toss-up between Monica Ali and Margaret Atwood. There was one particular extract, read beautifully by Martin Jarvis, which contained a lot of F-words, which I thought was a cheat. In the course of several interviews outside the museum I said Vernon God Little by a young chap called D.B.C. Pierre couldn’t possibly win. Of course, it did. Afterwards somebody told me that the author had said in some newspaper that he was sorry for a misspent youth and that his initials meant ‘Dirty But Clean’, or something like that. I dare say there’ll be several articles in the next few days voicing the opinion that the Booker is being dumbed down, whatever that means. Book prizes are a jolly good thing and being on the shortlist is a considerable help to a writer’s career; winning is even better. Congratulations to young D.B.C. and may he go from strength to strength. Time will tell, as they say.

Just recently I’ve become obsessed with time, or rather with the theory put forward by J.W. Dunne in the 1920s. I’ve read his book and don’t understand a word of it, but he influenced a lot of writers, including J.B. Priestley and James Barrie. According to his forward to the time play, An Inspector Calls, Priestley didn’t understand it either. At a wild guess I think it means something like this — you are in a room with friends, sitting round a table having dinner. Then the evening ends and everyone goes home ...only they don’t really. The group round the table stays there for ever, locked in time.

Last month saw the 294th anniversary of the birth of Dr Samuel Johnson. His was not a household name in my youth, either in the home or at school. Indeed, I had never heard of him. On the other hand, Stalin, Churchill and Captain Scott were frequently mentioned, the first named being regarded by my father as a hero — we had a picture of him on the wall; the second as a villain — something to do with the first world war; the third often mentioned when chilblains made an appearance. Anyone sissy enough to complain of a burning irritation of the toes was at once asked to ‘think on’, a reference to the suffering endured by that gallant chap in search of the South Pole. Come to think of it, Scott is still there, not exactly round a table but in a tent hundreds of feet below the ice, his body perfectly preserved.

I travelled to Lichfield to take part in Johnson’s birthday celebrations. It began with a dinner in the Guild Hall, followed by the passing on of the chain of office worn by last year’s president of the Johnson Society, Adam Sisman. It was a very jolly affair, with proper food like steak and kidney pudding, and just before the speeches began clay pipes were handed round, plus tobacco. This year, John Sargent took over from Adam, and made a very clever and witty speech in which he quoted the good Doctor and drew parallels between the events of his day and ours. It’s always a good thing to have a speech which seems to be predominantly entertaining and yet leaves bigger issues in the mind. The next morning, after church, we all went off to Stowe Hill Manor House, where Sam often stayed, to a feast given by Pat and Philip Rule.

On the subject of books and of J.W. Dunne and his theory, last Sunday’s Observer printed a list of novels it thought might pass the test of time. One happened to be mine and was about myself and a woman called Freda — not her real name — and the year we spent working together for four and ninepence an hour in a bottle factory in Camden Town. Freda was magnificent. She was tall, blonde, wore a purple cloak, weighed over 18 stone, yet moved like a dancer. We went on a works outing to Windsor and somehow she ended up riding one of the Queen’s horses, which was being exercised in the Park. She liked the book, though some people thought she mightn’t have done if she’d read it properly. I lost touch with her over the years, and then last week I noticed a headline in the local newspaper — ‘Stench and swarm of flies bring cops to body of woman found in squalid flat’. That’s why I like the idea of time never truly passing. I prefer to think of Freda, cloak billowing in the wind, forever galloping across Windsor Park.

A few days ago I was walking down the hall past the buffalo when one of the scarves hung round its horns sent me tripping into the front door. I would have thought nothing of it if a friend hadn’t remarked that scarves and suchlike can kill, and the dancer Isadora Duncan was strangled by her own scarf. In 1927, setting out for an evening drive to Nice in a red Bugatti sports car, she was unaware that the fringes of her shawl were dangling close to the spokes of the rear wheel. ‘Adieu, mes amis,’ she called to her friends. ‘Je vais à la gloire,’ and the first turn of the wheel broke her neck. I suppose I should be grateful that the buffalo is stationary.

Robert Swan, who trekked alone to the Pole, once told me that he felt there was always someone walking behind him. In the grounds of Stowe House there is an avenue of trees along which Samuel Johnson frequently plodded. When I walked there I thought I was being followed, but when I turned around it was only the autumn leaves being shuffled by the breeze.