Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Tag: Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week (page 1 of 3)

Getting to know Beryl better…

Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes

I will happily go on record to say that Beryl Bainbridge is my favourite author. Earlier this year, I hosted a reading week celebrating her work; you can see my record of that week and a bibliography of Beryl books and reviews on my Reading Beryl page. Through searching through reviews, obituaries, TV clips etc to complement and enliven the reading of her books – I felt I had got to know her quite well. Not well enough it seems!

When I was able to get my hands on this new biography, it went straight to the top of my TBR pile, temporarily relegating Dorothy Dunnett!

beryl biogI knew she painted, but I had no idea how good she was. This biography of Beryl, which happens to be the first to be published after her death in 2010, comes from art publishers Thames & Hudson – and it anchors itself primarily in her art, although her literature is closely interlinked. Although we know Beryl as a writer first and foremost, she always painted, she sold paintings between novels, and when she periodically suffered from writer’s block, she was able to work through it by painting.

The author was a friend of Beryl’s from the early 1960s onwards; they started off as neighbours in Camden after Beryl had moved down from Liverpool, bonding over their young families. Hughes herself is a lecturer and a writer, married to an artist, so is ideally placed to write about her friend. The introduction is also written by a friend – Brendan King, who was Beryl’s editor for twenty years, and who pieced together Beryl’s final novel The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress which was left unfinished when she died.

Beryl always rejected the label of being eccentric; I’m not so sure, but she is certainly idiosyncratic – having her own consistent style which suffuses her life, and thus her art and her books. Her pictures and her novels are heavily influenced by events from her own life, and often include other subjects that fascinated her like Napoleon, pictured dancing on the cover of this book. Her paintings are delicate, many done with and ink and smudges of colour, yet their subjects are earthy. Many of the figures within are nude and Rubenesque; expressions of her subconscious?, yet she always grounds them with an object placed in the frame – a plant … or her favourite samovar even. The figures tend to have an ethereal feel, and many have reminiscent of Modigliani’s elongated faces – he was a painter Beryl admired.

Hughes writes about Beryl’s views on art…

She attended the openings of my husband’s exhibitions because he was a friend. On one occasion she even wrote a short piece for the invitation to one of this exhibitions (in July 1987), which gives a brief personal doctrine of painting: ‘What one wants from art is a personal statement, a successful arrangement of colour and shape and a sense of place.’

The picture below is a family group of the author and her family on the arrival of a new sibling, was painted in 1970, the angel was added later when Hughes had a fourth daughter.

Beryl Bainbridge's portrait of Psiche Hughes' family and the arrival of a new sibling 1970Later on, Beryl took to painting pictures based on the subjects of her historical novels, “after its completion, as if to exorcize the memory of the effort she had spent in the writing.” Hughes suggests.  The pictures included for her novels, The Birthday Boys, and Every man for himself (based on the events of Scott’s journey to the Antarctic and the sinking of the Titanic respectively), are particularly evocative – the colours of the sun on the snow, and the dark night as the ship sinks create real atmosphere.

Supplementing Hughes’s text are 108 illustrations – many in colour of Beryl’s paintings, but also photographs and book covers. The whole book is produced on high quality cream paper, with a ribbon bookmark, making it a pleasure to read.

The triple approach to Beryl’s life – artist, writer and friend really worked, and I now feel I know her a lot better. This is a lovely book. (10/10)

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I was lucky enough to receive a review copy through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes. Pub Oct 2012 by Thames & Hudson. Hardback, 208 pages.

Incoming Beryl …

Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes

I am inordinately excited to have been able to get my mitts on this rather different biography of my favourite author, the first full biography since Beryl’s death. Thanks to my lovely neighbours who rescued it from the Amazon delivery man and depot hell this morning, so I could share it with you.

The lovely thing is that Beryl turns out to have been a brilliant artist as you can see from the cover below, and made money from her painting when writing couldn’t provide it.

This biography comes from art publishers Thames & Hudson, and is beautifully produced on quality paper with over 100 illustrations in colour and b/w including many photos of Beryl throughout her career.

Beryl and Italian-born Psiche met in the early 1960s, they were neighbours in London and their friendship lasted until Beryl’s death in 2010.

I am really looking forward to reading this book and savouring Beryl’s art. Expect a full review soon!

If you want to find out more about Beryl, why not check out my Reading Beryl page, which contains all the reviews and links from Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, which I hosted back in June.

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I received a review copy via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes, pub Oct 2012 by Thames & Hudson, Hardback, 205 pages.

Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week – Review Round-up

Thank you again to everyone who has joined in Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week. I said I’d do a full round up – so here are all the links so far. If I’ve missed you out, please leave a link in the comments and I’ll add you in. As Simon did for his Review Round-up for Muriel Spark Reading Week back in April, I’ve listed Beryl’s books chronologically(ish) — ie in publication order.  As you can see, there’s a few in the middle none of us have got to so far, so that’s where my ongoing reading will continue I think…

These links will also get transferred into my new Reading Beryl page on the tab above.

Harriet Said… (1972) – Seamus at Vapour Trails, Harriet Devine, Gaskella
The Dressmaker (US: The secret glass) (1973) – Alex in Leeds
The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) – Ali at Heavenali, Skiourophile, Sophia at Page Plucker, Gaskella from my archive,
Sweet William (1975) – Simon T at Stuck in a book, Gaskella
A Quiet Life (1976) – Margaret at Books Please, Gaskella
Injury Time (1977) – Simon T at Stuck in a book, Stu at Winston’s Dad, Gaskella
Young Adolf (1978)
Another Part of the Wood (revised) (1979)
Winter Garden (1980)
A Weekend with Claude (revised) (1981)
Watson’s Apology (1984)
Mum and Mr Armitage (short stories) (1985)
Filthy Lucre (juvenalia from 1946) (1986) – Simon S from Savidge Reads
An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) – Harriet Devine, David H at Follow the Thread, Geranium Cat, Chris at The Book Trunk
The Birthday Boys (1991) – Gaskella from my archive,
Collected Stories (short stories) (1994)
Every Man For Himself (1996) – Alex in Leeds, Harriet Devine, Sophia at Page Plucker
Master Georgie (1998) – Col at The Only Way Is Reading, Sophia at Page Plucker
According to Queeney (2001) – Chris at The Book Trunk, Harriet Devine
The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress (2011)

English Journey or The Road to Milton Keynes (1984) – Alex in Leeds (and see her other link below).
Forever England: North and South (1987)
Something Happened Yesterday (1993) – Simon T at Stuck in a Book
Front Row: Evenings at the Theatre (2005) – Gaskella

Other Beryl posts and links you must see:

A Polka-Dot Giveaway

It’s Sunday tea-time in the UK, and we’re coming to the end of Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week.  Thank you to everyone who’s taken part by reading, posting, reviewing, commenting and just popping by.

I’ve found all the books of hers that I’ve read to be brilliantly written, wickedly subversive and often very funny, each one different yet reassuringly the same – in that she has a consistent style of writing, which once it gels with you won’t let you go.  I’ve also found I’ve become rather fond of her – she’s Beryl to me now, not Bainbridge any more.

I realise that some of you may still be reading with a write-up to follow.  Keep them coming and I will do a review round-up with all the links in one place later in the week.  

I will also be pasting all the links in my new tab at the top of the page – Reading Beryl, so there’ll be an easy to retrieve record of the week and I intend to keep reading the rest of her books as an on-going project.  If you have been inspired to read more, do comment on the page and leave your link.

And for anyone who hasn’t read enough about Beryl, here’s a link to her interview in the Paris Review from 2000.

* * *  However I’d like to end the week with a giveaway! * * *

Beryl’s last novel The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress will finally be published in paperback at the beginning of July.  I’m offering three copies of the book (and will send them to anywhere that the Book Depository sends to).  I’ll make the draw next Friday.

Just leave a comment – and tell me your favourite Bainbridge novel, moment from this week, or anything else Beryl-related.

Good luck!

Nights at the Theatre

Front Row: Evenings at the Theatre by Beryl Bainbridge

From  1992 until 2002, Beryl was the theatre reviewer for The Oldie magazine, and  her reviews have been collected in this volume. Collected columns like these can easily date, however Beryl prefaces each review in her idiosyncratic style with comment about what she’d been doing, or thoughts about arriving at the theatre. She then follows that with some serious research about the play or production in question before brief comments about what she saw.

In the introduction she gives us some autobiographical notes about her own short stage career, which was character-forming, and provided the inspiration for her novel An awfully big adventure. She also confesses, that coming from the theatrical tradition herself, she finds it impossible to really criticise anyone – thus she ends up mostly praising or not saying much at all!

Luckily for me, the book coincides with the height of my London theatre-going and I actually saw many of the same productions, so could compare and contrast.

The volume starts off with Alan Bennett’s wonderful adaptation of The Wind in the Willows at the National Theatre (1992).  Although she acknowledges Bennett’s production  has ‘a lot of sunshine’, she wishes the Wild Woods could have been darker (like those in her own novels, perhaps).

She also dislikes the lack of curtains, proscenium arches, footlights and the dimming of the lights that you get in modern theatres.  She says: “I was forced to smile throughout, facial muscles stuck in a grimace owing to the brightness of the auditorium.”   This never occurred to me – I was transfixed throughout the whole production!.

Moving on to Macbeth by the RSC at the Barbican in 1994.  It starred Derek Jacobi (“excellent”) and Cheryl Campbell (“whimpered too pathetically”), I agree. Like me, she liked parts of the production, and hated others, it lacked “visual magic and theatricality” – the set was particularly awful. I also remember Jacobi’s fan-club occupying the front row and throwing flowers at the end – I read elsewhere that some of them went to every performance!

When she talks about Rodney Ackland’s 1952 play Absolute Hell, (National Theatre, 1995) – she says that much of it “will be lost on those still in the bloom of youth,”. It’s set in a Soho club run by Christine (Judi Dench), and features a young writer (Greg Hicks) who is overcome by rejection.  Beryl loved this play; I’m afraid I remember it mostly for Dench being rather shouty, and Dot Cotton from Eastenders (June Brown) having a part. She was right – it was lost on me.  We are in agreement though about Trevor Nunn’s 1998 NT production of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People with Ian McKellen in superb form.

I’ve only selected a few of the actual productions that I’ve seen too to comment on, but Beryl’s reviews cover a wide range of shows at a wide range of theatres, although mostly, but not always, in the West End. From pantomimes (she adores Peter Pan, natch), to musicals like the 1990s Oliver! revival and Les Miserables, popular plays like The Woman in Black as well as the literary heavyweights – all are given the same treatment.

The last word on her reviews though goes to her review of her own play of An Awfully Big Adventure at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1992. It starred her daughter, Rudi Davies, as Stella (based on Beryl herself).  She ends the review with a tongue in cheek critical sentence or two: “Too much of the first act is given over to exposition. There must be a better way of doing it. Given time, the author may write a better play.”

If I hadn’t been familiar with the era and actors, I may not have enjoyed these reviews quite so much – but they hit the spot for me, and brought a real touch of nostalgia actually. (8/10)

“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”

A Quiet Lifeby Beryl Bainbridge

Alan sits in a café waiting for his sister Madge, whom he hasn’t seen for fifteen years – there to discuss their late mother’s effects. Both are now in their forties, and they’re still as different as chalk and cheese.

Rewind twenty-five years. It’s the 1950s; petrol is still rationed, the spectre of the war still looms large for there are German POWs stationed nearby.

We meet a family – at war – with itself.  Our guide is Alan, aged seventeen, the quiet and responsible one who worries about everything, but especially Madge.  Madge, two years younger, manages to get away with everything.  She’s Alan’s complete opposite; an extrovert who loves life, and an expert manipulator of her parents.

Alan suffers silently, and lusts quietly after Janet in the church choir.  Madge, meanwhile, has been spotted cavorting in the dunes with a German POW, and Alan doesn’t know what to do.  One suspects he is jealous of Madge’s emotional development – she’s fast becoming a young woman, whereas although older, he is still to get past first base, so to speak.

The parents:  When Mother married Father, he was well off, they had a house with a maid.  She had been to a Belgian finishing school.  The war saw to all that – no they are all crammed into a small house, not much more than a two-up, two-down, with all the remaining furniture. There’s no space to move, especially as the front room is kept for visitors only.  Father, meanwhile, spends a lot of time with his sister, Alan’s Auntie Nora, when he’s not out on business – we never find out what he actually does, but the black market is hinted at. They’re not happy at all, they barely speak these days, both caught up in their own misery; the scene is set for a claustrophobic drama.

Madge’s behaviour is causing problems, and beginning to get noticed:

‘You’re running wild,’ he muttered. ‘It’s not normal.’ He regretted instantly his choice of words. He thought she would launch into some drivel about normality being relative. For once she kept silent. Encouraged, he said: ‘Don’t you see what friction you cause in the house? They’re worried sick over you.’
‘It’s not me, Alan,’ she said. ‘It’d be all the same if I stayed in. It’s money … and that solicitor.’
He didn’t seem to grasp that it was the trouble she caused him personally that was his main concern. He was long past  marshalling the reasons for his parents’ behaviour – it would be like emptying a cupful of ants into a butterfly net for safe-keeping. All he wanted was for Madge to stay home at night, so he needn’t return to find his father jumping up and down, demented, at the kerb.

Having read her debut,  Harriet Said, this novel is recognisable as a development of that earlier one, but without the wicked plan of the two schoolgirls – Madge’s only aim is to find love. Bearing in mind the horror of Harriet Said, and coming the year after Sweet William, which was an out and out comedy, A Quiet Life seems very pedestrian in its targets – a kitchen sink drama of class war and depression. Beryl’s depiction of the war-torn landscape is also depressing:

In the pockets of darkness lay the bomb-sites, rubble overgrown with tall and multiplying weeds; the wind blew constantly from the river, scattering the dust and the seeds across the demolished city.

Everything seems grey, and for me, although Bainbridge’s writing is as sharp as ever, this novel fell flat.  There are no big twists or revelations, although each character has much to hide.  They’re all hanging on, and we’re spectators watching, waiting for them to fall.  In my bibliography post, before having read the book, I used a quote from the lyric to the Pink Floyd song Brain Damage“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” and that is so apt!

The other thing I missed in this novel was some of Bainbridge’s wicked humour for the touches were few and far between. More would have mitigated the unrelenting gloom, but also may have diluted the tension. One of the funniest moments was actually on the first page where Madge writes to Alan “suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve ‘Rest in Peace’ on the tombstone.”

In summary, not my favourite Bainbridge, and not a good one to start with, but definitely worth reading for completists. (7/10)

I shall leave you with Pink Floyd – live from 1994 …

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