Published: 30 June, 2011
by AN WILSON
It is nearly a year since Beryl Bainbridge died, and it still seems impossible to believe she has gone.
I see her everywhere in Camden. I never go into Marks and Spencer without expecting to bump into her. I never walk past the statue of Cobden at the bottom of the High Street without looking out for her. She loved coming out from the alley-like Miller Street, fag in hand, and pausing by the window of Lake’s the jeweller to remember that it was where Dr Crippen bought his wedding ring.
In recent years, she was wrestling with what she called “the bloody book”. It was a comic novel entitled The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, loosely based on a real-life experience. Impulsively, she’d agreed when a young woman to be driven across America in a camper van by someone she called “Washington Harold” (everyone in Beryl’s world had nicknames).
In her fantasy version of the story, both Rose (the Beryl figure) and Harold are in pursuit of a man called Dr Wheeler. She had planned the most brilliant ending. After their nightmarish journey together, they would get to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
It was the summer of 1968. Rose realises that Washington Harold was going to shoot her beloved Dr Wheeler who happened to be standing next to... Bobby Kennedy. So she jogs Harold’s arm and the shot goes astray. The rest is history!
In real life, after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, a girl in a polka dot dress was seen running away from the Ambassador Hotel. She was never traced by the police. That is the starting point for the novel.
When Beryl died, she had not yet reached the point of the story where she jogs Harold’s arm and inadvertently deprives America of a second Kennedy President. But she was at most a couple of pages away from this.
The novel is all but complete, and it is very, very funny. You’d never guess, as you turn its hilarious pages, how much pain the “bloody book” caused her in those last four or five years. It is a true return to the comic form of her earlier years.
What will delight Beryl’s huge army of fans is the quality of the writing, the fact that the sentences sing: “The sheets were clean but there was an odour of long ago dampness. She knew that smell. Years ago, suffering from toothache, she had got into Father’s bed for warmth. Normally she slept with Mother in the room with the statue of Adam and Eve on the windowsill, only the pain had made her whinge a lot and Mother had banished her on to the landing. She remembered the occasion, not on account of the toothache but because Father had been wearing nothing but a string vest, and when he turned in his sleep his thingie lolled against her leg.”
One of Beryl’s best early books, Harriet Said, is about a knowing little girl who half allows a paedophile to interfere with her, and who spies on him through a window, making love to his obese wife. A similar scene occurs in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress and it made me think that Beryl’s genius was that of the knowing child, looking into the world of the grown-ups.
One of the writers she most revered was Dickens, and she and I often walked in Bayham Street, imagining the child Dickens walking down from there to his humiliating work in the boot-blacking factory in the Strand when he was a child of 10.
Beryl’s sharp “take” – on sex, on lies, on the deceptions practised by grown-ups upon one another – it is that of an apparently naive girl!
Harold thinks Rose is a retard. She comes to hate him. Deeply. In this book, I felt I was not only reading the last Bainbridge masterpiece, I felt I was getting a tiny insight into the mystery of Beryl’s own character. In life, she always seemed anxious to please. Almost ingratiating. Then, she would put on an act, and played the clown, and many foolish people took the act at face value. She was observing us all the time! Her great works, in my opinion, were all comic – The Bottle Factory Outing, Harriet Said, and the laugh-aloud Injury Time. She then wrote a series of beautifully crafted historical tales – famous events such as the sinking of the Titanic or the polar expedition of Captain Scott seen through the miniaturist’s camera. They were lovely books, but they weren’t very funny. In The Girl in a Polka Dot Dress, Bainbridge returned to form. She went out, not with a whimper but a bang. But by God I miss her.
• The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. By Beryl Bainbridge. Little, Brown £16.99
• AN Wilson’s latest book is The Elizabethans (Hutchinson)