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My memories of Beryl Bainbridge are stamped with her wonderful eccentricity

She was yet another lapsed Catholic estranged by ‘the Spirit of Vatican II’

By on Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Beryl Bainbridge at an Oldie party with John Mortimer and Tom Courtenay (Photo: PA)

Beryl Bainbridge at an Oldie party with John Mortimer and Tom Courtenay (Photo: PA)

Beryl Bainbridge’s funeral took place on Monday, and was packed with the great and the good; it was, no doubt, an occasion rich with reminiscence: she was one of those people about whom stories are told. I knew her only slightly: but each occasion I met her was indelibly stamped on my memory by its wonderfully eccentric flavour.

The first time was in the great farmhouse-like kitchen of the house of Anna Haycraft, who wrote as Alice Thomas Ellis and under my editorship had started to write for the Catholic Herald again, having been sacked by a predecessor for her allegedly excessive frankness. On her return, Anna was our host at a series of wonderful Catholic Herald lunches (she was a superb cook). We were all pleasurably eating and talking away when there was a desperate knocking at the door. Anna and a few of us (in case of difficulty) answered it: there was Beryl. “Quick, quick,” she said, “for God’s sake let me in. Jonathan Miller’s coming”. There, indeed, at the other end of the street, was the long, loping figure of the renowned polymath. “The thing is,” she said, now safely in the sanctuary of Anna’s fragrant kitchen, “if you get stuck with him, you never get away: he just talks and he talks and he talks.”

The next time I saw her was at a party at Simpson’s in the Strand, to celebrate the revival of The Oldie (for which we had both written). She asked me if I had read Alice Thomas Ellis’s latest book; I replied that I had, and was reviewing it. “O Lor,” she said, “what are you going to say?” “Well,” I said, “I’m not sure: it isn’t really one of her best, is it?” No, she replied: “It’s awkward when one of one’s friends produces something below par.” Then she whooped with pleasure: “Look,” she said, “isn’t that Ernie Wise?” Just then the Ernie Wise figure turned away from us: but from behind, he did look very like Ernie Wise. We waited for him to turn round; he failed to oblige. “Come on,” she said, “let’s go and have a look.” So we tip-toed across the floor, and stood behind him. “Are you going to look or shall I?” she whispered. I edged round the immobile figure. It was not Ernie Wise at all: I shook my head; Beryl assumed a comically dejected expression, and we returned to our seats.

Her funeral didn’t, sadly, take place in a Catholic Church, but at St Silas, Kentish Town, an Anglo-Catholic establishment where proceedings (the liturgy, though at an Anglican church, was celebrated in Latin) are much more like those of the Roman Catholic Church she remembered of old, a Church whose liturgical destruction by the “Spirit of Vatican II” had caused her lapsation (see Stuart Reid’s memoir): there is much more to be said about this, for which, watch this space. Beryl Bainbridge was greatly, and deservedly, loved. May she rest in peace and partake forever of the heavenly banquet which no liturgical reform can ever touch.