Nina Bawden, novelist
In recent years, a recurring highlight in my existence has been the opportunity to walk from Spitalfields through Hoxton and along the canal path up to Islington to enjoy a light lunch with the sublimely elegant novelist Nina Bawden, who lives in an old terrace backing onto the canal and whom I consider it a great honour to count as my friend. I first met Nina when I took my copy of “Carrie’s War” along to a bookshop and queued up with all the hundreds of other children to have it signed by the famous author. She appeared to my child’s eyes as the incarnation of adult grace and authoritative literary intellect, and it is an opinion that I have had no reason to qualify, except to say that my estimation of Nina has grown as I have come to know her.
Years after that book signing, Kaye Webb, Nina’s editor who had encouraged my own nascent efforts at writing, rang me up at six-thirty one evening to say she had just remembered Nina and her husband Austen Kark were coming to dinner that very night and she had nothing to give them. At this time Kaye was over eighty and housebound, so I sprinted through the supermarket to arrive breathless at Kaye’s flat beside the canal in Little Venice by seven-thirty – and when Nina and Austen arrived at eight, dinner was in the oven.
They were an impressive couple, Austen (who was Head of the BBC World Service) handsome in a well-tailored suit and Nina, a classically beautiful woman, stylish in a Jean Muir dress. I regret that I cannot recall more of the evening, but I was working so hard to conceal my anxiety over the hasty cuisine that I was completely overawed. Naturally, in such sympathetic company, it all passed off smoothly and I only revealed the whole truth to Nina last year when Valerie Grove was writing her biography of Kaye Webb, “So Much to Tell,” to be published by Penguin in May.
Given the background to our friendship, it has been my great delight to get to know Nina a little better since we became “neighbours” on this side of London and I was thrilled when she consented to my writing this pen portrait, celebrating the occasion of her recent nomination for the Lost Booker Prize of 1971 for her novel “The Birds on the Trees” which has just been republished by Virago. When a journalist from The Times rang Nina to ask what “The Birds on the Trees” was about, Nina pulled a copy from her shelves, where it had sat since 1971, crowded among all her other works in her peaceful study at the back of the house overlooking the garden, and read it to find out. “You do learn as you go on,” admitted Nina to me, “so I expected bad bits but I wasn’t displeased as I expected.” Adding rhetorically, “Who was it who said,’We write novels so we have something to read when we are old?’”
Born in East London in 1925, Nina was evacuated during the blitz and then became amongst the first of her post-war generation to go up to Oxford. At Somerville College, she had the temerity to attempt to persuade fellow undergraduate Margaret Thatcher (Margaret Roberts as she was then) to join the Labour Party, that enshrined the spirit of egalitarianism which defined those years. Even then, young Margaret displayed the hard-nosed pragmatism that was her trademark, declaring that she joined the Conservatives because they were less fashionable and consequently, with less competition, she would have a better chance of making it into parliament.
The catalogue of Nina’s literary achievement, which stretches from the early fifties into the new century, consists of over forty novels, twenty-three for adults and nineteen for children. A canon that is almost unparalleled among her contemporaries and that, in its phenomenal social range and variety, can be read as an account of the transformation brought about by the idealistic post-war culture of the Welfare State, and of its short-comings too.
Nina met Austen, the love of her life, by chance on the top of a bus in 1953 when they were both in their twenties and married to other people. They both divorced to remarry, finding happiness together in a marriage that lasted until Austen’s death in 2002. At first,they created a family home in Chertsey, moving in 1979 to Nina’s current home in Islington, when it was still an unfashionable place to live. Although her terrace is now considered rather grand (Boris Johnson lives a stone’s throw away), Nina told me she understood they were originally built for the servants and mistresses of those who lived on the better side of Islington.
Nina is someone who instinctively knows how to live, and through her persistent application to the art of writing novels and in her family life with Austen and their children, she won great happiness and fulfillment. I know this because I sense it in her bright spirit and powerfully magnanimity, but equally I know that her life has been touched with grief and tragedy in ways that give her innate warmth and generosity an exceptional poignancy. When Nina reread “The Birds on the Trees”, she discovered it had been inspired by the suicide of her son Nicky, “When bad things happen, you absorb them into yourself and make use of them in novels.” she said soberly, “In the case of Austen, I had a fight with the railways.”
On 1oth May 2002, Nina and Austen boarded a train at Kings Cross to got to Cambridge for a friend’s birthday party. They never arrived. The train derailed at over one hundred miles an hour and Nina’s carriage detached itself, rolling perpendicular to the direction of travel and entering Potters Bar station to straddle the platforms horizontally. Austen was killed instantly and Nina was cut from the wreckage at the point of death, with every bone in her body broken. In total, seven people died and seventy were injured that day.
After multiple surgeries and, defying the predictions of her doctors, Nina stood up again through sheer willpower, walked again and returned to live in the home that she had shared with Austen. In grief at the loss of Austen and no longer with his emotional support, Nina found herself exposed in a brutally politicised new world, “I suppose I am lucky to have lived so long believing that most men are for the most part honourable. And lucky to have taken a profession in which owning up and telling the truth is rarely a financial disadvantage” she wrote. Nothing in her experience prepared her for the corporate executives of the privatised rail companies who refused to admit liability or even apologise in case their share price went down. It was apparent at once that the crash was caused by poorly maintained points as the maintenance company had cut corners to increase profitability at the expense of safety, but they denied it to the end.
Refused legal aid by a government who for their own reasons deemed the case of the survivors seeking to establish liability as “not in the public interest”, it was only when Nina stepped forward to lead the fight herself, setting out to take the rail companies to the High Court personally, that they finally admitted liability. If Nina had lost her case, she risked forfeiting her home to pay legal costs. But after losing so much, inspired by her love for Austen, Nina was determined to see it through and, in doing so, she won compensation for all the survivors.
You can read Nina’s own account of this experience in “Dear Austen”, a series of letters that she wrote to her dead husband to explain what happened. “When we bought tickets for this railway journey we had expected a safe arrival, not an earthquake smashing lives into pieces,” wrote Nina to Austen,“I dislike the word ‘victim’. I dislike being told that I ‘lost’ my husband – as if I had idly abandoned you by the side of the railway track like a pair of unwanted old shoes. You were killed. I didn’t lose you. And I am not a victim, I am an angry survivor.”
Sometimes extraordinary events can reveal extraordinary qualities in human beings and Nina Bawden has proved herself to be an extraordinary woman, remarkable not only as a top class novelist, but also as a woman with moral courage who risked everything to stand up for justice. It is one thing to write as a humanitarian but is another to fight for your beliefs when you are at your most vulnerable – this was the moment when Nina transformed from writer to protagonist, and became a heroine in the process. Nina may not look like an obvious heroine because she is so fragile and retiring, but her strength is on the inside.
Whenever I visit Nina, my sanity is restored. I walk home to Spitalfields along the canal and the world feels a richer place as I carry the aura of her gentle presence with me. Concluding our conversation in the study last week, before we went downstairs to enjoy our lunch, Nina smiled radiantly and said, ” I’ve decided to get on with my novel…” in a line that sounded like a defiant challenge to the universe.