So Long, Nina Bawden
Novelist Nina Bawden, who was a friend and inspiration to me, died yesterday aged eighty-seven and I republish my profile of her as a tribute to a woman of outstanding literary talent and moral courage.
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 lived in an old terrace backing onto the canal and whom I considered 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 grew as I came 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 more than twenty years later after Kaye and Austen had both died. Given this unlikely background to our friendship, it was my great pleasure to get to know Nina a little better once we became “neighbours” on this side of London.
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 Islington, when it was still an unfashionable place to live. Although the terrace where she lived is now considered rather grand, Nina told me she understood they were originally built for the servants and mistresses of those on the better side of Islington.
Nina was someone who instinctively knew 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 sensed it in her bright spirit and powerfully magnanimity, but equally I knew that her life was touched with grief and tragedy in ways that gave her innate warmth and generosity an exceptional poignancy. When Nina’s 1972 novel “The Birds on the Trees,” was shortlisted for the lost Booker prize in 2010, she re-read it and recalled 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 more than 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 proved herself to be truly extraordinary, 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 have looked like an obvious heroine because she was so fragile and retiring, but her strength was on the inside.
Whenever I visited Nina, my sanity was restored. I walked home to Spitalfields along the canal and the world seemed a richer place as I carried the aura of her gentle presence with me. Concluding our conversation in the study one day, before we went downstairs to enjoy our lunch – on what turned out to be one of my last visits – Nina smiled radiantly to me and said, ” I’ve decided to get on with my novel…” in a line that sounded like a defiant challenge to the universe.
Our final conversation was when, after a silence of many months, Nina rang to offer her congratulations on my book of Spitalfields Life, and it made me realise that our friendship had travelled a long way since we first met. Now it is with great regret that – unlike Carrie in Nina’s most celebrated book – I must accept I can never go back. l shall never walk back along the towpath to have lunch with Nina again, though I shall carry her inspiration with me for always.
Nina Bawden (1925-2012) with her husband Austen Kark (1926–2002)