Beryl The Peril? Beryl Burton the cyclist? Beryl Bainbridge?
Knofler´S Kronikles part 2 KNOPFLER´S BERYL
BY Norman Warwick
Mark Knopfler´s song, Beryl, brought back to our attention recently by our reader and Routemastger General, Peter Pearson was not about the cartoon strip Minnie The Mink-like character, nor the successful cyclist Beryl Burton but was in fact about an even stranger cove, playwrite beryl Bainbridge
As Mark Knopfler (left) continued along the distinguished solo path he has walked since his first official studio project under his own name, 1996’s Golden Heart, he did so in the happy company of many like-minded musicians.
Knopfler has steered a new course on which he’s the captain of a much smaller ship than in the “enormodome” days that turned the band he co-founded, Dire Straits, from a fun project with his mates into a rock juggernaut, with all the pressures and responsibilities that entailed. Yet, by the time of Tracker’s release, two decades and eight albums into his solo career, he continued to explore music with all the enthusiasm of someone just starting out.
‘Writing songs is a funny way of tracking time’
With each new project, Knopfler draws on aspects of his life, influences, and surroundings as they are now, with the occasional nod towards his stadium-sized past and even earlier folk troubadour days. When he arrived at Tracker, released on March 16, 2015, he called on the experiences of a singer-songwriter in his mid-60s who was still adding new adventures, on the road and in the studio, to the sum total of his work.
“Tracker in many ways, is [about] keeping track of time,” he told this writer just before the album came out. “In its own odd way, for me, time changes as it gets older, and writing songs and travelling around the world is a funny way of tracking time. And time, of course, becomes more important to you as you get older, and you look at it differently.”
As always, the album’s completion followed an extensive world tour by Knopfler and his band, playing relatively smaller locations out of choice – even though his name can fill much bigger venues. That 70-date Privateering Tour (named after his first double-album, released in 2012) traveled through Europe between April and July 2013, from Bucharest to Bremen and Stuttgart to San Sebastian.
There was no North American leg that time, since the English singer-songwriter had only been on the road there with his longtime friend and inspiration Bob Dylan the previous autumn. That, in itself, was after a European itinerary with Dylan in autumn 2011.
“The tours with Bob, I hadn’t expected to turn up but they did,” said Knopfler, “so that changed the recording schedule [for Tracker], and it’ll probably have changed the album, too, when I eventually got back into the studio. So I’m glad all of that happened, because I think that will have informed some of the stuff on Tracker too.”
‘Colorful stories that unspool slowly and deliberately’
The regular album, produced by Knopfler at his own British Grove Studios in west London, contained 11 new songs. But such a prolific artist is never limited by those constraints, and Knopfler included six more compositions on the deluxe and box set versions of Tracker. The album was introduced by the upbeat lead song “Beryl,” an unlikely title but one that declared his admiration of the late Liverpudlian novelist Beryl Bainbridge.
“Beryl Bainbridge was a marvelous writer, as many people know,” he said. “But…she was a self-deprecating, working-class girl from Liverpool, and her publisher was a man who didn’t have a very high opinion of the novel, so all of those things conspired [against] her. Though she was nominated five times for the Booker Prize, she was never given it. Beryl never went to university, and I really think the literary establishment over the years has tended to favour people who came from a different background and had a different kind of education.”
Numerous A-list musicians passed through the doors of British Grove to play on Tracker. They included keyboard player Guy Fletcher, Mark’s longtime compadre back to Dire Straits days, and other old friends such as John McCusker on fiddle and cittern, Mike McGoldrick (whistle, wooden flute), guitarist Richard Bennett, and bassist Glenn Worf. Fiddle, rhythm guitar and banjo player Bruce Molsky, whose own music celebrates the Appalachian traditions, was a welcome addition, as was vocalist Ruth Moody, who added beautiful vocals to the album’s elegant closer, “Wherever I Go.” That also featured a saxophone cameo by Nigel Hitchcock, in addition to the one he made on “River Towns.”
“I came across Ruth Moody (right) through hearing her singing with the Wailin’ Jennys, her Canadian three-piece girl outfit,” said Knopfler. “They always sounded great, and I saw Ruth singing on the [annual multi-artist event] The Transatlantic Sessions. Then I realized that, of course, Ruth was making her own records, and that they were beautiful. There’s just something celestial about her voice.”
‘That’s part of the thrill’
Tracker received huge media approval, with Hal Horowitz in American Songwriter typical of many when he wrote: “Touches of Celtic, jazz, country and folk, but seldom rock, inform these lovely tunes that take their time as if on a leisurely stroll. The 11 tracks clock in at over an hour…and that languorous vibe extends to Knopfler’s heavy lidded, conversational voice. He’s in no hurry telling these colourful stories that unspool slowly and deliberately.”
Added Ken Capobianco in The Boston Globe: “He does what he does best, delivering finely wrought, elegantly arranged songs of subtle depth and rich musicality, many extending past five minutes without overstaying their welcome.” The public concurred, sending Tracker to No.3 in the UK and No.1 in many other European countries, including Germany, Holland, Denmark, Norway and Austria.
Knopfler acknowledged that the album title also owed more than a little to his own appetite for detecting and describing vignettes from real life. “You’re involved in tracking down subject matter, tracking down an idea, investigating the whole thing,” he said. “Sometimes you’re not exactly sure what it is you’re tracking, and you find out as you’re circling it, and getting closer to it. That’s part of the thrill.”
So, did the Mark Knopfler song explore the complicated life of Beryl Bainbridge. My remembered reaction to the song when i first heard the album was to confuse the identity of the subject. All the talk, as I remember, is that the subject was Beryl Burton, a famous cycling athlete. I eventually figured out it was certainly not a song about a cyclist when i was informed that Beryl Bainbridge was the song´s subject, I made two and two into five and assumed she must have been the Lady Writer referred to in a previous Dire Straits song. I can only remind you that there was no easy-answer Google in those days.
There has, however, been a couple of biographers of Beryl Bainbridge.
The Complicated Life of Beryl Bainbridge
By Thomas Mallon, published in 2016
BERYL BAINBRIDGE Love by All Sorts of Means:
By Brendan King
Beryl Bainbridge (left) once told Don McKinlay, a great romance of her early middle years, “To be honest I have an ability to fall in love.” A reader finishing Brendan King’s new biography of the British novelist is likely to say “And how.” This is more the life story of a lover than a writer, but it probably couldn’t have been otherwise. In fact, it’s nothing short of amazing that Bainbridge’s startling and uncategorizable fiction managed to get written at all, given the chaos of her private life. The phrase “amid all this emotional upheaval” appears on Page 311 of King’s book, but it might just as well have been inserted on all the others.
Bainbridge’s work is as spare and macabre as Muriel Spark’s, but there’s a rawness to it, a lack of ontological underpinning, that can make it even more unpredictable and disturbing. Unlike Spark’s, Bainbridge’s Roman Catholicism was a desperate temporary measure, prompted in young adulthood, King says, by a “sense of unworthiness and guilt over her sexual relations with men,” something cruelly magnified when she was raped in London at the age of 19. The religion never truly took, or provided the coherent if eccentric worldview it gave Spark. What Bainbridge’s books ended up delivering were hundreds of sudden, strobe-lit observations and perceptions. And so, in her 1989 novel “An Awfully Big Adventure,” we get the single-legged pigeon “who hopped in the gutter, beak pecking at the rear mudguard of the taxi,” as well as the provincial actors looking “both sly and exhilarated, as though they were off to some party that would end in tears.”
Born in Liverpool in 1932 and raised in a village near the city, Bainbridge claimed to have suffered from what King calls the “mutual incompatibility” of respectable but sometimes hard-pressed parents. Bankruptcy followed her father’s years of modest success in the shipping business, but enough money remained to send Beryl to a boarding school in Hertfordshire, the Arts Educational School, a few years after Julie Andrews attended. She “excelled in drama” and went on to have a haphazard youthful stage career in Liverpool and London, with time out for stints in several repertory companies. Bainbridge’s earliest exposure to radio drama and films gave her a sense, King argues, of the spoken word’s superiority to the written one, which “perhaps accounts for Beryl’s later obsession with the rhythmical qualities of her prose and the way it had to sound when read aloud.” Drama also made her dramatic; she craved emotional turbulence and relentlessly indulged in exaggeration.
King was Bainbridge’s assistant for 23 years, and he undertook this book in part because of her refusal to consider an autobiography. Chances are he would have felt the need to write it anyway, since one of his principal goals is to correct Bainbridge’s self-constructed “public mythology,” the sustained heightening of her life in her published work and in interviews about that work. King often seems more exasperated than awed by his subject, and he emends with relish, cutting down to life-size Bainbridge’s version of, say, being shot by her ex-mother-in-law: “The gun wasn’t a shotgun or even a revolver, but an air pistol. It wasn’t a bullet that was fired, but a pellet. It did not bring Beryl’s ceiling down and it would not have killed her.” In the biography’s final sections, King occasionally enters the narrative in a Boswellian fashion. He lacks anything like his subject’s “impressive concision,” but he does succeed in offering a vivid and detailed — and often harrowing — story.
Doe-eyed and gorgeously cheekboned, Bainbridge could nonetheless feel physically unattractive. Her impossibly romantic view of love may, King argues, have developed in reaction to her parents’ unhappy marriage. She fiercely desired men’s love and never felt reassured that she had it. “I don’t see how you can love and not be jelous,” she once wrote in her journal, with her incorrigible spelling.
In 1954, after a tense series of breakups and reconciliations, she married the complicated painter Austin Davies (see work, left). He was in most ways a bad choice, given his stated desire to devote “all the force of my emotional life” to his art. They had two children and lived in Liverpool’s bohemian district, while Davies taught art (his students included the young John Lennon) and Bainbridge made a fitful start at writing fiction. They divorced in 1959.
Before, during and after the marriage, there were other men: the German prisoner of war; the married antiques dealer; the fat physics professor; the married American medical student; the single American urban planner. Most shambolically, during the mid-1960s, Bainbridge got involved with the Scottish writer Alan Sharp, by whom she had a daughter. “Pathologically promiscuous” (his own description), Sharp continued to romance his two wives, one current and one former, along with one of Bainbridge’s Liverpool girlfriends. For a while he also infected Bainbridge with his show-off-ish prose style, from which she had freed herself by the time she put him into a 1975 novel called “Sweet William.”
In her later years, Bainbridge turned to incidents from the British past for subject matter, including Dr. Johnson’s relationship with Mrs. Thrale and the sinking of the Titanic. But for much of her career she drew on her own experience, from her days at the Liverpool Playhouse to her part-time job in a wine warehouse. She went about such autobiographical mining with more daring than most novelists: In “Another Part of the Wood,” she allowed a 6-year-old boy modeled on her own son to overdose on another child’s medication.
By the age of 40, she had attained critical and financial success. Her books began to be nominated for prestigious awards like the Booker Prize, and a steady arrangement with her publisher, Duckworth, allowed her peculiar style to flourish on its own terms. Typically, though, business was suffused with personal drama. Her editor, Anna Haycraft, had once conceived and aborted a child with Austin Davies, and Haycraft’s husband, Colin, Duckworth’s owner, conducted a long secret affair with Bainbridge during the years his wife was editing her.
Through all the muddle and mayhem, Bainbridge exhibited not only drive but an unusual ability to stick with things. “Harriet Said” and “Filthy Lucre” were resuscitations of failed manuscripts she’d put away decades before, and she released revised versions of “A Weekend With Claude” and “Another Part of the Wood” long after their original publication. Her last novel, “The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress,” published in 2011, a year after her death, grew from journals she kept during an American road trip in the 1960s.
Bainbridge’s later years were enlivened by more regulated, less operatic love affairs with what she referred to as her “gentleman callers,” but she still suffered from loneliness; from guilt over the disruptions she’d inflicted on her children; and from far too much drinking, both in private and in public. Yet she carried on, writing columns for newspapers and magazines and making herself into a cranky “anti-P.C.” figure. She struggled with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and then cancer, from which she died, at 77. Her grotesque and glittering body of work was the product of sheer nerve and preposterous talent, and it is still less known in this country than it ought to be.