The Beryl Bainbridge Fest ain’t over yet, folks, and here’s my final review of the week – Something Happened Yesterday. It isn’t a novel, it’s a selection of columns which Bainbridge contributed to the Evening Standard in the 1980s and ’90s, with short (often quite bizarre) introductory paragraphs to each column, written when the book was published (1993).
Well, although it takes a different format, Something Happened Yesterday has the same disjointed, playfully subversive tone that I have come to expect from Bainbridge. Each column involves some event which has recently befallen Bainbridge, or recently come to her mind, suggested by something else. It’s a whole mix – from visiting the village of her youth to a zoo trip to her time on a BBC children’s radio programme. The occasion scarcely matters, for it is the eccentric musings on life which Bainbridge incorporates that make this book so distinctive. The dark humour of her novels is definitely present. Here’s a representative sample of her style:
It did however remind me of the cautionary tale of my son’s nursery school teacher, a lady named Miss Smith, referred to as Mith Mith by her lisping charges. It’s a true story, albeit tragic. A group of infants on a Tuesday morning just before Christmas in a house in Ullet Road, Liverpool, were discovered at home-time marching up and down swigging bottles of milk in an abandoned manner while Mith Mith lay slumped across the piano. She had been dead for a quarter of an hour and had apparently passed on in the middle of The Grand Old Duke of York. This shocking incident has remained fresh as a daisy in my memory because I hadn’t got round to paying the fees, whereas the rest of the mothers had stumped up the three guineas a term in advance.
Most amusing, probably, is the way in which Bainbridge can end up at the most curious of statements. ‘A knowledge of sex and moths is no substitute for Latin, science and maths’, for instance, or, as an aside, ‘(I once knew a countess, an ex-theatre sister from Liverpool, who messed up my kitchen while trying to decapitate her husband, the Earl.)’ These statements are equally startling in context – not completely incongruous, because Bainbridge has more or less built up to them, but then takes a leap to something extraordinary.
Those introductory passages I mentioned – it’s a little odd to read them before reading the column in question, but often they feel no more normal afterwards. They go off at tangents; they reveal less than they appear to, and add new questions rather than answers. Sweet William could have written them. Here’s one which prefixes a column which is mostly about Snow White:
I’m not going to enlarge on the events recounted here: they are too painful. The moment he set eyes on me my ex said I looked very withered. The last night he was here the cleaner confronted him. How could he have walked out on his children all those years ago? His response was pretty predictable, given the guilt we all feel. He said, “This is all very boring”, and caught a taxi to the airport.
Which brings me onto another point. Bainbridge makes pretty free with her relatives and friends. Often her daughters and grandchildren are mentioned, but also talks about neighbours and acquaintances – surely they then read the Evening Standard, and recognised themselves? But, but… sometimes Bainbridge’s introductory paragraphs make it clear that the anecdote she’s relating is not, in fact, wholly true… or is true in essentials, but happened with other people, in a different way…
Like some of Bainbridge’s characters, and like her own quirky narrative style, nothing can quite be trusted in her journalism. I’m very glad that her style and tone didn’t get diluted by the demands of a newspaper column – it really is just an extension of the qualities I enjoy in her fiction, with a personal twist and a drier, acerbic view on life. Great fun, very unusual, and a lovely way to finish off my first dive into Beryl Bainbridge territory.