Carrie’s War was one of the books of my childhood, I think I have carried the memory of that book and the 1970s TV adaptation of it with me ever since. I rediscovered Nina Bawden as an adult, and it was like re-connecting with an old friend. I’ve come to believe that not everyone enjoys Nina Bawden’s writing as much as I do. Naturally – as with many prolific writers – her novels do vary a little in quality. Although I have read only about eight of her twenty adult novels, I have found her to be a writer of great insight and a superb storyteller.
With In My Own Time , Bawden tells her own story – in a series of, frequently very honest – vignettes starting naturally enough with her childhood. I loved every word of this book, and was rather bereft when it was over, not only did I love the stories of Nina Bawden’s life, I realised as I neared the end – that I really liked her.
Nina Bawden was born in 1925 in London, this collection of memoirs opens with memories of her family, aunts, uncles, grandparents and her own parents. Family stories of a ship’s cook, and an old tramp – the memory of whom, Nina’s mother would rather have had erased completely.
In the years before the war, the child Nina always made up stories to amuse herself and her younger brother. Showing an early aptitude for art, which Nina’s mother was keen to encourage, Nina was sent for extra art tuition, which she hated, and from which whooping cough delivered her. During the war, Nina was evacuated, an experience she used later for her famous children’s novel Carrie’s War – though Bawden, stresses that story was not her own. Nina was moved between foster families several times, the families she stayed with all rather different to her own, though she recalls them here with some affection and gratitude. Relating the time when her mother came to visit, and Nina worked hard to protect her latest ‘auntie’ from her mother’s probable scorn, if she realised what a hopeless housekeeper Nina was staying with. When in the first year of sixth form, Nina, along with many of the other girls billeted nearby returned to London. Nina stayed with her friend Jean for a while. The Blitz was over, but flying bombs and land mines were common.
“I was curiously unafraid. There was even an exquisite excitement sometimes, listening to the engines of death above me. If I were to write about living in a city under siege, I would be able to describe the sharpened sense of that danger gave to ordinary life, the exhilaration of having survived the night, the bomb, the mine, but it would seem crudely insensitive to write about someone who was not in the least afraid. I was afraid of lots of things; the dentist, being alone in a house (listening for a clicking latch, a creaking stair) but I was not afraid of bombs. Of course emotions fade from memory, or sometimes, if remembered, seem unbelievable after a lapse of years.”
Soon Nina joined her mother in the country, a farmhouse in the Welsh Marches. In 1943 Nina went to Oxford. She had been going to read French, but soon transferred to Modern Greats. While at Oxford, Nina met Margaret Thatcher (though she wasn’t yet Mrs Thatcher) and Richard Burton, who she hadn’t found especially attractive. She recalls fire watching in the university buildings, playing planchette on the roof of the Bodleian library, and sleeping on a camp bed in the museum, it was undoubtedly a happy time.
In 1946 Nina married her first husband, Harry Bawden, with whom she had two sons. Later Nina met Austen Kark on a bus, and left her husband for him, she is pretty matter of fact about this, and there isn’t a word of criticism for her first husband whose name she kept for her books. Having published some short stories her first novel came out in 1953. Who Calls the Tune, came out to very good reviews. A mistake Bawden made over the naming of one particularly unpleasant character, lead to a letter, very nearly making it her last novel – it taught her a valuable lesson – to thoroughly ensure her character names weren’t names of people she had once known. Bawden describes how she wrote, an adult’s novel one year, a children’s novel the next. Admitting that some autobiographical material seeps in, Bawden considers central characters to be generally too complex, needing to be known by their creator too thoroughly to be completely taken from life. She was fortunate in her publisher; sticking faithfully to George Hardinge as he moved from one publishing house to another from 1954 until 1987.
The most moving section of this book however is in Bawden’s descriptions of her family – their life together, their trials and tribulations. Nina’s sons Niki and Robert were young enough to accept their stepfather Austen quite happily, though their own father was still involved in their lives too. Later Nina had a daughter; Perdita with Austen, Austen had two daughters from his first marriage, with whom Nina seems to have had a good relationship when they visited. However, it was Nina’s eldest son who was to give her the greatest worry and heartache. Niki’s problems began to surface when he was just a boy, and Nina and Austen did all they could to find the help Niki needed. Later he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and here Nina remembers him with honesty and sadness but overwhelmingly with great love.
“He was a loving, valiant child. Once, when he overheard us groaning about some alarming and unexpected bill, he packed up his best toys, weeping, and gave them to us to sell. And one summer holiday, when he jumped off a breakwater and landed on a nail and the matron at the cottage hospital stitched up his foot without an anaesthetic, he sat quite still on Austen’s lap and made no sound. But my mother had been right when she had called him vulnerable. He was more fragile than his brother and sister, more unsure of himself, more easily upset, and as he grew older, in his teens, his fragility became more apparent. Sometimes you could see his face betraying inner terror, as if he were shivering inside his skin.”
Niki’s story is a sad one, and his mother fights hard for him, she writes about him with striking honesty – and I really felt for a woman who I knew went on to face other tragedies after this book was written. Austen was killed in the Potters Bar rail crash of 2002 – and (herself injured) Nina Bawden’s own evidence formed a vital part of the investigation and she later appeared as a character in David Hare’s play about the crash. Her final published book was Dear Austen (2005) a letter she wrote to her dead husband about that crash and all that followed. Nina Bawden died in 2012, a few months after her daughter Perdita’s death.
In My Own Time is a wonderful memoir, and it has convinced me to read more Nina Bawden novels this year.