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Nina Bawden giveaway

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Christmas must have come early. I have decided to share some lovely Nina Bawden books with you all.

Last week Little Brown UK sent me these lovely editions of two Nina Bawden children’s books. Carrie’s War and The Peppermint Pig. I decided I would give them away, there may be a child in your life who will enjoy curling up with these lovely books, transported by Bawden’s consummate story telling. Or perhaps you would like to revisit your childhood favourites for yourself. So, the first giveaway is for BOTH these titles.

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Giveaway 1.

When I was a child I adored Carrie’s War – I devoured the book, and watched the TV adaptation, I even watched the remake as an adult. It is a story I carried with me for many years and I think I had a slightly romanticised view of evacuation because of it. It tells the story of three children evacuated to Wales during World War two – such a wonderful cast of characters, it was definitely the book I loved most as a child – and still love now. I can’t remember if I read The Peppermint Pig, but I don’t think I did. The Peppermint Pig appears to be the story of a family living through a difficult period who are healed by the laughter a clever, mischievous little pig brings to their lives.

Giveaway 2

Of course, many, many years later, I discovered Nina Bawden’s adult novels, she was very prolific, and I have enjoyed quite a number of them now. So, I have purchased a new copy of The Birds on the Trees, one of my favourite Bawden novels for adults as giveaway number two (It has yet to arrive – so the image of the cover is only what was shown on a certain well-known shopping site – the images are not always correct, I find).

imagesThe Birds in the Trees is beautifully observed with great insight and honesty, it is a novel about parents and children and family life with all its complexities. In 2010 The Birds on the Trees was nominated for The Lost Booker – voted for by readers, Bawden lost out to Troubles by J G Farrell (another excellent novel). The Lost Booker was for books published in 1970 – as changing Booker rules that year meant many novels lost out on being considered.

Toby Flowers is the boy/young man at the centre of this novel – which is told in the varying voices of his family – his mother and father, younger sister and grandmother. These first-person narratives dropped into what is largely a third person narrative, works so well – giving the novel an added intimacy.

To enter simply tell me what your favourite children’s book was (I’m just being nosy really) and let me know which giveaway you would like to win, the two books for children or The Birds on the Trees. The Giveaway is open worldwide – and winners will be drawn next Monday, using a random name generator.

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familiar passions

During September the Virago group over on Librarything were reading the novels of Nina Bawden, Familiar Passions was the second I read, and my final read of the month.

In this novel Nina Bawden considers how those familiar passions of the title – which are found within all families – are apt to be repeated in successive generations.

Bridie Starr is a mere thirty-two – and perhaps the one thing that dates this really very good novel is that Bridie is viewed by almost everyone around her as being more matronly than any thirty-two-year-old is seen these days. At nineteen Bridie married James, swapping the warmth and security of her parents’ home – where she was their most cherished adopted child (they lost a child in infancy) – for marriage, motherhood and a new name.

“Bridie, love,’ he said. ‘Bridie Starr. A pretty name. At least I gave you that, if nothing else. If it wasn’t for me, you’d still be Mary Mudd.”

Before her marriage she was Mary, but her insufferable, new husband’s mother bestowed the name Bridie upon her and it stuck. Step-mother to James’s two children, of whom she was very fond, Bridie later had her own daughter Pansy – now eleven and at boarding school.

After an expensive dinner on their thirteenth wedding anniversary – James drives Bridie home in silence – where he calmly announces that he wishes their marriage to end. James explains that he is being transferred to Paris, that he doesn’t want Bridie to accompany him, but in fact remain behind as a sort of housekeeper to take care of the house and perhaps cater for any future guests. Nice! We are left in no doubt about what kind of a man Bridie has been married to, an unpleasantly selfish man – who congratulates his wife on having produced a pretty daughter – what with her being adopted he could never be sure what genes she might be passing on. Bridie leaves the family home in the very early morning, going straight to her parents’ home in London – with not too much regret for the marriage that is behind her. Hilary and Martin Mudd envelope her immediately in their unconditional parental love and support – outraged at the treatment of their daughter by her thoughtless husband.

“Standing at the foot of her parents’ double bed, raincoat dripping on the fluffy carpet, Bridie smiled. How James would laugh if he could these tired old phrases – what he had called her mother’s ‘original remarks.’ How dare he laugh, she thought, remembering with shame how she had once laughed with him. How sycophantic she had been, how treacherous, how ignorant! Her mother simply spoke as she thought and felt, innocently using, in pain or happiness, the words others had used before. And why not? The crucial human situations never changed.”

Bridie is afraid though that she will have no future. Feeling rather redundant back in her parents’ house, she is worried for the relationship she has with her step-daughter who is about to become a mother – and wondering how her daughter Pansy will react to the news. Having spent some time back in the parental home, Bridie takes over the flat of an elderly lady – Miss Lacy, a patient of her Psychiatrist father. Visiting her sister in America Miss Lacy requires a tenant to care for her cat Balthazar. Bridie is grateful for what she sees as a temporary refuge.

Bridie realises that she wants to know something of her own mysterious past, following a conversation with a lonely old woman at the side of a canal.

Bridie decides to ask her dad about the circumstances of her adoption – and surprisingly he points her toward her adoptive mum, saying – that she had known her mother best after all. Gradually the story of Bridie’s birth mother and the circumstances surrounding Bridie’s birth during the Second World War is revealed, unearthing family secrets.

Bridie sets off on a journey to retrace the steps of her birth mother and adopted mother – who both spent time sheltering in the countryside during the Second World War. It was a time of isolation – the men off fighting there was little to do in the countryside marooned in a tiny cottage with an ailing aunt or on a farm with two young children to keep occupied. Bridie learns something about her birth mother’s unhappy marriage, and the mistake she made during the war which resulted in Bridie (then Mary). Bridie finds the farm where her birth mother was staying during the war, and here she meets Philip, it’s pretty much lust at first sight, and she is soon back in her flat practically waiting by the telephone – in the way one did in those far off days before mobile phones.

As Bridie contemplates the possibility of meeting the woman who gave birth to her, her parents are anticipating the arrival of Martin’s two warring sisters – who have not spoken in many years.

As I have said before Bawden writes families perfectly – and she does so here too. It is very much a novel of the seventies – women marry young, are dependent upon men and either seek to replace them when everything goes wrong, or, as in the case with Bridie’s birth mother, stick with destructive relationships.

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family money

Family Money; Nina Bawden’s 1991 novel is the kind of novel that I think Nina Bawden does particularly well. A novel of family, concerning money, old age and the battle for independence, it’s one which feels very topical still.

London, and a huge spike in property prices means that houses bought many years earlier are now worth a small fortune. As the novel opens, a group of friends gathered together for dinner, discuss the possibilities that the properties owned now by their respective mothers could afford them.

Bawden’s characters do tend to come from the upper middle classes – though like Bawden herself, many of them also have a social conscience or left-wing sensibilities. One of the peripheral characters in Family Money is a labour peer – while another is a working class, daily housekeeper who has always dreamt of owning her own home, coveting the security it would give her, for the first time in her life.

Fanny Pye, Harry and Isobel’s mother – owns a large house backing on to the canal. Bought years earlier when Fanny and her husband returned from ambassadorial duties abroad – it is now a potential goldmine. Now, her husband is dead, and Fanny is living alone quite ably. Still active she thinks nothing of dining alone at her favourite restaurant, where she is well known, and walking home through the dark precinct lost in her own thoughts and memories.

“Lonely suddenly, she turned from the window and marched sturdily through the rest of the precinct towards the road at the end; not a main road, but a wide one that was always lined with parked cars and busy at night, especially around the time the pubs closed. They must be closing now, Fanny thought, hearing car doors slam, voices shouting. She had not thought it was quite so late.”

When Fanny intervenes in a street brawl late one night she is hospitalised and briefly struggles to remember the most basic things. Fanny is horrified when she forgets her daughter-in-law – and feeling suddenly horribly vulnerable she does her best to cover up her memory lapses in front of her family.

“She didn’t feel fine. She felt papery. The word came into her head, unsought for, unbidden. While Ivy settled her in the comfortable Victorian chair in the ground floor room – Daniel’s study, that was her study now – she puzzled over its origin. If her mind was going to play tricks on her, she must learn how to deal with them. If she could trace the source of each random thought, hold tight to the thread that wound through the labyrinth, then she would be in control again, not at the mercy of her own mind bent on mischief. ‘Papery,’ she said aloud, but speaking softly so that Ivy, on her way down to the basement kitchen, would not hear her. The word was flimsy on her dry tongue. Crumpled. Tissue paper. Smooth tissue paper between the folds of silk dresses. Flat. One-dimensional.”

Fanny is allowed home, most of her memory has returned but frighteningly she still can’t remember exactly what happened that evening, when a man died. Her family think she should sell up and move somewhere smaller – but Fanny doesn’t think quite the same as they do about property and inheritance. Some of her ideas shock Harry and Isabel, who worry about showing their concern, should anyone think them mercenary.

Following her return from hospital, Fanny’s niece Rebecca moves in to the top floor. Fanny slowly attempts to return to normal, the shadow of that evening hanging over her. As Fanny stands at her bedroom window she sees a young man standing on one of the houseboats on the canal who always seems to be staring straight at her house. Fanny finds herself becoming oddly drawn to the young man from the houseboats, after running into him at the library, what is it about him that has made her begin to feel so uneasy one minute, while finding him friendly and neighbourly the next.

Nina Bawden combines the tense uncertainty of a thriller with a wonderfully astute novel of family. Fanny might well be my favourite Nina Bawden character to date. As Fanny struggles with feelings of over whelming fear, she has to make decisions about her future – as her family continue to let her know exactly what they think she should do. In the midst of all this Fanny runs into an old friend, who she and her sister used to call Dumbo.

There is also a lovely (slightly ambiguous) twist, right at the end which I thought was rather brilliant. All in all, Family Money is a really excellent Bawden novel.

The Librarything Virago group have chosen to read novels by Nina Bawden during September – I ws pleased by the selection as I already like her writing very much. I was hoping to read another before the end of the month but as September is turning out to be a very slow reading month indeed – I have no idea if I will get another squeezed in.

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afternoon of a good woman

Nina Bawden’s 1976 novel Afternoon of a Good Woman, is a slight, serious novel about a woman’s self-examination and guilt.

As the novel opens we learn that Penelope has decided to leave her husband.

“Today, Tuesday, the day that Penelope has chosen to leave her husband, is the first really warm day of spring. Her decision, last-minute but well researched, happens, through some chance (or perhaps characteristic) ineptitude, to coincide with her sitting, at ten o’clock in the morning, in judgement on her peers.”

Penelope is a magistrate, proud to be the good woman of the title – she is a good mother and a good wife of twenty years. Her husband; Eddie, writes successful tv dramas, and once wrote a novel which has been an enormous success, but now he has become lazy in his routine, and Penelope feels she must nag him into work. Eddie’s fist wife is in a psychiatric hospital – where she has been for years, and where Eddie still visits. His guilt, that he drove her there with his novel which she saw as a terrible betrayal – and about which Eddie was forced to think differently when he looked at it through her eyes.

Today Penelope will become more aware than usual of the fragile line between good and bad. The cases which will come before her on the day she leaves a note on Eddie’s typewriter keys – will be sad, pathetic and unglamorous – but will give her plenty to think about. The case of a middle-aged man charged with indecent exposure – forces Penelope to wonder how her own sex life might sound the details were blandly and emotionlessly read out. Then there is the more convoluted case of theft brought against Abel Binders, which the judge instructs the jury to dismiss – but the jury have other ideas and want to hear the defence after all – much to the irritation of the bench.

“Apart from one woman who has fallen asleep, plump chin on fur collar, the jury listen attentively to the Judge’s instruction like good children in class. When he has finished some of them frown as if the intrusion of what seems a subjective moral assessment into this court of law is somehow improper. How are they to know what has gone on in Abel Binder’s mind? Or perhaps they are simply confused. One elderly man is cupping a blue knuckly hand at the back of his ear, although he has not appeared deaf before. It is confusing, of course that innocence should emerge in the course of prosecution evidence. Incongruous anyway.”

Throughout the day, as the business of the court rumbles on – Penelope reflects on her past, the things for which she still feels guilt and sadness. She remembers her step-mother Eve – who she had loved so jealously when her father brought her home, that she had resented Eve’s own children. The young Penelope had not really understood Eve’s fragility and vulnerabilities – had enjoyed caring for her when her father was working away, caring for Eve the best she can before and after school. Not realising she should be getting help for Eve, Penelope unwittingly leaves her in harm’s way. When Eve ends up hospitalised Penelope goes to live with Auntie and Uncle – a house in which she feels awkward and constrained, and where Eve’s illness is never mentioned. She remembers the lies she told in that house.

“When she first became ill, I enjoyed looking after her. If I came home from school to find her still in her nightdress, sitting limply before the empty grate, or weeping into a stack of dirty dishes in the kitchen, I lit the fire, washed the dishes, made supper for us both. If there was nothing to eat in the house, I took Eve’s purse and ran to the corner shop, later on; when it seemed that Eve was feeling too tired to go out at all, I took charge of the ration-books and began to shop regularly, on the way to and from school. I felt strong and competent, looking after my poor little stepmother, and though I hoped she would be better soon, for her own sake, I was glad to have been given this chance to show what I could do for her.”

Penelope examines her difficult sometimes heady relationships with her step-siblings, which included meddling in the abusive marriage her step-sister entered into – and which led indirectly to a sudden tragedy. Looking back at her adolescence and young womanhood, she explores her first all-consuming love – which has never gone away, comparing it with how she has felt about Eddie.

As the court day ends. Penelope will leave, carry out her plans, she telephones Desdemona, Eddie’s friend and editor, a sign perhaps of Penelope’s guilt, though she is certain she is doing the right thing for both of them.

As ever, Nina Bawden brings her unique understanding of complicated families and the relationships inside them to this novel. It is an intelligent novel about people who feel very real. Penelope is a flawed heroine; many readers won’t like her – though I find such characters so much more interesting.

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a little love a little learning#

Nina Bawden writes families particularly well. She understands the dynamics and difficulties, and here she brings her knowledge of step-families to this revealing portrait, which shows just how fragile happiness can be. A Little Love, A Little Learning was published more than ten years into Nina Bawden’s long publishing career – it is a great example of all she does well.

People have asked me before which Nina Bawden novel they should start with, well this wouldn’t be a bad place to start – although I could also recommend Devil by the Sea, The Birds on the Trees and Circles of Deceit and Ruffian on the Stairs. Certainly these novels of family are all faithful recreations of domestic life and its complexities.

It is the year of the coronation, and Joanna, 18, our narrator Kate 12 and seven-year-old Poll are living happily in Monks Ford – a suburban commuter town on the banks of the Thames – with their mother Ellen and their adored step-father Boyd. The children play in their garden, building a camp under the trees, walk to and from school, part of a friendly suburban community who all think the world of Boyd – the local doctor. Boyd has surrounded his step-daughters with wise, unquestioning love, he and Ellen always answer their questions with honesty – the children have grown up with a strange encyclopaedic medical knowledge, quite matter of fact about all kinds of things their peers have no idea about. Ellen and Boyd are very modern parents allowing the girls to develop understanding about things other 1950s parents are still shielding their daughters from. While Boyd is attentive and loving, Ellen is sterner, finding it much harder to show her feelings.

Kate, is fascinated by Boyd’s patients, so proud of the only father she has ever known, she is resentful of Poll’s teacher and their neighbour Miss Carter whose devotion to Boyd verges on the embarrassing. Joanna has reached the brink of adulthood, about to finish school forever, concerned about getting old she has her sights set on local swain Will. Often full of complaint about her younger sisters, she is allowed to have the bedroom she shared with Kate to herself, Kate is therefore forced to share with Poll. Poll loves to play make believe games, and sometimes Kate plays with her, although the games seem a little old for her now. Kate is very impressionable, imaginative with a wonderful sense of the dramatic, she is also prone to telling the odd lie – and digs herself into all sorts of uncomfortable holes. Like so many other great child narrators, Kate is growing up and struggling to understand everything around her – she simply doesn’t grasp the possible consequences of her lies and interference.

“The year Aunt Hat came to us, my main ambition – apart from rescuing someone from drowning or winning the Victoria Cross – was to go down to Jock’s Icecream Parlour in the main street of Monks Ford and eat as many Knickerbocker Glories as I could pay for.”

Everything starts to change when Aunt Hat comes to stay. Aunt Hat isn’t a relative, she was a good friend of Ellen in the days before Boyd came into her life. It was a different time that the younger girls can only remember dimly if at all, and Aunt Hat was Ellen’s only friend. Aunt Hat is very different to Ellen, working class, gossipy and a little indiscreet she hints at problems in the past, and helps to evoke the memory of the girls’ absent father – who they have been oddly incurious about thus far.

“She sat with her skirts lifted to the flames and looking quite ordinary. I felt a slight disappointment – only slight, because Lady Macbeth would really have been rather difficult to live up to – and then shyness. She was a complete stranger to me. She said, ‘I don’t suppose you remember your funny old Aunt Hat, do you? Well, here she is, turned up like the proverbial bad penny.
For a moment I had the queer feeling that there was someone else in the room. It was a feeling that was distantly familiar, a faint echo in my mind. Then I remembered slices of fresh bread, buttered, and stuck with brightly coloured hundreds and thousands. I could almost taste the grittiness of the sweets on my tongue: it went with grazed knees, consolation, and a strange habit of talking about oneself in the third person.”

Though Kate is almost disappointed in her first sight of Aunt Hat – having imagined her to be some kind of Lady Macbeth character she is quickly won over. Aunt Hat’s background seems wonderfully colourful to the three sisters, her husband imprisoned for beating her and her son. Temporarily homeless, Hat brings her noisy, chaotic world to the polite, ordered world of suburban Monks Ford. Aunt Hat is a fabulous character, though as it turns out it may not be Hat’s indiscretions that turn everything upside down, but the girls themselves.

Boyd’s medical practises are brought into question through local gossip, when he inherits some money from a neighbour and old friend. Miss Fantom has been living in reclusive disharmony with her brother who has never got over having to leave India. The two live in separate parts of the house, and Boyd and the children some of their only visitors. The children have often played in the Fantoms’ garden. Many years earlier, when Miss Fantom was about thirty, she befriended the lonely teenage Boyd – an innocent friendship which was naturally gossiped about. When Miss Fantom dies, Kate’s silly lies look like they could cause trouble for her step-father who has been left a sizeable amount of money by his patient.

This is one of those novel where in a sense not a huge amount happens – and yet it remains very compelling, and perfectly told. I think Bawden is at her best when portraying middle-class families, especially children within those families. Bawden manages to make this both poignant and funny – she strikes the balance just perfectly.

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birds-on-the-trees

Following on from my reading of In my Own Time by Nina Bawden – I was anxious to read the novel she wrote based upon her experiences as mother to a son later diagnosed with schizophrenia. In life, of course, Nina Bawden’s son Niki killed himself in 1981, so for me there was added poignancy to a novel only published in 1970 – a time when perhaps she believed the worst of his problems were behind him. Some of the stories about this fictional son I recognised from In My Own Time as being stories of Niki.

The Birds in the Trees is beautifully observed with great insight and honesty, it is a novel about parents and children and family life with all its complexities. In 2010 The Birds on the Trees was nominated for The Lost Booker – voted for by readers, Bawden lost out to Troubles by J G Farrell (another excellent novel). The Lost Booker was for books published in 1970 – as changing Booker rules that year meant many novels lost out on being considered.

Toby Flowers is the boy/young man at the centre of this novel – which is told in the varying voices of his family – his mother and father, younger sister and grandmother. These first-person narratives dropped into what is largely a third person narrative, works so well – giving the novel an added intimacy.

“Mummy and Daddy are dead,’ the child said, softly but distinctly, so that Mr Tilney could not pretend he hadn’t heard. Not that he wished to: after the first chill, the sad little statement opened doors in his mind that had been closed for a long time.”

The novel opens with a prologue – in which we meet Toby as a young boy. Toby arrives at a neighbour’s house – late on Christmas Eve saying no one is at home. The neighbours are naturally concerned, have had experience of a hungry Toby turning up in their kitchen before – of course none of it is true. Yet Toby is a lovable little chap – he doesn’t seem to know he’s lying and causing acute embarrassment for his young parents.

Toby’s mother is Maggie, a writer, his father Charlie a journalist. Since early childhood Toby; the eldest of three siblings, has been self-absorbed and awkward, but as he gets older his behaviour gives his family even more cause for concern, when there is a suggestion of drug use. Toby’s ideas for his future differ from those of his mother, when he is expelled from school in his A level year – it highlights the fact that Toby is unlikely to fulfil the expectations his parents once had for him. Toby refuses to discuss his obvious unhappiness and Maggie and Charlie struggle to understand and support the son who they love so much. As Charlie says:

“”All generations face, on the surface, much the same problems; each knows its situation to be unique. Ours, for example. Children before the war, emerged through it into parenthood, Freud in one hand, Spock in the other, into a world where truth is relative, uncertainty a virtue, nothing known… Except guilt, possibly. That is our hall-mark. Out parents did their duty, knew what was right; our sins were original, no fault of theirs.”

Maggie’s mother gives her advice from a distance – which infuriatingly is of the ‘he should cut his hair and knuckle under’ variety. Aunt Phoebe – Charlie’s wealthy, widowed sister, is unhelpful too when she visits – incurring the wrath of twelve-year-old Lucy, who adores Toby and is quick to defend him. Toby has taken to wearing a burnouse pulled up over his head – in which he seems to shield himself from the world. Later, Lucy becomes convinced – following a throw away remark from her younger brother Greg, that the two of them must be adopted – Toby so much the focus in their young minds for all the love affection, worry and attention in the Flowers household. Lucy is a fabulous character, she’s observant, yet only partly knowing, she is rather afraid to fully understand the things she only has an inkling about, the things she overhears. She is often isolated from everyone else, the middle child, the only girl, she is anxious and lonely. The fragility of the relationships within the family are exposed by everyone’s concerns over Toby, memories of former times triggered in Sara (Toby’s grandmother) and Maggie. We get a glimpse of Sara long married to a wildly eccentric, difficult man, Maggie thinks she should leave him, carve out a few years of happiness for herself, yet here too we see one family member not fully understanding the point of view of another. Bawden is brilliant at recreating these family dynamics.

Maggie and Charlie’s friends are drawn into the drama too, Including Elsa; the promiscuous widow of Charlie’s best friend and Angus a psychiatrist friend – married to an old school friend of Maggie’s who Maggie and Charlie decide to consult professionally about Toby. At a party hosted by Elsa, for her son’s twenty-first Maggie and Charlie, are accompanied by Toby (wearing his burnouse) – who having grown up with Hugh is a good friend. Elsa is all bright, unconcern about Toby, while Maggie tries hard to like her.

“’Darlings…’ Her cool cheek touched theirs, her lips sucked air. She took Toby in her arms and kissed him on the mouth. ‘Sweet Toby, you look marvellous in that get up. The girls will go down like ninepins. Go and take your pick – they’re all down in the boat house.’
Bright red and breathing hard, Toby retreated backwards, as if leaving a royal presence. ‘That is the most super boy,’ Elsa said. ‘I wish I were younger.’ She sighed, put her hand on Maggie’s arm. ‘It really is the most frightful thing about the school. I’m so terribly sorry.’”

In this novel Bawden is particularly adept at portraying the truth of a family in crisis, the self-recrimination which goes on, the guilt, arguments, grief the small (and not so small) betrayals which come out of dysfunctional family life. Maggie and Charlie can’t help but project their own wishes for Toby on to him, this is difficult for Toby to cope with, he is very clear about what he does and doesn’t want. Bawden doesn’t give us a nice and tidy resolution, there are none in such cases – although there is definite hope. Reading, The Birds on the Trees with the benefit of hindsight I am struck by how even that small amount of hope was denied her in the end.

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in-my-own-time

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.

nina-and-austenIn 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.

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