Posts Tagged ‘Nina Bawden’

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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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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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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the ice house

Nina Bawden’s 1983 novel The Ice House is a subtle exploration of friendship, deception and betrayal. There are four sections to this short, psychologically astute novel; friendship, marriage, love and the Ice house, which charts the changing nature of a friendship over the course of more than thirty years. I don’t think this is the best of the Bawden novels that I have read, although I liked it immensely. She does seem to be a writer who divides opinion – but there is a lot to admire in these portrayals of marriage and friendship. I feel as if I often like her novels rather more than other reviewers – I like writers who are coolly observant, and so Bawden’s style suits my tastes exactly.

“That summer Saturday in 1951, Daisy Brown aged fifteen, going to tea with Ruth Perkin, also aged fifteen had an unusual sense of adventure.”

ice houseAt fifteen, Daisy and Ruth are uneasy friends. When Daisy receives an unexpected invitation to Ruth’s house for tea, she is excited to cross the threshold of a house no one else has been invited to before. Ruth Perkin’s family are wealthy, their house a turreted mock-baronial mansion behind tall gates, it also boasts an old ice house in the grounds. Ruth; an only child, appears cosseted by an over anxious mother, rarely ventures to the houses of her friends, she is quiet and slightly secretive about her home life. Daisy Brown comes from a relaxed loving home, a home life she takes a little for granted as no doubt, we all do at that age. Daisy is therefore shocked, and deeply disturbed by the realities of Ruth’s family life. On the day Daisy visits Ruth and her parents, she encounters the war-damaged harshly, abusive Captain Perkins, and sees for herself where Ruth’s silence and reticence comes from, recognising her need to escape into her passion for dress-making.

“Captain Perkin said, ‘I daresay you have lots of boyfriends, Daisy,’ and she was conscious that her last year’s summer dress was too tight across the chest. Blushing slightly, she owned to ‘quite a few’, adding, ‘My mother says there is safety in numbers.’ She rolled her eyes flirtatiously at Captain Perkin. She couldn’t help it. Flirting was as natural to Daisy as breathing. ‘I hope your mother knows what she is doing,’ Captain Perkin said. ‘I am careful with Ruth. But I have seen a bit of the world, you understand. I know what men are, with ripe young girls.’ He spluttered as he laughed, as if his mouth was full of juice. And, with a gloating emphasis, ‘I know what girls are, come to that!’ His eyes were on her breasts.”

The experience of that day unites the girls further, and leads to a friendship which lasts well into middle age. Thirty years after that afternoon at the Perkin’s house, Daisy and Ruth are still best friends; they are married to Luke and Joe respectively who are also best friends. The two families live very near to one another, and their teenage children are great friends too. When Daisy’s husband is killed suddenly in a motorway accident, the truths that Ruth was so certain of are severely disrupted. Daisy reveals that she had been bored by her marriage, that things were far from perfect. For Daisy nothing can fully replicate or better the love and security she experienced growing up with her parents and brother. Ruth is starting to feel a little insecure, her husband Joe has been becoming more and more distant, and in his grief over his friend’s death he is hard to reach. Ruth begins to suspect that her husband may be keeping something from her, fearing he may even have betrayed her. In middle-age Daisy is a larger, more gregarious woman than Ruth, and Ruth appears diminished at times by the sheer force of Daisy’s personality. Ruth has been happily fulfilled by her successful seamstress business, but when her faith in Joe is shaken, she is forced back to the realities of her childhood, and the betrayal she endured at the hands of her father.

Bawden’s characters are generally not very warm, but she explores their complexities with subtlety and understanding that fleshes out their entire worlds, their pasts and futures are instantly believable. The men in this novel are portrayed as pathetic or predatory, or a mixture of the two; the women by comparison are strong even in their apparent weakness. I am reminded a little of Elizabeth Taylor whose peripheral characters are always as well executed and deftly explored as her central characters, here Bawden’s minor characters are just as superbly drawn. One of my favourite characters from this novel, Daisy’s cynical, ageing mother-in-law Lady Stella Brett, who has recently befriended an old man she met in some nearby gardens, entertaining him to breakfast.

“Stella loomed over her. She smelled of old clothes. She said ‘Do you want tea? Walter had the last of the coffee. Otherwise there is whiskey, or some rather unpleasant sweet sherry. I don’t know where it came from. One of the boys brought it, probably. It isn’t my tipple.
Ruth shook her head. Who was Walter? The last thing she wanted was alcohol. But Stella was already pouring whiskey into two tumblers. She gave one to Ruth. ‘Drink up, you look a bit peaky.”

I am trying hard not to give away spoilers here – however there are things in The Ice House which become fairly obvious to the reader and when fully revealed come as no surprise – I think that is intentional – the reader is instantly ‘in on’ the secret.

Nina Bawden is particularly adept at showing the darker sides of human nature, her novels generally peter out gently rather than with a melodramatic flourish – some readers call it anti-climactic, I tend to think of it as being more like real life.

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Thankfully for Nina Bawden fans Bello books have a number of her titles available in both paperback and ebook editions, I must say I find their ebooks great value. Nina Bawden is an author who I have come to really admire; she was a quite prolific writer, writing for both adults and children over a career spanning many years.

The Solitary Child, I suspect is one title that is a little less well known than some of her others, another reason to be grateful to Bello.

“As the years pass, remembering becomes an academic exercise, a kind of cosy reckoning—a private game kept for the solitary train journeys, the white nights. You finish the crossword puzzle, read the new novel, but memory is inexhaustible, waiting to be taken out and examined without pain, touched inquiringly, like an old scar. There is no longer any emotion involved; what remains is pictorial and vivid. The little things stand out, the fly on the wall, the coffee stain on the carpet.”

When twenty-two year old Harriet becomes engaged to the much older James Random after knowing him less than a fortnight, she faces an uphill struggle to have her relationship accepted. James is a gentleman farmer from the Welsh borders, whose first wife Eva died in what had been described as ‘unforgettable circumstances.’ James had been charged, and tried with her murder, later acquitted a shadow hangs over him, suspicion lurking in the minds of many. When Harriet’s mother discovers the identity of Harriet’s fiancé she is devastated, but her concern seems to rest mainly with what her char lady thinks. Harriet marries James without her mother there to see her, before going to Switzerland on honeymoon for two months.

Following the honeymoon, the newlyweds arrive home, to the farm where James had lived with Eva, the place where she died a violent death. James’s sister Ann is waiting for them, she lives close by in a couple of Victorian cottages, saddled with a hypochondriac friend who she is forever running back to. Harriet soon senses strains between James and Ann, things not said, and Ann’s other friend – Cyril who had once wanted to marry Ann, is clearly not someone James wants around. James’s sixteen year old daughter who has been living with her mother’s parents is reported missing on the night of James and Harriet’s return home; everyone seems to think she is heading back to the farm. Harriet is rather shocked by her husband’s attitude towards Maggie – who he clearly does not want at home. Eva was apparently a selfish, damaged woman, who made James’s life a misery – is Maggie like her mother? Is she a painful reminder to James or are there things Harriet doesn’t yet know? When Harriet discovers Maggie hiding in the old servant’s quarters, she immediately feels protective towards the childlike girl.

“She crouched on the floor in a corner, huddled still and small like a hunted animal, plaster powdered like snow on her navy, reefer coat. She had, only recently, been out in the rain. Her wet, blond hair clung sleekly to her head, her eyes, wide and grey and steady, stared at me with a remote expression as if she were only half awake or did not see me properly. “You must be my step-mother,” she said. Her voice was light and hasty, trailing into silence. She stood up; her schoolgirl’s coat, unbuttoned, hung about her like a sack.”

Maggie is a complicated mix of contradictions, young for her age and childlike although obviously very sexual and completely aware of the effect she has on others. Manipulating Harriet’s liking for her, Maggie ensures she is able to stay despite her father wanting her to go back to her grandparents. Maggie is a very strange character; there are times when she seems too young – Harriet appears strangely blind to her obvious oddness and I found Harriet’s total absorption in Maggie a little unbelievable – but that is a small point after all this is a woman who married a man in unseemly haste.

Harriet slowly begins to doubt so much that she had taken for granted, the whispers of others about James’s guilt begin to sow seeds of doubt – doubts she valiantly tries to push aside. The more she hears about Eva and the events of the day she died, the more she realises why so many people said James was the only one who could have done it. Cruel, anonymous letters sent to Harriet also shake her a little, a fall down the stairs – which might have been a push, and a devastating miscarriage take their toll on Harriet and she begins to look at James in a new way.

There is a brilliant oppressiveness to this novel, the farm and the people who live and work there are superbly portrayed – as is the nosey little journalist who pops up adding fuel to the fire, and the slimy young man with whom it is said Eva had had an affair. Their world feels like a world of shadows and secrets, and Harriet becomes less and less certain of what is real.

“Harriet.” I turned and James was standing above me, at the top of the slope, black against the moon. He was about four feet away from me and he was carrying a gun. I had a sick and vivid picture. She was shot at close range, shot as she turned from the bridge because he called to her. And then I saw that it wasn’t a gun on his arm but a walking-stick.”

The Solitary Child is enormously readable, an atmospheric novel with an intriguing mystery at the heart of it. It is also a well written study in uncomfortable relationships; Nina Bawden explores her characters astutely, and the way in which she teases out the mystery at the heart of this story makes it hard to put down.

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I don’t think I had realised that Nina Bawden had ever written mystery novels, but it seems that she did, in fact her first few novels were mysteries. This novel from 1954 was only her second published novel. The Odd Flamingo while not having quite the depth of character and subtlety of her later more literary works is a quick engaging little mystery, with some flashes of what would come in later novels. There is no doubt that The Odd Flamingo, shows many of the strengths of Nina Bawden’s writing, but it is also apparent that it was written by a young writer, still honing her craft. Nina Bawden however is an excellent storyteller, and that is certainly evident in The Odd Flamingo. The setting of this mystery is definitely one of its strengths, brilliantly atmospheric; Bawden’s seedy world is one that feels very realistic and very 1950’s.

“I had no premonition of disaster. Later I remembered that there had been a bowl of roses on the table by the telephone and that, as I had picked up the receiver, I had been comparing the dead bloom with the clear crimson of a bud from the same bush and wondering whether there was anything that could be done to stop the red roses from blue-ing so badly when they opened fully.
Celia said, “Will,is that you? Oh, thank God. Can you come down to the School?”
I asked her what was the matter and she said, “I can’t tell you on the ‘phone. Please come.”
She sounded both frightened and distraught. It was unlike her.”

The Odd Flamingo is rooted in the world of nightclubs, spivs, drugs and petty criminals, with young women who have taken the wrong path, anxious to escape their dreary existences. The story is narrated by Will Hunt, a lawyer who lives with his mother, and has idolised his friend Humphrey Stone for years. Will is an interesting character although not as deeply explored as I would have expected from Nina Bawden, his feelings for Humphrey are ambiguous, especially as we meet a woman as the story progresses who Will loved years earlier. In setting her novel among the people and places of the heaving London underbelly of the 1950’s Bawden has moved right away from many of the cosy crime novels of the period, all those country house mysteries she must have read herself.

Humphrey Stone is a respected school headmaster, whose wife Celia is visited by a beautiful young girl, Rose Blacker, who announces she is pregnant by Humphrey. Celia is naturally appalled, fearful for her family’s reputation; she immediately turns to Will for help with the delicate situation. Rose produces love letters, written in Humphrey’s unmistakable voice and hand. Will is keen to help, and while speaking to Rose he becomes fascinated and drawn to the strange innocence that he sees in her. However, barely can Will begin to ascertain the exact nature of the situation before a murder looks like taking things to a much darker place. Will begins to question everything he knows about Humphrey, but determined to help him where he can.

Will’s enquires bring Will back to the Odd Flamingo club, a place Will had visited a few times years before with Humphrey. Will had no idea that Humphrey was still a regular, and is shocked to hear that his old friend had been there with Rose and her close friend Jasmine. The Odd Flamingo is frequented by all sorts of unsavoury types, and it is also here that Will runs into his former love Kate. While trying to track down the elusive Humphrey, Will must also run the gauntlet that is Piers Stone, Humphrey’s odious and manipulative half-brother. As Will delves deeper he uncovers some unsavoury truths about some of Rose’s friends and the world that she has been inhabiting.

“There are moments when everything becomes clear and sharply drawn, moments that stand out in memory like three-dimensional figures against a flat background. I can remember now everything about that moment; the exact pinkish colour of the light, the pale patch in the carpet where a stain had been removed, the single cobweb strand that hung from the ceiling and moved gently in the breeze from the window. Humphrey’s back was to the light, his head was tilted towards me at a slightly enquiring angle as though he had just asked a question and was waiting for me to answer it. There was a small smile on his thin mouth, a timid, almost conciliatory smile.”

Will is something of a romantic; he is drawn to Rose and her unhappiness, his faith in his old friend and all he knew of him severely shaken. Several of the characters are destroyed, or have been by the shady world of the Odd Flamingo, but it is Will who seems most affected by these events, the reader gets the impression that Will Hunt will be marked by his experiences. Like Rose, there is something of the innocent in Will, and like Rose, his association with the Odd Flamingo and the events which take place over a few short weeks put an end to that innocence.

This is an enjoyable mystery which could be of interest to readers of Nina Bawden’s later literary novels. Bello books who produce ebooks and print on demand books have a few of these early books available.

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Ruffian on the stair(This modern virago cover art is awful I think, and dreadfully misleading)

There are those books which it is really hard to convey just how good they are in a mere review, this is one such novel, which all goes to show, books should just be read to be appreciated. Ruffian on the Stair was Nina Bawden’s last novel published in 2001 four years before her book Dear Austen, the letter she wrote to her husband Austen Kark who was killed in the Potter’s Bar rail crash in 2002, when Nina Bawden was badly injured. If you are wondering about the title, as I was, this verse is quoted in the front of the novel.

“Madam Life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes digging everywhere
She’s the tenant of the room
He’s the ruffian on the stair
W.E Henley

Silas Mudd just days away from his one hundredth birthday, is something of a wily old sod, his deafness coming and going as it suits him. As the preparations for a special family lunch to celebrate, get underway Silas come to reflect on his long life. He remembers those who he has lost, his two wives, the aunt who brought him up following his mother’s tragic death, his father and his beloved sister. It is the tragedy of such longevity that everyone, one knew when young, and so many people one has loved, are already long gone, Bawden was only in her mid-seventies when she wrote this novel, and yet she seems to have understood the sadness and loneliness of such old age keenly.

Silas’s grown up children and step children are due to attend the lunch, but still have their own concerns to attend to in the midst of worries over gifts and seating plans. Silas’s son Will, many years younger than his two elder sisters, neither of whom live in London, is recovering from Pneumonia in hospital, while his wife Coral, an actress is preparing to play Gertrude in Brighton. On the way home from visiting her husband in hospital, Coral undergoes a frightening experience, that she later feels unable to talk about to anyone, and is constantly berating herself for – her secrecy leading Will to allow his imagination to run wild. Silas’s eldest daughter Hannah lives in Yorkshire with her husband Julius, and lots of sheep, her daughter one of the family not invited to the lunch. Hannah’s not sure at all how Silas would react to his thirty-something granddaughter being unmarried and pregnant anyway. However what bothers Hannah even more is just what is it that Silas’s step-daughter Clare is planning? Clare the daughter of Silas’s second wife Bella is a particular favourite of Silas’s much to the irritation of other family members. Alice, the sister that comes between Hannah and Will is a world famous science Professor, travelling from Australia for the lunch having been attending a conference, she’s due to stay with Will and Coral.

“Since Bella’s death, Silas has become a traveller in time. He sits with a book on his lap – he doesn’t want to be seen as an old man, dreaming – and allows his mind to run free. He sees- feels –his past life as a vast, echoing tunnel, or underground cave. He journeys through it and around it, mining the seam of his personal history; hidden or half-forgotten events barely glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, a brief flash of light in the darkness, other dwelt upon, constantly revisited, permanently lit. He can traverse a decade in a matter of seconds or linger for days on a single moment, in a particular room.”

While Silas’s children and step children worry over birthday celebrations and family politics, Silas spends most of his time, where he now feels most comfortable – the past. Re-living his childhood, and then his love affair with his first wife the socially superior Effie, their marriage and the years with their two daughters before the Second World War disrupted everything, and Effie’s late pre-menopausal baby Will came along – which would lead eventually to her early death. Silas remembers his joys, his disappointments and the secrets he kept.

Nina Bawden is brilliant at exploring the intricacies of family life, and in The Ruffian on the Stair, she also explores, the poignancies, and pitfalls of extreme old age, injecting a little humour – and an awful lot of sympathetic understanding along the way. This novel was a real surprise, I had expected to really like it, but hadn’t expected it turn out a five star read which kept me up till 1.30 to finish.

nina bawden

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