Turning the page
PUBLISHED: 15:26 10 September 2009 | UPDATED: 11:40 28 February 2013
Essex-born author, Nina Bawden, tells Pamela Spencer about her flair for writing, meeting Margeret Thatcher and why boils on Richard Burton's neck ended their friendship
FOR Nina Bawden, one of Britain's most prolific and best-loved novelists, becoming a writer was a very natural experience.
'I never decided to become a writer, I always thought I was one,' explains the author of Carrie's War, Circles of Deceit and The Secret Passage, to name just a few.Nina, whose books have proved a hit with young and old readers alike, was born in Essex in 1925. 'I lived in Kilmartin Road, Goodmayes, a perfectly comfortable, but unexciting home. All the houses were alike, with lace curtains at the windows. I really felt
I belonged in a fine, ancient house, if not a castle!' Nina declares.
A sentiment echoed by her mother who thought the neighbours extremely suburban and dull because there were no books in their houses.
At the end of Kilmartin Road was a farmer's field, supposedly forbidden territory for Nina and her best friend, Jean, but they loved to play there.
'One day, the farmer's wife chased us with a shot gun. I don't suppose she would have shot us, but she did brandish the gun in the air,' Nina recalls.
Jean's father was a 'thousand-a-year-man', (riches in
the suburbs of the 1930s), and the family were proud possessors of a car and would sometimes take Nina and her mother for a day by the seaside at Southend - a great treat, even if Nina's mother did always insist that paddling be done at the 'better end' of the beach, well away from the excitement of the fun fair.
Film star looks
Another treat for Nina was taking the short bus ride from Goodmayes into Romford for a visit to her grandmother and a trip to the nearest cinema, where the pair would invariably sit twice through each complete programme.
'Carole Lombard was a favourite film star of mine at the time because someone once said I looked like her,' recalls Nina.
When, at age 11, Nina passed the scholarship for entry to Ilford County High School, she describes her mother's relief as, 'beautiful to see'. Nina's autobiography, In My Own Time (published in 1994), explains: 'My mother had convinced me that the scholarship was equivalent to divine judgment; you either passed and flew up to Heaven, or failed and tumbled down to Hell'.
Uniform for girls at Ilford County High was maroon and navy and all items were purchased with generous margin for rapid growth, so that often a skirt brushed a knobby ankle or a hat rested on a nose.
Like her headmistress, Miss Ethel Bull, Nina attended Somerville College, Oxford, where she studied philosophy, politics and economics in the same year as Margaret Thatcher, who she remembers as, 'a plump, neat, solemn girl with rosy cheeks and fairish hair curled flat to her head'.
She also remembers meeting the actor Richard Burton, 'an RAF cadet in my first year on a two-term course'. They met at a party, Nina wearing a black satin dress in which Richard said she looked extremely sophisticated. But the relationship was short lived because she considered him too young for her, 17 to her 18, and he had boils
on the back of his neck.
In 1953, the year following graduation, she published her first novel for adults entitled Who Calls the Tune, for which she received £75, a good advance in the early 1950s. Several more adult books were to follow before her first tale for children, The Secret Passage, written 1963 especially for her own three children after they discovered a secret passage in the cellar of their house. 'In a sense, I write the same sort
of books for adults and children. I suppose what interests me most
are characters, particularly childrens' relationships with each other,'
For aspiring writers, Nina offers some helpful advice: 'Write whenever you can about anything you like - your family is a good place to start. Also, look around you and listen, not just to what people say, but to what they don't say.'
This summer, the stage adaptation of Nina's best-selling novel, Carrie's War, opens in the West End until mid-September. Based on Nina's own childhood experiences as a wartime evacuee to Wales, the run will mark the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II on September 3, 1939 and stars Prunella Scales and Kacey Ainsworth.
'I enjoyed being evacuated enormously,' says Nina. 'It was one of the most interesting parts of my growing up. Having come from comparatively wealthy Essex, I hadn't realised that all through the Thirties the Welsh mining communities were starving due to pit closures. The advent of the war meant the re-opening of the pits and everyone in the valleys was delighted. We evacuees were warmly welcomed and people were terribly nice to us.'
Today, despite suffering ill health from injuries sustained in the Potters Bar rail crash of 2002, when tragically her husband, Austen Kark, was killed, Nina still continues to complete a book each year. She is currently putting the finishing touches to a tale about a retired scientist. 'It's about old age, decline and death - a comedy!' she assures me.
Now the creator of more than 40 novels - 23 for adults and 19 for children - Nina believes her readership ranges from 11 to 90 years of age and says she would like to be remembered as the writer of books that people read before they progress on to Tolstoy and Dickens.
Such success however has not dimmed her memory of the thrill, at age 14, of seeing her first-ever words in print - a letter published in her local paper, the Ilford Recorder. 'The paper didn't pay me, which didn't disturb me at the time, but later, when I realised people got paid for writing, I was quite indignant, and thought they should have sent a fiver at least!' she declares.
See Carrie's War
Carrie's War, by Nina Bawden, starring Prunella Scales, is showing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue until Saturday, September 12.
Tickets range from £10 to £39. Call 0844 412 4658 to book