Afraid to be alone

Nina Bawden struggles to write about her husband’s death

I really do think he is coming back,” says Nina Bawden. “Well, I know he won’t, but it’s a strange feeling. He just went” – she waves a hand – “just like that!”

Part of me, I confess, assumed that a woman in her late seventies – and an imaginative one at that – would have prepared herself in advance for widowhood. Meeting Bawden in the living room of her elegant townhouse in Islington, I quickly realise how stupid and callow that was. Few who are happy in a relationship can truly prepare for such loss – just look at Nancy Reagan who, though her husband was well into his nineties and succumbed to Alzheimer’s years ago, could hardly pull herself away from his coffin.

If this surprises me, perhaps that’s because to think in advance about death and bereavement – a salutary and even fashionable pastime for our ancestors – is now regarded as almost offensively morbid. And possibly bad luck: throughout my meeting with Bawden, I try hard to suppress the horrid thought of outliving my own spouse.

Bawden’s husband, Austen Kark, was in good physical and mental health when he was killed in a railway crash in May 2002. Together the couple were travelling to a friend’s birthday party, on the 12.45 West Anglia Great Northern train from King’s Cross. It left on time, raced non-stop towards Cambridge at nearly 100 miles an hour – then derailed on faulty points and ploughed into the platform of Potters Bar station.

Bawden was among 70 people seriously injured. She broke an arm, a leg, a shoulder, a collarbone, several ribs and an ankle that remains painful two years later. She couldn’t initially comprehend Kark’s death because she was heavily sedated. “The children gathered round my bed, and I couldn’t understand why Austen wasn’t there.”

They first met, nearly half a century ago, on a bus in Surrey. “We smiled at each other,” she recalls. Soon after, by chance, they met again at a neighbour’s house. They were both married, she with two sons, he with two daughters. “We behaved very badly, as people do on these occasions.”

By the time they married, Kark had joined the BBC, where he would eventually run the World Service. Bawden was an established author, writing novels for adults but also for children because she didn’t think much of the books her own children read. Today, she’s probably best known for Carrie’s War (1973) and The Peppermint Pig (1975), children’s classics that have been televised, and in May she won the PEN award for a lifetime’s contribution to literature.

Before coming to see Bawden, I bought copies of both from the local Waterstone’s, asked her to sign them for my daughter, at eight-months-old perhaps insufficiently mature to enjoy what Margaret Drabble calls Bawden’s “extraordinary recall of what it’s like to be a child… the self-pity, the self-dramatisation”.

Kark too wrote books after retiring from the BBC in 1986. One, based on their adventures living in Greece, did rather well – particularly in the Netherlands. “Lots of Dutch people would come and stand outside our apartment,” she says with amusement.

Living without him hasn’t got any easier. She used to plan her life whole years in advance but since the crash – she tells me more than once – she no longer plans more than a week ahead. She’s also afraid to be alone in the house, particularly at night.

It shouldn’t be necessary to write this, but knowing the youthful bias of our times I should point out that Bawden does not conform to the usual stereotypes of the elderly: she’s not dotty, mild or weak. On the contrary, she’s sharply attentive and not altogether indulgent of impertinent or foolish questions. Her accent, not exactly upper-class, is crisply RP. The twinkle in her eye ranges between laughter and rage. It’s true that she walks haltingly, but so would anybody after that crash.

Our conversation is interrupted twice: first by a telephone call from a company selling gas or electricity supply (she declines their offers) then by Perdita, the only child of her marriage to Kark, a stage manager, herself now middle-aged. Perdita leans over her mother in the armchair, kisses her on the lips and asks her to telephone from her train tomorrow – she’s travelling to Surrey the day after we meet. Bawden has a better idea: “I’ll phone to say I have arrived safely.”

For some time after the crash, she said she might never write again and threw herself into campaigning against Jarvis, the contractor responsible for maintenance of the tracks. She became deeply frustrated by the government’s unhelpfulness. “I sent my Labour party membership card back, with a letter, but never heard a word.”

Did she really expect a reply? “If you have been a member since you were 18, and worked in the rain dropping leaflets through doors, you think that they might have written, asked me to think again.” (Actually, she left the party once before, briefly, in favour of the SDP.)

Earlier this year, Jarvis admitted liability for the crash but insisted that the cause of the accident is still unknown. “We won. It was disgusting the way they tried to wriggle out of it and [initially] say it was sabotage. All these people [relatives of the dead and the seriously injured] need proper compensation. I would have pursued it myself, to the High Court, and that was terrifying because these things can always go the wrong way.”

Paradoxically, Jarvis’s admission left her deflated (“one’s occupation had gone”) but now she has found something else to get on with – a book about the crash and its aftermath. Not an easy project, I suggest, even for such an accomplished writer. “I decided I couldn’t write a factual book because it would be boring and I’m not very keen on doing the research. And I can’t do it as a novel because I know too much about what did happen, and if you start inventing characters, you’d have to change other things.”

So she’s writing it as a letter to Austen. But who is she writing it for? The question seems to surprise her. “Heavens! I don’t know. I’m writing it for… myself, I suppose, to send the government in sorrow to their graves… ‘Down with the government!’ No, I don’t know who I’m writing it for. I could make something up, if you want. But it’s my job. I have no other trade.”

In fact, she has written before about the shocking death of a loved one. Her 1995 memoir, In My Own Time: Almost an Autobiography, contains moving passages about her first-born son, Niki, who suffered from mental-health problems from school till his death aged 33. One day he came home after taking the dog for a walk and said: “I thought it would be easy to drown, but the river was too cold.”

Then he started leaving suicide notes – in her typewriter and in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Her marriage to Austen came under pressure as they struggled to cope and one day, while she was driving with Niki, she thought that “the best thing – the only thing – would be to crash into the lorry ahead and kill us both. I had brought him into the world, I ought to go with him if he wanted to leave it.”

We often clutch at random patterns and lamely call them ironies – but to read this in the light of Kark’s death – alongside her, in a crash – really is rather chilling.

In the event, of course, she didn’t drive into the lorry. Niki checked into a clinic, then went missing. His body was later discovered in the Thames. He also found his way into her Booker-shortlisted novel, Circles of Deceit (1987), in fictional treatment that allowed the character of the missing boy to come home alive.

Shortly before the train crash, Kark had gone into hospital to have a tumour removed from his pituitary gland. Thinking he might die, he wrote Bawden a letter, but the operation proved successful and on returning home he intended to dispose of the letter, unread. Catching him, Bawden asked him to hand it over. “For God’s sake don’t read it,” he said, and she put it in a drawer – only to find it there, weeks later, after the crash. She prefers not to tell me exactly what it said.

Before I leave, we walk slowly downstairs to her office, overlooking a tiny back garden and the Regent’s canal. The room is full of books, and abundantly decorated with family photos – including an old black-and-white of Kark smoking a pipe.

I ask how she thinks he would have coped if she had died instead. “I simply don’t know,” she says. “I think he would have felt much the same way as I did, done his best to bring the railways to book. He might have gone to live in Greece. But he might not.” She pauses, then turns the question back on me. “Would you be able to say what your wife would do? You just don’t know.”

1514 words. First published 26 June 04. © The Financial Times