Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week: A Guest Post by Stephen May

Wake up happyI have a real treat for you today in Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week. I was tweeting about the week, when I got a reply from a chap called Stephen May saying “I gave Beryl Bainbridge a piggy back once.”

I looked him up, found out that he is the author of several novels – one of which, Wake Up Happy Every Day is sitting on my TBR shelves! I cheekily asked him if he’d write the anecdote up for BBRW 2016 – and I am so glad that he did,.So, over to Stephen…

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“I gave Beryl Bainbridge a piggy back once”

stephen-may-22819Kings Lynn Literary Festival 2010. I thought things had gone well. An enthusiastic, surprisingly large, audience, who had seemed to enjoy the reading (which, for once, I hadn’t rushed or stumbled over) and who had then asked perceptive and thoughtful questions which I had, I thought, answered more or less lucidly and more concisely than usual.

I’d sold quite a lot of books. Especially when you consider that almost no one had had any idea who I was beforehand. But King’s Lynn is like that. Full of inquisitive folk who trust the fare served up by their festival director. (It’s an idiosyncratic festival. A laugh. You should go if you can).

But I absolutely knew that it had been a good event – that I wasn’t deluding myself – when this mischief-eyed, tiny, bird like elderly lady flitted over, took me by the arm and told me – several times – that I’d been great. So I was a hit. Not just with the Kings Lynn audience, which was nice – but with Beryl bloody Bainbridge. Which was ace. Beryl bloody Bainbridge thought I was good!

Now, I am the type who blushes and stammers my thanks and tries to mumble my way out of any situation where I’m getting praise (even from the likes of BB). I don’t take criticism well, but I’m the kind of weirdo who seems to take praise worse. It makes me clumsy, graceless and shy.

But having fixed her sights on me BB wasn’t going to let me off that easily. I tried to escape, she wasn’t having it. She bought a book, made me sign it, and then she asked if I was going to the opening night party. I was.

‘Good.’ she said, eyes glittering in a way that made me nervous. ‘Then you can help me get there.’

Spring hadn’t reached Kings Lynn and the cobbles outside the Town Hall were pure ice where they weren’t snow covered. It was like a skating rink out there. A tricksy obstacle for an octogenarian, even one as adventurous as Beryl B. The solution, as she saw, it was obvious. Which is how I came to give Beryl Bainbridge a piggy back through the wintry streets of Kings Lynn, which has to be close to the top in the list of Strange Things That Have Happened To Me Since I Started Writing.

I was, of course, worried – almost paralysed – by the idea that I would drop my cargo; that I would slip and that literature would never forgive me, but we made it safely. She weighed almost nothing. We got to our venue. We had some whiskies.

There were some other people there. I forget who. Beryl held court. It was fun. And then just a little while after that she died and I realised how ill she must have been, but you wouldn’t have known, she was so full of life.

And there’s an odd postscript too. A couple of years later I was doing another reading. An intimate one – only 20 or so people there – and I got to the part where every jobbing novelist turns market trader. ‘I’ve got some books here if anyone would like to buy one.’ I said, with what I hoped was the winning smile of a starving, but still somehow dignified, artist.

Some people did get up and come forward. But one lady stayed sitting ‘I’ve already got a book.’ She said.

‘Oh, ok. Do you want it signed?’ I said.

‘It’s already signed,’ she said. ‘It’s signed To Beryl…’ Turns out she’d bought the book second hand for 99p off Amazon. And it took me a few seconds before I realised To Beryl? Then I knew what had happened. Beryl Bainbridge had died, the estate had offloaded the books that hadn’t seemed valuable and, like a determined pigeon, or a loyal dog, that book had eventually found its way back to me in a way that still feels quite spooky. And so now I have a tangible, physical, priceless* reminder of the night I gave Beryl Bainbridge a piggy back in Kings Lynn.

Stephen May

* (ok – priced by Amazon at 99p but then they are notorious for not knowing the value of anything, particularly books)

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Thank you so much Stephen. It’s lovely to hear a personal story from someone who met her. It’s made my week.

Stephen’s website is here. He tweets as @Stephenmaybooks

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