Beryl Bainbridge (1932-2010) hailed from the same city as me, Liverpool. I didn’t know that until I read John Banville’s introduction to my edition of Master Georgie. And nor did my hubby, also from Liverpool. So it’s fair to say that Bainbridge isn’t feted as much in her home city as other Scouse writers such as Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, Carla Lane, Roger McGough, Helen Forrester, Kevin Sampson or Jimmy McGovern. Odd, given that Liverpudlians generally take pride in their city’s cultural heritage (we even celebrate that Charles Dickens gave public readings in St George’s Hall) and especially because Bainbridge was shortlisted for the Booker prize five times, more than any other author before or since.
Her shortlisted books were The Dressmaker (1973), The Bottle Factory (1974), An Awfully Big Adventure (1990), Every Man For Himself (1996), and Master Georgie (1998). None won*. But after her death in July 2010 the Booker organisers announced a special, posthumous “Best of Beryl” prize for the most popular book of the five in an online poll. The winner was Master Georgie.
Banville, himself a Booker prize winner in 2005 with The Sea, notes that “Bainbridge was of the rueful opinion that most readers would need to read (Master Georgie) three times in order to crack its inner code.” This actually isn’t as onerous as it might sound because it’s short. I’ve read it only once so I won’t pretend I’ve “cracked” it. But I don’t think of a book as a cipher to be decoded, more like a new acquaintance that might turn into an old friend.
The story begins in the slums of Liverpool in 1846 and ends in 1854 on the battlefields of the Crimea. Master Georgie of the title is doctor and amateur photographer George Hardy, wealthy, attractive, bi-sexual, egoistical and nihilistic. The tale is narrated in turns by three other characters: Myrtle, an orphan who George plucks from the slums as a child and who dotes on him; Dr Potter, his pompous, intellectual, brother-in-law; and Pompey Jones, an enterprising urchin who learns photography from Hardy.
Photography plays a significant role throughout. Each of the six chapters takes its name from a photograph taken in the course of the action; and the photographs and their names serve as a comment on the action. (In the final one, “Smile, boys, smile,” being one solder too few to achieve the desired composition a photographer has a group of battle survivors pose with a propped up corpse.)
Master Georgie is surreal, absurd, touching, funny, macabre, and entertaining. And yet it’s also…somehow…unsatisfying? Like hearing a joke that has everyone wetting themselves with laughter but I don’t understand the punch-line. I don’t quite ‘get’ it. Perhaps, after all, that was Bainbridge’s point, and the true measure of it’s worth. Note to self: re-read. It takes a long time to grow an old friend.
*** Highly recommended
*The Booker winners in those years Bainbridge was shortlisted were:
1973 – The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell
1974 – The Conservationist by Nadine Gorman and Holiday by Stanley Middleton