I have this urge to send my mother postcards. Mainly to warn her about the new roundabouts they have built on the road to her house in the years since her death. I don’t know why I think she will return by driving a car back to her house. I just do. She may as well suddenly just be back in her house. But there are an awful lot of unexpected roundabouts, not to mention the fact that the road goes a different way as well.
So to find that Nina Bawden tried her husband’s mobile phone after he died, strikes me as completely sane and logical. It didn’t work, so she wrote a very long letter to her husband Austen Kark instead. It’s been published as a book, and it is a very lovely book, if you can accept that a book on a subject like a train crash can ever be lovely.
If you’re like me, then you’ll be vaguely surprised to hear that it’s seven years since the Potter’s Bar crash, and four years since the book Dear Austen was published. I read an excerpt from it in the Guardian, and knew I simply had to have the book as soon as it was available.
Nina tells Austen about the crash, and she tells him what happened afterwards. She herself took a long while to recover from her injuries, so didn’t know immediately what had happened. But she found out, and she found that nothing is simple. Finding someone to blame, someone who might apologise and pay compensation wasn’t as easy as you’d think.
As a real cynic I wasn’t surprised by any of it. And I’m struck by the fact that if someone with a voice like Nina Bawden hadn’t been forcibly involved in the moral aftermath, we wouldn’t know much about it.
She tells of all the meetings the injured and the relatives went to, and how they never seemed to get anywhere. Nobody much wanted to help. The story of the foreign victims is particularly touching. The Taiwanese family said ‘We thought Britain was a cultured and civilised and democratic country where human rights were fully respected and social justice upheld. We have been proved wrong.’ It was at this point that the man Nina came to know only as Gruff-voice, cleared his throat and said ‘I apologise for my country.’
What can you say?
Being me, I felt compelled to write to Nina to say what a wonderful book she had written. It’s particularly hard to write when the reason for the book is so devastating. She wrote back. It was a proper hand written card, and she was lovely. I felt honoured, because to me Nina is one of the ‘old guard’ in children’s literature. She thought the postcard idea wasn’t a bad one.