Dear Austen

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.

6 responses to “Dear Austen

  1. I share a birthday with Ms Bawden, and was privileged to attend a wonderful dinner party with her and Austen more than 10 years ago when they were in Sydney for the Writers’ Festival. Austen was the most charming and debonair man I have ever met, and they were obviously devoted to one another. I was so saddened to read of his death in those terrible circumstances, but had no way of passing on my condolences. So if you ever have the opportunity, please let her know that she was thought of with love and sorrow here in Australia.

  2. I often think of Nina Bawden’s wonderful books, and the terrible loss of Austen — she is one of those writers whose voice stays in your head, though perhaps I also feel close to her because she lives so very close to me.
    Thanks for that post.

  3. I think it was amazingly brave of Nina Bawden to write the book. I don’t know if I could achieve the discipline and the strength, if someone I loved had been plucked from the world. I’d like to recommend another book on bereavement – Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, which she wrote after her husband suddenly died. It illuminates moments just such as you describe – phoning the mobile when your logical mind knows it cannot work.

  4. I’ve considered Joan Didion’s book, but am a little scared these days, and wonder if it’s just too overwhelmingly sad? It wasn’t just her husband, but the daughter as well.

    In the programme about Allan Ahlberg I listened to on Sunday, he mentioned how writing a book about Janet after she died was what saved him. I think that might work for a lot of people.

  5. Yes. Joan Didion’s book ends affirmatively; her daughter’s death, tragically, came later. That colours one’s reading of it, of course, but the book itself, though sad, was not too sad for me to read, and I’m a terrible coward. It’s thoughtfully and beautifully written.

    This is making me think about the role fantasy plays in life (human kind/Cannot bear very much reality’) I’ll have a think about it and might talk about it on my next ABBA post…

  6. Pingback: Goodbye Nina Bawden | Bookwitch

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