Brought to you by


Nina Bawden CBE: the life and times of the novelist

The plaque that was unveiled on Nina Bawden's former home in North London in September 2015 <i>(Image: Wikimedia Commons)</i>
The plaque that was unveiled on Nina Bawden's former home in North London in September 2015 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Nina Bawden was born in Ilford as Nina Mary Maybe on 19 January 1925 to Charles, a largely absentee Royal Marine father (some sources say merchant navy engineer), and schoolteacher mother Ellalaine Ursula May who appreciated education’s value. Nina grew up in Goodmayes and having obtained a scholarship attended Ilford County High School for Girls but was evacuated as a 14-year-old during WW2, firstly to Ipswich, then during term time to Wales where she’d hear a speech by Nye Bevan, the NHS founder, which converted her to socialism (school holidays were spent with her mum and brothers at a Shropshire farm).

She’d go on to study at Somerville, Oxford, from 1943, where she obtained a B.A. and M.A., her course on Politics, Economics and Philosophy not offering any clues as to her future career. Whilst at Somerville Nina became acquainted with another female student who’d go on to forge a political career, Margaret Roberts, Thatcher to be, the UK’s first female Prime Minister. Nina thought her own future may have been in journalism; she fancied being a foreign correspondent.

Great British Life: Somerville College, Oxford, where Nina Bawden obtained both her B.A. and M.A. Credit: Wikimedia Commons Somerville College, Oxford, where Nina Bawden obtained both her B.A. and M.A. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the same year she obtained her B.A. (1946) Nina also married the considerably older scholar and ex-serviceman Henry (Harry) Bawden, a union that bestowed two sons, one of whom would tragically take his own life (Harry’s mother also committed suicide during his engagement to Nina). Sadly, familial tragedy would stalk Nina Bawden as she now was. She’d first begun writing her stories while her baby sons slept and it was the Bawden name she’d continue to use as a writer with her first published work, ‘Who Calls the Tune?’, coming out in 1953, the year before her divorce. This also happened to be the year she met the man destined to become her second husband, apparently on the top deck of a bus. They were both married at the time but set about disentangling themselves so they could marry. It was like a plot from one of Nina’s novels, perhaps not one of the children’s ones though.

Nina and Harry Bawden were divorced in 1954 and she quickly married again, the same year, to the man on the bus, Austen Kark (1926-2002), a reporter who’d become MD of the BBC’s World Service. They’d have one daughter who’d die getting on for six months before Nina herself. As far as her writing was concerned her real success was still to come although Bawden not Kark remained her author’s name. Nina continued with her writing, churning out 55 works some of which would be adapted for BBC Children’s TV. Notable books that followed included her first children’s story, ‘The Secret Passage’ (1963), ‘On the Run’ (1964), ‘The Witch’s Daughter’ (1966), ‘The Birds on the Trees’ (1970) and ‘The Peppermint Pig’ (1975). She also became a local magistrate (1968-76).

Great British Life: Redbridge Town Hall on the Ilford High Road; landmarks that would have been familiar to the young Nina Maybe Credit: Wikimedia CommonsRedbridge Town Hall on the Ilford High Road; landmarks that would have been familiar to the young Nina Maybe Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nina would be best known, however, for the children's book ‘Carrie’s War’ (1973) concerning two evacuees during WW2, one that tapped into her own childhood experience of being sent to Wales, the story itself being set in the Principality and a mining village to which ‘Carrie’ and younger brother, ‘Nick’, are dispatched. Of all Bawden’s work this is the story that’s most famous as are its TV depictions (1974 and 2004). There was also a later stage adaptation. Two other novels, ‘Circles of Deceit’ (1987), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and ‘Family Money’ (1991), were also televised during the 1990s. One thing that pretty much set Bawden’s children’s stories apart at the time was her not writing exclusively about ‘good’ children; her characters could be selfish and bad-tempered. Children identified with these realistic portrayals and lapped up the stories, warts and all.

Mary was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize in 1987 and the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010, having also helped judge the former in 1985. She was also a recipient of the Golden PEN Award. In 1993, 20 years after its original publication, ‘Carrie’s War’ won Bawden the Phoenix Award as the best English-language children’s book that didn’t win a major award when it was first published. Named from the mythical phoenix, the bird reborn from its own ashes, it symbolised the book’s rise to prominence two decades after its own birth. Nina Bawden was awarded the CBE in 1995, eight years after her husband had been similarly honoured.

Bawden was seriously injured in the Potters Bar rail crash of 2002 which tragically claimed the life of her husband, one of seven fatalities. 75 other people were injured. The Bawdens were travelling to Cambridge on 11 May when the accident occurred ten minutes out of King’s Cross. Derailing at high speed, one carriage struck a bridge parapet, then ended up on one of the platforms. It was Nina’s own testimony about the accident that formed a significant part of ‘Permanent Way’, the 2003 play by David Hare in which Bawden featured as a character and she became a campaigner for rail safety too, fighting for compensation for those who’d survived the accident. She was unable to write for several years after the tragedy but her last published work would be the poignant ‘Dear Austen’ (2005). As the name suggests this was a lament to her lost husband, an account of life after Austen told in the form of letters to him as she also recounts the events of that terrible day.

Great British Life: Noel Road in Islington where Nina Bawden lived from 1976 until her death in 2012 Credit: Wikimedia Commons Noel Road in Islington where Nina Bawden lived from 1976 until her death in 2012 Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nina Bawden, who’d lived for many years at 22 Noel Road, Islington, died on 22 August 2012 aged 87. An Islington People’s Plaque was unveiled at her former home on 11 September 2015. Despite the rough hand life dealt her Nina Bawden refused to feel hard done by, declaring that it was her duty to her family and readers to recover and get on with things; that she did, admirably. Travelling, and unsurprisingly reading, were numbered among her interests.

CHRONOLOGY

1925 – Nina Mary Maybe born in Ilford, Essex (19th January).

1943 – Heads to Somerville, Oxford, where she obtains a B.A. and M.A.

1946 – Marries for the first time to Harry Bawden (until divorce in 1954) and has two sons.

1953 – ‘Who Calls the Tune?’, Nina Bawden’s first published work, comes out.

1954 – Marries Austen Kark and adds a daughter to her family as well as stepchildren.

1973 – Publication of ‘Carrie’s War’, Nina Bawden’s most famous work.

1987 – Shortlisted for the Booker Prize which she’d helped judge two years before.

2002 – The Potters Bar train crash sees Nina Bawden injured and her husband killed.

2012 – Death of Nina Bawden in London (22nd August) aged 87.



BROUGHT TO YOU BY…

Essex Life Read more

Latest articles

More from Essex Life

BROUGHT TO YOU BY…

Essex Life Read more