“I know nothing of AL Barker, except that she writes like an angel and I love her”: Auberon Waugh

AL Barker

Elizabeth Berridge writes:

“I know nothing of AL Barker, except that she writes like an angel and I love her,” exclaimed Auberon Waugh on reading her novel The Gooseboy (1987). In 50 years of writing short stories and novels with a voice uniquely her own, Barker, who has died aged 83, never boasted great sales, but never lacked critical accolades. As one of her publishers, Norah Smallwood of Chatto & Windus, put it when asked why Barker had never sold, “What do you expect? She’s caviare to the general.”

Four years ago, Barker, known as Pat to her friends, suffered a stroke, which necessitated her removal to a nursing home in Carshalton, Surrey, where she was cared for until her death. It was while she was there, and much to her pleasure, that The Gooseboy, and another of her novels, John Brown’s Body (which had been shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1969), were republished in Virago Modern Classics.

In the same year, 1999, her last novel, The Haunt, was also brought out by Virago. This drew a somewhat odd tribute from the Independent, which found that she possessed “the deadpan timing of Kingsley Amis at his driest, with a tinge of eerie nature mysticism that brings Iris Murdoch to mind”. Rather more soberly, the Atlantic Monthly noted that “there is humour at the surface here, but darkness at the heart”. This is indeed true of her ghost stories, for the supernatural gave her an enjoyable frisson.

Born in Beckenham, Kent, Barker was the only child in a family of modest means, and went to schools in Beckenham and Wallington, Surrey. Her father, a railway clerk, disapproved of further education, and sent her out to work in a clockmaking firm when she turned 16. During the second world war, she joined the Land Army and married a naval rating, but, as she confessed later, marriage was not for her. “I was much too selfish, I couldn’t be bothered. I just wanted to get on with my writing. It was the main thing in my life.”

It continued to be the mainspring, with jobs in the editorial office of the Amalgamated Press (1936) and as publisher’s reader for Cresset Press (1947), followed, in 1949, by three decades at the BBC, where, under her married name of Pat Bourne, she was a subeditor on the Listener for five years, until she retired in 1978.

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