“We Bedalians don’t tend to alter our relationships with each other; at Bedales you form your character as part of a group,” suggests Patricia Duncker. “If I look at the contemporaries with whom I’m still in touch, I don’t think that we deal with each other any differently from the way we did during our time at school. There’s a very strong, and quite exclusive, level of intimacy there.”
That the Jamaican-born and raised Patricia should maintain such warm memories of life at Bedales nearly half a century later would probably have surprised the 12 year-old who came, shivering, to the South Downs at the beginning of 1964. “My brother had gone to Bedales before me, but I had never been outside Jamaica,” she recalls. “I had family in the UK, but I still felt so alone when I landed in the UK after a 14-hour BOAC flight that featured stops in New York, Goose Bay, Shannon and Heathrow. On my first night in London, it snowed and it snowed at Bedales too; for a girl from a country where there is a dry season and a wet season, the northern European climate was incredible. Everything at home had been bright; now there just seemed to be deadness and no colour at all.”
For her first few weeks in Hampshire, therefore, life seemed understandably out of kilter to Patricia. “I fought to leave Britain,” she admits. “My mother, however, told me that the die was cast and I could just get on with it. A hard lesson, but just about the best I could learn. I lost my Jamaican accent – what you hear today is the voice of Rachel Carey-Field – buckled down academically and my father bought me a horse, on which I was able to explore the countryside and see it come alive as the seasons changed. A girl in my block called Jo Stewart and I became close friends, almost chose each other as friends, and I became practically a part of her family. We are still friends. It took about two years, but I settled and the feeling of alienation disappeared.”
The 1960s were heady time to be a Bedales student. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive!” laughs Patricia. “It was all about the rock ‘n’ roll. Not the Beatles, who always struck me as a bit too clean-cut, but the Stones, the Animals, the Kinks. Then there were the teachers, who became great influences on me, part of the base block of my life. I can remember all their names, faces and voices: Joyce Caiger-Smith, George Smith, Rachel Carey-Field, John Batstone and John Slater, HEG Gardiner, John Hetherington, Tim Williams, Jolyon Goodman, Harry Crocker, Keith Anderson, Ruth Whiting, Geoffrey Robinson and, above all, George Bird, who was my German teacher. George was one of the greatest teachers I ever had – he was a maverick, very theatrical and he taught me how to think and judge properly.”
Another incalculable influence on Patricia’s future career was her English-based aunt, the poet Patricia Beer. “I was named after her and when she came to visit us in Jamaica, she seemed such a glamorous and interesting figure that I wanted to be her from the moment I saw her,” Patricia reminisces. “I wrote my own poetry, which was mostly dreadful, of course, and she was always my sternest critic. She dismissed almost everything I wrote, but when she told me that something I had written was good, I think that it redoubled my determination to follow her into earning my living from the written word.”
Life after Bedales for Patricia began with a spell of work in Germany before she returned to the UK to read English at Newnham, Cambridge and gain her doctorate from St. Hugh’s, Oxford. Subsequently, her academic career has seen her teach at the University of Poitiers in France for seven years, the University of Aberystwyth, the University of East Anglia, where alongside her fellow novelist Michèle Roberts, she was professor of Prose Fiction, and finally, the University of Manchester, her current home, where she is Professor of Contemporary Literature. In 1996, Patricia’s first novel (of five, as well as two volumes of short stories), Hallucinating Foucault, was published. The following year, it won the McKitterick Prize, awarded to the best first novel by an author aged over 40.
“I should stress that it was the first novel that I’d had published,” says Patricia precisely. “I had written many novels before that, including a three-volume novel at Bedales, for example, that never saw the light of day. Why? I have spent years reading, writing and learning about both. When you use someone like Henry James or George Eliot as a benchmark, you realise what good literature is and what isn’t. It remains true that far too many books get published and that there is a whole strand of modern writing that is the most abysmal rubbish. One must be selective. I would also say, however, that this has always been the case. I wrote my doctorate on eighteenth-century English and German popular fiction and the awfulness of mass market writing in the 1790s beggars belief.” Patricia has some equally trenchant views on modern methods of teaching English. “Well, it’s totally different from how I was taught,” she snorts. “There seems to be little idea about the history of language any more, for a start. I spend most of my time with my first years teaching them grammar.”
Patricia is adamant that Manchester will be the last stop of her professional life. “After that, I shall retire somewhere dark, isolated, roadless and impossible to find,” she predicts. “The thing is that I have absolutely no fear of what the future holds, or anything else, for that matter. Back in the 1980s, I had a rare illness and was given little chance of survival by the doctors. They were wrong, thankfully, but it changed my view of everything and not necessarily for the better. That sort of experience cuts you off, makes you a little more ruthless and perhaps a little less compassionate. I’m probably not safe these days.”
It should be emphasised that Patricia says this without a hint of self-pity, but rather, in between several peals of laughter. “Oh, the future isn’t a worry,” she says again. “I’ve done all my moving now; I did it really when I first came to Bedales and I see my time there and my old friends as an integral part of my life. When it’s my time to go, I’ll be ready, and as Marvell says: “The grave’s a fine and private place.”
And Patricia gives voice to another healthy roar of mirth.
Patricia Duncker was interviewed by James Fairweather in Summer 2012.
Photo: Anita Schiffer-Fuchs