Refusal of recrimination and regret


MEMOIR: A Restless Life by Leland BardwellLiberties Press, 288pp, €17

THERE IS SOMETHING a bit peculiar about the dedication of this book: "In memory of Pat and Mary Hone." These are Leland Bardwell's parents, her "bitch of a mother" and that "distant Man of Iron", her father, to whom she is not bound by ties of affection, gratitude, or any familial accord whatever.

Is it an ironic gesture? There are many more appropriate dedicatees, one feels, among the more engaging characters in the book (not least her children). But perhaps she is truly grateful to her cold-hearted parents for conferring on her an honorary "changeling" status, a licence - eventually - to engage to the full in "a complex life of uncontrolled chaos", as she puts it herself. She isn't exaggerating. Misrule is her element.

It was clear from the outset that the young Leland Hone was not about to embrace the mores of decorous and overbearing Anglo-Ireland. A child of the 1920s, she was born in India, but grew up in Leixlip, in a stone-fronted Georgian house, beautiful but draughty and candle-lit, where her father set about establishing himself as a furniture-maker, while her mother was free to engage in all manner of "social and equine pursuits".

As far as Leland's older brother and sister were concerned, one was casually kind whenever it suited her, and the other took notice of his youngest sibling only to address her by some derogatory nickname such as Face-ache. Besides, both of them were mostly away at school in England, while Leland was not considered worthy of any such expenditure: " . . . my parents and other adults [were] wont to look on me as some kind of unfortunate happening".

She was 13 before she became a pupil at the Protestant Alexandra College in Dublin and began to explore different ways of running wild, expanding her "bad girl" persona into thieving from Woolworths, scribbling rude graffiti on the school lavatory walls, mitching in the afternoons and tearing down Grafton Street with a like-minded friend, "pissing ourselves with laughter".

Not a credit to her parents, she was overweight and unglamorous as a schoolgirl - "a sorry sight", she says; and photographs bear her out. However, it wasn't long before her looks mysteriously improved, as she grew stick-thin and acquired a handsome profile, and sexual insubordination got added to the other wayward elements in her nature.

Move forward to the second World War and Leland is working in an aircraft factory in Birmingham, pregnant with the first of her seven children (by four different fathers), soon to be shunted off to a farm in Surrey where the child is born and promptly handed over for adoption. With that episode behind her, Leland finds herself in London at the height of the V2 bombing raids, continuing her education courtesy of the Paddington Lending Library. But then the house where she is lodging is hit by a bomb, causing an outburst of survivor's euphoria, followed by delayed shock.

The changing circumstances of A Restless Life are tellingly evoked. First we have the Anglo-Irish world of Leixlip, with Protestant ladies in blue-tweed coats dispensing a little charity to barefoot, snotty-nosed children gathered to receive it. Leland's Dublin schooling is followed by a felicitous interlude in Switzerland (paid for by an aunt) before the war arrives bringing disruption (and a measure of camaraderie). The scene moves back and forth, back and forth, between Ireland and England, with Scotland and, later, Paris, thrown in for good measure. The Scottish episode, which involved teaching at a school run on Summerhill lines, is important since it was here that Leland Hone met the man she married, Michael Bardwell - and left shortly after she'd given birth to twins. She left him to live in Paris with his brother Brian, by whom she had a daughter in 1952. By this stage, she is back in London - after months spent trudging the streets of Paris selling a student magazine - and life is falling into a pattern of dicey love affairs, anarchic emotions, disasters and adventures precipitated and endured. Bravery and resourcefulness, learned in a hard school, stand the author in good stead.

Living on the edge suited Leland Bardwell's temperament. She immerses herself in the ramshackle London bohemianism of the 1950s, with all the excitements of drink-fuelled creativity, sexual prodigality ("bottles and bodies" all over the place), and all. La Caverne, dark and smoky, and the York Minster pub in Dean Street, Soho, are the avant-garde venues. Artists and writers of the day, droves of them, with appendages and acolytes, generate a heady non-conformity.

It's a gadfly existence and it carries on back in Ireland with the 1960s getting under way, and Bardwell established in a dungeon-like basement in Leeson Street, Dublin, with proliferating progeny.

To this address flock many colourful visitors and friends, including the Scottish painter Robert MacBryde (surviving half of the Colquhoun/MacBryde partnership), Anthony Cronin, John Jordan, Patrick Kavanagh - all of whom, with others, are intriguingly and affectionately portrayed. (But why, among a small selection of otherwise relevant photographs, do we find Kingsley Amis, who doesn't feature in the story beyond being married at the time to the sister of Leland Bardwell's husband, and Anthony Burgess, who is never mentioned at all?) And all the time, the author is garnering the material that will go into her novels and poems, and make a coherent narrative of her lifetime's experiences.

Her autobiography is written, for the most part, with a faintly humorous economy of style, a refusal of regret or recrimination. Whatever of wretchedness it contained, alongside the exhilaration, is carried more or less lightly. If she always "overdid things" in life, which isn't in doubt, Bardwell tells it with prudence and aplomb. There's a phrase she applies to a particular segment of her London days - "hectic, funny, wonderful and painful" - which could stand as a summing up of the entire accumulation of events.

Patricia Craig is a critic, biographer and anthologist. Her memoir, Asking for Trouble, was published in 2007