Twenty years ago today, the Yorkshire novelist John Braine died at the age of 64. Now, for the first time, his widow reveals the story of his decline from the high-profile life of a top author to their acrimonious break-up and his final few years living alone and in debt. Interview by Roger Ratcliffe
Looking back over their time together, Pat Braine insists that she's not bitter. She doesn't want to blacken the character of her late husband John Braine, author of Room at the Top and one of the celebrated Angry Young Men of British literature. A laugh erupts from deep inside her. No, she's not an Angry Old Woman.
Following their separation in the early 1980s,
after he had flown into a drunken rage and pushed
her to the floor at their home in Surrey, she even
found herself "missing the rollercoaster" of their marriage.
"I never knew what he was going to be like from one day to the next. He made such high drama out of everything. He'd either burst into tears or be verbally abusive. But in a strange way, after we split up I sometimes began to find things were a bit boring." She laughs again and shakes her head.
"Sadly, though, my life with John had become too rich a mix in the end."
She moved to Shropshire with their two youngest children, who were still at school, and built a new life as a supply teacher. John Braine found a rented one-roomed flat verging on the dingy in Hampstead, London, where he slowly went to pieces.
Thinking about it now, Pat can see that his life came to resemble one of his own novels, which were usually about tempestuous relationships and marital infidelity – bonkbusters before anyone had coined the name.
But there's an important twist to the plot of John's real life, Pat says. It's one he himself could never ever have thought up for a book.
"Well, first of all you need to know quite a bit more of the story."
Braine was born in a small terraced house off Bradford's Westgate in 1922, and moved to Thackley when his father got a job at Esholt Sewage Works. Thackley was a grim satellite of industrial Shipley, just the sort of place his main Room at the Top character Joe Lampton came from, "where the snow seemed to turn black almost before it hit the ground". His mother was a library assistant, and according to Pat was "of Irish extraction, Catholic, and by all accounts very emotional, whereas his father was very calm, very Methodist, very English".
It was his mother who gave John an interest in books and after various jobs around Bradford, from junior salesman in Christopher Pratt's furniture shop to progress chaser at the Hepworth & Grandage piston factory, he found work as an assistant at Bingley Library.
His Second World War service in the Royal Navy as a wireless operator was quickly cut short by TB and he was invalided out for treatment at Grassington Sanatorium.
While there he had his first poems and articles published in magazines, and the following year his move back to Bingley Library would become the thinly veiled opening to Room at the Top.
He passed the librarianship exams at his fourth attempt. The experiences from that time all seem pressed together now in Pat's mind – the filming
of Room at theTop in Yorkshire and parties with its glamorous stars, Laurence Harvey and Simone Signoret; the publication of the novel's sequel, Life at the Top, and another film which made her husband a ton
of money; fellow Bradford author JB Priestley
coming to dinner; friendship with the poet John Betjeman; the move to an even bigger house in
Bingley and Braine's purchase of a distinctly
un-Angry Mercedes Benz.
In 1966, he told her he wanted to move closer to London. He didn't insist on it and she said yes, although she doubts it would've made much difference if she had put her foot down.
"To be fair, he was already commuting a lot, and I think he felt he'd outgrown Yorkshire in a way. Also, he'd been in London before, practically starving in his garret, and I think he wanted to go back as a big success. It wasn't to do with money. What he fed on was praise."
But the kind of praise he wanted became elusive. His subsequent work hadn't been nearly as successful as the first novel. Books like The Jealous God and The Crying Game were favourably reviewed, yet favourable wasn't good enough for John Braine.
But what finally brought the London literati's love affair with him to an end was his increasingly conservative views, which climaxed in the 1970s
with his public endorsement of a Right-wing private army.
By now they had four children, three of them
girls. When they first arrived in Surrey they'd had
a big house, but with her husband's writing career
on the slide they moved to progressively smaller homes in and around Woking. "And, of course, he
hit the bottle."
Pat Braine tells a number of stories about this,
and although some of the details are appalling –
she insists they're not printed for the sake of her children – she somehow manages to punctuate them with laughs.
By this time the spark had gone out of their marriage. The heavy drinking was partnered by his hypochondria and bouts of real depression. Towards the end he told her he'd found another woman. She was a journalist, and their relationship would be plundered for his final two novels, One and Last Love and These Golden Days, in which he adopted the persona of Tim Harnforth, a Yorkshire novelist exiled in London and, according to Braine, the most accurate self-portrait he'd ever drawn.
Tim had escaped to Hampstead from a stale and unsatisfactory marriage. One was praised as "a quiet celebration of mature love" by a reviewer but Pat describes it as "drivelly, sloshy rubbish". In fact, she says, if she's honest she didn't like most of his books.
His writing now didn't cover their living expenses and when Pat finally snapped and asked him to leave after he'd pushed her to the floor one night, he went to live by himself in Hampstead, recalling his days as a writer living in a garret. The flat was described as "Gloom at the Top" by the Yorkshire Post, for whom he wrote an often self-pitying column in the final year of his life.
When he died of a perforated ulcer during an operation, Pat took control of his affairs again, arranging the funeral and sorting out the mess of his finances. With a couple of insurance policies, there was not much left after covering his debts.
Pat is 74 now and lives quietly in one of Shropshire's most scenic small towns. They never got divorced, so the royalties from his books are paid to her, although some years they are so low she doesn't pay tax. She runs the local bridge club, is learning to speak Italian, has joined a reading club at the local library, and loves visiting her 10 grandchildren.
So what was the twist to John Braine's life as one of his novels? The twist he could never have imagined?
"That he depended on me, totally. He would never ever have understood that, far less admitted it. His male characters wouldn't either. When John went to live by himself he couldn't cope."
Room at the Top
Few writers have scored such a sensational overnight success with their debut novel, but that was John Braine's achievement with Room at the Top.
Written in 1953-54, while he was being treated for TB at Grassington Sanatorium, it was initially rejected by several publishers. When it finally appeared in March 1957, Braine was working as a 13-a-week librarian at Darton, near Barnsley, and living with his wife and two-week-old son on Doncaster Road, Wakefield. Within a year his earnings were said to be 1,000 a week and he had bought a large house in Bingley for cash.
The book's genius was to tap into the mood of 1950s' Britain, when old attitudes were disappearing and working-class people – more than ever before – aspired to join the middle-classes.
Braine's central character, Joe Lampton, comes from a humble background and is bent on ruthless social climbing when he moves to a new job in a town that's clearly based on Bingley. He joins an amateur theatrical group where a young woman is attracted to him. She thinks he'd get ahead in the world a bit quicker if he was to become the son-in-law of a local millionaire (her father).
Reviewers lavished praise on Braine, the Sunday Times saying: "Remember the name... you'll be hearing quite a lot about him. Room at the Top is his first novel, and it is a remarkable one."
Within a month BBC's Panorama had sent the journalist Woodrow Wyatt to interview Braine in Yorkshire and hail Room at the Top as the most significant novel for a generation. Braine told Wyatt he had no plans to relocate to London "because it has ruined many potentially good writers". (Braine would move south nine years later and begin the process of self-destruction). He was quickly crowned one of the "Angry Young Men", the movement of radical 1950s' playwrights and novelists whose work criticised society's traditional values. They included John Osborne, Kingsley Amis, Harold Pinter, Alan Sillitoe and Colin Wilson.
Room sold 35,000 hardback copies in the UK in its first year – then unknown for a debut novel – and was made into a film starring matine idol Laurence Harvey and French screen goddess Simone Signoret, shot almost entirely on location in Bradford and Bingley. It was a huge box office success, won two Oscars, and helped the paperback edition of Room become one of Penguin's few million-selling titles in the 1960s.
The 1962 sequel, Life at the Top, garnered less favourable reviews but still became a best-seller and the film adaptation – with Lampton again played by Laurence Harvey – was also a huge success. Braine later brought the character up to date in 1970 with a TV series called Man at the Top.
His "Angry Young Man" status had given him a platform as a Left-wing commentator and CND activist, but he became more and more reactionary in the 1960s and shortly after moving from Bingley to stockbroker Surrey he wrote a pamphlet called Goodbye To The Left published by the Right-wing Monday Club of the Conservative Party.
The literary establishment never forgave him. Like his most famous character, Joe Lampton, it was believed that John Braine had sold out.