When Alan Sharp died in 2013 at the age of 79, his obituarist in the
Scotsman described him as 'one of the greatest Scottish writers of the 20th century', while another (in the Independent) claimed that he had been married to the novelist Beryl Bainbridge. The first of these statements is questionable, the second untrue. He was the father of one of her children, but they never married.
Sharp, a rather overlooked figure lately, warrants a chapter almost to
himself in Brendan King's new biography of Bainbridge, 'Love By All Sorts of Means' (a phrase of Bainbridge’s, describing her weakness for messy relationships). The book is a long and stodgy read, unlike its subject’s own work, which crackled with brilliant dialogue.
Bainbridge enjoyed – or more often endured – a bewildering succession of affairs, many of them with faithless men who drove her to the point of suicide (she did attempt to kill herself on one occasion). In a highly competitive field, Sharp emerges as the prize shit. When they met in 1963, he was 29 years old, a cocky Scot on the make, married for the second time, still seeing his ex, bed-hopping around London.
He bought Bainbridge, who was broke, a television set from his earnings as a scriptwriter. It was probably the kindest thing he did for her; it may have been the only kind thing. After their baby was born, he abandoned her. Bainbridge, who tended to fictionalise her own life, once maintained that he went downstairs to get something from the car and never returned.
While the relationship lasted, it was obsessive. One night of illicit passion combined uninhibited sex, 'chat on the novel in English life', several hours of 'Scottish singing', and a lecture from Sharp on Oliver Cromwell's opinion of God. They also found time for a cup of tea. Even by the standards of Hampstead in the 60s, it was an impressive performance.
But Sharp was reckless. He committed the strategic error of writing
embarrassing love letters which Bainbridge kept for many years before
vengefully passing them on to her biographer. They are now getting a public airing for the first time, and Brendan King makes no attempt to spare the reader's blushes.
'My dearest love', one begins. So far, so not bad. But it then risibly
degenerates. 'I know nothing I might say that would hone my meaning keen enough to cut through all the swaddle of amazed believing disbelief in you and my love for you and your precious, homecoming, down falling love for me'. It continues in this vein for several hundred words, at which point King decides that we’re due a break: another love letter from Alan Sharp.
Bainbridge later described Sharp as a brutal, ugly boy, a little person, an emotional phony, who treated people as if they were pieces of dust. But allowing for the personal failings of your average literary Scotsman, there is an abiding mystery: how could this bright woman have fallen for someone who wrote such dreadful prose?