On the 21st April 2022, dearly beloved friend and writer, Elspeth Barker, sadly passed away. Unsurprisingly, obituaries appeared across the press, with an outpouring of love accompanying them online.
We waited until her funeral on Thursday 5th May to pay our tribute. There is little more to add to the text below, which is the eulogy Henry Layte (owner of The Book Hive) gave there. There is also a video posted by the family on YouTube of the reading from the service, if you’d prefer to listen.
Elspeth’s glorious novel, O Caledonia, was first published in 1991, and then again in 2012 by Peter Tolhurst of Black Dog Books, based here in Norwich — including some bonus short stories. Peter later published Dog Days, a collection of Elspeth’s non-fiction reviews, essays and writings. O Caledonia was released again at the end of 2021 and will no doubt see another resurgence in popularity as a result of Elspeth’s death.
Because we believe in the value of this book so much, we will be offering a free copy to anyone who buys one, in order that they may pass it on and spread the word of the amazing piece of work. Just come into the shop to get yours (or ring us or email us to place an order).
Here’s to you, Elspeth…
Eulogy for Elspeth Barker, delivered by Henry Layte
5th May 2022, St Mary’s Church, Itteringham
When I shop in Budgens of Aylsham I don’t usually use the carpark. I tend to pull up on the side of the road, but for whatever reason on this particular day, I didn’t. I used the car park. And I’m glad I did. It turned out that because of parking there I would see Elspeth, and for what turned out to be the last time. She was standing, alone and without shopping – usually her and I could be relied upon to spot each other from as far away as the other side of the marketplace, the familiar clinking sound from both of our carrier bags acting as a type of mating call across parked cars. But on this day, she carried nothing, and she looked lost. In fact, she wasn’t, she was furious. I called to her, asked if she was ok.
No I am very far from Ok. My car has been stolen.
Oh no Really!!? Where from?
Here. In this car park. I left here last night, I went to Norwich and stayed the night and have just come back on the bus to find it gone.
She pointed out the bay she had parked in and we both did that extraordinary thing of looking for it a bit harder – double checking in case we had missed the presence of a car, before deciding to alert the shop staff.
We found the manager.
Hi there, I wonder if you can help us, my friend has had her car stolen from your carpark and…
Last night. She left it here overnight and when she came…
Ah well, strictly speaking you shouldn’t really leave your car here overnight it’s not actually…
I saw this one coming and got in before Elspeth had a chance, her frustration beginning to brim over.
Yes! We know that and we’re sorry. But it’s gone, and now we just need to get it back and I wonder if you can help with security cameras or anything…
I’m afraid not, and as I say if it was left overnight then the rules have…
Never mind thank you! We’ll keep looking. Come along Elspeth we’re leaving.
Back outside I told her I was going to call the police.
You certainly are not going to involve them! She admonished me. Which left me a bit stumped as to things I could do to help. We went back to the carpark.
Talk me through it again Elspeth. When did you drop it here?
And you were positive it was just here.
Yes I am, I always park here if I’m going to leave it over night.
We continued to stare at the empty bay.
What day is it?
Because I went to Norwich on Tuesday not yesterday, I’ve been there two nights!
Excellent! But did you still get the bus in when you went?
No! No I didn’t. I got a lift!
Not from home? Is your car at home Elspeth?
No its here I definitely drove into Aylsham, but I didn’t park here you’re right, I parked somewhere else and got a lift!
Brilliant! Let’s not tell them in Budgens. Where is it then?
I don’t know.
Then we shall find it!
And what followed was a lovely walk around town, catching up having not seen each other in a while, before eventually, in the last place we tried — the Buttlands for those who know it, furthest away from the middle of town — she was reunited with her car and we laughed and laughed before she set off home.
This was some time before she finally left Bintry and moved into the Aylsham manor, and funny as it was at the time, the memory took on a sadder tone as I heard about the cruelty of dementia gradually robbing her of so much, piece by piece in its vicious way. I’m glad it was a happy last meeting, but as is always the case, I wish I had known it was to be the last. But anyway, I don’t choose to think of it as being an early sign of dementia. It seemed utterly in character of Elspeth to have this kind of episode, her mind being full of far more interesting things than such fripperies as the whereabouts of a stupid car.
There are plenty more stories like this, from the well spring of tales recounting great parties, drunken escapades, almighty rows – a few perennial classics like the wig and sunglasses disguise to shield her from some illegality or other behind the wheel. The thing is you don’t need to know all that again. We all have — you all will have — your Bintry tales, your barking Barker stories, the hilarity and tears and joy and romance of what that pathetic little word ‘eccentric’ tries to conjure up. One of the most galling things about the stupidity of those people who gaze in from the outside as the carnival throws its spectacles and tricks, who laugh at the clown but offer trite little judgements when they feel a moral line has been crossed, who say inanities such as ‘Well they’re certainly a bunch of characters…’ the point they miss is that the show isn’t always on. And even if the wilder days clamed naturally as friends and family grew up and moved away and children had children of their own, there were always moments of calm even as the storms raged. And within it all, let this be remembered – Elspeth worked. For someone who confessed to having little domestic ability, she was eminently practical and industrious. Not only did she have a freezing damp farmhouse to manage, but five children and a veritable ark full of animals, and to top it all, a poet! And that’s before we even get to her other great achievements. Because she was, as a writer, a talent of exceptional and rare ability. She didn’t just write a novel which will be forever remembered as the best least-known novel of our time as Ali Smith put it, she also penned numerous pieces of literary criticism, and wrote magnificent essays on a wide range of subjects, and she taught, for a long time. I remember hearing about her when I was young and she was teaching at Runton Hill girls’ school alongside my mother who was in the music department – two wild, heavy smoking boozy beauties, hell bent on making sure the girls in their charge understood the world by talking to them ABOUT themselves and using their subjects – Latin in Mrs Barker’s case – as conduits for learning about life as maturing, young women, not prissy little girls who should stand in line and smile sweetly. She also taught older students at the Norwich Arts school in the much-lamented days when it was exactly that – a place for being schooled in the arts by a brilliant array of practitioners in many disciplines, and she later taught adults on residential Arvon courses, which it goes without saying would have been just blissful for all participants; imagine going on a working holiday and finding Elspeth not only as your companion, but also your guide and teacher. What all her students will have benefited from was her belief in the importance of stories – at all ages. Of great drama conveyed by the glories of great writing, of the telling of the affairs of heart and mind elevated to the status of the gods, whether through novels, poetry, or the great myths and legends. She believed not just in the cultural benefit of knowing this material, but of the essential role it plays in human happiness. One is reminded of the parents who decided that their children should be allowed no stories in their lives, only facts and truth. All books containing witches, wizards, monsters, gods and goddesses, mythical figures and classical heroines – all such nonsense shall be banned from the nursery. All seemed well with this plan until one night they were awoken by the sound of howling, and running to their children’s bedsides they asked them what’s wrong, why are you so frightened? Through their sobs and cries the children said – we’re terrified – there’s a complex hiding under the bed waiting to get us…
She was beloved at all the places she taught by students and colleagues alike, and not just because of her wit, her conviviality and glorious conversation, but because what coursed through her most strongly, and what had been a mainstay throughout her life was a vigorous and thrilling intelligence to be around, manifested predominantly through her infectious love of language. As she adored George and her children, so it seemed was she forever hopelessly besotted by words and went weak at the knees in the face of what a simple sentence could achieve – and if it was in her beloved Latin then so much the better! When one had conversations with Elspeth – about anything! – there was no choice but to be seduced by what came forth from her. It was as though she spoke in pre-formed sentences, carefully constructed with only the very best words for the job, not only to convey her meaning, but to load them with the gravity she intended – or the humour, or the element of wry critique. All peppered with her irrepressible hoot of a laugh which would shoot up and be followed with a pithy concluding epithet, murmured with all the solemnity of one quoting the motto from a Christmas cracker.
But even taking into account, that intellectualism and academia were not a source of stuffy elitism and silent reverent study for Elspeth, she was not a good student. One of her university colleagues describes her being gated by the Dean of Somerville college for daring to stay out after 10pm, and performing such shocking acts as climbing over the college walls to get back in. She missed tutorials and fell asleep in her exams after having tried to learn the entire course the night before by eating her way through packets of caffeine pills…she left without being awarded a degree. On moving to London, the stories which have become well known folk-tales about her began to take shape – the Nigerian dishwasher she worked alongside who fell for her, stalked her, and then announced that he had married her in her absence at the Nigerian high commission. The scraping by on pennies earned at Lyons Corner houses and of course eventually, by circuitous routes…George. And that lack of domestic ability she confessed to, was far more apparent in her youth, than after life in rural Norfolk forced her to up her game. On one occasion at Oxford she managed to come by the luxury of some real, ground coffee and invited a friend over to share it, swearing she knew how to use it. After emptying the contents into a saucepan of warm milk, it became abundantly clear, that she didn’t.
That she was able to relate so much with just the power of her words was telling. She used her prodigious gifts — as well as her legendary beauty — to great effect, because despite all this talent, and the sustained admiration of so many, she was and remained deeply unsure of herself. Often people with a surfeit of natural ability can find their true, deeper selves hard to live comfortably with. They can lack the confidence to take seriously what they are capable of, even believe their genius — and therefore themselves — are of little use at all. Drink, humour, outrageousness – all useful tools to distract from the unbearable truth of failing oneself. This world does not reward potential alone and although she clearly was thrilled by O Caledonia’s success, perhaps that old joke, often bandied around the literati in Norfolk, that her next book was always ‘nearly finished’ for which we should read, ‘nearly started’ cut a little more deeply than she let on. Someone who takes their talent – and indeed themselves – more seriously would have sprung into action back in the early 90’s and realised this it is! At last! My path is set, I’m going to hone my style and improve with each book and the reviewers will follow my progress my readership will grow they’ll forgive my tricky second book, but by the fifth I’ll be selling all around the world, and travelling, always, to splendid receptions and drinking champagne all day, I’ll be a famous writer I promise I promise I will be a famous glorious writer. Not really her style, in the end. The reason I have spent so much time extolling the virtues of O Caledonia to anyone who comes into the bookshop is because it remains a work of linguistic virtuosity and storytelling genius, and it doesn’t matter one jot that it’s the only novel she completed. ‘Imagine what she could have done if she’d only…’ people so often say. ‘Why?!’ They cry, ‘Why didn’t she…’ And perhaps it is because I am fortunate enough to have called her a friend that I don’t feel the loss of unwritten books as keenly those who have been turned onto her and want more. And I really did try to get her to produce some more work, but only I think because I liked the idea of encouraging her, when on our many car drives from Norwich to Aylsham she would talk about what an odd idea she found it that anyone would be interested in anything else she might produce. And if that’s where your mind is then the blank paper and the fountain pen are more daunting enemies than they are friends, however happy you know they can make you. I came to realise eventually that the friendly encouraging wasn’t helpful, as the emphasis began to change; you should write more you know unintentionally began to sound more like you should be writing more. And so I stopped asking, but I’ve never stopped fielding questions in the shop, and my reply is a heartfelt – doesn’t there just being one make it even more special? And anyway, instead of yet another career novelist, I’d rather be the fan of a woman who only turned out a single gem but shared her kitchen with a pig and watched the television with a duck on her lap.
Elspeth and I got to know each other in my adult life, having circled and bumped into each other throughout my childhood, when she came into the shop to chat about books. Not long after that she started regularly getting those lifts home to Aylsham with me, and on one of those early occasions she came to meet me in the shop for us to walk to the car together. (I will just add that one of her obituaries mentioned her appalling backseat driving which I can vouch for — it only took a roundabout to appear on the horizon and she would be curling into a ball in the seat, begging for reassurance that I’d spotted it). That night it was pouring with rain, and she staggered in out of the deluge, her only protection being a newspaper she had piled on her head. She placed it carefully on the ground, we dried her off and I got ready to leave. As we prepared to renter the flood, I offered her an umbrella. ‘No thank you,’ she replied, in a tone verging on disgust. ‘I do not believe in such things’. Well, they’re real enough I thought to myself as I got one anyway from the stand by the door and offered it to her. ‘Certainly not! This will do quite nicely thank you’, and bending down, she picked up the sodden mass of paper and rammed it back on to her head, holding it in place with one hand as she pushed the door open with the other and marched out into the street, where she stood waiting, peering back at me through the glass door. And of course, despite the scene, I was the one who felt the fool. I put the extra brolly down, went out and we set off down the road, side by side, me feeling like the overdressed idiot who’d come to a newspaper party in an umbrella.
She had a freedom about her spirit which was gloriously self-irreverential despite having experienced all the trappings of a formal, classical schooling and upbringing. Elspeth came from a place of freezing winds in stone corridors and books, books, books and above all poetry and dreams of impossibly romantic encounters with writers and poets which turned out not to be impossible after all and she was real to the core without even a whiff of affectation – note her phone book, where the number of the man who sold pig food was scrawled alongside the number for Hilary Mantel – and she was kind, and funny and brilliant. And of course, we won’t see her like again, of course we won’t. But whether we even see her type again is questionable. Stone corridors are centrally heated these days. Amo amas amat amounts to little within the grisly omnipotence of the curriculum. The moon still accepts her worshipers, but are there any left? The poets have taken to TikTok. In order to deter undesirable overnighters, Budgens has installed CCTV in the carpark…
And yet. There will always be dreamers. There will always be those little girls who feel the hum of life’s stories waiting to be told, the urge to be pulled into a world they don’t yet understand but are hopelessly drawn to. They will seek out the others like themselves, eventually making sense of things by putting one word in front of the other, day after day, even if the greater hardship is having the desire to write and repeatedly not putting those words down. As Elspeth said herself in the superb essay Words from the Henhouse, ‘There is a yawning abyss between wanting to have written and actually writing…’ But my prediction is this; these literary crusaders will find their Brontës, their Austens their Black Beauties and Lorna Doones, their Rimbaud their Shelly and Keats, Euripides and Horace, and on their travels they will whisper to each other another name. Barker. Barker. Elspeth Barker. Whose single singular novel will touch their lives as Elspeth touched all ours. And we know why. Even if they are yet to find out for themselves.
I’ll leave the final words to Elspeth herself. It’s an image I especially love of her a few years ago, describing with contentment a stage of life she was clearly enjoying – a newfound sense of liberation in older age. And being as its early May, it’s fitting to think that if we looked over to her garden we might see some of the bulbs she planted in bloom now…
“Well, I certainly know that I wouldn’t want to go through childhood again. The anxiety, the nightmares, the foreverness of school, the longing to be a grown up for they were always so nice to each other
At other times I think I have lived as long as anyone could. My infancy is so far away, across a wide pale strand, and at the end of the shore is darkness, a cave, origin. Ahead the great doom’s image lifts slowly over the horizon. Friends die. Mortality moves into the immediate. I am shocked and astonished as never before by the great number of people in the world each, like oneself, leading their one and only precious life. I am aware, with a certain fatality, of the beats and the missed beats of my heart.
My children are grown up and still my favourite people. They are also as alarming and nerve-wracking as when they were small.
And I realise now that this is a fine time. I don’t care about being young or old or whatever. I am past the anxieties of earlier days, no longer concerned about image or identity or A-levels, no longer fearful of shop assistants or doctor’s receptionists. I can admit without giving a damn to being a slut, liking salad cream, holding certain politically incorrect views.
At this interesting point of life, one may be whoever and whatever age one chooses. One may drink all night, smash bones in hunting accidents, travel the spinning globe. One may teach one’s grandchildren rude rhymes and Greek myths. One may also move very slowly round the garden in a shapeless coat, planting drifts of narcissus bulbs for latter springs.”