Bernice Rubens was the first woman to win the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1970.
She was born Bernice Ruth Reuben in Glossop Terrace on 26 July 1923. A lot of you are probably now thinking, well that’s not very special, I was born there or my Mum or Dad were born there. Yes, Glossop Terrace was home to the maternity clinic and where many Cardiffians first saw the light of day. But Bernice was born at 9 Glossop Terrace, not in the maternity clinic but immediately next door to it.
Nearby Tredegaville Infants School provided her early education. After that she went to Roath Park Girls School. She either used to catch the tram up City Road and call into Woolworth on Albany Road on the way to school or used to get a lift to school on the handlebars of her brother’s bike.
She came from a Jewish family. Her maternal grandparents, Millie and Wolf Cohen, lived in Riverside and had fled Poland carrying just the family sewing machine. Wolf made his living in the drapery business and had his workshop in the attic room. As a child Bernice used to enjoy playing with the button box in her grandfather’s workshop. He had been given the sole concession to make uniforms for American Marine Officers serving overseas.
Bernice was the third of four children born to ‘Dolly’ Cohen, daughter of Millie and Wolf, who had trained as a primary school teacher and was a suffragette. Dolly did a lot of work with local Jewish charities; the blind, infirm and the elderly.
Every Friday the Rueben family travelled across Cardiff to go to the synagogue. She dryly noted that there was another synagogue in Cardiff; there had to be a second one so that they could quarrel with each other.
Her father was Eli Ruben, who had fled from Latvia carrying just two violins with him. He arrived in Hamburg hoping to purchase a ticket to America but got swindled by a ticket salesman and ended up in Cardiff. He took Cardiff to be New York for a full week on arrival. Lots of other Jews ended up in UK rather than America as a result of a similar swindle. This was the only story Eli told of his youth, none of former life in Latvia. He never forgot his refugee status and would continue to remind his children that the family were guests in this country.
Eli became a credit draper i.e. someone who would clothes on credit. He used to travel up to the valley towns on a Saturday to distribute the clothes orders and collect the payments. Bernice would accompany him on those trips sometimes. She remembers Eli being much loved in the valleys and being welcomed with a cup of strong tea and a scone. They would hear the miners signing as they finished their shifts at the mine and were returning home.
The Reubens family were not well-off. Bernice was the third youngest of four children. Clothes were passed down the generations of children regardless of taste or gender. The violins that travelled from Latvia and the substandard piano with candlesticks at either end were played a lot by the children in Glossop Terrace household. From this humble start all her siblings had professional careers in classical music. Bernice didn’t like the sound of the violin and was mindful of the hand-me-down tradition in the household and preferred the cello which was beyond the means of the family so the violin got passed down from Beryl, the second oldest, to Cyril, the youngest.
Went onto attend Cardiff High school for Girls in The Parade. She played cello in the orchestra. She tells how after much persuasion she became the proud owner of a brand new Burberry coat with the hem turned up in expectation that she would grow but she never did grow and remained five foot one and a half inches for the rest of her life.
In the evenings she would parade up and down Albany Road with other girls from Cardiff High, having sneakily changed out of school uniform. The primary purpose seemed to be to meet boys from the neighbouring Boys High School for Boys on Newport Road. If the girls were lucky it would end up with a quick kiss in a shop doorway of Albany Road, but only the one she stresses.
The family used to go to Porthcawl in the summer and stay in a property owned by the Sidoli family, the owners of the large ice-cream business in South Wales.
In spring 1939 the Rubens family took in fourteen year old Hugo Gross from Hamburg, one of the Kindertransport refugees fleeing Nazi Germany at the onset of WWII. His parents never made it out of Germany. He stayed with the Reubens family throughout the war but later a wealthy benefactor in New York made contact, a former mistress of father, and Hugo emigrated to USA to live with her.
The onset of war bought bomb drills in Cardiff High for Girls, the donning gas masks and filing down to the basement cloakrooms. The family moved into their grandmother’s house in Brook Street, Riverside in the war so that all the family could be together, but she still travelled back across Cardiff to attend school. In one air raid their windows were blown in. Not having a cellar room or an air raid shelter in their Brook Street house they were invited to shelter in the neighbour’s cellar. The only thing was that the neighbour also ran the local brothel, an educative experience for naive Bernice.
One night an air raid destroyed houses on the other side of the street. Rather than stay in Riverside and risk further raids the family evacuated to a farm just outside Cardiff and within easy reach of a train station so the children could continue to travel into Cardiff by train to attend school.
He parents took advantage of the fall in house prices in the war and after six months living in the countryside they moved back into the city and purchased 101 Kimberley Road, Penylan in ‘the habitat of the upwardly mobile’.
They had left the old piano at Glossop Terrace for the use by the now extended maternity hospital, possibly to lullaby newly born babies to sleep. A new piano was in place in Kimberley Road, won by Harold at an Eisteddfod competition and one that Bernice turned down in preference to playing a cello out of tune. So what happened to her siblings?
Cyril ended up playing in the London symphony Orchestra. Beryl after a time aboard returned to Cardiff and played in the Welsh National Opera. Harold, the eldest was the most talented and successful. He quickly exhausted the teaching capabilities of the local teachers early. He was sent away to London at a young age to further his learning of the piano with Madame Levinskaya. Each weekend Harold would travel to London for lessons. His study with Madame Levinskaya is the subject of Bernice’s book, ‘Madame Sousatzka’, which subsequently was made into a film starring Shirley MacLaine in the title role.
She attended Cardiff University in the war years and read English. She had thought about staying on to complete a BEd but wanted to escape Cardiff and a flirtatious ‘non-affair’ with one of her tutors so instead found a job teaching at Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham. Although she enjoyed the teaching she was out-spoken about the headmaster’s corporal punishment sessions and was subsequently dismissed but with excellent references.
The war ended but instead of returning to live in Cardiff Bernice moved to London. She recalls visiting the family in Cardiff occasionally. Her mother passed away in 1987 and a few days later Bernice says her childhood home of Glossop Terrace was demolished. Gone were the houses and the communal garden to be replaced by a car park with only one tree, a sycamore, remaining in the corner. Both the car park and sycamore tree have in the past year themselves been replaced, this time by the West Wing Student Accommodation block.
She settled in London working as a teacher, although maintained close links to her parents back in Cardiff to the extent that he mother used to send her a roast chicken every Friday by train. The guard on the train would have the responsibility of safely transporting the said chicken and of handing it over to Bernice who would collect it personally at Paddington station.
She once almost missed the opportunity of meeting her future husband as a result of having to rush off to Paddington to collect the weekly chicken. Whilst having a coffee in a Swiss Cottage cafe she was asked if she could do a favour by Dannie Abse, another author and Jew from the Roath area of Cardiff. Dannie asked if she could pass a message onto a friend of his, Rudi. She was about to leave the cafe to walk to Paddington station just as Rudi arrived. She passed on the message but didn’t miss the opportunity to return an hour or so later and ask him around to share the chicken from Wales.
Hans Rudolf ‘Rudi’ Nassauer was the son of a German wine shipper. The Nassauer’s were another family that had escaped Nazi Germany and fled to England. They didn’t warm to the prospect of their son marrying Bernice, someone who supported their Ridi’s ambition of being a writer rather than going into the Nassauer family business. They married on 29th Dec 1947 at the Windsor Place synagogue on Cathedral Road. They had a troubled marriage, his frequent infidelity being blamed for a lot according to Bernice. It eventually ended in divorce but not before they had two daughters, Sharon and Rebecca. She stayed in contact with Rudi throughout his life.
In her memoir Bernice describes regularly moving house in London over the years, the motivation was amusingly seemingly always based on the need for a new oven.
After leaving teaching Bernice had a successful career starting with the making of documentary films initially about disability and then a variety of foreign assignments. Interestingly, her authorship is not a major feature of her memoir. Only later in the book when the subject of her writing being made into films does she expand. The winning of the Booker Prize is glossed over. She relates the experiences of having to go on book selling tours and of her memories of being on judging panels of literary prizes. She is critical of some judges choices advising people to have more faith maybe in those novels that have made it onto the shortlist rather than just the outright winners. She had a strong friendship with the author Beryl Bainbridge with whom she would tutor as part of creative-writing courses in North Wales. Their joint love of soap operas seemed to be a strong part of this friendship.
Her first novel ‘Set on Edge’ was published in 1960. It was with her fifth novel ‘The Elected Member’ that she became the first female winner of the Booker Price in 1970. The novel tells of troubled Norman Zweck, from a close-knit Jewish family in the East End of London. He is addicted to amphetamines and is convinced that he sees silverfish wherever he goes. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Literature describes Rubens’s narratives as being written ‘in a precise, straightforward style which accommodating her extremes of imagination and quirky humour’.
Tracking the genealogy of Bernice Reuben is made slightly challenging at times as she adopted a different spelling of her surname. She was born Reuben, a name she still when married in 1947, but later changes it to Rubens.
Bernice Rubens died in London on October 13, 2004 having completed the first draft of her memoirs which was later published under the title ‘When I Grow Up’ and had been the principal source of information in this blog. A surprisingly large proportion of the book covers her life growing up in Cardiff and her subsequent return visits. Her humour comes through in the writing as does an insight into the Cardiff Jewish community and traditions. I found it an interesting read which is surprising given that it antagonised me on the first page when she described Splott as ‘the unmentionable and undisputable armpit of Cardiff’. I’ll put it down to a quirky sense of humour.
Refs & additional material:
From the Writers Write website:
Eight Quotes by Bernice Rubens:
- If you’re a writer there will come at least one morning in your life when you wake up and want to kill your agent.
- [On being a judge for the 1986 Booker Prize:] I got to the point where I couldn’t read a laundry list without considering it for the Booker Prize.
- I have a kind of habit – I write the book then I do the research to see if I got it right. That’s what normally happens.
- I don’t particularly enjoy writing, I love having written. I like having ideas – I can have them when I’m in bed or something, nowhere near my desk. Then I can develop them and when I get up I write them. They may not sound so good when you write them down, but I like that aspect very much, when you’re developing in your mind. That’s very exciting.
- I think I’ve done my bit for teaching because I taught a lot of creative writing, and that’s nice, when you discover a new talent.
- [On The Booker]… it’s a good prize to win. It doesn’t mean to say you’ve written the best book.
- A book’s a book, a film’s a film, and if it’s different I don’t get offended.
- I don’t think I would find a publisher now. They don’t read the books, they weight them, and their accountants play a very huge part in it. It helps to be young, it helps to be pretty, which means you can go on telly – it’s all PR now.