Verity Bargate appeared briefly at Wolverton Grammar School during the mid-50s, perhaps just for one year in 1956-1957 when she completed her O-levels. She boarded at Wolverton House while she was there. She was a year or so older than me and I don’t recall having anything to do with her. However I do remember her as a very lively character and my sense is that she kept the Senior Mistress, Miss Full, occupied. She went on to achieve some distinction as a writer and theatre director but it came at a cost as the biography from the DNB makes evident, and is quoted in full below. As children we have no idea what lies under the surface of the lives of other children, so the DNB biography, written by the theatre critic Irving Wardle, came as a complete surprise.
The girl did, however, have talent. I found these pieces from the school magazines of Autumn 1956 and Spring 1957, which may be the first example of her writing in print and it does show a precocious talent. At the age of 16 most of us were writing rather stodgy school essays, but this, on re-reading it now after 60 years, illustrates a gift for language. Her vocabulary, style, her sharp observation and humour should have marked her out at that age for a career grounded in writing. Instead, she was encouraged to train as a nurse when she left school in 1957, something that she was apparently unsuited for. Sadly, in 1957, intelligent and educated women were given few choices – secretarial work, nursing, teaching or marriage. Take your pick!
The Grammar school is ancient now,But bright with many a hue;And rules are drawn up everywhereWhat not—and what to do.Few rooms are held as out of bounds,Except perhaps for two,From which from time to time come soundsNot much unlike the zoo.Inside there is a smoky hazeThrough which dim shapes are seenAnd books are piled up in a maze—Which shows that someone’s keen!Sanctum sanctorum—how they laugh!For these two rooms are for the Staff!Verity Bargate, 5T. (Autumn 1956)
We were making the long, dreary journey to London and going past the grimy factories and embankments of Dagenham and East Ham, when my attention was drawn in rather an unusual way to the elderly couple sitting opposite me.
The husband with his wrinkled face and snowy hair was describing the view from the window to his frail little wife, whose eyes were shining as she listened to his words. The unusual thing was that the view the husband was describing was far more like the Elysian Fields than the dreary prospect of smoke-grimed chimneys and endless grey wails in front of us.
He told his wife of green hedges, golden corn and blue, blue skies; of cattle grazing peacefully on dewy sward and small boys running with careless abandon through waist-high grass; of an occasional golfer trying desperately to get out of a bunker and thus put an end to his humiliation.
All this I heard with growing wonder, and it was only as we drew into a station and the couple rose to get out that realisation dawned on my until then uncomprehending senses. The wife walked with a white stick and was totally blind.
Verity Bargate, 5.T. (Autumn 1956)
ON BEING OWNED BY A DOG
We own a dog. Please do not be misled by that relatively mild statement. It would have been better to say a dog owns us. She is, ostensibly, a dachshund. Her mother definitely was; her father, I fear, is unknown. Although we usually call her Mitzi-Mary there are, as always, variations on this theme, and she is registered in the Kennel Club as Tugboat-Annie. When she was taken to the Kennel Club to be “identified” the judge, after a long examination, said she thought she must be a dachshund because she didn’t know what else she could be. If Mitzi was hurt when she heard this, she didn’t show it, but she was rather subdued on the homeward journey.
She was not acquired because we wanted another dog, she was thrust upon us in such a way that it was impossible to refuse. The alternative was a brick and a bucket of water. My mother went to see her owner merely to please a friend who had said she would. A rickety shed was unlocked, a voice said “Here’s Baby” and a tiny, bandy legged little thing staggered out, blinking in the bright sunlight. She was in a very bad condition, through sheer neglect, but she gave my mother such an appealing glance that—well …. She came home in state in a handbag and immediately made us all her slaves. She was so weak and helpless, and so very, very small.
Weak ? Helpless ? Small ? It seems incredible now to think that any one of those adjectives could ever have been applied to Mitzi. She is large, strong and independent. At first we were under the impression that she was to be a miniature dachs.—-at six weeks, she could have turned into almost anything, but as she grew and grew (and grew) our hopes diminished and finally disappeared altogether. We resigned ourselves to the fact that we had on our hands a Dog Dubious. Some of her features are definitely of German origin, and it is difficult to trace just where she starts to go astray.
She is devoted to us and we all adore her, so of course she is excessively spoilt. I think, however, that it would take a heart of stone to resist the appeal in those large brown eyes; her left front leg, which is unashamedly about as bandy as the right; the really enormous feet, the long silky ears that are the colour of autumn leaves, and the way she sits, head on one side, looking at you, pleading, wheedling, coaxing, hoping and above all, trusting.
I think I am right when I say that we all hope that when, and if, we get to heaven, the first thing that we shall see will be a small brown bomb careering madly towards us, wings and halo left far behind, ears flying and eyes shut, over the green velvet of the Elysian Fields.
Verity Bargate (Spring 1957)
The biography below is taken from the DNB.
Bargate [married names Proud, Keeffe], Verity Eileen (1940–1981), theatre producer and novelist, was born on 6 August 1940 in Exeter, the second child of Ronald Arthur Bargate, electrical shopkeeper and later sales manager in the London Metal Warehouse, and his wife, Eileen Dewes. Her childhood was disrupted by her parents’ divorce in 1944, followed by her mother’s departure to Australia, leaving Bargate and her elder brother Simon for four years in the care of their father. When her mother returned it was with a new husband, Clarke Taylor, a Royal Air Force doctor, who installed his new family in air force bases at Hornchurch, Essex, and Bicester, Oxfordshire, and dispatched his stepdaughter to a succession of boarding-schools and holiday homes. In later years she described her upbringing as that of a ‘middle-class charity child’ (private information).On leaving school Bargate trained as a nurse at the Westminster Hospital, London, where she qualified as a state registered nurse and supplemented her income with private nursing. Although she was emotionally and physically unsuited to this profession (in which she came to rely on the ‘pep pills’ that sowed the seeds of her future intermittent spells of ill health), it was five years before she abandoned nursing and took a job with a media analysis firm in Paddington, London, where she remained until her meeting and subsequent marriage on 14 February 1970 to Frederick Proud, with whom she had two sons, Sam Valentine (b. 1971) and Thomas Orlando (b. 1973).Proud was an aspirant director who had studied at the Rose Bruford College, and with Bargate he launched the Soho Theatre at an address in New Compton Street in 1969, as a somewhat late arrival on London’s lunchtime theatre scene. With a policy of offering new and little-known work at low prices, it established itself as a home of good acting and arresting texts—which ranged from modern English and American plays to Sheridan and Cervantes. Reviewers got to know Bargate as the beautiful long-legged girl on the door. She had no theatrical experience but she knew about public relations work, and one reason for the theatre’s success was her ability to win over the press with intelligence, good humour, and excellent home-cooked food. Even so, its position was precarious; and in 1971 it was obliged to quit its original premises for a temporary home at the King’s Head Theatre in Upper Street, Islington (to which it introduced lunchtime shows), before finding a more secure base in Riding House Street (behind Broadcasting House) in the following year, and changing its name to the Soho Poly.Shortly after this move the marriage collapsed, leaving Bargate (from 1975) as the theatre’s sole artistic director. She seldom directed shows herself; instead she emerged as a persistent and effective encourager of new talent. Policy for her meant ‘putting on what I liked’ (private information). This involved extending the lunchtime programme to full-length evening productions; opening the doors to women directors and designers; and concentrating exclusively on living writers with whom she worked as a catalyst and a midwife. Not all of them were full-time playwrights. The actor Bob Hoskins claims that she saved him from insanity by letting him present his one-man piece, The Bystander, as a therapeutic exercise. Among those whose careers advanced from the Poly to other stages were Hanif Kureishi, Tony Marchant, Micheline Wandor, Caryl Churchill, and Barrie Colin Keeffe (b. 1945), whose studies of alienated working-class youth spoke for a hitherto voiceless generation.In Keeffe Bargate found a second partner who also persuaded her to embark on writing of her own; from this point her life underwent a powerful and subsequently fatal acceleration. Until now she had played the public role of a hopeful supporter of others, which had masked her spells of ill health and her private sense of oncoming calamity. She was convinced that, like her mother, she would die at the age of forty, and it was of great significance to her that her birthday fell on the same date as that of the bombing of Hiroshima. The dark side of her nature now found expression in her writing. With grim logic, her birth as a novelist coincided with the onset of cancer, and the remainder of her life became a neck-and-neck race between creativity and disease.Of Bargate’s three books, No Mama No was published in 1978, and Children Crossing in 1979. At the insistence of her publisher Tit for Tat (1981) was rewritten in its entirety, even though Bargate had one arm in a sling at the time. Her subjects were the lies and cruelties of the sexual contract, and the emotional wounds parents and children inflict on each other. Terrible things happen. A seaside holiday ends with the children dead under a juggernaut: mastectomy becomes an instrument of sexual revenge. But the narrative voice is irresistible, and connects the immediate events to a deep well of early pain.Verity Bargate died in Greenwich Hospital, London, on 18 May 1981, two months after her marriage on 14 February to Keeffe and a month after the publication of her final book. Her ashes were scattered on the lake of Lewisham crematorium. Her memorials are her books, her theatre, and the annual Verity Bargate award for short plays.