Review: Helen Bellany: Portrait of a Marriage ***

Edinburgh International Book Festival

Helen Bellany: Portrait of a Marriage

Baillie Gifford Main Theatre, Charlotte Square

15:15 (17 August only)

*** (3 stars)

One of the unexpected delights of this event was that it was chaired by Richard Holloway, whom I’d had the pleasure of hearing the previous day talking about his most recent book Waiting for the last bus, and I’d expected further delights from hearing Helen Bellany talking about the man she married twice – the painter John Bellany. If you frequent Scottish galleries at all you will be familiar with his huge gloomy portraits of almost Calvinistic fish-gutters and fishermen and the boats he saw every day in his native Port Seton on the East Lothian coast. He died in 2013, having been expected to die in the 1980s, when his liver was collapsing under the weight of all the alcohol he had consumed – but the then radical new development in medicine, the liver transplant, was made available to him in 1988, giving him a second chance at life, in which he painted, in Helen’s words, almost “in a rage of joy”.

Helen read us passages from her book The Restless Wave and filled in the gaps with explanations. She grew up in remote Sutherland, when a trip to Inverness was the equivalent of a voyage to the ends of the universe. She got a place at the prestigious Edinburgh College of Art, where her first sight of John at a rag week entertainment was, to her, extraordinary: they quickly got together. After college they moved down to London, ready to take on the world – but already married and with their first child on the way, life gradually became increasingly challenging for Helen: she found herself isolated with their growing family of children while John, with his incredible joie de vivre and insatiable appetite for life, was out making the most of everything that came his way. The writing was on the wall for anyone who cared to read it, and eventually the two separated, with John never quite understanding why. The good news is that, after a number of unhappy years, circumstances brought them together again, and the love that had always existed between them bore fruit in their second, happy, marriage.

It’s hard to put my finger on quite why this session was so underwhelming. I think it’ may be because Helen is such an unassuming, retiring person that she doesn’t want or enjoy any time in the spotlight – though she did light up from time to time when recounting anecdotes about John. In no way does she come over either as a doormat or resenting the challenges she’s faced in her life: she is simply aware of, and accepts, the fact of John’s genius and that he operated on different rules from the rest of us – “ a logic entirely his own”. She writes simply and clearly, and I should like to read her book and learn more about her life with John – but I don’t know whether I will end up knowing anything more about Helen herself: as she says, “John took up all the space”.

Mary Woodward