Many cities have a literary history, but few have a literary canon – a collection of writers intrinsically associated with a city and its culture. Growing up in Nottingham, I quickly realized that the city I was born in had both of these things. For Nottingham, literature means troublemakers like Alan Sillitoe, trailblazers like Lord Byron and provocateurs like DH Lawrence. When you think of high art and the art of Nottingham, these three names are never far from the conversation. Well Named. These three great writers changed the course of literature – three we can be proud of.
However, someone is missing here. Surely, Booker Prize winner Stanley Middleton also deserves a spot on this list. There is no typical path to literary stardom. For every prodigious talent that knocks out a groundbreaking work before its 25th anniversary, hundreds, if not thousands, take a less direct path to the top. Then there are those other types of writers – those who were bitten by the literary bug early on and decide to dedicate their lives to crafting. They find their passion, persevere and put in the hours – and blood, sweat and tears – with little fanfare before they finally strike gold.
Stanley Middleton falls into the latter category. Born in Bulwell on the north-west border of Nottingham in 1919, Middleton was already committed to his craft when he reached his university years, writing and publishing short stories and articles with impressive zeal. However, it will be another few decades before he publishes his first novel. A short answer arrives in 1958, the first great success of what will become a brilliant career.
Seeing their name and work in print is the crowning achievement for many would-be novelists – a sign that all that toil and labor has finally paid off. For Middleton, however, it was just the beginning. He was not yet 40 and there was still a lot to do. But the question of income was pressing, of the “day job” of which young dreamers are so often told, “not to let go”. So, by day, he was a teacher at his old school – High Pavement Grammar. At night, however – and perhaps any other hour he found for himself – he was not a teacher but a writer in his own right. A pretty good one too.
Teaching may have been Middleton’s profession, but writing was his calling. He was a man with other things on his mind – big things, it would turn out. Still, he was a brilliant and popular teacher at school. Those whom Mr Middleton taught were full of praise for their firm, fair and sometimes unorthodox English teacher who sought to get the best out of his pupils. High Pavement Grammar welcomed their former student with open arms, trusting the young man (they would eventually appoint him Head of Department), and a double life began to unfold, that of teacher and author.
Stanley has amply repaid this faith. He got to work, publishing Harris Requiem just two years later, adding a third novel soon after. Between 1960 and 1964 he published one book a year, racking up six in total before he turned 45. He was a novelist who really spread his wings. Two more books followed over the next four years, and he celebrated a decade of published authorship with his eighth complete book, The golden eveningin 1968.
Impressive stuff, sure, but the next decade will push Middleton’s career beyond the stratosphere. In 1974, his status as a literary legend was assured when he published Holiday, his 14th book, was critically acclaimed. This work caused such a stir that it ended up at the top of the pile at the Booker Prize that year, ultimately share the distinction with South African author Nathalie Gordimer. The award was part of Nottingham’s proud literary tradition for the first time, and so far the only one.
It was therefore Stanley Middleton’s ticket to immortality, his star engraved in the collective identity of Nottingham, the city he loved all his life. A local boy and prolific novelist at the height of his powers with a major international award under his belt – the stage was set for our hero to take the literary canon by storm. The story, however, had other ideas. Something, for some reason, didn’t quite click.
The 1970s were a decade of cultural and political upheaval in the UK. The three-day week, strikes by coal miners and railway workers, Bloody Sunday and growing violence between Republican and Unionist groups in Northern Ireland have caused much uproar. The beginnings of the punk movement, The Exorcist, scaring moviegoers and readers, hard rock excess and Ziggy Stardust. In the midst of it all we have Stanley Middleton and one of the most prestigious awards in the literary landscape — perhaps the more prestigious after the Nobel Prize. What is Holiday’s place in the political and social discourse of the time?
In truth, neither the author nor the work really belong anywhere. Neither is quite in tune with the cultural landscape of the time. Holiday follows Edwin Fisher, a teacher and future playwright who finds himself fleeing his home in Nottingham after a traumatic breakup with his wife, Meg. His path takes him down the same trajectory as his childhood holidays, and he finds himself in a boarding house in an unnamed village on the Lincolnshire coast. It is along this coastline that the title party takes place, as have generations of Nottinghamites in villages such as Skegness and Cleethorpes.
Edwin’s getaway is not just a vacation from Nottingham or Meg, but a vacation from life. As the world pulls away from him, he brakes, takes a moment to collect his thoughts, and puts aside all the things that bother him. Except that all those “stuff” have a habit of coming back, spoiling his search for clarity. While Edwin is not enjoying his time on the coast, he struggles with the thought of the young man he is no more, the childhood he no longer has and the responsibilities he cannot escape. . Fisher must reflect on his life as he becomes entangled in the lives, loves, and hobbies of other vacationers in town for the summer.
Holiday is a bit different from some of Middleton’s early work. It’s a bit bitter, cynical and perhaps more philosophical than A golden eveningfor example, written only six years ago. Holiday tackles uncomfortable topics — aging, failure, a failing marriage — while moments of heartfelt darkness and self-reflection dot the pages.
This self-reflection gives rise to an introspective story. Holiday’s world is small; it’s restrained, claustrophobic even. It is disengaged from the great themes of the time and perhaps lacks a bit of the chaotic spirit of the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Like Sillitoe did, Middleton writes about what he knows, which means bags of wealth and personality for readers of Holiday enjoy. But the disconnect with the tumult of the time could also be one of the reasons why Middleton’s work fell from public consciousness. Maybe that’s why Holiday does not feature more prominently on the roll call of Nottingham’s great literary works.
And then there’s the styling. In this direction, Holiday is a special novel. Just like the growl and bite of Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938) or Saturday evening and Sunday morning (1951) by Sillitoe, these works appear contemporary, despite being decades old. Holiday also feels out of place, stylistically, in its time. Only, while Greene and Sillitoe are running hopelessly ahead of their time in their novels, Middleton seems content to be a little behind. References to A-levels, football on TV, and color print shops allude to the action set in the 60s or early 70s, but these references contradict the realistic style prose that feels after or even before the war.
I don’t want to criticize too harshly. Middleton was an excellent writer, a deserved Booker Laureate and a cornerstone of our literary culture here in Nottingham. It’s just that he, like so many others over the years, fell victim to fashion. It just didn’t toe the line regarding ’70s subject matter or the post-post-modern stylistic flourishes of late 20th-century writing. Granted, Middleton may not have revolutionized literature with his writing, but he certainly wasn’t going to be bullied or dictated in terms of style and content. He had a story to tell and, above all, a voice to tell it – a voice of his own.
In truth, our Stanley was well aware of the criticism leveled against him, and yet he was rebellious.
“Provincial. Limitation of the subject. A certain flatness of language. Absence of larger gestures. Clumsiness” he written in his novel Two brothers, published in 1978, as a fictionalized obituary for the book writer’s protagonist. “But. But. But. Characterized by deep sincerity, a unique eye, an attachment to reality, a love of humanity and the cityscapes of his Midland home… Poet of the prosaic.
You can’t help but feel that Middleton peeked at himself as he wrote this, sticking two neat, dignified fingers at the critics who wrote him off. If you’re going to be a “poet of the prosaic,” then do it on your terms. On his terms – that was Middleton in a nutshell. Regardless of fashion, regardless of trends and expectations, our hero has remained true to his positions. He wrote for himself and for literature – not for the shelves of Woolworths or the Booker committee – and so he won one of literature’s greatest prizes. Good for you, Stan.
Middleton would never again reach the heights of those heady days of 1974, but his career was far, far from over. another book, Entertainment, followed in 1975, and he knocked out just about one novel every year for the rest of his life. True to form, he had just completed yet another work… A cautious approach – when he died in 2009, a week before his 90th birthday. The novel was released posthumously the following year.
Middleton was a surprisingly prolific novelist and artist working with Nottingham and its cast of characters as his backdrop. He was also a musician, playing the organ at St. Mark’s Methodist Church in Bulwell, and apainter – his watercolors adorn the covers of many books, both those written by himself and by others. And how about an “anti-elitist icon”? Middleton, like Philip Larkin and Evelyn Waugh, refused an honor of the Queen recognizing his services to literature.
It’s safe to say there’s a lot going on here – Stanley Middleton, Nottingham’s own award-winning hero, can be defined in many different ways. For most of us, however, he is best remembered as the man who one day in 1974 brought the Booker Prize to Bulwell. Whether or not his name is mentioned in the same breath as Byron, Lawrence or Sillitoe, it’s something worth admiring. So for that, Stanley, and so much more, the people of Nottingham are eternally grateful.