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Why Is Booker Prize Winner Stanley Middleton Forgotten?

Lord Byron, D.H. Lawrence, and Alan Sillitoe loom large over Nottingham’s literary landscape. Why is Book Prize winner Stanley Middleton not among them?

Stanley Middleton
Windmill (paperback)
November 2014

Plenty of cities have a literary history, but few have a literary canon — a collection of writers inherently associated with a city and its culture. Growing up in Nottingham, I quickly became aware that the city I was born in had both of these things. For Nottingham, literature means rabble-rousers like Alan Sillitoe, pioneers like Lord Byron, and provocateurs like D.H. Lawrence. When we think of the great art and artistry of Nottingham, these three names are never far from the conversation. Rightly so. These three great writers changed the course of literature — three to be proud of.

However, someone is missing here. Surely, the Booker Prize-winning Stanley Middleton deserves a place on this list too. There is no typical journey to literary stardom. For every prodigious talent who knocks out a groundbreaking work before their 25th birthday, hundreds — even thousands — take a less direct route to the top. Then there are those other types of authors — those bitten by the literary bug early and decide to devote their lives to the craft. They find their passion, knuckle down, and put in the hours — and the blood, the sweat, and the tears — to little fanfare before finally striking gold.

Stanley Middleton is in this latter category. Born in Bulwell on Nottingham’s northwest boundary 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. It would be another couple of decades, however, before he published his debut novel. A Short Answer arrived in 1958, the first major success of what would become a glittering career.

Seeing their name and work in print is the crowning achievement for many would-be novelists — the sign that all that toil and labour has finally borne fruit. For Middleton, however, it was just the beginning. He was not yet 40 years old, and there was still much to come. But the question of income was pressing, of the “day job” that young dreamers are so often told, “not to give up”. So by day, he was a teacher at his old school — High Pavement Grammar. By night, though — and perhaps by any other hour he found for himself — he was not a teacher but a fully-fledged writer. A rather good one at that.

Teaching may have been Middleton’s profession, but writing was his calling. This was a man with other things on his mind — great things, it would turn out. Yet still, he was a brilliant teacher and popular at the school. Those who Mr. Middleton taught are full of praise for their firm, fair, and sometimes unorthodox English teacher, who sought to get the best out of his students. High Pavement Grammar welcomed their alumnus with open arms, putting their faith in the young man (they would eventually make him head of the department), and a double life began to unfold — that of teacher and author.

Stanley repaid this faith in a big way. He got to work, publishing Harris’s Requiem just two years later, adding a third novel soon after. Between 1960 and 1964, he published a book a year, racking up six in total before he’d turned 45. This was a novelist truly spreading his wings. Two more works followed in the next four years, and he celebrated a decade of published authorship with his eighth full-length book, The Golden Evening, in 1968.

Impressive stuff, certainly, but the next decade would push Middleton’s career beyond the stratosphere. In 1974, his literary-legend status was secured when he published Holiday, his 14th book, to enormous critical acclaim. This work caused such a stir that it found its way to the top of the pile at the Booker Prize that year, eventually sharing the accolade with South African author Nathalie Gordimer. The prize was part of Nottingham’s proud literary tradition for the first, and so far only, time.

So there it was, Stanley Middleton’s ticket to immortality, his star etched into the collective identity of Nottingham — the city he loved all his life. A local boy and a 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. History, however, had other ideas. Something, for whatever reason, did not quite click.

The 1970s was a decade of cultural and political upheaval in the United Kingdom. The three-day week, strikes by coal miners and railway workers, Bloody Sunday, and mounting violence between Republican and Unionist groups in Northern Ireland caused much tumult. The beginnings of the punk movement, The Exorcist, scaring the hell out of (or into) moviegoers and readers alike, hard rock excess, and Ziggy Stardust. In the middle of all this, we have Stanley Middleton and one of the most prestigious awards in the literary landscape — perhaps the most prestigious after the Nobel Prize. Where does Holiday figure in the political and social discourse of the day?

In truth, neither author nor work truly fits in anywhere. Neither is quite in step with the cultural landscape of the time. Holiday follows Edwin Fisher, a teacher and would-be playwright who finds himself fleeing his home in Nottingham after a traumatic breakup with his wife, Meg. His path takes him along the same trajectory as his childhood holidays, and he ends up in a boarding house in an unnamed village on the Lincolnshire coast. It is along this coastline that the holiday of the title unfolds, just as it has for generations of Nottingham residents in villages like Skegness and Cleethorpes.

Edwin’s jaunt is not just a holiday from Nottingham or Meg, but a holiday from life. As the world gets away from him, he puts the brakes on, takes a moment to collect his thoughts, and puts all the things that have been bothering him to one side. Except, all of these ‘things’ have a habit of creeping back in, spoiling his search for clarity. As Edwin fails to enjoy his time on the coast, he wrestles with the thought of the young man he no longer is, the childhood he no longer has, and the responsibilities he cannot escape. Fisher is left to reflect upon his life while entangled in the lives, loves, and leisure of the other holidaymakers in town for the summer.

Holiday is a little different from some of Middleton’s earlier work. It’s a little bitter, cynical, and perhaps more philosophical than A Golden Evening, for example, penned only six years before. Holiday tackles uncomfortable subjects — ageing, failure, a faltering marriage — as moments of sincere darkness and self-reflection pepper the pages.

This self-reflection makes for an introspective story. The world of Holiday is small; it’s restricted, claustrophobic even. It is disengaged from the grander themes of the day and perhaps lacks some of the chaotic spirit of the times. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. As Sillitoe did, Middleton is writing about what he knows, which means bags of richness and personality for readers of Holiday to enjoy. But the disconnection with the tumult of the time could also be one of the reasons why Middleton’s work has fallen out of the public consciousness. This could be why Holiday does not feature more prominently on Nottingham’s roll call of great literary works.

And then there is the style. In this sense, Holiday is a peculiar novel. Just like the snarl and bite of Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938) or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1951) by Sillitoe, these works feel contemporary, despite being many decades old. Holiday also feels out of place, stylistically, in its period. Only, while Greene and Sillitoe race desperately ahead of the times in their novels, Middleton seems content to lag a little behind. References to A Levels, football on the telly, and colour print shops hint at the action taking place in the ’60s or early ’70s, but these references jar with the realist-style prose that feels post- or even pre-war.

I don’t mean to criticise too harshly. Middleton was an excellent writer, a deserved Booker winner, 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. He simply didn’t toe the line regarding the subject matter of the ’70s or the post-post-modern slick stylistic flourishes of late 20th-century writing. True, Middleton may not have revolutionised literature with his writing, but he was certainly not going to be bullied or dictated to in terms of style and content. He had a story to tell and, crucially, a voice to tell it in — a voice all his own.

In truth, our Stanley was well aware of the criticism levelled against him, and still, he was unbowed.

“Provincial. Limitation of subject matter. Some flatness of language. Absence of the larger gestures. Awkwardness” he wrote in his novel Two Brothers, published in 1978, as a fictional obituary for the book’s writer protagonist. “But. But. But. Characterised by a deep sincerity, a single eye, an attachment to reality, a love of humanity and the townscapes of his Midland home… Poet of the Prosaic.”

You can’t help but feel that Middleton cast an eye on himself as he wrote this, sticking a neat and dignified two fingers up to critics who had written him off. If you’re going to be a “Poet of the Prosaic”, then do it on your terms. On his terms — this was Middleton in a nutshell. Never mind fashion, never mind trends and expectations, our hero stuck to his guns. He wrote for himself and literature — not for the Woolworths shelves or the Booker committee — and he scored one of the biggest prizes in literature as a result. Good for you, Stan.

Middleton would never again hit the heights of those heady days in 1974, but his career was far, far from over. Another book, Distractions, followed in 1975, and he knocked out pretty much a novel every year for the rest of his life. True to form, he had just completed yet another work — A Cautious Approach — when he passed away in 2009, a week shy of his 90th birthday. The novel was released posthumously the following year.

Middleton was an astonishingly prolific novelist and an artist working with Nottingham and its cast of characters as his backdrop. He was a musician too, playing the organ at St. Mark’s Methodist Church in Bulwell, and a painter — his watercolours grace the covers of many books, both those authored by himself and by others. And how about an “anti-elitist icon”? Middleton, like Philip Larkin and Evelyn Waugh, turned down an honour from the Queen recognising his services to literature.

It’s safe to say there’s a lot going on here — Stanley Middleton, Nottingham’s own prize-winning hero, can be defined in many different ways. For most of us, though, he’s best remembered as the man who, one day in 1974, brought the Booker Prize to Bulwell. Regardless of whether or not his name is mentioned in the same breath as Byron, Lawrence, or Sillitoe, that’s something to be admired. So, for this, Stanley, and much more, the people of Nottingham are eternally grateful.