David Belbin on the Life and Works of Stanley Middleton

Words: David Belbin
Thursday 11 January 2018
reading time: min, words

Novelist and chair of UNESCO City of Literature David Belbin on the late, great Stanley Middleton...


I first heard of Stanley Middleton in the late seventies when I came to study in Nottingham; I was very impressed by his 1973 Booker winner, Holiday, and began borrowing his novels from the library. In 1980, I saw him speak at Nottingham Writers' Club, near the Castle, and learned that his dad had been a railway worker in Bulwell. Stanley, after two years at Nottingham University and military service in India, had worked his whole career as an English teacher at his old school, High Pavement, where he wasn’t far off retirement.

I was too shy to introduce myself to him then. However, in 1996, I wrote to ask if he would contribute to a short story collection I was editing. The idea behind City of Crime was that it brought together the city's literary writers and crime writers. I read Stanley’s latest, Married Past Redemption, and found him still on top form; it was superbly written with an unusually strong central female character, a solid plot, and the Chekhov-like sense of wisdom that the reader finds in his best work.

Stanley rang me up, announcing himself with the clipped greeting, “Middleton here”, in a slightly plummy, old-school BBC announcer voice. I burbled on about how much I'd loved the novel I'd finished reading that morning. He invited me to the launch of Live and Learn at Sherwood Library the following day.

Stanley agreed to write a story for my book. He also invited me to visit him; we were near neighbours in Sherwood. He introduced me to his wife, Margaret, and they showed me round their huge, beautiful garden on Caledon Road.

The distinguished author was forty years my senior, but we had plenty in common; looking at his shelves, I found that we loved many of the same authors, including John McGahern, Bernard Malamud and Brian Moore. Stanley didn’t buy many new books, preferring to use Sherwood Library. Later I would find, by his writing desk overlooking the garden, several shelves housing hundreds of ex-library books, bought for ten pence each.

We met most Friday afternoons, after we'd finished writing for the week. We’d talk about writers, including the many he'd known, and the craft of writing. We discussed his novels too. He knew his worth, and was pleased when I chose to edit a scholarly edition of his favourite, Harris's Requiem. But he didn't have the fragile ego that afflicts many writers, and freely admitted to being terrible at choosing titles. He considered music more important than literature, and given a choice, would have preferred to have been a composer. He turned down an OBE, not because he didn’t believe in the honours system, but because he saw writing as his work, and he didn’t think he should be honoured for doing his job “any more than a postman.”

When John Lucas and I proposed the Festschrift to celebrate his eightieth, he said no. I left it a while, and asked again. He said no again. The third time, when he realised how determined I was, he relented. Over two afternoons, a week apart, we conducted a five-hour interview about his life and work. Stanley was very pleased with Middleton at Eighty, which had one of his paintings on the cover. Stanley had never had a party, he told me, so we gave him one in the garden of Bromley House Library – which he’d introduced me to – where we launched the book on 1 August, 1999.

Stan, as I eventually came to call him, played the piano at home and the organ every week at his Methodist church in Bulwell. He would always walk there, never having learned to drive. He put his teaching and his children, Penny and Sarah, above his writing. He also loved to paint, and would take six weeks off between novels to paint pictures before beginning a new one. But he lived to write. When, in late 2005, he told me that he hadn't begun a new novel, I feared that he didn't have long to live.

Stan declined over the next few years. His memory began to go. He spent his last few months in the Firs nursing home, not far from his old home in Sherwood, and died there a week short of his ninetieth birthday. Margaret, 94, now lives in the same building.

Not long ago, I scripted a Dawn of the Unread graphic story about Stanley called Shelves, after the bookshelves I inherited when Margaret moved out of Caledon Road. The family were unhappy with one detail; the frontispiece showed Stanley typing away. I hadn’t had the heart to correct the young artist who’d illustrated my story, but the thing was, Stan couldn’t type; he always paid somebody to type his manuscripts for him.

I’m not a huge DH Lawrence fan and prefer Alan Sillitoe’s short stories to his novels. For me, Stanley is the quintessential Nottingham novelist. He never had an agent, had no interest in moving to London, and could be condescended to as “provincial.” Yet, over 45 novels, he showed that all human life could be found in Nottingham, or Beechnall, as it was renamed in the novels. His work scans the classes, from a colliery brass band to head teachers and artists. A socialist contrarian, on his first book jacket, he listed his hobby as “arguing the toss.” You don’t get more Nottingham than that.

Where to start when reading him? Stanley’s novels are of very even quality, so you’re safe reading anything published last century. Writers often fade after their deaths, but Stan’s literary executor, and former High Pavement student, Philip Davis, has done a good job of getting six of the best back into print, including Holiday and Harris’s Requiem. My other favourites include Valley of Decision and Entry into Jerusalem.

Be warned though, the sixties novels – before Holiday’s success increased print runs – cost a packet. Recently, visiting Cecil Court off Charing Cross Road, I noticed that two of the rare booksellers had several Middletons, one had them in a window display. None were less than £100, many much more. You might be better off ordering them from the library. That’s what Stan would have done.

David Belbin website

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