For a number of years the novelist Stanley Middleton (who won the Booker for Holiday (1974)), or Stan Middo as he was invariably and very affectionately known to us all, taught me English at High Pavement Grammar School, Gainsford Crescent, Bestwood Estate, Nottingham. I have many fond memories of him and his idiosyncrasies. During one lesson he told me that he imagined me reading Norman Mailer's An American Dream in the bath, although I still don't know why he came out with that, and I hadn't read the book at the time! The tests he set us were also idiosyncratic: I well remember him giving us ten questions every Friday morning on a few chapters of Great Expectations, and that one of them was 'How many mice ran across Miss Havisham's floor'? Today I don't remember what the answer was, and of course it is – and always was – completely unimportant, but I suppose it's an example of the importance of 'close reading' to Stan.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, Stan – like his friend and colleague Keith Dobson ('Dobbo' to us) – was an avid admirer of F. R. Leavis, and a piece of literature had to be studied in a vacuum, without historical, biographical, etc, trappings. In 2003 I was persuaded by a friend of Stan's to write to him: he'd once confided to me that although I thought he'd forget me, he wouldn't. Over all those years, he had of course forgotten me, but I received an interesting handwritten letter in reply. I post the contents, in full, below:
'42 Caledon Road
Tel: 0115 9623085
7. ix. 2003.
'Thank you for your letter. It arrived at the same time as one from John Kirton which I read first. He introduced you without giving your name so your letter was no surprise. I was delighted to hear from you, but now I'm really bad with names. As to my boast that I don't forget students, I don't think I'd make it any more.
'You're quite right about the influence of close reading and the Leavisite canon when you were at school. I remember Phil Davis told me that when he was a student at Cambridge (He'll be over 50 now or thereabouts and professor or head of the English department at Liverpool. Do you remember him at school?) he asked the then professor at Cambridge, Christopher Ricks, how he stood. 'Oh, we're all Leavisites now', said Ricks. I'd like to have heard C. R. [who has written some very favourable and detailed literary criticisms of Bob Dylan] trying to convince Leavis of the value of Bob Dylan. Nowadays Leavis and Leavisites seem to have disappeared as the morning dew. Students seem not to have heard of him.
'I was interested to read of your career. You seem to have drunk the cup of life to the full. I hope our Ph.D studies go well. The topic (no, I had not heard of Lionel Britton, though I had of James Prior) seems interesting, and raised matters that I had not ever considered.1 You're right in thinking I'm not very drawn to modern literary theory. I've no objection to it as a (very useful) tool, but the baby went out with the bath water [I had said in my letter that Leavis used to teach literature as if it has no umbilical cord!] Students and their misguided tutors were so immersed in 'theory' that they seemed to me to neglect the tools they were theorising about. Leavis's question 'Ask 'em what they love' [?] and it's [sic] triumphant cry 'Then you've got 'em', is where I stand. My friend at High Pavement, Ken [sic] Dobson, (dead now some years) was fond of this advice. He was a pupil of Leavis himself in the Thirties at Downing Coll. Do you remember him?
'It pleased me that John (K) said you praised me as a teacher. I used to think when I was teaching that I ought to be writing full-time. Now I'm glad, when occasionally I think about it, that I continued to teach. I guess I seem old-fashioned to modern critics, but fashion plays its part, and perhaps my time and method will come round again. I've just signed the contract for my next book with Hutchinson, (now part of Random House) but they haven't given me the date for publication.2 Money they sent, but that doesn't matter much at my age.
'I'm afraid I can't tell you where the D. H. L. quotation is from. If I see John Lucas I'll ask him, but I think that after Pauline's mother's funeral they're off to Greece.
I used to live a very short distance away from Stan, on Gunthorpe Drive, which was part of architect Thomas Cecil Howitt's council house estate in Sherwood. Stan almost always walked to High Pavement: along Caledon Road into Hucknall Road and along it, then along Arnold Road and into the school. I too frequently walked to school – our route was almost the same – and I would often overtake him with an exchange of greeting. In the long lunchtime, we would very often run into him and Dobbo as they walked around the playing fields. They knew my political views were (and indeed still are) well to the left, and on one occasion – when they saw me with a copy of New Society, they told me: 'Watch what you're eating!', as the paper was owned by a Conservative. A lovely man.
1Lionel Britton (1887–1971) was a major – albeit unsung – working-class writer of initial middle-class origin forced by unfortunate circumstances into a menial working-class existence, and who wrote about the working class. In contrast, Stanley Middleton had his origins in the working class but chose to write about the middle class. Man Made of Smoke is perhaps Middleton's only book with a working-class main character.
2Brief Garlands (2004).