30 July 2009

Stanley Middleton (1919–2009)

Toward the Sea (1995)

Live and Learn (1996)

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.

'Dear Tony,

'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.

'Keep going. With best wishes,


'Stanley Middleton'

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).

21 July 2009

Literary Nottingham: Writers Associated with the Town

At the back entrance of Nottingham Castle museum are four busts and three plaques of writers with Nottingham associations.

The poet Lord Byron, who inherited Newstead Abbey and lived in the county for several years, is an obvious choice of subject.

D. H. Lawrence, born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, is an even more obvious choice of subject. In light of the working class writers mentioned towards the bottom of this post, Lawrence is in some ways approprate because of his working-class origins, although his subject matter, of course, very often did not include the working class.

But then the representations of writers begin to get a little more obscure, as in the case of Henry Kirke White (1785-1806), who was born in Nottingham and was one of the 'Sherwood poets'. This link should be of obvoius interest ot Notingham local historians, including as it does 'Clifton Grove', but the link below, via Project Gutenberg, is immensely impressive: The Poetical Works of Henry Kirke White.

William and Mary Howitt lived in Nottingham for some years.

Philip James Bailey (1816-1902) was born in Nottingham, and has been mentioned more extensively before on this blog.

The poet and novelist Thomas Miller (1807-1874) was born in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, where he lived in the same yard as the Chartist poet Thomas Cooper (1805-1892), who is best known for The Purgatory of Suicides. Miller spent a few years as a basket-maker in Nottingham, before moving to London and receiving the patronage of Lady Blessington. In my PhD thesis some distance below  this post (and in a chapter which I still have to format more coherently for this software), I make the following point about his novel Gideon Giles (1841): 'Ian Haywood calls Thomas Martin Wheeler’s highly significant Sunshine and Shadow (1849–50) ‘the first truly working-class novel’, and understandably dismisses Godfrey Malvern (1843) by Thomas Miller [...] because it is ‘not about the working class’; however, he does not mention Miller’s earlier Gideon Giles: The Roper (1841), which not only has working-class protagonists, but also contains some criticism of the inconsistent labour laws of the time. Essentially, Gideon Giles [part of which takes place in Newark and north Nottinghamshire, but mostly around Gainsborough, Lincolnshire] is not directly oppositional and contains some sentimentality which Louis James mentions, although James has a certain enthusiasm for a book which without doubt represents a significant beginning in the history of the internal working-class novel.'

The most obscure of the group of writers represented outside Nottingham Castle is certainly the poet Robert Millhouse (1788-1839), who was born in Sneinton, Nottingham, and who lived in Walker Street in a house that has been demolished. Like Henry Kirke White, Millhouse was a 'Sherwood poet', and like the more famous Spencer T. Hall, he was of working-class origin. This link gives some pages of Millhouse's The Song of the Patriot, and the Preface is particularly interesting as it contains some biographical detail written by Robert's brother John. Many of the following pages of this link are unavailable, but there is enough of it to make interesting reading about Robin Hood and the Sherwood poets.

And now four plaques in the centre of Nottingham dedicated to literary figures. This is one of the older Holbrook Bequest plaques and stands on the corner of High Pavement and Weekday Cross. It reads: 'On this site stood the house in which Philip James Bailey, author of "Festus", was born: April 22nd. 1816.'

The Lawrence plaque is towards the bottom of Castle Gate, near its junction with Lister Gate: 'Site of Haywood's factory where D. H. Lawrence worked in 1901.' In D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years: 1885–1912 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 94–102, John Worthen writes about Lawrence working for surgical garments manufacturers J. H. Haywood of 9 Castle Gate, where he was briefly a junior clerk after leaving school in 1901. Lawrence hated Haywoods and the young women who worked there teased him and even on one occasion attempted to debag him. A bout of pneumonia very shortly before Christmas of the same year saved him from returning to the factory, which is represented as Jordans in Sons and Lovers (1913) and in 'Paul Morel', an earlier version of the novel. But in the book the young women are far less vulgar, and Paul is far less gauche than Lawrence: Worthen describes this as 'part of [Lawrence's] own self-therapy' (p. 101).

An earlier plaque in the same place.

The Byron plaque stands above a bar at the intersection of Pelham Street and Victoria Street: 'This site was formerly known as Swine Green[.] Lord Byron wrote his first piece of poetry in 1798...'

Well, it's at least the first known one, and the ten-year-old wrote it about his great-aunt Frances, the full verse of which goes:

'In Nottingham County there lives at Swine Green
As curst an old lady as ever was seen;
And when she does die, which I hope will be soon
She firmly believes she will go to the moon.'

It is unknown why he appears to show such animosity toward her.

This plaque in Pelham Street is the only acknowledgement of James Barrie's stay in the city: 'In honour of James Matthew Barrie Bart. O.M. 1860–1937 who in 1883 and 1884 worked in this building on the staff of the Nottingham Journal.'

It seems a pity to let a decent photo go to waste, though, so here's a representation of Barrie's most famous creation, Peter Pan, which I took several years ago when doing a tour of Britton (yes, spelling intended). Peter Pan is a character Barrie resembled in so many ways: see Andrew Birkin's J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Real Story Behind Peter Pan (London: Constable, 1979). The statue, of course, is not in Nottingham but in Kensington Park Gardens, London.

Thanks Kevin (comment below) – this is one of the many links I've forgotten to make, so here it is now, plus for good measure a link to a more extensive post I made on the Peter Pan statue:

J. M. Barrie in Birkland Avenue, Nottingham
Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: London #27

Lionel Britton, Cecil Thomas, and Adam Stanley Keith Make a Publishing Deal

The photo below shows Lionel Britton between his cousin Cecil Thomas and Adam Stanley Keith, both of Tweedsmuir Ave, Toronto, Canada. It was taken in London on 26 May 1964, on the occasion of the signing of a contract between the three men. The aim was to establish a publishing company - later known as the Park Group Ltd after Park House, 66 Tufnell Park Road, where Britton lived - to re-publish all of Britton's out of print works, and many of his unpublished ones. They all had great hopes that Britton's name would be written large on Broadway. Unfortunately, Britton insisted that his amplification of Bernard Shaw's play, Why She Would Not, be published first, but the other men obviously feared legal recriminations, as The Society of Authors refused to allow publication. And Britton had had a very long and bitter, almost insane, feud with the Society over this.

Cecil later adopted Adam as his son, and he became known as Justin Thomas. Justin had been abused by his parents, and although illiterate until well into his twenties, went on to gain a PhD in Psychology. He wrote an autobiography with the glorious title How I Overcame My Fear of Whores, Royalty, Gays, Teachers, Hippies, Psychiatrists, Athletes, Transvestites, Clergymen, Police, Children, Bullies, Politicians, Mothers, Fathers, Publishers, and Myself, which gives several pages of informaton on Britton's ancestors. Justin established Label Liberation and still lives in Canada. When I had a long telephone conversation with him last year, he told me of how Britton rode to the above occasion on a bicycle, and that he met Herbert Marshall and his wife in London shortly after Britton's death in 1971, when they were arranging to have all of Britton's literary effects shipped to Southen Illinois University, Carbondale, where Marshall was a professor.

Many thanks to Justin Thomas for ferreting about in wherever he had to ferret about to make this photo available, and to Robert Hughes for passing it on.

17 July 2009

Paducah, Kentucky, and Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country

When Joel Conarroe reviewed Bobbie Ann Mason's first novel In Country (1985) for The New York Times, he described it as 'Shopping Mall Realism', which somehow doesn't quite hit the right button (1). But he was more exact when he said the book is 'light-years away from the young professionals sipping margaritas on Columbus Avenue', because Mason writes about a very different America from the glamorous San Francisco city centre.

Less than two years ago, I'd never heard of Bobbie Ann Mason when I drove through southern Illinois's Shaunee National Forest and over the Ohio River into Paducah, western Kentucky. We visited the quilt museum (2), but in a town with a population of only 26,000 there appeared to be not a tremendous amount more to see. And yet in In Country, in the ironically named small town of Hopewell - perhaps a pseudonym for Mayfield, where Mason was born - a visit to Paducah, its mall and its restaurants, is the highpoint of the week.

Sam Hughes is a late teenager and Conarroe finds her similar to characters in the fiction of Carson McCullers and Harper Lee, although the language is very different:

'The restroom is pink and filthy, with sticky floors. In her stall, Sam reads several phone numbers written in lipstick. A message says, "The mass of the ass plus the angle of the dangle equals the scream of the cream." She wishes she had known that one when she took algebra. She would have written it on an assignment.'

In a world where adolescent sexual witticisms are foregrounded to schooling, Sam's mental outlook seems both limited and limiting: there is an abundance of references to tradenames, TV programmes and commercials, and such singers as Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Boy George. As the book progresses, though, Sam's horizons widen, and this is symbolized by her buying a car, which is important to her self-discovery.

In Country is in part a quest novel, and Sam mentally sets out to find her father, who died in Vietnam, and who never saw his daughter. She does this by asking questions of people who knew him, and by reading his semi-literate letters and diary. This is also a protest novel, quietly raging against the horrors of the Vietnam war, and against the callous treatment ex-veterans receive. Sam lives with her Uncle Emmett, who appears to be suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. Soon tiring of her childish boyfriend, she tries to form a relationship with the older veteran Tom, but he is impotent: he is yet another of the walking wounded who carry the ghosts of Vietnam around with them.

The main part of the novel is a long flashback which is sandwiched between a road trip made by Emmett, Sam, and Sam's grandmother - who perhaps bears some resemblance to the grandmother in Flannery O'Connor's 'A Good Man Is Hard to Find' - in Sam's car, to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

This is a very powerful and moving coming-of-age story detailing the effects of war, a story of the difficulty people have relating to each other. Oh and, er, let's not forget the frequent references to ham and mother-fuckers (3).

(1) The title refers to a GI expression for Vietnam.

(2) The Museum of the American Quilter's Society.

(3) 'Mother-fuckers' is another GI expression, this time used for the loathed lima beans the soldiers were given to eat.

13 July 2009

Black Mountain Book, by Fielding Dawson

Fielding Dawson (1930-2002) is one of the lesser known of the beat writers, and I only discovered him by chance while flicking through Edwidge Danticat's books at Nottingham University library (right next door alphabetically, see?). This book is a rather desultory account - jumping from straightforward narrative to concrete-style poetry through apparently unrelated ramblings - of the author's stay at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina.

Much is made of Dawson's respect for his (principal?) teacher Charles Olson and the artist Fritz Kline, although the de Koonings, Robert Creeley, and Jonathan Williams are mentioned a few times. Dawson is quick to voice his admiration for Buckminster Fuller, although there is no other mention of the great man. The sexual activities, both hetero and homo, were interesting, although I skipped over a very laborious erection - the Tobacco Barn.

Nevertheless, this is a really significant insight into the Black Mountain College experiment.

Martha Haines Butt - Antifanaticism: A Story of the South

Martha Haines Butt is something of a mystery woman, as there is very little biographical information about her. Antifanaticism: A Tale of the South (1854) and The Leisure Moments of Miss Martha Haines Butt, A. M. (1860) appear to be her only publications. Antifanaticism was written when Butt was 19 years old, at her home in Norfolk, Virginia.

Antifanaticism very much reminded me of Danesbury House (1860), the first novel by Ellen (or Mrs Henry) Wood, which is also pure propaganda, and is also concerned with only one central idea: as a temperance novel, Danesbury House's strident message is that alcohol is poison. But to return to Butt, whose aim is not to promote temperance. Harriett Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in the abolitionist National Era between 1851 and 1852, and then as a book in 1852. It was immensely successful, and its part in the drive to abolish slavery must have been important. But the reaction against Stowe's book was great too, and many anti-Tom novels (sometimes covered under the title 'plantation literature') were published, notably Mary Eastman's Aunt Phillis's Cabin (1952), William Gilmore Simms's The Sword and the Distaff (1852), and Caroline Lee Hentz's The Planter's Northern Bride (1854).* Butt's Antifanaticism is a well known example of the genre and she dedicated the book to her friend Hentz.

Similar to Ellen Wood's novel in that it relentlessly repeats a single idea with minor adjustments for variety, Antifanaticism's central tenet is that slavery is good. The novel centres around one family of slave owners, repeating ad nauseam their immense kindness to their slaves, showing that many of them won't take freedom even if it's offered, claiming that white 'slaves' in the factories in the north are 'infinitely' less free than black slaves. Staunch abolitionist visitors from the north become converted to Southern hospitality almost overnight, and return full of praise for the big-hearted slave owners. The slaves are seen singing, dancing and courting far more often than working for their beloved masters. (Although the expression 'false consciousness' comes to mind here.) And the ill treatment of slaves is viewed as a myth.

The reader of this novel will note an apparent irony in the fact that great importance is attached to the wealth of the whites, without of course any hint as to where this wealth has come from: the black slaves who appear to have such a wonderful time in and around their tiny plantation cabins which form the borders of their lives. When the plantation owner's daughter Dora returns home after a number of years schooling in the north-east, she exclaims 'Oh! how natural [...] do all the little cabins look'. And here is the central problem: no matter how well the narrator might try to convince the reader that the slaves are well treated, they are still seen as vastly inferior to white people. The narrator believes that it is part of the natural order that whites should exploit blacks and maintain a rigid control over their lives. They are, in fact, highly lucrative pets depicted as having a very limited interior life, giving amusement to their master's family by the way they speak and the way they live.

As a piece of 19th century anti-abolitionist propaganda, Antifanaticism evidently fails miserably. But as a historical document of a frightened young Southern racist several years before the Civil War, this is very interesting material.

The Leisure Moments of Miss Martha Haines Butt, A. M., although published several years later, was mostly written before Antifanaticism, and is a collection of short stories and musings which seem to have nothing of the polemical nature of her novel.

* Hentz has fallen into obscurity probably largely as a result of her over-attention to her pro-slavery novels Marcus Warlord (1852) and The Planter's Northern Bride as opposed to the other novels she wrote. In her essay 'Caroline Hentz's Balancing Act' in The Female Tradition in Southern Literature (ed. by Carol S. Manning (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992)), Mary Ann Wimsatt says in her conclusion: 'Character balance and contrast, cleverly modified romance narrative structures, folktales, and a covert feminism - Caroline Hentz's novels contain enough variety in content and literary method to intrigue even the most jaded twentieth-century student of nineteenth-century literature.'