sail-header-edge

John Lucas on Stanley Middleton

John Lucas
Mon 29 Jul, 2019

John Lucas remembers the correspondence he shared with Stanley Middleton.

From the mid-1970s until the year before his death in 2009, Stanley and I wrote to each other with some regularity. A number of his letters, especially ones that accompanied the sending of an inscribed copy of a new book, were scarcely more than notes, others more substantial. Over the years I reviewed several of his novels in the public prints and my reviews invariably prompted him to thank me and often amplify (or query) my remarks about the novel in question. And from time to time he’d tell me of his reluctant participation in public debates about writing. There was also the occasion when he agreed to speak on behalf of Nottingham’s submission to be ‘City of Literature’ in 1991. ‘Feeble,’ was his word for some of the Committee’s proposals, especially one to have Fay Weldon ‘sort out Byron for us. Next week, Mickey Mouse on God.’ What follows are a (very) few excerpts from letters which provide insights into Stanley’s mind and his ways of thinking about literature.

In 1975, thanking me for the oration I gave on the occasion of his receiving an honorary degree at Nottingham University, he wrote ‘Your line was one I might have soberly taken myself, except you made me sound rather surer of touch than I think I am. Puzzlement is my forte ….’

In 1980 I reviewed In a Strange Land for The New Statesman. ‘There were two things in your article which pleased me, on matters where other reviewers seemed blind. One was Murren’s coldness, lack of curiosity in places where he knows he should enquire, perhaps even wants to. The second was your understanding of Payne. When nobody notices a character I consider important, I wonder if I’ve done it wrong. You size him up exactly as I see him, and that cheered me no end. Gave me a lift, as your Bennett might say.’

In 1997 I published Inside Outside: Selected Poems, by Barry Cole, a poet and novelist who greatly admired Stanley’s work. Barry was ill at the time of the Nottingham launch which Stanley attended. ‘It did me good, too, to be there and see that there were people interested in poetry. Selwyn [Pritchard, poet friend of Stanley’s]rang up this week grumbling that none of us gets what he/she deserves this side of the grave. I don’t know what he expects, but your praise of Barry … lifted my heart ...’

In a letter of 1998: ‘Geoffrey Hill sent me his “The Triumph of Love” this week that I am working (le mot juste) my way though. He seems to appear more in this (150 short poems) himself than is usual.’

Also that year, I sent him Shoestring’sCollected Poems of Ian Fletcher. ‘What brilliance he had in his early twenties. Such alert virtuosity of language matching intensity of thought…. If you need a justification for Shoestring then this is it.’

In 2004 I wrote to congratulate him on the publication of Brief Garlands. ‘I don’t know that I altogether like John Stone, but I wanted to make him a successful headmaster and one who managed to run a school where the pupils learnt something or/and made some progress in their lives. That he had sex with his neighbour, if only about three times a year, I don’t hold against him…. You’re right that he doesn’t understand himself. He sees his hypocrisy, but thinks that’s one of the necessary evils a schoolmaster should saddle himself with. It used to puzzle me when I was teaching.’ In the same letter he mentions the ‘bad-tempered’ BS Johnson: ‘There is still a feeling about in the UK that all that “naturalism” can do has been done, and only the untalented attempt it.’

Later that same year I sent him a copy of the Press’s edition of Barry Cole’s Ghosts are People Too. ‘I enjoyed it very much. He has not lost his swift wit and his touch of surprise in such short poems. Most of us (I am the chief of sinners) need a page of prose or two to work the oracle in that direction.’

The following year I gave him a copy of my study of The Winter’s Tale, and in reply he remarked that he could have done with such a book when he was a university student. ‘Our lecturers were misty.’ Then he adds, ‘Philip Davis once surprised me. He and Wil[bur] Sanders and I were choosing the part in any Shakespeare play we’d most like to act. Phil chose Paulina …. [I chose] Orsino. (Shock horror.)’

In 2008 I sent him a copy of the Press’s Last Post by Vernon Scannell. ‘Scannell’s thoughts on old age were similar to mine. “Try to get the words down right” is what he encourages himself to do, and, my word, he manages it. I hope when my turn comes to queue for the crossing of Jordan’s “narrow stream” I shall be able to choose my words with equal clarity and skill.’

Make your voice heard. Be a contributor

Got something to say? Want to add your voice to the growing Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature community? Great, we’re always on the lookout for fresh contributions. Apply today and we’ll get right back to you

Apply to contribute

Search