For nearly half a century this large Edwardian house was home to the quintessential Nottingham novelist. In this week’s ‘literary location’ we see where the magic happened.
42 Caledon Rd, Sherwood, was author Stanley Middleton’s home for 48 years. He moved there with his wife Margaret and their two young daughters in 1961, by which time he was Head of English at High Pavement and an emerging novelist. From this home in Sherwood, Middleton wrote around 40 novels, averaging nearly one a year, a feat he combined with teaching until 1981.
The centre-piece hallway looks up to a stunning skylight. Just off the octagonal landing was Middleton’s study where he would write most mornings, his desk facing the rear garden. Each manuscript was handwritten before being passed to somebody else to type up. By the desk were shelves of ex-library books; he visited Sherwood library on Saturdays and, when his daughters were young, they’d walk with him, listening to their father make up stories en route.
The mature garden was lovingly tended by Margaret Middleton.
Stanley Middleton may have been a prolific writer but never at the expense of his teaching or his daughters who he always had time for. He was also a renaissance man, painting watercolours between writing novels and playing the piano. Middle-class creatives often appeared in his books. In one of his best, Harris’s Requiem (1960), the protagonist is a composer. “I sometimes think that, if I had any real choice in the matter, I’d have been a composer,” said Middleton, “but I wasn’t, alas, good enough.” Cricket was another love; the playing, umpiring and watching.
It was under Hutchinson’s New Author scheme that Middleton was first published with A Short Answer (1958). This was the first of 45 novels with Hutchinson. At no time did he have an agent or receive an advance. The novels are not driven by plot they are about people, their relationships, careers, frustrations. Observations of provincial middle-aged lives. The realism is such that you can’t help thinking that the author is writing about the everyday concerns and motivations of his own neighbours and colleagues, conversations he’s had or overheard in a staffroom or over a garden fence. Middleton writes with compassion and a rare insight that amounts to wisdom. Most of the books are set in Nottingham, or Beechnall as he calls it, and the dialect is recognisably local. The humour in his dialogue is a welcome accompaniment to what are often moving reads.
“I am invariably going to write about Nottingham,” he said, “there are so many interesting things taking place hereabouts. Why would I bother going elsewhere?”
Told through thoughts and flashbacks his novel Holiday did venture away from Nottingham. It featured a recently separated lecturer who visits a seaside resort where he ponders the themes of life, death and broken relationships. It was for this novel that Middleton won the 1974 Man Booker Prize, an award he shared with Nadine Gordimer.
From his early novels the ingredients are there. Books two, three and four, Harris’ Requiem (1960), A Serious Woman (1961) and The Just Exchange (1962), being classic offerings, but if you’ve never read Middleton before then Holiday (1974) is a good place to start. The ‘70s were probably his best period for output, Cold Gradations (1972) being another of several highlights from this decade. For the ‘80s, try Entry into Jerusalem (1983) or Valley of Decision (1985), the 90s; A Place to Stand (1992) and Married Past Redemption (1993), and for this century, Brief Garlands (2004) and Her Three Wise Men (2008) are well worth taking out the library.
Stanley Middleton was born in Bulwell in 1919 to working class Wesleyan Methodists, his father a railway guard. After attending High Pavement Grammar School, he studied English literature at University College, Nottingham. The Second World War intervened and before his final year he was undertaking military service in the Royal Artillery and, mostly, in the Army Educational Corps until 1946. By now he was already writing (unpublished) novels and storing experiences for much later works. Her Three Wise Men (2008) takes from his time teaching cadets in India.
After the war Middleton qualified as a teacher and was back in Nottingham, for good. In 1951 he married Margaret Welch, later saying “I chose the right woman.” He was also settled at work, teaching at his former school High Pavement. The English Master may never have considered himself a great teacher but many of his former pupils, my father amongst them, would disagree. Each night, after completing his marking, Middleton would pick up his own exercise book and work on his latest novel.
In 1979 he turned down an MBE feeling that he was, like most people, simply doing his job. Never one for the spotlight, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and held honorary degrees from the Open University and the University of Nottingham. For his 80th birthday, Five Leaves published ‘Stanley Middleton at Eighty’ (1999), a collection of his work together with essays and poems from A S Byatt, Philip Callow and John Lucas, and sporting a front cover that featured one of Middleton’s paintings. In a celebration of his career and 80th birthday, the book was launched in the garden of Bromley House Library.
Stanley Middleton died in 2009 at the age of 89. His friend, the writer and chair of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature David Belbin, arranged for a memorial plaque to be erected at 42 Caledon Road to coincide with Middleton’s centenary. The plaque was crowdfunded by fans, friends and former pupils, and enough money was also raised for copies of a collection of Middleton’s poems, entitled Poetry and Old Age, to be put in every library in the county.
Poetry and Old Age (2019) – named after and including extracts from a late, unpublished novel – was published by John Lucas’ Shoestring Press. There an introduction from Middleton’s literary executor, Professor Philip Davis, a former pupil at High Pavement, in this collection. Middleton had written poetry all of his adult life, and thought it a higher calling than the novel, but this is his first published collection. Every bit as moving as his novels, the verse covers familiar Middleton ground. It includes a poem about D H Lawrence (an early influence on Middleton) and plenty of local interest.
Take a look at the brilliant Centenary Special that featured on this website last year, with contributions from David Belbin, Sue Dymoke, Catharine Arnold, John Lucas, Philip Davis, Stephen Lowe and Lee Stuart Evans.
It was a pleasure to be invited inside the former home of a true Nottingham novelist and the new owners, Felicity and Dave, are adding to the home’s literary legacy. Felicity Whittle leads the Gold Star ‘Nottingham Booklovers Walk’. The guided trail takes in many of the city centre’s literary locations and places can be booked on the Gold Star Guides website, with new dates about to be announced.
Felicity has recently added a Nottingham’s Women Writers guided walk and is currently planning a literary walking tour of Newark, to be launched during the 2020 Newark Book Festival in July.
Stanley Middleton would have been delighted to see his former home in the ownership of Felicity and Dave.