He told my mother and father at a school parents’ evening that he had made a pupil cry just once in his career and deeply regretted it ever after. It had been when he had just come back from military service and was all too used to giving orders. He barked some command, and the boy immediately burst into tears. Never did that again, he said.
This teacher was Stanley Middleton, at High Pavement Grammar School. It was like him to feel his mistakes powerfully, and to exercise a strong moral will in seeking never to repeat them. But it cost him a great deal. It meant that a whole series of primary drives and impulses were checked, and made to give way to second thoughts, secondary disciplines that made him at once committedly reliable, especially in times of trouble, and a touch remote, even from himself. ‘You can’t be just and be yourself,’ he once told me, when I had left Nottingham and was at university. Accordingly, he often chose not to be wholly himself, or half-made a self that could be somewhat more just. That is what he thought realism was, in life as in fiction: the compromise of natural first feelings and prejudices in secondary, tertiary and God-knows-how-many-more further levels of complication. It was this tension and compromise that, I think, most made him have to be a novelist.
The headmaster at my time at High Pavement was Maurice Brown who admired Middleton and his national reputation as a novelist. It was Middleton who would not let the head think of expelling a boy for drug-taking, saying he would write to the papers, to the Daily Telegraph in protest. Not that he considered the Daily Telegraph to be a newspaper, Stan later told me, but he wanted to frighten the Head, a decent but anxious man, into doing what he already really knew was right. Maurice Brown was nicknamed by the boys ‘Albert’, after Albert Brown, a renowned Bulwell sex criminal. Middleton respected him because he had lost a leg in the war against the Nazis and managed still to make an uncomplaining life out of his hardships. But ‘Albert’ once said to me that Middleton would never be a great novelist because he did not have strong enough feelings. When a good deal later I dared report a version of this to Stan, he said with quiet scorn that Albert would never realise that without the writing of his novels, he would have been like Hitler, biting and chewing the carpet.
The novelist A.S. Byatt said that she felt that Middleton always secretly suspected himself of some basic inadequacy or terrible fault. And I remember Stan telling me of a conversation he had with the poet Geoffrey Hill when he was for a term a visiting fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Hill said to him in some local pub, in abrupt anguish, ‘Have you ever done anything unforgivable, Stanley?’ I asked Stan what he had replied. ‘I just told him, “Yes, oh dear, yes” and shook my head’. He was cunning enough to have agreed, benignly, for Hill’s sake. And I doubt there ever was one big sin or secret error. The novels themselves were never dramatic, were never about one great thing. There was an accumulation, always, of apparently small and ordinary things which were never really felt as small or ordinary at all – like inadvertently making a child cry.
He was a hidden man. But you felt his power and his determined goodness, against adversity, when he put his shoulder to the wheel of your cause. Once when I wanted to quit university because, in a fit of depression, I feared nothing at all was worth much, he showed me Allan Ramsay’s portrait of his dying baby – a portrait he must have had in mind in the writing of Holiday with its bereaved father – and asked me whether painting that, against death, was worth it. When later, I thanked him for breaking me into admission, he only said that I had really wanted to be convinced.
He was like Farebrother in George Eliot’s beloved Middlemarch, that ‘by dint of admitting to himself that he was too much as other men were, he had become remarkably unlike them’.