As with my record collection, there are certain books on my shelves whose weathered spines can whisk me straight back to the place and time of our first encounter. A Penguin of The Quiet American which I read entirely in a hammock in Fiji; a 1960s copy of The Collector collected when it accidentally fell from the bookcase of a Cornish guesthouse into my open rucksack. And then there’s my first edition of Holiday by Stanley Middleton (unclipped dustjacket, several small tears), found on the ‘To Clear’ shelf of a charity shop in one of Nottinghamshire’s posher villages for £1.
Unlike The Collector, I did pay for Holiday, yet as I approached the kindly grey volunteer at the till I might, instead of small change, have been holding a loaded pistol in my sweating hand, for what I was about to do was commit daylight robbery. A pound for even the most battered Stanley Middleton is a steal, let alone an underrated masterpiece which often sells for hundreds, sometimes thousands (mint, author’s signature) these days, but somehow I did it, and got away with it.
Perhaps whoever priced my copy was unfamiliar with the 1974 Booker Prize-winning novel, as well as the further praise it received each time it was reissued in paperback, years later. After all, at first glance, the book is neither flash, nor very exciting-looking. In its understated, neat and, some might say old-fashioned-looking, jacket, its refusal to shout to be heard, it’s not unlike its author, from what I know of him. Which, other than the ten or so novels (but a quarter of his output), and a handful of articles I’ve read, is not a great deal, admittedly. But it’s enough to recognise a truly great writer, a craftsman, whose work, to those fortunate enough to have been introduced to it, is highly valued in terms far more important than financial. Stanley Middleton is one of Nottingham’s – Britain’s – greatest, and possibly quietest, literary treasures. And if you’ve yet to discover him, I’d urge you to do so, now, because the Middleton gems are hidden, right there, on the shelves, just waiting to be found. Personally, I recommend digging around in a good bookshop, as this will ensure his titles are kept in print. But then, I no longer dare enter charity shops in case I’m arrested for fleecing them over a copy of Holiday some years ago. One thing I can guarantee: wherever you find your Middleton, and however much you pay for it, you will, in terms of pure reading pleasure, be repaid many times over.