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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Stanley Middleton

9 August 10 words: Chris Knight
A former pupil of the now deceased Booker prize winner tells us why he's such a local hero
 Stanley Middleton wrote 44 novels and taught at High Pavement

September 1956. We were part of the new intake at High Pavement Grammar School for Boys, on Gainsford Crescent at Bestwood. Seated in a ground floor classroom in that modernistic, flatroofed building, there was a babble of chatter, and some of us were gazing out of the windows at the terraced sports fields (remember those?) descending the hill to Arnold Road, and speculating about when we would be let  onto the velvet-green rugby pitches.

Formalities had been done; first school assembly, class allocation,  finding the gym, library, and school nurse’s whereabouts, all of these being discussed loudly. Suddenly the classroom door flew open and a stocky man in his 30s strode into the room. He had a good head of dark hair and a noble bearing; his chalk dusted black gown was flapping behind him over his faded green sports jacket.

“Good afternoon” he said, reaching the front of the class and turning to face us. “My name is Stanley Middleton, and I am here to teach you English. You may call me “Sir”, or “Mr Middleton”, and I will address you by your surnames. Any questions?” The room was silent; so, as there were no questions, he went on in his slow, fairly mocking, local drawl: Well now, I’d like you all to write a 400 word essay, entitled “Lavatory Chains”, without using the phrase “there are many different types of lavatory chain . . .” He then sat down, put his feet on the desk, and stared out of the window while we scribbled furiously, or not. (This episode was almost perfectly reprised 12 years on during the history tutor’s scene in Lindsay Anderson’s film If . . . (1968).

As the school terms progressed, we got to know “Stan’s” ways, though never took advantage. He was a fair, firm, and very popular teacher. Not long after my discovery of Girls, I was called on to give my (researched) account of the life of Shakespeare, in front of the class. Due to distractions elsewhere in my life, (see above) it was rubbish, as I hadn’t put in the time. I prayed for blessed release during the reading, but he made me go on to the bitter end, then denounced my effort as “spineless”, and made me go away and do it again. I did not forget that lesson.

However, his efforts and exasperation were not in vain – he was instrumental in getting me to play Falstaff in a School production of Henry lV Pt l; he led our class through the tears and laughter of Twelfth Night, the grasping ambition of Macbeth, and, caused me to ponder on the Hamlet soliloquy for years after leaving school, until I finally got it. Result.

High Pavement was indeed a grammar school; therefore one of Stan’s tasks was to introduce to us the idea and discipline of ‘grammar’, i.e. the syntax and morphology of language. That is to say, how we organise our thoughts into groups of words, in order to convey meaning. He began in our first year with clause analysis and parsing, which was a struggle for most of us (all of us) at first, but made more comprehensible by the proximity of the language and literature elements in his teaching.

As a parent I find it regrettable that such use of English is no longer taught to this standard in State schools; I believe it is a loss to the children, and to the wider culture. Stanley himself was educated at High Pavement Grammar School, at the then Stanley Road site in Forest Fields (1940-46) and at University College, Nottingham. Evidently, these experiences led to his rigorous approach to education, the teaching of his own subject, and informed his writing. I have not read all of his books (yet); it is a substantial body of work, with an eye-watering workrate of 44 novels and one memoir spread over 53 years. His final novel A Cautious Approach was released on August 5.

Stanley’s work is important to the Nottingham area because of his constancy: he has viewed the world for over 50 years through the prism of “Beechnall”(aka Nottingham)

For me, Stanley’s work stands on a par with three other local heroes:  D H Lawrence, Graham Greene, (Hertfordshire born, but worked on the Nottingham Journal), and of course the Radford lad, Mr Sillitoe himself, whose life is to be celebrated on October 2nd at the Council House. In terms of style and content I would place Stanley Middleton closer to Graham Greene, than the darker, more anarchic Sillitoe, or the earthy sensuality of Lawrence.

Stanley’s work is important to the Nottingham area because of his constancy: he has viewed the world for over 50 years through the prism of “Beechnall”(aka Nottingham) and reported what he found there, in meticulously described town and landscapes, inhabited by a certain class, having its own set of manners, rules and mores – the East Midlands bourgeoisie.

A small example of Stanley’s empathic style, which at times seems drawn from a much earlier form of English writing, comes from Holiday (joint Booker Prize winner, 1975): Edwin Fisher is on holiday in Lincolnshire, continuing to mourn the death of his young son; he leaves the coast to visit Lincoln, entering the castle there:

“People crammed thick; in the castle-dungeons, coolly dark even now, children hallooed and scampered, scuttering in nuisance, earning clips in the ear. In the prison wild voices echoed about the wooden pews so high that only the preacher could be seen. This house of God stood soulless, so that Fisher, on the hard wood of the back row where the condemned, brought in last, were preached at before they met their Maker at the rope’s end, shuddered, hurried from a world that seemed mechanical, drawn to a puritan scale, cruel even now when these children played their foot-thumping hide-and-seek.”

Stanley was a keen painter. This watercolour of the seaside town of Bealthorpe was also the setting for the painter's Booker prize winning novel, Holiday.

You don’t get many 61 word sentences like that . . .  And finally, to illustrate his total devotion to teaching, I offer this example. Some years after the Hillsborough catastrophe, I decided to write about it, as an eye-witness. When the 3000 word manuscript was done, I sent it to Stanley, inviting his comments or suggestions. (This after some 30 years since we last spoke). Within a week I had a detailed, hand written commentary with comprehensive notes on two sides of (handmade) A4. He must have been 75, and what a professional. Thanks, Stanley.

Stanley Middleton’s final novel, A Cautious Approach, was published on 5 August 2010, by Hutchinson.

There will be a Booker Prize debate on Tuesday 12 October at Arnold library discussing former winners such as Stanley and trying to predict this year’s winner. The panel will feature James Walker, Frances Finn, Bianca Winter, Peter Preston, Nicola Monaghan, Jane Streeter and Sheelagh Gallagher.




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