Thursday 25 August 2011

Stan Barstow, My Dad, and Gregory Pack

Stan Barstow G Peck and Dad

BR’s calls to France were mostly about the ordinary business of being apart but he did mention Stan Barstow’s obituary and I asked him to clip  it for me.

Been back a fortnight and have just come across the clipping. I was instantly making connections  First to the astonishing resemblance of Barstow to the glamorous Gregory Peck – who was all over the screens in the years when Barstow was writing his groundbreaking novel A Kind of Loving in the time he could spare from his job as a draughtsman.

The writer mentions Barstow’s role in the rise of the regional literary novel in the late fifties and early sixties. Possibly to the detriment of his national standing, Barstow stayed in the north, asserting later, ‘To hoe one’s own row diligently, thus seeking out the universals in the particular, brings more worthwhile satisfaction than the frantic pursuit of the largely phoney jet age internationalism…’

A largely fair obituary is marred by the inclusion of one critic’s  comment that ‘At least you  know where you are in the company of Mr Barstow’s sentimentalised Tykes … there’s usually Trooble at t’Mill, the privy sits proudly at the end of the garden, and lives revolve round the family.’ 

Yaargh! These mean,  mistaken and ill conceived  phrases manage to combine the regional. literary, linguistic and class snobbery that still has a stranglehold on the British literary world. As a writer of some ‘regional literary novels’ myself  I too have encountered this same frustrating prejudice . American literature celebrates fiction from its non-metropolitan regions and is much more deep, rich and  substantial for it.

Back to the clipping. The other absolutely astonishing resemblance in the picture is to my own Dad, who would have been Barstow’s contemporary. The same sharp strong features, the same film star moustache and thick dark Brylcreemed hair, the same fierce direct look, neat suit and tight tie.

The same working class élan…

 Footnote; My dad died when I was nine and my mother was thirty six. (See my memoir The Romancer on the sidebar). She adored Gregory Peck ( the George Cloony of that era)and in her long years alone went to see every film he made. She went to see Captain Horatio Hornblower six time. Now I do rate G Peck myself but this seemed excessive.

Or it did. until my revelation today.


  1. There are writers who carry the imprint of the place they come from. You can call it a region or a locality, a hinterland or a living landscape. In some cases it is like an adopted homeland. James Joyce said he was lost fifty miles outside of Dublin; it was his wife, Norah Barnacle, who introduced him to the West of Ireland; her place of birth in the city of Galway is now a museum. Stan Barstow suffered the fate of the so-called regionalist. Cosmopolitan critics, while not quite patronising the writer, spoke condescendingly of his roots in the West Riding. To them it was simply 'the North'. Yet he had one great advantage over southern writers. Barstow knew exactly who he was and where he came from. The places he writes about are as real as the people in them. Keith Waterhouse, reviewing A RAGING CALM in 1967 or so, said Barstow was the only writer of substance working (and living) from within the North. Now we can look back on a galaxy of Northern poets published by Bloodaxe and Carcanet. We have the Midland novelists, Stanley Middleton and Alan Sillitoe. The Northern folk music scene has given us musicians as diverse as Anne Briggs and Kathryn Tickell. Kathryn's album, NORTHUMBRIAN VOICES, is a living testimony to that rich tradition. Anne has become part of British folklore. Is it possible to contextualise Barstow's work against this wider setting? Perhaps we need to rethink our notion of regionalism in the light of writers such as Ted Hughes, Alan Garner and Shelagh Delaney. It may be helpful to look at American (South and North) and Commonwealth writers. Maurice Gee, the New Zealand novelist, has put his own region on the world map. Dunedin, Wellington, Auckland are all very much Maurice Gee country. Gee's place-haunted novel GOING WEST is the kind of work any Barstow reader would relish. The New Zealand poet James K. Baxter (Gee's contemporary) carries the same regional stamp. Yet all these writers and musicians are truly international in their appeal. Like Barstow, the wide world is their parish. (John Haggerty, Glasgow.)

  2. May I add a coda to my comment from yesterday, Wendy? I am trying to develop a website which will be devoted to regional writing (poetry, fiction and non- fiction) in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The scene in Wales is especially heartening with small magazines such as Planet, Skald, Roundyhouse and Blue Tattoo. Lewis Davies founded the impressive paperback imprint, Parthian. I can also find new Welsh writers under the Seren imprint. The Library of Wales have republished Ron Berry's classic novel of industrial life, Flame and Slag. From Honno we have the reissue of Menna Gallie's wonderful novel The Small Mine. Young readers are discovering the work of the unique Raymond Williams. From beyond the grave, as it were, his radical voice is challenging our dismal market-driven world. Stan Barstow said he wanted to read young regional writers from diverse ethnic backgrounds. So do I. (John Haggerty, Glasgow, Scotland.)

  3. Wendy, can I be a bore and add a final(honest)comment? I have just watched on Youtube a terrific film in two parts, on the life of Nelson Algren. It's called 'Algren the Trailer' and is directed by Michael Caplan, with wonderful black and white photographs by Art Shay. There's even a song sung by Sarah Vaughan, my favourite singer. I think you and your readers would love it. Algren's only world was Chicago, 'the city on the make'. Yet no critic ever accused him of being parochial. His readers deserted him in his last years. He was accused of being in love with failure. But that's another story. websites such as yours are important. It offers readers the chance to celebrate honest writers. Stuff the London critics.

    1. Dear 'Anonymous'
      Have just come across your comments here. So interesting and reflecting many of my notions of regionality, identity and fiction. Could you let me have details of you website? I would like to take a look and to recommend it to other like-minded readers and writers, Best wishes, Wendy
      PS I also have enjoyed Raymond William's work in bothe fiction and fact. I will also make some time this week to blog/tweet your comment to get the word out there about your ideas.

  4. Dear Wendy, Thanks for your reply. It may take some time to set up the website. For the moment there is a provisional title: The Half-Known Roads. You will recognise the line from the Wilfred Owen poem. There is also a kind of echo of Robert Boswell's book, THE HALF-KNOWN WORLD. Perhaps the best new writing will be regional writing. It will turn on the rediscovery of micro-geography. Or what Scottish writer Kenneth White calls geopoetics. Years ago Catherine Hillier published JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF ENGLAND. Now I look back on it as if from a great distance. Industrial England has vanished. My memories of Stan Barstow (I interviewed him in 1973) can be found on two websites, Wild West Yorkshire Nature Diary and Britain is no Country for Old Men. I remember we talked about the haunting Albert Finney movie, CHARLIE BUBBLES, now available on DVD. You can write to me at 16 Regent Moray Street, Glasgow, G3 8AQ. This is my first laptop and I don't have a clue as to how to set up email. John (Jack) Haggerty.



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