WRITER Stan Barstow died yesterday, aged 83. Recalling his early life in an obituary in today’s Guardian, Ian Haywood quotes him as having said: “There were no writers in the family (there were, in fact, few real readers).” Haywood continues:
Barstow began to feel the real frustrations of his regional and cultural isolation. He regarded these feelings as symptomatic of the exclusion of the working class from literary tradition: “We had the temerity to think we could write but [had] no teachers and no models.”
I was lucky because, growing up a couple of decades later in his hometown of Horbury, we had Stan himself (left in my illustrated diary for Sunday, 4 June 1972 ) as a role model; a local writer with short stories, novels, television series, radio plays and one movie, John Schlesinger’s production of his novel A Kind of Loving, to his credit.
As a final year student at Leeds College of Art, researching my degree project about Horbury composer William Baines, I called on him (cycling down Hall Cliffe with my research in a hold-all hanging from the handle-bars, in the sketch in my diary, right).
His son Neil (left, who later read the part of William Baines in my Radio Leeds documentary about the composer) asked me to call back the next day when I chatted with Stan for some hours about Baines and ‘all sorts of local things’. On the Monday I popped down again and saw Stan’s wife Connie (right) to leave him a copy of Eric Parkin’s record of Baines’ piano music.
‘I was born a few doors along from William Baines in Shepstye Road, Horbury; but he had been dead for six years by the time I arrived on the scene. He was, in fact, exactly contemporary with my mother and it’s odd to think of her still alive and William dead all those years. But consumption and the like nipped off many a young life in those days: my mother’s talk of her youth is full of references to parents who “had eight and buried three”. And, of course, it’s tempting but futile to speculate upon how Baines’s talent might have developed had he survived and been with us, in his seventies, today.
‘I probably saw William’s father, though I doubt that I ever heard him play the organ, for I went into the Primitive Methodist Chapel no more than a couple of times. The Highfield Methodist Chapel was where I spent the Sundays of my youth. There were four Methodist chapels within a couple of hundred yards along Horbury High Street in those days: the two I’ve mentioned and the Wesleyan and the Congregational. What their precise differences in belief andform of worship were I never knew, but it was only much later, after the Second World War, when their separate congregations began to fail, that three of them (the Congregational holding on to its independence) amalgamated for survival. A supermarket stands on the site of the Primitive Methodist Chapel now.
‘How quiet Horbury must have been in William’s day. I remember it as quiet enough in mine, for although I was born into the age of the internal combustion engine it was half a lifetime before bypass roads and six-lane super highways. An attractive little town at that time, compact, stone-built, sitting on the hill above the Calder, with green fields all round it. In the evening a one-armed lamplighter made his rounds; in the early morning you would be stirred out of sleep by the clatter of colliers’ clogs passing under the window. Not much different, one imagines, from William’s time, for although his youth and mine were separated by a terrible war, change came much more slowly than in the years since 1945.
‘A puritanical town, of course. What other could it have been under that great weight. of Methodism? Drink was a blatant evil, sex a vast unmentionable mystery. It’s perhaps fortunate that William was a composer, rather than a writer, for music carries few of the moral associations of literature. He’d have had a hard time putting the truth on paper in those days. His departure from his birthplace was not the kind of exile D. H. Lawrence had to seek from a not dissimilar environment, and his future, had he lived, would surely not have been plagued by the kind of persecution Lawrence suffered. But that is speculation again, and we should be grateful for what, in his short life, he left us to enjoy.’
Today the last of those Methodist churches is surrounded by a cordon of wire fencing panels and scheduled for demolition. The Baines memorial plaque that hangs there will be moved to the former Primitive Methodist church hall. Plans to rename Horbury War Memorial Park, otherwise known as “Sparra’ Park” in honour of Stan are currently stalled.
Stan gave me so much encouragement and down to earth advice about writing and publishing. He wrote the introduction to my first book A Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield, published in 1978.
A Twinkle in the Eye
In the 1980s I helped out at a Save the Children craft fair, organised by Connie at Flanshaw, drawing portraits of people in conté crayon on Ingres paper. Stan volunteered to be drawn and I suggested that he should use the finished sketch as the frontispiece for his collected works.
He drifted back 20 minutes later: ‘Richard, can you make a change to this? – You’ve missed out the twinkle in my eye.’
I added a highlight in white crayon. Sure enough, the portrait needed that twinkle. That’s how Barbara and I always think of him – with a twinkle in his eye!