Stan Barstow

WRITER Stan Barstow died yesterday, aged 83. Recalling his early life in an obituary in today’s GuardianIan 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.

Here’s the piece he wrote for my leaflet on The Yorkshire of William Baines:

‘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.’

Memorial Park

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!


The Literature of Stan Barstow

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  1. My memories of Stan Barstow, and I only met him once, are published as a comment on a rather touching website called No Country For Old Men. I profiled Stan in 1973 when I was editor of the Glasgow University Magazine. He and his wife Connie kindly put me up for the night in their beautiful home in Ossett. I remember talking to Stan’s mother-in-law in the cosy kitchen of the house. She was a delightful lady with many sharp clear memories of West Yorkshire of the late 19th century. This greatly appealed to me as I have always been a fan of oral history and the work of George Ewart Evans. As for Barstow, I do not believe he ever wrote a dull, sloppy or unimportant novel or short story. Start with A Kind of Loving and move on to The Watchers on the Shore. See the development of Vic Brown’s character. Then go the third work in the trilogy, The Right True End. It is all extremely moving, often witty, without any sleight of hand. This is a writer without any degree of calculation. His language takes you unawares. Think of the young man’s thoughts about the ‘magic city’ in A Raging Calm. Later in the same book, another character, Phillip Hart, talks of a marvellous liberating joy that always seems to remain out of reach. People find it, and lose it, in relationships. Margaret Drabble and John Braine have given us married people who remain in one’s memory. Barstow is in a class by himself. In Vic Brown we hear the voice of someone very real talking directly to us. There is nothing ‘drab’ about Vic’s town [really Dewsbury]. Reading these novels made me want to up sticks and move to the West Riding. Barstow’s voice is as extraordinary as Raymond Carver’s. He is describing moments, subtle perceptions, which other novelists seem unaware of. Why so few critics caught this is a mystery to me. In later novels, A Raging Calm, A Brother’s Tale, Just You Wait and See, we watch relationships from more than one perspective. And always the truly magical evocation of place. The almost palpable sense of time passing, that soon this bright busy scene around us will be gone and forgotten. Stan Barstow is ripe for discovery by the young.

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