Michael Standen: Novelist and poet

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The Independent Online

Michael Standen was an integral part of the literary scene of the North East, as novelist, poet, co-editor of the journal Other Poetry, an organiser of the invaluable Colpitts Poetry readings, and much else besides.

He was born near London in 1937 and, as he once said, after that moved steadily northwards. Following school at Nottingham, he did his national service, an experience on which he drew for some of the funnier episodes in his third novel, Stick-man (1970), then read English at Cambridge. In 1961, newly married, he began teaching in Manchester, and three years later was appointed to a post as Tutor Organiser for the Northern District of the Workers Educational Association (WEA), at first in Cumberland, then later as District Secretary based in Newcastle upon Tyne, although he and Val, a university biologist, made their home in Durham.

His first novel, Start Somewhere (1965), rightly brought him a number of highly favourable reviews and was almost at once reprinted. A wry, affecting and keenly observed study of young people beginning their lives, the novel is set in Nottingham and deftly catches the feeling of the city at that time: a slightly seedy respectability shading into the down-at-heel raffishness to be found in the life of its pubs, the streets of small shops, of talk coloured by recommendations for duff patent medicines, all observed with a mixture of sardonic detachment and genuine warmth.

Then came, in regular succession, A Sane and Able Man (1966), Stick-man and The Dreamland Tree (1972). Unfortunately, none of these was able to repeat the success, either critical or commercial, of his first novel, and Heinemann, which had published all four, declined to accept his next. In 1977, OUP published his novel for younger readers Over the Wet Lawn (1977), reckoned by some astute judges to be among the best fictions ever written for that age group; but apart from a collection of shorter pieces, gathered together as Months and Other Stories (1994), Mick Standen's career as a prose writer had ended.

Poetry, however, brought him new readers. He had been runner-up to Seamus Heaney for the 1966 Cheltenham Literature Festival's poetry prize, and began increasingly to write and publish verse as well as to consider work submitted to Other Poetry, a journal whose reputation he helped to enhance through his sympathetic vigilance. His first full collection, Time's Fly-Past, was published in 1991. Then came Gifts of Egypt and this was followed last year by Leaves at Midnight: new and selected poems.

Leaves at Midnight appeared in time for Mick's 70th birthday, an occasion at which he was presented with Still Standen: a celebration of the poet's life, put together by friends and admirers who included Gillian Allnutt, Peter Armstrong, Peter Bennet, Jacques Darras, Richard Kell, Peter Mortimer and Anne Stevenson.

But respect and affection for Mick was by no means confined to writers. A lifelong socialist whose care for the environment was partly reflected in the tending of an allotment he and Val shared, he continued to teach for the WEA well after retirement, and his undoctrinaire passion for literature, integral to which was a genial contempt for whichever critical or theoretical orthodoxy happened at any time to be "fashionable and cruel", as well as a relish for humanity's bent timber, meant that he unfailingly attracted to his classes students of all ages and dispositions.

Latterly, he took up painting in watercolours, and when last year he and Val stayed for some days with my wife and me on the Greek island of Aegina, Mick produced detailed and evocative sketches of some of the island's architectural treasures.

John Lucas

Michael Standen, writer and poet: born Epsom, Surrey 28 July 1937; married 1961 Val Healey (two sons); died Durham 1 June 2008.