Stan Barstow: Writer whose novel 'A Kind of Loving' was a key text in the literary revolution of the 1950s and '60s
Thursday 04 August 2011
Stan Barstow, the novelist, playwright and scriptwriter, began writing his first short story in 1951 on honeymoon. It was at the suggestion ofhis wife, Connie, on a rainy afternoon in their Lake District hotel. The story wasn't publishable but he quickly learned the craft of writing and,according to his autobiography, InMy Own Good Time (2001) "began to uncover a talent I certainly couldn't, only a year or two earlier, have known I possessed".
However, over the next eight years his new-found enthusiasm for writing translated into the sale of only four short stories, earning him £77 18s 6d. But then in the autumn of 1959 he sent a newly acquired agent a novel, the second he'd written.
Two months passed. Four months. "It had never occurred to me," he wrote later, "that I should not know the verdict by now." On Christmas morning, his wife in bed with tonsillitis, their children (Neil and Gillian) playing with their new toys, he heard the rattle of the letterbox. (In 1959 there was still a Christmas Day postal delivery.) A letter from his agent told him his novel, A Kind of Loving, had been sold for £125.
A Kind of Loving immediately put Barstow on the literary map. Itremains the novel that has kept him there. It was published, in 1960, in the middle of a revolution in EnglishLetters, when the northern working class pushed its way into publishing. Barstow was aware of a "provincial renaissance too strong to be denied": he'd read Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, Len Doherty's Sheffield-based The Good Lion, and the novels of John Braine and Alan Sillitoe.
The novels of these working-class writers were then eagerly snapped up as material for the New Wave of British social realist film-making. Joseph Janni, an Italian film producer based in England, optioned A Kind of Loving. He had the rights to Billy Liar, too. John Schlesinger, at the time a documentary maker, was keen to direct Loving. Barstow turned down the chance to write the script as he felt too close to the material. Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall took it on. (They'd just successfully collaborated on adapting Waterhouse's Billy Liar for the stage.) When he asked them how they were getting on they said: "You'll love the bullfight sequence."
Stan Barstow, like Braine, Sillitoe and David Storey grew up in a working class family in the pre-Second World War Depression years. He was born in 1928 in Horbury, near Wakefield. His father was a coalminer. He was an only child.
As a child he liked drawing and reading. He grew up among what he later termed "the lace curtain" working class, where thrift and self-respect went hand in hand. "Poverty but not squalor" he noted in his autobiography. Barstow's father had a bowler hat and a pair of spats for special occasions. His mother wore a fox-fur "complete with head" to Sunday chapel.
His father supplemented his mining income from time to time by receiving retainers for his cornet work with a range of local brass bands. He was much in demand for solos. Barstow's mother "frowned on strong drink". One of Barstow's later regrets was that he never stood in a pub at the bar to share a pint with his father.
Barstow attended Ossett Grammar School through most of the war years. Constance Knowles was a fellow student there. He left in 1944, aged 16, to work in the draughtsman's office of Charles Roberts, a local engineering firm. Connie Knowles also joined the firm. In 1951, they married at Ossett Parish Church and then took that fateful Lake District honeymoon.
Barstow bought a Remington portable typewriter and put it in the back bedroom on a card table borrowed from his mother-in-law. He aimed first for the women's magazine market. He later noted: "I sold nothing in that first phase because I was writing insincerely." During this time he began and abandoned two correspondence courses "intent on teaching me to please an editor before I tried to please myself".
He did sell four stories for BBC radio. His first published short story wasThe Search for Tommy Flynn in 1957. A year later his father died; Barstow inherited his moped. He went around industrial West Yorkshire "noting changes and collecting features" for Cressley, the invented Yorkshire town he intended to write about. It was based on Dewsbury rather than the Wakefield he knew better because he preferred the stone of the former to the brick of the latter. He was aware of the hubbub around northern working-class fiction at the time – he later described the end of the 1950s and the early '60s as "watershed years" for the English novel.
He had already had a novel rejected. It was a combination of crime thriller and character study, "and more than I was at that time able to handle". He'd decided that "the only thing I knew how to write about at length was the life of a 'lace-curtain' working class family". He envisaged a family with two sons and a daughter and decided he would have the elder boy obliged to marry a girl he gets pregnant but doesn't love. This was, he knew, a stock situation, but when he thought about it further he wondered: "handled properly and given its own length and depth, couldn't it become a novel in itself?".
He made that the focus of A Kind of Loving. And to get up close to the experience of his protagonist, Vic Brown, he wrote it in the first person "in a vernacular made up of West Riding idioms, Hollywood slang, and words and phrases brought back from overseas by returning servicemen". He also wrote it in the historic present, a common mode in speech in Yorkshire for relating stories.
A Kind of Loving was a critical and commercial success, especially after the 1962 film, which made a star of Alan Bates and launched John Schlesinger's feature film career. Only then did Barstow gave up work in the draughtsman's office to become a full-time writer. His next publication, in 1961, had been Desperadoes, his short story collection. In 1962 he published another novel, Ask Me Tomorrow.
Joby in 1964 was a children's book about the 11-year old eponymous hero at the outbreak of the Second World War. (Barstow's age in 1939.) A year later, he and Alfred Bradley adapted Ask Me Tomorrow for the stage, and it was performed as a radio play in 1966. He returned to the story of Vic Brown in The Watchers on the Shore in 1966.
In these years of his greatest success, Barstow continued to live in Yorkshire. His autobiography obliquely refers to marriage difficulties.
Other novels followed every two or three years but in the 1970s he also became more interested in television scriptwriting. In 1974 he adapted Winifred Holtby's South Riding, about Yorkshire life in the 1930s. He also scripted an adaptation of Catherine Cookson's The Man Who Cried. He adapted his 1968 novel A Raging Calm for TV mini-series and his children's book, Joby, was televised in 1975. The Cost of Loving followed in 1977.
In 1976 Barstow revisited Vic for a final time in The Right True End. Barstow adapted it for radio in 1978. Four years later A Kind of Loving became a TV series starring Clive Wood and Joanna Whalley. He shifted focus slightly in the 1980s, writing a trilogy set in the 1940s: Just You Wait and See (1986), Give Us This Day (1989) and Next of Kin (1991).
In 1990, after 39 years of marriage, he separated from his wife. Hewas surprised and upset by the tabloid interest this received.
Altogether Stan Barstow wrote11 novels and three collections of short stories, most of them set in hisimaginary Cressley. He lived in the north pretty much all his life – for many years in Haworth, home of the Brontës. More recently he had lived in Pontardawe in South Wales, with his partner Diana Griffiths.
In 2010, A Kind of Loving was republished, in a 50th anniversary edition, and was also dramatised for Radio 4 by his partner. A collection of short stories, The Likes of Us, is due to be published in the next few months.
Barstow was proud to be a provincial writer, focusing on the detail of one defined space. He said: "to hoe one's own row diligently, thus seeking out the universal in the particular, brings more worthwhile satisfaction than the frantic pursuit of a largely phony jet-age internationalism".
Stanley Barstow, writer: born Horbury, Yorkshire 28 June 1928; married 1951 Constance Kershaw (one son, one daughter); partner to Diana Griffiths 1990-; died 1 August 2011.
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