Philip Callow

Biographer, poet and acclaimed novelist of working-class life

Sunday 18 September 2011 21:38

Kenneth Philip Callow, writer: born Birmingham 26 October 1924; FRSL 2000; three times married (one daughter), third 1987 Anne Golby; died 22 September 2007.

Philip Callow was a poet, a biographer and the author of 16 novels, many of them highly acclaimed. Most of his work was autobiographical, so his principal subjects were adolescence, working-class life, the artistic life and depression.

He was born in Birmingham and trained as an engineer in Coventry. After the Second World War, from which he was exempted from service because of his work as a toolmaker, he went to Nottingham in pursuit of a woman artist with whom he had corresponded. Their relationship didn't work out, but during this period Philip met his first wife and found the material for his first novel, The Hosanna Man, published by Cape in 1956.

This remarkable novel's portrait of working-class Bohemians in the poor Hyson Green area of the city is a unique document of the era. Callow's crisp, poetic prose, combined with a strong narrative and vivid characterisation, made a powerful and original début that gained him a reputation as a proletarian novelist. He covered some of the same territory as Stanley Middleton and Alan Sillitoe, arriving two years ahead of both, but stylistically his biggest debt was to D.H. Lawrence.

The Hosanna Man was very well reviewed. His contemporary John Wain, author of Hurry On Down (1953), wrote: "He may do great things... his characters affect us in the same untidy, rich way as people we meet in real life". Callow seemed set to escape his job as a clerk (which his fictional alter ego takes up towards the end of the novel) into the literary life. Then disaster struck. A Nottingham bookseller claimed that Thompson, a character in the novel, was based on him, and threatened to sue. Callow's portrait of Thompson was detailed: he is a creepy, ambiguous figure who mixes with the aspirant artist and writers who Louis (the Callow figure) has befriended. The passage that caused the biggest problem comes when Thompson is shown a painting by Jack Kelvin, a friend of Louis's.

"I see you've put in the pubic hairs. Good for you."

"Why not?" Kelvin asked in genuine astonishment.

Thompson faltered a moment, then grinned. But I noticed a different look creep over his face. I thought, "I wondered if he expected a different answer, and now he's not certain of his ground?"

Again he pointed with his stick. "That would go down well with my pornographic clients," he said, looking fixedly at the painting. "I could keep it in a back room with a curtain over it, couldn't I?"

I looked at him sharply, thinking he must be joking. Kelvin gave a snort of derisive laughter. "For the special customers – that the idea?" he said. I knew he was angry.


It's convincingly edgy and doesn't make clear whether Thompson really has a sideline in pornography or merely a slimy, mistimed sense of humour. Nevertheless, the passage did for the book. At the time, Callow claimed that any similarities were coincidental. In later years he was reluctant to discuss the incident and confessed to having been very naive. Thompson was, it seems certain, based on a real person who, unsurprisingly, felt aggrieved. Cape was not willing to fight a libel case; it withdrew the novel and pulped all remaining copies. The incident, coming so early in his career, gave Callow a deep scar and set him back in a way from which, many feel, he never entirely recovered.

His second novel, Common People (1958), saw him move to Heinemann. Quieter but equally autobiographical, it was described by J.B. Priestley as "done beautifully, with fine economy" and chosen by John Betjeman as one of his books of the year in the Sunday Times: "His book sounds like a genuine cry from a class usually silent in the literary world." In 1995, Jarvis Cocker borrowed the title for Pulp's most popular song, the lyrics of which (probably coincidentally) cover very Callow-like territory.

He had now mined much of his life and his third novel, A Pledge For The Earth (1960), his first written in the third person, was less successful. In 1966, an Arts Council grant enabled him to leave clerking in Plymouth and become a full-time writer.

There followed the trilogy that began with Going To The Moon (1968), which is regarded by D.J. Taylor and others as his finest work. All three novels were published in an omnibus (Another Flesh) in 1989, to coincide with his first novel after a 10-year absence, the fine The Painter's Confessions. "I always seem to need to have a painter in a novel", he wrote in 1991. The novel's narrator is described as having "a flaw, a split".

When I wanted to indulge and excuse myself I saw it as a wound. From it came my work... my disability was being put to good use by some inner agent, working day and night and with no more scruples than a gangster.

He published three further novels, but the inspiration, and the attention, was drying up. In the 1970s, at the suggestion of his agent, he began writing biographies of the figures he admired most, beginning with his hero, Lawrence (Son and Lover in 1975 was followed 28 years later by Body of Truth), continuing with Van Gogh, Walt Whitman, Robert Louis Stevenson, Cézanne and Chekhov. These were very readable biographies – better than the "cut and paste things" he described them as, but researched entirely from home, with no use of primary sources. They brought in much-needed money.

Callow trained as a teacher in the late 1960s. He never taught in schools, not having the temperament, but did teach creative writing for some years at Sheffield City Polytechnic and elsewhere. In the early 1980s he gave an Arvon Foundation course with the novelist Sta nley Middleton, who became a close friend. Callow always painted and wrote numerous small-press pamphlets and collections of poetry. Many of his best poems are collected in Testimonies (2000). These echo the qualities of his prose, being superbly crafted with keen observation, vivid language and acute honesty, as in "Holding Back" from Three Poems (2003).

As he walked he was aghast

at the way he had reserved himself

as a young man, labouring at early novels

during years of servitude in offices.

He had held back from his marriage,

from his small daughter

fizzing with life,

even from letters to his late friend,

because what he was doing

in the evenings and at weekends

had taken on an importance

that might mean escape.

Before long he was caught

in the prison

of his egocentricity.

Callow suffered three periods of severe depression, when his first marriage was breaking up in the 1970s, in the early 1990s and, most cripplingly, for the last three and a half years, a time from which his death brought welcome release.

In 2003, I tried to persuade him to let Nottingham Trent University's Trent Editions, which specialises in lost classics, republish The Hosanna Man. He wouldn't have it, not because of the libel issues, but (he eventually told me) because of the novel's naivety. He found it embarrassingly gauche.

Instead he offered me Common People, which shares many of the same qualities. I think his real problem was that revisiting The Hosanna Man was still too painful for him. Reprinting Common People at that time would have been a mistake, as Shoestring Press had just published his brilliant late memoir, Passage From Home (2002). This beautiful book, still in print, covers almost exactly the same ground as his second novel.

Callow was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2004, Nottingham Trent University awarded him an honorary degree, but he was too ill to receive it in person.

David Belbin

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