Ordinary Acts of Daily Living

Jenny Diski · Stanley Middleton

Stanley Middleton died last week at the age of 89. He didn't start writing until he was 38 but had 44 novels published and one manuscript with his publishers at his death. He wrote a calm, whispering prose, full of unspoken suggestion between ordinary acts of daily living. Once, long ago, before it was the abysmal circus it is now (though it was always a circus) he shared the Booker Prize with Nadine Gordimer, but it didn't make much difference to his sales. He lived in Nottingham, was not seen at London literary events or dinner tables. He refused public honours and didn't supplement his income by becoming a talking head, but taught English at secondary school until he retired. In the evenings and during holidays he wrote his novels out in longhand. Writing, he said, exhausted him.

Here's a problem: not all of his books went into paperback and many of them are out of print. As a result, some titles are prohibitively expensive (up to $3000 dollars) in the secondhand book market. You're not likely to find those in the public library because the library would have sold them, trying to make ends meet. A few of his books are only available in reference sections of copyright libraries or private collections of modern first editions. For the time being, at least, they have disappeared.

Middleton wrote books you remember decades on. I still can't change a battery without thinking of the elderly man in (I think) An After-Dinner Sleep to whom almost nothing happened, working out how to put a new battery into the stopped electric clock in his kitchen, and his knowledge, which Middleton conveyed without stating it, that the revived clock would be ticking on after he was gone.

I think of Middleton, and a few others, who keep still and write and then write more, because they are writers and that's what they have to do, as the real ones, the sort to aspire to. Whatever anxiety they have is not about where they are in the literary world, but about whether they are working well. Quite enough anxiety, actually. He, and the others, are, of course, patronised as 'parochial', faintly admired, if they are read at all, as 'miniaturists' by those who haven't got a firm grasp on what reading and writing are for.


  • 7 August 2009 at 1:19pm
    Martin says:
    I think Barbara Pym belongs to that group too.

  • 10 August 2009 at 10:18pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    "You can now buy her books again all over the place but in the 1970s and 1980s it would have been impossible. Back in the unswinging Fifties she was enormous, top-five successful novelist, then more or less on one day something in the air changed: the executives at her own publishing company and the critics on all the big newspapers and magazines decided she wasn't any good any more. Though she had been good the day before, somehow now she wasn't. I suppose these people have to believe they have some special power, that they know ahead of time when an artist is played out. So if they bring it about, they make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are scientists who can affect the outcome of their experiments. Poor Barbara kept writing books and her editor would be unenthusiastic and they wouldn't get published. And she thought it was her fault, but it wasn't: it was fashion's fault, it was their fault, all the others."
    - the (fictional) poet Hillary Wheat, narrating Alexei Sayle's short story "The Mau Mau Hat"