books monthly june 2017

This month Jerry Dowlen looks at E M Forster...

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Stan Barstow


The restless northerner Vic Brown: “allus looking for summat.”


It was in 1960 that the Yorkshire-born Stan Barstow (1928 – 2011) made his name with his first and most successfully acclaimed novel A Kind of Loving, featuring the fictional Vic Brown. He continued to write novels thereafter; he branched out into drama and musicals too, via radio, television and theatre.


‘Northern Powerhouse’


During its 2010 to 2015 period of office the Conservative coalition government announced its ‘Northern Powerhouse’ political initiative, with declared ambition to boost economic growth in the north of England.


Sixty years ago, novelists such as John Braine (with Room at the Top, 1957) and Alan Sillitoe (with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, 1958) were the trailblazers of a veritable ‘Northern Powerhouse’ of major impact on the fiction-reading public. All of a sudden as setting for gritty modern-day stories of drama and romance the unconsidered north of England was thrust centre stage. A curtain was lifted and the culture and the attitudes of northern provincial dwellers were revealed from the factories, pubs, shops, streets and two-up, two-down terraced houses found in mining towns and villages of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, and in cities like Leeds and Wakefield where hard men played rugby league football, supped bellyfuls of ale and munched on meat pies or battered fish with large helpings of chips.


Stan Barstow strengthened this new trend with his debut novel in 1960, as did David Storey (with This Sporting Life, 1960) and Leeds-born Keith Waterhouse (with Billy Liar, 1963). These were engagingly powerful depictions of working class or lower middle class life ‘oop north, with assertive, rebellious and restless lead male characters.


Cinema helped to propagate this sudden surge of northern-based ‘kitchen sink’ drama. The genre (always filmed in gritty black & white) was dubbed ‘New Wave’ as directors like Lindsay Anderson, Bryan Forbes, Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger seized the moment. The Lancashire-based Coronation Street drama series had made its television debut at the end of 1960; in tandem the cinema industry opened up the north of England by offering big screen adaptations of the ground-breaking top-selling novels by John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, David Storey and Keith Waterhouse. Stardom came to hitherto-unknown actors like Alan Bates, Tom Courtney and Albert Finney who were cast in the lead roles. The popularity of ‘New Wave’ was further endorsed by classic films such as A Taste of Honey and Whistle down the Wind, both set in Lancashire.


Stan Barstow and the Vic Brown trilogy: A Kind of Loving (1960) - The Watchers on the Shore (1966) - A Right True End (1976)



A Kind of Loving reached the British cinema in 1962, directed by John Schlesinger and starring Alan Bates as Stan Barstow’s semi-autobiographical hero Vic Brown. Co-stars included June Ritchie, Thora Hird and James Bolam.


After that, Barstow’s output of eleven  further novels included two in which he continued the saga of the voyaging Vic Brown seeking release from his failed marriage (forced on him by an unwanted pregnancy) and from his dreary conventional upbringing in the fictional Yorkshire town of Cressley.

The whole of the trilogy was screened by Granada Television as an adaptation in 1982, starring Clive Wood as Vic Brown. The key female roles were taken by Joanna Whalley as Vic’s wife Ingrid (eventually, his ex-wife) and by Susan Penhaligon as Donna, his mistress manqué.


The archetypal ‘grim oop north’ and ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ themes can certainly be found in Vic Brown’s self-narration of his story. Stan Barstow nevertheless preferred to be thought of as a chronicler of ordinary people and the ordinary things that happen to them. For all his selfish flaws Vic Brown cuts altogether a softer and more sympathetic figure than, say, John Braine’s fictional chancer Joe Lampton in Room at the Top. Joe is a much louder individual, unapologetic for the cheating, the conniving and the womanising that accompanies his social climbing in the Yorkshire town of Leddersford.


In Stan Barstow’s sequel stories of Vic Brown the period settings of Watchers on the Shore and Right True End are immediately established by contemporary references to the Cuban missile crisis (1962) at the beginning, and the Watergate scandal (1972) at the end. For modern-day readers of the baby boomer generation the stories abound with nostalgic references: for example the woman’s fashion accessory of the transparent plastic hood, to protect the hair if caught in the rain. On a cultural level we might nowadays marvel that Ingrid’s mother feels sufficiently  ashamed of her daughter’s divorce that she wants the removal van to call at the hush of midnight to clear the contents of Vic’s and Ingrid’s flat, instead of going in broad daylight when  the neighbours might see.


In the Alan Sillitoe novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning the action runs the repetitive weekly cycle of Monday to Friday hard slog in the factory; Saturday night getting bladdered at the pub; Sunday morning hung over and repentant. Vic Brown likes pubs and parties too: here is a timepiece of reminiscence with his old pal Willy over a pint of Tetley’s bitter when, having moved into early middle age, they reflect on their carefree youth:


“We were allus looking for summat, weren’t we? Down the Gala Rooms, Saturday night, weighing the crumpet up, disappointed nine times out of ten.”


Stan Barstow: Stage and Screen Awards


Unlike some of his peer writers such as Keith Waterhouse, the lure of London never persuaded Stan Barstow to leave Yorkshire and move south. He did however send Vic Brown away to Longford, in Essex, to take a job with better prospects and in effect have a trial separation from Ingrid. Vic ends up not exactly passion spent, but passion tempered to loss of youth and fear of loneliness. In due course we find Vic nodding his head in agreement when his old chum Willy declares:


“It’s all changing now. There’s a different generation coming up. Pop groups, long hair. They make me feel like an old man.”


In the mid-1970s Stan Barstow received awards from the Royal Television Society, the Writers Guild and the British Broadcasting Press Guild. A big reason for this was his screen adaptation and scriptwriting role in one of the most popular television drama series of 1974: South Riding, a Yorkshire Television production based on Winifred Holtby’s story of Yorkshire life in the 1930s. But for me his most enjoyable legacy is his Vic Brown trilogy: each of the three books is a page-turner, and offers a rewarding read still.


Jerry Dowlen

May 2017

Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


  Stan Barstow

   The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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