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The Old Story
on 15 November 2013
Stanley Middleton, Holiday
`Fifty years hence, someone will pull me out of his head. I am not displeased.' Thus Stanley Middleton in a poem recalling names from his past. Author of over 40 novels, joint winner of the Booker Prize in 1975, Middleton refused an honour from the Wilson government, and published Holiday to refute Auberon Waugh's dictum that flashbacks were the death of any good novel. In fact flashback is an inherent part of the structure of Holiday, whose hero, Edwin Fisher during a period of marital breakdown tells of his childhood, school life, courtship and his disastrous marriage to Meg, a woman who is his very antithesis.
The novel begins in an East Coast seaside resort, where schoolmaster Fisher has gone to escape from constant domestic squabbles with his bellicose wife. While he drifts from beach to bar, from church to his digs, with their lace curtains and view of rooftops and television aerials, he meets a range of tramps, holidaying families, sunbathing girls - and ultimately chances upon his father-in-law, David Vernon. The one thing that Edwin and Meg have in common is an imposing and embarrassing father. But while Edwin's father is safely dead, Meg's is only too alive. Vernon has clearly arrived at the resort as a peacemaker, a friendly but interfering solicitor, who after puffing and blowing sits down `raising the tails of his coat,' saying, `I was sorry to hear about your business,' meaning the marital break-up.
David is difficult to shake off and the many interviews between solicitor and teacher are both funny and painful, each seeking to outfox the other. Meg `appears' only in Edwin's recalled `scenes,' where again victory of principle is striven for but never achieved. Between these scenes of conflict, however, Edwin engages socially and to an extent sexually with a gallery of plebeian types, fun-loving drinkers and songsters, which serves to distract him and to broaden the human dimension of this fairly trite story about marital strife.
Middleton makes capital from the contrast in speech between the sincere ordinary folk, whose banalities are frequently excruciatingly funny, and the often pompous educated antagonists. One of David's monologues concludes: `I didn't fancy swigging with the plutocracy. So I settle on the first little workman's pub I see. And whom do I meet there? My lapsed son-in-law, Edwin Arthur Fisher, Master of Arts, Master of Education.' Which reminds Edwin of the time when he'd courted Meg, and been invited to play chess, only to find that the game was an opportunity for the soon-to-be father-in-law to triumph. `That a grown man, stolid as a farmer, could so drive himself to win an unimportant contest, had amused and then frightened Fisher.'
As Philip Davis says in his obituary of `this minor old-fashioned novelist' who died in July 2009, Middleton's stories of `struggling marriages, or recovery from trouble or loss are tales of survival and deserve their own.'