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Monday 28 October 2019

Review - Stan Barstow: The Watchers On The Shore and The Right True End

Stan Barstow
The Watchers On The Shore (3*)
The Right True End (3*)

Two sequels that continue Vic Browns story from where we left him in A Kind of Loving: trapped in an unfulfilling nineteen-fifties marriage in the Yorkshire mining town where he grew up, and managing a record and electrical shop which the owner had implied would eventually pass to Vic.

The Watchers On The Shore and The Right True End take us into the nineteen-sixties, but whereas A Kind of Loving was rich in the details of time and place which vividly capture what it must have been like coming of age in the young northern working-class ten or fifteen years before my time, these elements are not major parts of the sequels. They do, however, capture something of the changing social context that allowed those like Vic to escape the restricted lives of their parents. 

Vic does not inherit the record shop and must choose between continuing there as an employee of a large company or returning to his previous work as a draughtsman. He chooses the latter, but instead of going back to his earlier employer he moves to a firm in the south of England. The distance strains his marriage to breaking point, especially as Vics cultural and intellectual horizons expand through an affair with an actress at the local theatre, although she eventually dumps him.

What was it about local theatre groups as a place for clever nineteen-fifties northern lads to meet classy birds? Were they epitomes of culture? It crops up in John Braine’s Room At The Top, and in real-life I am reminded of the much-liked teacher from school who joined the local amateurs and married one of the lovely Dale Sisters.

In the third book, Vic is a globe-trotting, London-based design and development engineer, having picked up a degree and lots of women. Yet something is missing, which is of course his actress friend with whom he designs and develops a ‘chance’ re-encounter. There is a twist at the end, not difficult to see coming, and all seems certain to be happy ever after.

The stories are brilliantly written and enjoyable page turners so long as you don’t expect the first-person present-historic narrative to be from any viewpoint other than Vics, with nineteen-sixties concerns and attitudes: man striving to win ideal woman who is at first out of his league but otherwise rather docile and incompletely drawn as a character. The book covers say it all.

And as Vic Brown finds, the problem with all this expansion of horizons stuff is that it fills your head with ideas and pretensions so that your family and those where you came from no longer understand you and you no longer understand them. Like once when I phoned my aunty on her farm and overheard my uncle say “th’s some posh bugger f’yer on t’phoo-an”, and her saying to him, “Why, it’s nor anybody posh, it’s owwer Tasker”, and then to me “Ah suppoo-as y‘ave to talk proper like that when yer at wok.” Ah suppoo-as they would have thought the same about Vic Brown.

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 


  1. Hmm... I wonder whether I would like the "Vic Brown" novels. Part of me thinks I might, part of me cautions me off.

    1. 'A Kind of Loving' was admired when published because of how it portrayed nineteen-fifties northern working-class Yorkshire, and the sequels the early sixties. They show what we've moved on from, thank goodness, well ... most people. As stories, they do keep you engaged.

  2. I liked your anecdote about your auntie and uncle, "owwer Tasker."

    1. I don't know whether he recognised it was me "on t'phoo-an" or not. We used to say we visited to be systematically insulted.

  3. I do believe your last paragraph is a summary of a generation.

    1. Things change so fast it could be true of all generations from about 1850 on.

  4. Thanks for reminding me of those two novels. I read them very long ago. How many stars would you give to "Seventy Two Virgins" by Boris Johnson? Are minus ratings possible?

    1. It sounds realistic. Here's a quote; “To a man like Roger Barlow,the whole world just seemed to be a complicated joke … everything was always up for grabs, capable of dispute; and religion, laws, principle, custom – these were nothing but sticks from the wayside to support our faltering steps.”

    2. I think he looked in a mirror before writing that. What a tosser! (Err...I mean Johnson - not you! Sorry for any confusion).

  5. In 1972 I was a guest of Stan Barstow and his wife Connie at their home in Ossett, a beautiful house in a tree-lined street. I enjoyed talking to Mrs. Barstow's mother who had many good stories about the West Riding.

    I interviewed Stan for a student magazine which I edited. One of the points I made was how skilfully he had handled Vic's ageing and maturity, in the years between A Kind of Loving and The Watcher On The Shore.

    Stan hadn't yet started the final book in his trilogy, but told me he planned to call it The Pound Of Flesh.

    The Right True End is a much better title, and comes from a quotation by Francis Bacon. A Kind of Loving carried an epigraph of Bacon's, suggesting that Vic's search for a stable relationship with a woman has been the purpose of his life, though he finds meaning in his work and the industrial town in which he was raised.

    Tone is everything in first-person present-historic narrative. Stan Barstow gets the tone exactly right, from Vic's occasional use of American jargon in the first novel, to his foreboding in the second book, that as a divorced and childless man he can hope for nothing more than *a passport to loneliness*.

    John Braine, whom I interviewed in 1979 at his office in Woking, Surrey, successfully employed the first-person present-historic in two novels at the end of his career, One And Last Love and These Golden Days.

    How well I remember the bookshops of my youth in the late Sixties; and the paperback novels by the great regional English novelists, Barstow, Braine, Sillitoe, Stanley Middleton, Jack Trevor Storey, Phillip Callow, and Ann Quin who ended her life in the sea at Brighton when she had so much ahead of her.

    Incidentally, Stan wrote a short epilogue on Vic Brown's life for The Daily Mail's Saturday edition. Vic was by now a grandfather, married to Donna, watching the years flying past, and living through Mrs Thatcher's premiership!

    I posted two memories of Stan Barstow. a very kind and decent man, in two blogs: No Country For Old Men and Wild Yorkshire.

    I am looking forward to the reissue of all his novels, especially Joby, A Raging Calm, The Brother's Tale, and the Give Us This Day trilogy.

    If my days on earth are hastening to a close due to Covid-19, I shall be rereading Stan's great trilogy. I also want to watch my DVD of A Kind of Loving, beautifully filmed and acted.

    John Haggerty, Glasgow.

  6. In my roll-call of English regional novelists I should certainly have mentioned Barry Hines, a man of total integrity; like Stan, he remained loyal to the North all his life. Who can forget Kes, the novel, and the film directed by Ken Loach, impeccably cast and shot?

    Keith Waterhouse, another genius of the Northern school, will always be remembered for Billy Liar, and his evocative columns for The Daily Mirror. These were published in two paperback editions.

    Finally, Sheilagh Delaney whose play A Taste of Honey was staged in London by Joan Littlewood, when the writer was just 19, is a must-remember. I am waiting for the paperback edition of the new Delaney biography.

    The DVD of Delaney's script of Charlie Bubbles, the only film Albert Finney ever directed, catches a moment in time before the terrace houses in Salford were demolished.

    Charlie Bubbles is a slightly surreal comedy of alienation, full of Shelagh Delaney's poetry and humour. The film's score is perfect as is Billie Whitelaw's performance as Charlie's put-upon ex-wife.

    There's a short black-and-white documentary about Shelagh Delaney, filmed decades ago by the BBC. Her charm and unphoney manner are infectious.

    John Braine's BBC film for One Pair of Eyes (1971) is also worth watching. He returns to the street in Bradford where he grew up, to Bingley where he set Room At The Top, and to Dublin, which held his Catholic roots.

    John Haggerty, Glasgow.

  7. I ought to have mentioned that Stan Barstow lived in South Wales in his last years. So his *The Likes of Us: Stories of Five Decades* was published by an excellent Welsh paperback imprint, Parthion.

    This distinguished collection shows the range and depth of his work; his eye for the rough and tender stuff of life; and his infallible ear for the way real people speak. The volume ends with two uncollected stories, one with that uncanny shiver that vibrates long after.

    Stan's later partner was playwright Diana Griffiths, who adapted some of his stories for radio, and writes an introduction to the collection. I am hoping she will write a critical study and memoir of Stan.

    Stan Barstow was influenced by Sid Chaplin (1916-1986) the ex-miner from Durham, famous for The Leaping Lad. A collection of Chaplin stories carried a Barstow foreword. Worth searching for online.

    A few years ago another Welsh imprint, Honno, reissued Menna Gallie's 1962 novel, The Small Mine, which I highly recommend. Even after coal was nationalised there were a few independent pits in Wales. Menna's novel is set around one such colliery and the nearby town.

    The past is another country. If you like regional writing as I do, track down Raymond Williams and his first novel, Border Country, which sweeps you into another place and time as does Barstow.

    Jack Haggerty, Glasgow.

    1. Well, goodness me, John, what an impressive knowledge of Stan Barstow and his contemporaries you have. Thank you for taking the time to comment at such length. My own reviews, imperfect as they are, attempt to relate the relevance of these novels to my own memoir, that being the subject of this blog, and may not always rank them as highly as they deserve. However, I have also looked recently at A Kestrel For A Knave which I thought outstanding because, like everyone else from similar northern backgrounds, it speaks to me personally.

  8. I am glad that you relate the Barstow stories to your own memoir, Tasker. Keep speaking personally. Don't be bothered by anyone saying, *This is all about you.* As long as you know your place in the narrative, other people will come alive as well. William Faulkner, another regionalist, said: *The past is not dead; it is not even past.*

    Quite how I became so fascinated by t'North is too deep for me to understand. Life made more sense to me when we had an industrial culture, unions, and an economy of manufacturies. Stable families too.

    I started working life as a journalist in Clydebank of the shipyards and engineering shops. I remember reading Braine's novel The Jealous God one Friday morning when our weekly paper had been put to bed.

    These working class novelists like Braine, Barstow, Hines and Sillitoe, spoke to men and women. And my Dad remembered when The Guardian was The Manchester Guardian with writers like Geoffrey Moorehouse; not the toffee-nosed chatter-sheet it is today.

    I haven't gone Right Wing; I am merely an old philosopher of the quiet back streets, looking forward to more of your posts. Stay healthy!

    John Haggerty

    1. Thank you. You stay healthy too. You should have a blog yourself but possibly as a past journalist you might not want to. I taught computing for many years and now won't even have a smartphone. I still use the mobile in I bought in 2003, very infrequently.


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