Holiday by Stanley Middleton
Some time ago, I picked up a copy of Holiday at a book sale, only knowing that it had shared the 1974 Booker prize with Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist. I’d otherwise never heard of Middleton, so I was surprised to find this was the 14th novel of his 44-novel career! If it hadn’t won the Booker, I doubt I’d have ever read the novel, but read it I have, if only for Shiny New Books’s planned Booker week in early July.
I must admit I nearly gave up reading the book after the first couple of pages. It opens with a chap musing about his life at church while the service goes on around him, but then a sentence caught my attention –
Here sprawled a man who’d left his wife…
– and I realised there would be a story underneath all the impressionistic ramblings.
Edwin Fisher, a college lecturer, is taking a week’s holiday by himself at an East coast seaside resort. He has left his wife, Meg, after their marriage became so tortuous after a family tragedy that he couldn’t stand it anymore. Imagine his surprise when, on that first evening, he goes into a backstreet pub to find his father-in-law there, they strike up an awkward conversation.
‘D’you know, I’d considered what I’d say to you if we met.’
‘Well, boy,’ Vernon answered, ‘we’re rational human beings, aren’t we? But Irene’s furious. She saw your marriage as perfect.’ He grinned, with mischief. ‘Perhaps she thinks Meg’ll be back, inflicting herself on us.’
‘Not much fear of that.’
‘You think not. Well, now. They didn’t get on; that is for certain. She’s a selfish bitch.’
‘Naughty, naughty. You pays your money. Still I was a bit surprised that it was you who went…’
His in-laws, David and Irene Vernon, are on holiday too, staying at the area’s finest hotel rather than a guest house like Edwin. Fisher’s week away thus becomes a strange mixture of sitting on the beach, walking, drinking with the other hotel guests, and meetings with Vernon who is trying to persuade Meg, who is obviously mentally ill, to take him back and effect a reconciliation. We eventually piece together what happened and the state of Edwin and Meg’s marriage.
On another day, walking around in the town, he bumps into Irene – and Edwin gives us an interesting picture of the Vernons:
Mrs Vernon paid attention to appearances; she was English, middle-class, a rich solicitor’s only daughter. Her husband could drink in back street pubs, gamble a few quid away at the tables or the courses, make tricky use of information from crooked clientele, play, it was said, with fancy young foreign vaginas, providing the office finances were straight, the Law Society unworried, and her own public pride undamaged. It wasn’t much of a marriage, but the joint bank account swelled. Fisher felt he ought to be sorry for the woman, but she showed no signs of needing his pity.
It’s a strange book, taking place mostly in Edwin’s mind. It’s rambling and verbose, but then an occasional coarse thought may puncture the mood or flow, as in the quote above. These are discomforting to say the least – not what you expect from a middle-class novel in which not a lot actually happens – but they lay Edwin’s mind bare on the page, and proves that he’s not so different from David Vernon after all, relishing the attentions of girls he meets on the beach, and the disillusioned wife of one of the guesthouse’s other clients.
I was a teenager when Holiday was published, and I didn’t really recognise Edwin’s world – it felt more like I imagine the 1950s to be than the1970s, although the one mention of ‘longhairs’ dates it to later rather than earlier. Maybe the hippies hadn’t made it up to Lincolnshire, but as a novel it was devoid of cultural references of its time – whenever that was!
Kingsley Amis, C P Snow and Beryl Bainbridge were also shortlisted that year alongside Gordimer and Middleton. I find it strange that this book won over them, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it or the style in which it was written, but reading it was an experience. Windmill Books have reissued a whole batch of MIddleton novels if you’re interested… I won’t be rushing to read them. (6.5/10)
Source: Own copy Stanley Middleton, Holiday (1974), paperback, 240 pages.
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