March 14th 2025 will mark one hundred years since John Wain’s birth, in Stoke-on-Trent. Poet, critic, novelist, and playwright: in the years since his death in 1994 many of his novels have been republished, as well as a retrospective Selected Poems and Memoirs, and his reputation has not just consolidated but grown. More of his novels are in print, in paperback and Kindle editions, than ever before. See the link above to the Happening Now pages for more information.
I’ve obtained the transcript of John Wain’s 1973 talk on BBC Radio in which he addresses the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then still being persecuted by the Soviet authorities. Read the post and the full text here
A new paperback and Kindle edition of John Wain’s iconic first novel with an Introduction by John Andrew Frederick
New 2019: John Wain’s Jazz. Archive recording of his BBC radio programme about the jazz musician Fats Waller, one of a series on jazz that he wrote and presented in the 1980s.
John Wain (1925-1994) was a writer whose work included novels, poetry, plays, criticism and biography. He was originally associated with the Movement poets and also with the so-called ‘Angry Young Men’ of the early 1950s, when his first novel Hurry On Down was published. He was born in the Potteries and educated at Newcastle High School, Newcastle Under Lyme, and at St John’s College Oxford. After Oxford he taught English at Reading University until 1955, when he resigned his academic post and for the rest of his life earned his living as a professional writer.
John Wain wrote thirteen novels, culminating in his massive Oxford Trilogy (1988 – 94), the third and last volume being published a few weeks after his death. He was also well known for his award-winning life of Samuel Johnson (1974). He also steadily wrote and published poetry, both short and long: his long poem Feng was based on the original Danish source for Hamlet’s stepfather Claudius in Shakespeare’s play.
Based in Oxford from 1963 until his death, he served the University as Professor of Poetry from 1973 to 1978, nominated by Philip Larkin and Peter Levi. He was awarded the CBE for services to literature in 1984. John Wain was married three times and had four sons.
A celebration of John Wain’s life and work was held on October 30th 2015 in his home town of Stoke-on-Trent – local press coverage here
Below: event in 2015 in the Potteries
Recent mention in the Times Literary Supplement of John Wain winning the ‘Prix Memorable’ in France for the French translation of Strike The Father Dead has generated some nice tributes to him in their correspondence columns. Couple quoted below without permission of contributors, who I hope will not object.
“I have only warm feelings for John Wain and his work and count myself among his fans. In 1978, as a young PhD in my first teaching post and on the strength of early work that I had published on the so-called angries, I wrote asking for an interview. He accepted, and six months later I found myself at his home in Wolvercote, Oxford, where John and his wife, Eirian, received me warmly. He treated me to lunch at the Trout Inn, wrote me a letter of introduction to the Bodleian, and then drove me to his bolt-hole for a two-hour interview. As a result of that meeting, and others, as well as his many encouraging and informative letters, I published my first literary biography for the Twayne series in 1981 that became a catalyst for more books on his contemporaries. I remember him as a modern man of letters, an intelligent and learned man seriously concerned with the issues of his time and intensely dedicated to the writer’s craft. He will continue to be read, especially for his debut novel, Hurry on Down, and his biography of Samuel Johnson - the result of a lifetime of contemplation and study.”
“If John Wain’s star has waned (see NB, January 31), memories twinkle enthusiastically on. In the early 1970s the soon-to-be Professor of Poetry at Oxford would genially and modestly share his unrivalled knowledge of poems and politics with anybody and everybody in the King’s Arms, next to Wadham College. Disarmingly delighted to find scruffy Northern students who could recite from Hurry on Down Froulish’s matchless prose, “Clout bell, shout well, pell-mell about a tout, get the hell out. About nowt”, he cheerfully reeled off even dafter ditties, chuckled infectiously, and bought us all a pint. And he went on to write the most gracious, the most empathetic, Life of Samuel Johnson. Take him for all in all / (We) shall not look upon his like again.”
Postscript to the Betjeman / Wain controversy, if such it was: it wasn’t. JB and JW became friends, according to Peter Levi, ‘one windy afternoon’ in Stoke Poges churchyard, setting for Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy…’ and in fact on the occasion of the unveiling of a memorial to Gray. Betjeman said that ‘Mid Week Period Return’ was his favourite of all the poems dedicated to him, because it described a railway journey. Read the poem via the Books page and the link to Selected Poems and Memoirs.
Edward, JW actually had a fine appreciation of JB and one of his best later poems, Mid Week Period Return, was written for and in part in tribute to Betjeman. I believe, though I will check this, that JB enjoyed the poem, which appeared in the 1980s in JW’s collection, the last collection as it turned out, ‘Open Country’.
John wrote a humorous piece on Betjeman stating that “John Betjeman is the poet for people who don’t like (read?) poetry”! This rather shocked some people and when they were both due at a poets’ convention at the Albert Hall Betjeman stated he would attend only if he didn’t clap eyes on JW! So they were ushered on stage by opposite entrances! Now Larkin was a friend of JB and liked/praised his poetry. If the expression of such an opinion caused a rift then PL was the lesser man for it…
Edward Black, former head of English Language and Literature at LSE, writes :
At my bloody awful school the first thing that motivated me as a sickly teenager was a jazz record: Humphrey Lyttelton’s “Coffee Grinder”. I scraped sufficient marks in the GCE to study French and Spanish at Edinburgh University but by then had become entranced by the writings of John Wain, a literary giant with influential columns in “The Observer”, books and essays of criticism, fine novels from “Hurry on Down” to “Strike the Father Dead” with its theme of black jazz, and “Sprightly Running” the autobiography at halfway to three score years and ten.
When one makes the personal discovery of a particularly fine writer it is time to read all their work, getting to grips with their genius to understand the relationship between life and art.
His “Apology for Understatement” was as good as anything written in the 1950/60s (I read it at my parents’ funerals and my wedding to Helen, ethnomusicologist and world expert on Fiji) to equal Philip Larkin’s famous “Church Going”. John was a far better poet – with his amazing range – than Amis or Fowles.
We need not know the facts of John’s later life to try to understand what happened at the end but it would be so right now for a talented PhD student/academic to proclaim the virtues of John and his writing and reinstate him in the history of 20th Century literature.
Taken from a longer piece, ‘JBW and I’ – link to full article coming up