John Wain : A Life

Since there is no biography, official or unofficial, authorised or not, of my father, I’ll just mention the main pieces of writing he produced about his own life. (There are plenty of places on the internet where you can go for further information : the Wikipedia entry, for example.) There is a link here to the Life and Introduction to his work in Selected Poems and Memoirs (2000). I’ve added a timeline below.

John Wain wrote what he called ‘part of an autobiography’ in 1960, at the age of 35. Sprightly Running was an answer to the questions : ‘What shaped me? Where did I come from?’ The book took a long look at his early life, his schooldays, and his going up to Oxford at the age of 18 in 1943 and the effect this had on him, a very young man from a very provincial city. It also sets out a forthright kind of mission statement about how he saw himself as a writer (one that didn’t really change from the age of 35 until his death).

Officially, he wrote no further autobiography until the very end of his life, when he again began to draw up some memoirs about his early life, which he entitled first For the timbers of my roof and then  Earthtrack. Sadly, he never got very far with this project, which he started only a year or two before he died. What he did produce, though, was among some of his best later writing (see note* at the bottom of this page).

If there is a book that in many ways takes that role it is Dear Shadows (1986), a collection of pen portraits of people he had known who had passed on. In the introduction he writes : In ‘Sprightly Running’ I made a narrative of my life up until the age of thirty-five; and sometimes, through the years, people have asked me if I intend to publish a sequel. I suppose, in a way, this is it. The subjects included his own father, a theatrical landlady in Straford On Avon, a German ex-POW in the Welsh countryside;  and some huge figures such as Marshall McLuhan and Richard Burton. You can read it online here.

The other ‘non-official’ source of information about his life is in Professing Poetry (1978), collection of some of his lectures given in that post between 1973 and 1978. In among the reproduced lectures there is a lot of material about his life in the 1970s, keeping company with poets and artists, being a family man; leading a creative and social life that, looking back, he counted among his happiest and most productive times.

*I’ll link to the texts of Earthtrack and Dear Shadows as soon as I can – they’ll both be available online in full.  You will also be able to read the Introduction to his life and work from the posthumous Selected Poems and Memoirs from 2000. Link to Earthtrack and the Selected Poems and Memoirs here.

1925 Born in Penkhull, Stoke-on-Trent.

Educated at Newcastle High School.

1943-1946 Reads English at St John’s College, Oxford.

1946 Fereday Fellow of St John’s; founds Mandrake magazine with Arthur Boyars.

1947 Marries Marianne Urmstom (not Uffenheimer, as Wikipedia has it).

1947 Takes lecturing job at Reading University, which he kept until 1953

1953 First novel, Hurry On Down, published by Secker and Warburg. Resigns University post to become professional writer.

1957 Divorced from Marianne Wain

1960 Marries Eirian James. Living in Reading and London.

1963 Settles in Wolvercote, Oxford.

During the 1960s he has visiting lectureships at the Sorbonne and in Cincinatti.

1973 – 1978 Professor of Poetry at Oxford

1974 Acclaimed biography of Samuel Johnson published and wins James Tait Black memorial prize.

1982 His novel Young Shoulders wins Whitbread Prize for fiction.

1984 CBE for services to literature; also holds honorary doctorate from Keele University and is Fellow of Brasenose, St John’s and Wolfson Colleges, Oxford

1984 First novel in Where the Rivers Meet, the Oxford trilogy, published

1989 marries Patricia Adams after death of Eirian Wain the previous year.

1994 Final novel of trilogy, Hungry Generations, published. First performances of his play, Johnson is Leaving, performed by Bruce Purchase, take place a few weeks after his death in May of that year.



Will Wain