John Wain

© Mark Gerson, October 1958

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.

March 14th 2015 would have been John Wain’s 90th birthday. There have been a number of exciting developments in this year, including a film project (details to be announced) and especially the reissuing in new editions of his novels The Contenders, Strike The Father Dead (UK Edition) and his Whitbread Fiction Prize-winning Young Shoulders, all from the Foruli Press.  Stop Press : a celebration of John Wain’s life and work was  held on October 30th in  his home town of Stoke-on-Trent – local press coverage here

May 24th, 2014, was the twentieth anniversary of John Wain’s death at the age of 69. In the intervening years 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. Johnwainfinal




  1. 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

  2. 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…

  3. 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’.

  4. 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.


3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. What Shall We do Next Term? (Autumn 2017) | Julia's 'Reading the Novel' Courses
  2. Re-reading Thomas Hardy and walk to Seafield Pond and West Barns Bridge | James Herring's Weekly Blog
  3. The Incidental Thoughts of Marshall McLuhan by John Wain (1986) | McLuhan Galaxy

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