Lunch with English Novelist John Wain

“ I was never very angry you know…”

In the mid-1980s I was living in Warwick. My first marriage had crumbled and I was renting a small attic flat in a 19th century terraced house. I would often sit at a small table by a window that overlooked a hundred back gardens, watching as many cats. I would read — mostly plays in those days — or try and write a play of my own on a small portable typewriter.

A couple of lunchtimes a week I’d wander into town for a drink or two at the Zetland Arms.

The Zetland had, since the mid-19th century, been the lunchtime haunt of barristers taking a drinking break from defending or prosecuting murderers at Warwick Crown Court. They were a noisy lot too: laughing and joking about their clients. It was a good place for a budding writer just to sit and listen, and discover what a dreadfully hit and miss thing British law was.

Davenports, the Birmingham brewery that served the Zetland, made an excellent bitter that went well with the landlady’s splendid cheese and onion sandwiches, which was the only choice then.

One particular lunchtime I’d had enough of the barristers banter in the small front bar and moved into the larger rear bar that overlooked the pub’s gardens. I settled down with a fresh pint and started reading an old biography of the poet Walt Whitman. The sandwich could wait for the length of a chapter.

“ A fine poet.”

This statement was made by a man in his late fifties, early sixties sitting at the other end of the long table I was using. He had a good clear voice, a well trained voice. I thought he was either an actor (he had the look), or a teacher, but not the sort of teacher I’d ever come into contact with. He went on to give me a clear and precise history of Whitman and his works: I didn’t need the old biography anymore.

“ Are you a writer?” he asked.

“ I’m trying..”

“ What are you trying?”

“ To be a playwright. I have an idea for a play about Walt Whitman.”

“ Good idea. Plays about historical figures always go down well. Mine about Sam Johnson, set at the end of his life, went down well. Another pint? Oh, the name is John by the way, John Wain.”

We shook hands and he went for two more pints.

I’d heard of John Wain of course, had even read some of his stuff, and knew he was one of the so called ‘Angry Young Men’ of the 1950s.

We carried on drinking, and talking, about the other angry young men, and that none of them had really been angry, except for Colin Wilson.

“ I was never very angry, you know. I just came along at the right time. Managed to scramble onto the band wagon. Have you had lunch?”

“ No, I was going to have a sandwich here…”

“ Look, I only live around the corner. Come and have some lunch with me and my wife.”

He’d been such good company, and bursting with knowledge, how could I refuse.

When we arrived at his beautiful cottage behind the castle, his wife looked a bit put out when she saw me — who could blame her — but was very gracious and quickly prepared some bacon and eggs; she’d already eaten.

It was delicious, and the wine and talk flowed easily, and it wasn’t long before we were talking about his famous first novel, Hurry on Down (a book that helped get him onto the angry bandwagon) that quickly became something of a challenge to Amis’s Lucky Jim, and a best seller.

“ Kingsley wasn’t too pleased. Thought I was a usurper I expect.”

I told him that I used to own a copy of the Penguin edition, with the front cover illustration by Len Deighton, but had lost it.

“ Borrow mine, old man.”

He then fetched his Penguin first edition and gave it to me.

“ Let me have it back when you’ve read it, it’s the only one I have. I think I need to rest now. It’s been a delight meeting you, and all success with your Whitman play.”

With that he made his way upstairs and his wife, with great charm, showed me the door.

“He gets very tired. Thank you for listening.”

Two weeks later I had a phone call from Wain’s wife asking if I might drop the book round as they were moving to Oxford.

John Wain was born in 1925 in the Potteries, received a CBE in 1984, and died in Oxford in 1994.

I did write my play about Walt Whitman and set it on the day he died in 1892. I doubt if I would have written it and produced it if John Wain hadn’t been in the Zetland Arms that day.

It was a true privilege to have eaten lunch with him.

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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