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Philip (Kenneth) Callow Biography

Philip Callow comments:

Nationality: British. Born: Birmingham, 1924. Education: Coventry Technical College, 1937-39; St. Luke's College, Exeter, Devon, 1968-70, Teacher's Certificate 1970. Career: Engineering apprentice and toolmaker, Coventry Gauge and Tool Company, 1940-48; clerk, Ministry of Works and Minstry of Supply, 1949-51; clerical assistant, South West Electricity Board, Plymouth, 1951-66; Arts Council fellow, Falmouth School of Art, 1977-78; Creative Writing fellow, Open University, 1979; writer-in-residence, Sheffield City Polytechnic, 1980-82. Awards: Arts Council bursary, 1966, 1970, 1973, 1979; Society of Authors traveling scholarship, 1973; C. Day Lewis fellowship, 1973; Southern Arts Association fellowship, 1974. Agent: John Johnson Ltd., 45-47 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0HT, England.



The Hosanna Man. London, Cape, 1956.

Common People. London, Heinemann, 1958.

A Pledge for the Earth. London, Heinemann, 1960.

Clipped Wings. Douglas, Isle of Man, Times Press, 1964.

Another Flesh. London, Allison and Busby, 1989.

Going to the Moon. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1968.

The Bliss Body. London, MacGibbon and Kee, 1969.

Flesh of Morning. London, Bodley Head, 1971.

Yours. London, Bodley Head, 1972.

The Story of My Desire. London, Bodley Head, 1976.

Janine. London, Bodley Head, 1977.

The Subway to New York. London, Martin Brian and O'Keeffe, 1979.

The Painter's Confessions. London, Allison and Busby, 1989.

Some Love. London, Allison and Busby, 1991.

The Magnolia. London, Allison and Busby, 1994.

Short Stories

Native Ground. London, Heinemann, 1959.

Woman with a Poet. Bradford, Yorkshire, Rivelin Press, 1983.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Merry Christmas," in New Statesman (London), 22 December1961.


The Honeymooners (televised 1960). Published in New Granada Plays, London, Faber, 1961.

Radio Plays:

The Lamb, 1971; On Some Road, 1979.

Television Play:

The Honeymooners, 1960.


Turning Point. London, Heinemann, 1964.

The Real Life: New Poems. Douglas, Isle of Man, Times Press, 1964.

Bare Wires. London, Chatto and Windus-Hogarth Press, 1972.

Cave Light. Bradford, Yorkshire, Rivelin Press, 1981.

New York Insomnia and Other Poems. Bradford, Yorkshire, RivelinGrapheme Press, 1984.

Icons. Bradford, Yorkshire, Blue Bridge Press, 1987.

Soliloquies of an Eye. Todmorden, Lancashire, Littlewood Press, 1990.

Notes over a Chasm. Bradford, Yorkshire, Redbeck Press, 1991.

Fires in October. Bradford, Yorkshire, Redbeck Press, 1994.


In My Own Land, photographs by James Bridgen. Douglas, Isle ofMan, Times Press, 1965.

Son and Lover: The Young D.H. Lawrence. London, Bodley Head, and New York, Stein and Day, 1975.

Van Gogh: A Life. London, Allison and Busby, and Chicago, Dee, 1990.

From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. London, Allison and Busby, and Chicago, Dee, 1992.

Lost Earth: A Life of Cezanne. Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1995.

Chekhov: The Hidden Ground: A Biography. Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1998.


Manuscript Collection:

University of Texas Library, Austin.

Critical Study:

By Callow in Vogue (New York), 1 September 1969.

(1991) All my writing up to now has been autobiographical in style and content. My aim has simply been to tell the story of my life as truthfully as possible. In fact, this is impossible, and in the attempt to do so one discovers that another, spiritual, autobiography is taking shape. I now realize that by devising a narrative about total strangers based on events reported in a newspaper I reveal myself as nakedly as in a personal confession. Perhaps more so.

* * *

In all his earlier work Philip Callow is telling the same story—his life story. His "autobiography," In My Own Land, confirms a close approximation between himself and the "I" of the novels and the short stories in Native Ground. In his earliest novels he was seeking an idiom, which he found triumphantly in the freewheeling colloquialism of the trilogy Going to the Moon, The Bliss Body, and Flesh of Morning.

Callow's material is his working-class adolescence in the midlands, the experience of factory and clerical work there and in the west country, his artistic leanings and adult relationships. Louis Paul, Nicky Chapman, and Alan Lowry, the narrators respectively of The Hosanna Man, Common People, and Clipped Wings, and Martin Satchwell, the central character of A Pledge for the Earth, are prototypes for the Colin Patten of the trilogy, and its sequel The Story of My Desire, when Patten has qualified as a teacher. Parallels exist in the earliest books for the trilogy's other important characters, while in subsequent work the lecturer David Lowry, the central figure in Janine, and the poet and writer-in-residence Jacob Raby, the narrator of The Subway to New York, recall Patten.

Callow gives a full account of adolescence, describing the development of sexuality—more freely in the later books—as the boy grows up at the end of the war when "there was a ration even on questions." Then he has to adjust to life on the factory floor. Patten's painting and writing lead him into provincial artistic circles, amateur or bohemian and anarchic—the "city nomads." Callow's outstanding portrayal is Jack Kelvin, "the hosanna man" himself, a drop-out like Albert Dyer in Clipped Wings, who "sits up on a cliff like a dirty old monk;" in Common People there is the drunken Sunday painter, Cecil Luce, leader of the "Birmingham Twelve." With the public poetry readings by the "Callow-figure" Jacob Raby in The Subway to New York (and the painter Breakwell's fame in The Painter's Confessions), the wheel has come full circle.

A Pledge for the Earth was the earliest of Callow's third-person novels. The most overtly structured of his novels, it describes two generations of Satchwells in a framework of natural imagery, and culminates in 20-odd pages in the first person written by Martin Satchwell. In Clipped Wings Callow returned to first-person narration: "I decided that the only way is to plant yourself down in the very center of things, and then set out. In the same railway carriage, with all the others." With its new forceful, colloquial idiom, Clipped Wings is the key book in Callow's stylistic development, and made possible the trilogy. At the same time, he had begun to publish a good deal of poetry, which perhaps cross-fertilized his prose.

In the trilogy Callow ranged over his experiences freely with only a rough chronological surge onward: "Going back is pure instinct with me." The rationale of his method is in a sense anti-art: "Who believes in a book cut away from its writer with surgical scissors? I don't, I never did. I don't believe in fact and fiction, I don't believe in autobiography, poetry, philosophy, I don't believe in chapters, in a story." Callow's refusal to categorize is also embodied in his non-fiction In My Own Land, differentiated from his novels only by the use of real names.

Yours is an extended letter written by a young girl to her ex-lover, recalling that first unhappy love affair. In The Story of My Desire Callow continued the trilogy, with Colin's affair with the married Lucy, both cause and effect of the breakdown of his own marriage, in turn inextricably linked in a nexus of guilt with his mental breakdown. Janine describes the middle-aged David Lowry's relationship with the mixed-up young girl of the title. It is written in the third person, and from the opening sentence, "His name was Lowry," the man is referred to throughout by surname. Until a key moment late in the novel, Janine never calls David by name, so that the third-person narration has an active structural role.

The structural rationale in The Subway to New York is circular: "always with a woman you go in circles." Thus Marjorie of The Story of My Desire, already resurrected as Kate in Janine, reappears as Carmel in The Subway to New York, and Lucy of The Story of My Desire is Nell in Subway.

Callow's return to fiction after a break of 10 years (apart from the small-press short story collection Woman with a Poet) seems less directly autobiographical, though the subject matter of The Painter's Confessions enables him to explore how an artist—in the broad sense—uses his experience. The painter Francis Breakwell's "confessions" begin "Even before my sister's violent death I had felt this urge to use words, to tell a story that would be my own, yet irradiated in some way by hers." The narrative moves forward to her drowning, through her love for the unbalanced Celia. The central figure in Breakwell's life is his former mistress and model, Maggie, with whom he remains tenuously in touch. His marriage disintegrates through the novel but his American wife seems peripheral beside Maggie's presence from the past. As a contemporary painter aged 50, Breakwell seems unrealistically successful given his predominant old-fashioned abstract expressionism. Inevitably, Patrick White's classic The Vivisector casts a long shadow over any novel about a painter but especially here given Breakwell's expressionism.

There are lacunae in The Painter's Confessions but the rambling reminiscence form could be held to justify loose ends. The structure is more problematic in Some Love, a moving third-person novel about the under-privileged Johnnie, who, after time in a children's home, gets involved as a minor in an affair with Tina, a younger friend of his mentally unstable mother. Initially, the viewpoint is mainly Johnnie's, but, with the emergence of Tina midway as a major character, the viewpoint switches predominantly to her, with no apparent rationale. Callow's often unstructured way of writing becomes more difficult when it is not applied to the solid corpus of autobiographical fact. However, Callow is too good a writer for that decade's silence not to be our loss.

In the 1990s, Callow published Some Love and The Magnolia, but he turned his attention increasingly to nonfiction, producing biographies of Van Gogh, Walt Whitman, Cezanne, and Chekhov.

—Val Warner

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