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Michael Baldwin obituary


Poet and novelist with a passion for teaching others to write

For the poet and novelist Michael Baldwin, who has died aged 83, the experience of teaching others to write while battling to produce his own work never involved any sense of conflict, nor even resentment about the time it consumed. They were equal passions, pursued with equal seriousness.

In one extended period of Baldwin's life, a fresh collection of poems or a substantial new novel seemed to appear almost every year. Yet simultaneously he would be sifting through thousands of manuscripts submitted for the annual Young Writers' Competition and vigorously tutoring residential courses for the Arvon Foundation, a creative writing venture that he played an important part in founding and developing.

Baldwin's poems started to appear in magazines in the 1950s, when he rapidly became a recognised voice and face in children's programmes on radio and TV. But two early collections of verse went mostly unnoticed. It was only when Grandad With Snails appeared in 1960 that his work acquired its characteristic range and verve. He sometimes described it as a novel, but later accepted that it was really autobiography. Either way it was an irresistible mixture of earthy realism and hilarious fantasy – and a success.

His next collection of verse, a dual volume titled Death on a Live Wire and On Stepping from a Sixth-Storey Window (1962), was a far more confident performance. The poem Storm showed an engagement with a wild, often cruel, physical world that features in much of his later work: "I heard the thunder rolling past the window, / I saw the bulging cloud, the glowing post / And the upright grass without air / Waiting for the downpour of space, the field / Bruised by the weight of an acre of wind."

A visit to Languedoc in 1968 while convalescing after a serious illness started a love affair with the region, its people, its history and its wines (Baldwin was an enthusiastic and hospitable bon vivant), and it also resulted in his final and best book of verse – King Horn: Poems Written at Montolieu in Old Languedoc 1969-81 (1983). That collection won him the Cholmondeley award for poetry in 1984, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the same year.

But the flow of poetry was slowing up because writing novels – he had published six by now – was taking over. The fictional output increased after his decision in 1978 to leave college teaching and go freelance. Espionage and adventure gave way to historical romance with a popular element. The First Mrs Wordsworth (1996) gaily expanded our limited knowledge of the poet's 1789 affair with Annette Vallon; Dark Lady (1999) revived and amplified the fanciful notion that a beautiful Italian domiciled in London was the mystery woman in Shakespeare's sonnets.

The narratives of his novels were elaborate, pacy and frequently violent (though always scrupulously researched), leading some to believe that meeting this tough author would be a formidable proposition. In reality his slightly combative air would soften, usually within minutes, into warmth, good humour and touching generosity.

Baldwin was born in Gravesend. His father helped to run the family furniture store, Baldwin and Sons, but Michael resolved to become a writer when an enlightened English teacher at Gravesend, Kent, grammar school defended his rather rebellious creative work in the face of criticism by a severe headteacher. After school Baldwin did national service, joining the Thames and Medway Coast Artillery Regiment, appropriate for a "Kentish Man" who would write wittily observant stories and essays about his home county.

He went to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, in 1952 and gained a 2:1 in English, but resisted the temptations of research and a don's life in favour of teaching. His experience included four years at St Clement Danes grammar school, then located in Hammersmith, west London, from which he moved on to become head of English and drama at Whitelands, a Church of England college of education in Putney. A special talent for spotting and nurturing creative ability in the young was evident in all his teaching.

This quality made Baldwin an obvious recruit for a scheme devised in the late 1960s by ex-schoolmasters John Moat and John Fairfax to take creative pupils out of the shadow of school and provide them with the encouragement of professional writers on hard-working "holiday" weeks.

Out of this came the Arvon Foundation, which eventually ran four rural centres for aspiring writers of all ages and was lent crucial support by the poet Ted Hughes, who had been a friend of Baldwin's since the early 1960s. Baldwin's energy, zeal, tact and gift for friendship made him an invaluable Arvon committee chairman and fundraiser, as well as an indefatigable course tutor.

Baldwin was twice married. His first wife, Jean. (nee Bruce) died in 2013. He is survived by their two sons, Matthew and Adam, four grandchildren, Sophie, Dominic, Hannah and Josh; and by his second wife, Gillian (nee Beale), and their son Joel.

• Michael Jesse Baldwin, poet and novelist, born 1 May 1930; died 3 February 2014

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