By Jackie McGlone

BEDFELLOWS DO NOT come more strange than the two men who give writer Haydn Middleton the title, indeed the subject matter, of his beguiling novel, The Ballad of Syd & Morgan -- Syd being Syd Barrett, the gifted but troubled guitarist-songwriter who shaped Pink Floyd, while Morgan is the great Edwardian novelist E M Forster.

When Morgan met Syd -- the intriguing conceit that Middleton imagines in his beautifully written book -- it is hardly a case of when Harry met Sally, although the 89-year-old homosexual, whose sexuality remained a secret during his lifetime, is mesmerised by the angelic beauty of the 22-year-old “crazy diamond,” rock music’s most famous, tragic recluse and its lost genius.

Of course this unlikely couple never met in Cambridge, in 1968, but by the time you finish reading the 63-year-old Anglo-Welshman’s brilliant book, which is as poignant as it is playful, stylishly produced by indie publisher, Propolis, you are convinced that they sat by a log fire in Forster’s rooms at King’s College, Cambridge, not stinting on the sherry, sharing a dubious cigarette and baring their creative souls over a first edition of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. (The title of the first Floyd album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, came from a chapter heading in the book.)

Over coffee and pastries in the lovely, sun-drenched garden of the enviable cottage, deep in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside, that he shares with his partner, the teacher and writer, Decca Warrington, Middleton confides that he wrote the novel in secret. “I didn’t even tell Decca,” he says, adding that she is always his first reader. (Between them they have six children from previous relationships.) Which must be almost a full-time job since he’s a prolific author and a creative writing tutor.

He has published “an unconscionable number, perhaps more than 200” largely non-fiction, history books for children, as well as literary-fantasy novels for adults, ranging from his 1987 debut, The People in the Picture, which the late Anthony Burgess read in a sitting “totally spellbound,” to Grimm’s Last Fairytale (1999), nominated for the British Fantasy Society best novel award. He has since worked on several adult novels but was told they were “too experimental, not marketable.” He has, however, not abandoned them.

Now, though, Reading-born Middleton, who read history at New College, Oxford University, and worked in advertising before “taking a leap of arrogance” into writing, revels in the fact that in this era of short attention spans he is able to sum up his eighth novel in one sentence: “Syd Barrett meets E M Forster.” He could add that it is at the prompting of Pan, the goat-god -- whose cloven hoof often features in Forster’s fictions -- that the former leader of Pink Floyd bursts into Forster’s rooms on a matter of some urgency, tilting the course of history.

A modest, quietly-spoken man, Middleton demurs but graciously accepts my opinion that his 187-page, counterfactual novel is surely his magnum opus -- in his blog he writes: “I think it’s just about the closest I’ve come to producing in print something properly joined-up.” So, yes, this book means an awful lot to him and he freely admits that he would like it to connect with as many readers as possible. Ah yes, only connect.

Why the unlikely connection?

Well, he replies, he has loved both artists for many years because he believes that great fiction, along with music and sport, makes life bearable. “I have proof of my love of Forster -- all of his books with annotations from way back. One Saturday morning I was re-reading Room With a View -- the buoyancy of it! I got to the end and was writing comments below my earlier comments while I was playing music on the computer. As I finished, Interstellar Overdrive off the first Pink Floyd album came up.

“I just thought, ‘Cambridge! Blimey, hold on!’ I knew they were quite close to each other -- Forster was at King’s; Syd Barrett lived in nearby Hills Road. Then I thought, when did Forster go back to King’s -- 1946, the year Syd was born. They could have crossed paths. What if they met in October, 1968? It didn’t take me long to write this novel although there’s an earlier, uncut version where it’s not just the two of them. Cambridge was such a fertile place then so also in the first version was Jane Hawking -- wife of Stephen -- and their little son; Anthony Gormley, who had just started at Trinity; and Germaine Greer, who had just finished at Girton and was teaching at Warwick, but I had her coming back. And, of course, Prince Charles was there as well.

“So initially, it was an ensemble piece but the two that really worked and interacted properly were Barrett and Forster.

“There was so much ground in common between all those people. I am very interested in the creative impulse: what do you do when you feel this impulse and which direction do you take it? Prince Charles was the sort of control for this because he has one thing he can only ever do, whether he’s any good at it or not. All these other people are fantastically great at what they do and did but they had that freedom.”

Which came first, a passion for Forster or for Floyd?

“Confession time: I am not a huge fan of Pink Floyd,” admits Middleton, who is dramatising The Ballad of Syd & Morgan for the stage. “I think they are really good but they don’t speak to me after the first two albums. When I went to university, you could not move for them. But it’s Syd who speaks to me -- his music with Pink Floyd but also the solo albums and the posthumous stuff [Barrett died in 2006]. It’s his sensibility. I just love music -- Dylan, the Kinks, The Fall -- but I’ve never come across anyone quite like Syd. There’s a creativity in his use of language and he doesn’t bother with metre most of the time. I liked his experimentalism, musically and lyrically. I was 15 when I first heard his music. It’s part of me; it goes into your bones. He’s become more famous, more iconic, the longer it has gone on.”

Indeed, here’s looking at you, Syd. For Barrett has featured in a play -- Tom Stoppard’s wonderful Rock ‘n’ Roll about Communist Czechoslovakia -- and is currently being “reincarnated” by Gary Kemp in Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s new band, Saucerful of Secrets. Meanwhile, Forster, is always with us. He features in The Inheritance, the modern, gay epic response to Howards End, in London’s West End, while Maurice, his tale of furtive Edwardian gay desire, has just been staged, and the film version starring Hugh Grant is on re-release. More recently we’ve had the TV serialisation of Howards End, which Middleton “couldn’t hack.” We agree, however, that we love the Emma Thompson-Anthony Hopkins film version.

“At school, we were given Forster’s collected short stories,” Middleton recalls. “I heartily recommend them. There’s a 1902 story called, The Story of a Panic -- it’s the first story Forster had published -- and it is about an intervention by Pan. It’s just really good, weird but modern. I have no evidence that Syd ever read the story, The Machine Stops, the futuristic one I talk about in the book, which I think I read at school. It is great because it anticipates the internet but it doesn’t hold up quite so well as the cloven-hoof material. That is what I love about Forster’s work, it is all of its time but it transcends its time -- and the humour. I don’t often laugh when reading fiction but I do with him.”

We talk at length about Howards End -- “a book that changed everything, he moved the goalposts” -- and Middleton points out how Leonard Bast walks from London to the eponymous house. “Another link with Syd, who famously walked from London to his mother’s Cambridge home. Bast has this questingness about him -- and that is what it is about Syd and Forster.They are never in a comfort zone.

“Nor am I -- I am definitely way out of it now I’m turning the book into a play. It sounds really up itself but I just can’t make up dialogue that is not in The Ballad... For me, that’s become the historical record. I really believe that these two men actually did meet.” Me too.

The Ballad of Syd & Morgan, by Haydn Middleton (Propolis, £11).