Wednesday 13 November 2019

Obituary: David Storey

Prize-winning novelist, poet, playwright and painter who drew on his own experiences to write 'This Sporting Life'

WINNING TEAM: David Storey (left), producer Karel Reisz and actor Richard Harris on the set of ‘This Sporting Life’
WINNING TEAM: David Storey (left), producer Karel Reisz and actor Richard Harris on the set of ‘This Sporting Life’ Sportsdesk

David Storey, the novelist and playwright who died last Monday aged 83, came to prominence during the northern England working-class drama explosion of the early 1960s; although he never had the visibility of contemporaries such as Alan Sillitoe and John Braine, his best works withstood the test of time.

The grammar school-educated son of a miner, who paid his way through art school by becoming a professional rugby league player, Storey's was a life which, in other hands, would have had him coming to London, cocking a snook at bourgeois authority and bedding his way through a bevy of upper-class beauties. But he was something of an anomaly and although he drew heavily on his own life, he had no strong social or political agenda.

His works were highly personal and his protagonists not so much rebels as misfits, buffeted by conflicting moral forces, fashionable social orthodoxies and family pressures. Class divisions are there not as a focus but as obstacles to individual fulfilment.

Storey made his name with This Sporting Life (1960), a novel based on his experiences as a professional rugby player, subsequently turned into a film in 1963 by Lindsay Anderson, with Richard Harris as rugby league player Frank Machin, whose frustrated passion for a young widow conflicts with the macho culture of the club and ultimately ends in tragedy. His other novels include Saville, which won the Booker Prize in 1976.

What gave Storey's writing its power was the undercurrent of extreme emotion - pain, rage, suppressed violence, passion and despair, often tipping into madness, which underlies the surface realism - expressed through fragmented elliptical exchanges, symbolism, silences and non sequiturs.

In one of his best-known works, Home (1971), the play which gave Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson one of the greatest successes of their latter years, two old gentleman share jokes, play cards and struggle to remember. Only slowly does it become clear that they are living in a mental institution and behind the understatement and deadpan humour ("I sometimes think if the war had been prolonged another 30 years we'd have all felt the benefit") lies an emotional vortex of terrible and overwhelming despair.

David Malcolm Storey was born on July 13, 1933 in Wakefield, West Riding of Yorkshire into a working-class household still grieving after the death of an elder son aged seven. His father was a miner who like Mr Shaw, the father in Storey's play In Celebration (1969), told his sons: "I've spent half my life making sure none of you went down that pit."

David was educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield, and helped support his family by taking odd jobs - from farm work to erecting showground tents.

His father hoped that he would go to university and become a teacher. But, aged 14, he experienced a moment of revelation while studying an ode of Verlaine's and decided to become an artist. He did not tell his parents until he was 17 and his furious father refused to pay the fees for Wakefield Art College.

As a result David was forced to persuade an aunt to sign his application forms, and to finance his studies he signed a 14-year contract to play rugby league for Leeds.

He never got over the guilt he felt at disappointing his father. At the height of his powers as a writer, he would work eight-hour shifts, seven days a week, 365 days a year, retaining only a small fraction of his output for publication.

He won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, travelling north for matches on a Friday. It was a painful experience. His northern rugby team mates regarded him as a "poof" - while his classmates at the Slade thought him an uncultured northern oaf. The only time he felt free was on the train, where he began to write.

He turned his experiences into words in a series of novels, of which This Sporting Life was the seventh and the first to make it into print, though it was rejected by eight publishers before it was accepted by Longman's in 1960. Meanwhile, he had bought his way out of the contract with Leeds and moved to London where he became a supply teacher while amassing rejection slips for his novels. He was supposed to be teaching art, but he ended up teaching mathematics, a subject he had failed at school.

He liked to recall that when the school inspectors singled out the four "worst schools" in the UK, he had taught in three of them.

It all became too much, and one day he returned to his tiny flat above a sweet shop in King's Cross and told his wife he was not going back to work. That evening he began writing To Die with the Philistines, a play about an eccentric schoolteacher cracking up and almost succumbing to madness.

The next day, he had a telegram to tell him that his unpublished manuscript of This Sporting Life had won the Macmillan Fiction award. With the proceeds, Storey bought a new white Jaguar, and with royalties from the subsequent film, bought his parents a bungalow near Scarborough.

In the period of elation that followed, Storey wrote another novel in three weeks, Flight into Camden (1960), in which the heroine, a feminist, tries to escape the disapproving bonds of family and community by running off with her married lover to live a bohemian life in London, but finds herself dragged back to her roots by deeper ties than sexual passion. The novel won the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize; Radcliffe (1963) won a Somerset Maugham award and Pasmore (1972) the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.

He continued as a successful, though not best-selling, novelist until 1967 when the play he had written seven years earlier, renamed The Restoration of Arnold Middleton, had its debut at the Royal Court. Harold Hobson praised it as the best play at the Royal Court since Look Back in Anger.

Success plunged Storey into feverish creativity and within no time at all, he had written a further five plays. The Royal Court accepted the lot and they were produced by Lindsay Anderson - with whom Storey had formed a close relationship while filming This Sporting Life. In Celebration (1969) was followed by The Contractor (1969), about labourers who backchat, spar and banter as they put up, then take down, a wedding tent.

Home won Storey the 1971 Evening Standard Award for Best Play; The Changing Room (1972) in which Storey returned to the macho world of rugby, won the New York Critics Best Play of the Year Award. Cromwell (1973), The Farm (1973) and Life Class (1975) were considered less strong.

Storey's happy relationship with the critics took a turn for the worse in 1976 with Mother's Day, the last of his plays to be produced at the Court. Though it was successful at the previews, it was a disaster at critics' night. The Guardian's Michael Billington began his review with two words: "A stinker." The next night, Storey turned up at the Royal Court bar and punched Billington.

But 1976 was also the year of Storey's Booker prize-winning book Saville, an autobiographical novel in which a working-class boy moves to London only to be made awkwardly aware of his roots when his smart friend from London visits his home in a Yorkshire mining village. But subsequently Storey's reputation began to wane. In the early 1980s, he experienced some sort of breakdown.

His later works were less favourably received, though his novel Present Times (1984) won praise for the way in which Storey explored the plight of the individual trapped by flawed fashionable orthodoxies.

Later works included two plays, The March on Russia (1989) and Stages (1992), and three novels A Serious Man (1998), As It Happened (2002) and Thin-Ice Skater (2004).

A collection of his poetry was published in 1992. Later, Storey returned to painting. An exhibition of his work was held at the Hepworth Gallery, in Wakefield, last summer. David Storey married, in 1956, Barbara Hamilton, who died in 2015. They had two sons and two daughters, one of whom is the fashion designer Helen Storey, the other the developmental biologist Kate Storey.

© Telegraph

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