Diary

Philip Purser

There’s no doubt that Jack Trevor Story was a dab hand at titles. Man Pinches Bottom, One Last Mad Embrace, Little Dog’s Day and Live Now, Pay Later are good enticements and accurately indicate the plot, predicament and even the moral of each novel. His most famous title is still his first, The Trouble with Harry (1949), thanks to Alfred Hitchcock, who acquired the film rights for $500 but made a classic film out of a shabby deal. The history of my copy of The Trouble with Harry is typical of the fate of most of Story’s books. I picked up the 1970 Penguin for 50p in a local library sale a few months ago. Between November 1979 and March 1993 it was borrowed only three times; the fourth stamp on the loans slip says DISCARDED.

Despite the gallant intervention of Savoy Books of Manchester – who in 1979 set out to issue a collected edition of his works, and actually got as far as six or seven titles – by the Eighties Jack Trevor Story was an author who seemed to be no longer read, no longer published and, in the view of publishers and agents, no longer publishable. It was ten years before he had a new novel accepted. Though Brian Darwent fails to face up to the question of what had gone wrong, he cannot help distributing clues.[*]Romantic Egotist is a curiously artless but engaging book, not so much a biography of Jack Trevor Story as an account of the difficulties of writing a biography of Jack Trevor Story when Jack Trevor Story alternately accepts you and scorns you, and has led such a complicated marital and extra-marital life that sorting it out would be a problem even if you had his unflinching co-operation. In December 1991, when Darwent had just about completed the book, its subject was found dead. Darwent, perhaps wisely, has left the text as it was, with Story consigned to the past tense only in a couple of passages at the end.

Story was a self-made and largely self-taught writer. His father was killed on the Western Front in 1918, when Jack was one. His mother was supposed to be descended from a noble family. There are recurring allusions to her in the novels, dragging herself to work on ulcerated legs; certainly, the family went through some hard times, but for the most part the milieu seems to have been the lower middle-class stratum of small failing businesses, taking in lodgers and trying to keep one step ahead of the bailiffs. Story made good use of this background in his nearest approach to social realism, the Albert Argyle trilogy. He left school at 14, and after various jobs as an errand boy and butcher’s boy was taken on by Pye Radio, moving later to Marconi. He was bright, had a natural aptitude for electronics and could have made a career in instrumentation. Since his schooldays, however, he had dreamed of being a writer. He scribbled away without success until, in 1944, another aspiring writer at Marconi, Ronnie Wolfe, introduced him to the author who was to be his hero and inspiration, William Saroyan.

Wolfe, later to become a successful television comedy writer in partnership with Ronald Chesney, urged Story to get hold of Saroyan’s latest collection of stories, Dear Baby. He did so, and was bowled over. According to Darwent – also a Saroyan enthusiast – until he read Saroyan Story had thought it necessary to imitate ‘standard English’ writers. Saroyan taught him not to try to correct his natural faults and limitations, but to use them in order to arrive at a voice of his own. Under this heady new influence Jack wrote the story that won him his first publication (in John O’ London’s Weekly) and first fee (six guineas). His first novel to be accepted was also a Saroyanesque essay, Green to Pagan Street, though The Trouble with Harry was published first.

By about 1950 he was doing well enough to set up as a full-time writer. But he had been in regular employment for more than half his life, and never felt really secure without a regular wage coming in. Over the next twenty-five years he took on various contractual jobs, writing Sexton Blake thrillers, working on magazines, turning out scripts for television series and screenplays for film producers, and finally contributing a regular column to the Guardian. His prodigious energy enabled him to keep his own projects going despite these distractions, and despite his tangled domestic life (three marriages, at least two long liaisons, not more than eight children) and his medical history (asthma, heart surgery, double hernia). He wrote Live Now, Pay Later in nine days, so that he could offer a story of his own to the film producer Jay Lewis, who wanted him to adapt a novel by someone else. It was published almost as an afterthought, but it launched Story in the mainstream of English fiction, where he belonged – never attracting enormous sales, but building up a solid readership.

Live Now was the first of the Albert Argyle trilogy. Albert is a vital cog in housing-estate economics in the late Fifties, the tally-man or door-to-door collector of instalment payments, favours accepted in lieu. His adventures are funny, expertly constructed and accurate in their social geography (the Lower Middle England of Hitchin and Luton, Herts and Beds) as well as their social history. Something for Nothing switches Albert, with deft timing, to the trading stamps craze at the start of the Sixties. In The Urban District Lover he is juggling various rackety little enterprises on the fringe of the incipient property boom while also, of course, trying to deal with the customary muddle of his sexual relations. This is the most accomplished novel of the trio, at least until Albert dies in a bizarre accident, shot in a wood (another recurring JTS image) while pretending to be a pheasant. Killing him off may signify nothing more than Story’s desire to terminate one sequence of comedies before starting on another – the Horace Spurgeon Fenton trilogy drawn from his experiences in the screen trade – but it is hard not to see the means of Albert’s going as an early twitch of Story’s fateful waywardness.

In fiction, a bizarre happening is not in itself wrong; but when an author seems to be reaching for one in order to extricate himself from his own plot readers may feel aggrieved. When the device takes the form of giant conspiracies belatedly produced, or the revelation (increasingly frequent) that some or all the characters are mad, the sense of being let down is even greater. Matters came to a head in 1976 with Morag’s Flying Fortress, a multi-layered narrative of a type which in more respectable hands wins the Booker Prize but which here, as Darwent says, must merely have baffled old Story readers. ‘Only an unaccountable alignment of favourable circumstances,’ he adds mysteriously, ‘finally persuaded Hutchinson to print the book.’ Hutchinson was by my count the seventh publisher Story got through in 27 years.

It was not long afterwards that I met him. I knew that he had become Writer in Residence at the New Town of Milton Keynes because I had applied for the job myself. And there he was on the London train one day, gnarled mug, hoarse voice and all. We became ‘sometimes friends’, as he put it. In his Guardian column he was still mourning the loss of his wee Scottish lover, Maggie, but he already had a new friend, Elaine, installed in the flat above a rural museum that went with the appointment. They were filming the television series that promised to turn Jack into a national celebrity. The Savoy collected edition was due and one more new novel (Up River) had been accepted by one more publisher (Duckworth). His luck didn’t last. Up River, also known as The Screwrape Lettuce, spun wilder fantasies than ever and was dismissed by the Guardian, which about the same time discontinued his column, as the product of a filthy mind. Jack on the Box (the TV series) was ruptured by a technicians’ strike, while Elaine left him, not for another man, but for an academic career.

Story lamented her departure in Dwarf Goes to Oxford, a rambling snatch of autobiography which he published himself with the help of his sons. Though his term as Writer in Residence had long ended, he contrived to stay on in the Milton Keynes flat. He was often lonely, sometimes ill, but always writing. He was the last of the old Remington (or in his case, Adler) jockeys who would bang out their thousand or two thousand words a day every day, and post off bulging typescripts by the week, usually to addressees who hadn’t asked for them, weren’t expecting them, and quite possibly had never heard of the sender. Most of what Story was writing at that time finished up in the cardboard boxes of unpublished novels, rejected stories and returned articles which were gradually filling his rooms. At last, Allison and Busby, who had published him before, agreed to republish The Trouble with Harry and the Albert Argyle trilogy, followed by a newly-written addendum, Albert Rides Again.

Since Albert had been shot at the end of The Urban District Lover, he could ride again only as a reincarnation, Claude Marchmont. The plot of Albert Rides Again is fitfully related to the Great Train Robbery of 1963, with lesser or greater conspiracies poking in. Reading it is like sitting on a speeding merry-go-round, and trying to keep track of plot and people as they show up in the pulsating lights. Reviewers who attempted to board the carousel delivered mixed sentiments before being flung off. ‘Enough plots to provide anyone else with ten novels,’ Byron Rogers said, dusting himself down.

In the course of an arduous round of radio appearances to publicise the book, Story started to miss dates and generally show signs of confusion. He became convinced that he was the victim of just such a conspiracy as he had been concocting in his fiction, and spent a while in a psychiatric ward. He seemed to get over it, however, and when he died of a heart attack a year later the final page of a new novel was still wound into the Adler in front of him.

What went so wrong for him as a writer? Other, that is, than what was going wrong for most people: the changes in the publishing business which meant that the marketing of books became all-important. Story, you could say, went out of his way to be unmarketable. In his final interview with Brian Darwent, Story concedes that he has put off the ordinary reader: that even he has had an awful job reading Albert Rides Again. Was the problem the continuing influence of Saroyan, as some of his friends and critics believe? I think it is more likely to have been a consequence of the gung-ho philosophy of the Remington brigade. If it is an article of faith that you beat out your two thousand words a day, without second thoughts, without revision, you can easily start to believe that virtue – or innocence, as Story saw it – reposes in spontaneity. When Darwent suggests that the trouble may be that he is a writer who has continued to develop, Story slaps him down. ‘The word is not develop. You’re not getting better. The best book is the first one you ever did. A virgin is the best creature there is in the world.’

[*] Romantic Egotist: The Unauthorised Biography of Jack Trevor Story by Brian Darwent (Minerva Press, 225 pp., £7.99, October 1993, 1 85863 065 7).