Home Stretch

John Sutherland

  • A Serious Man by David Storey
    Cape, 359 pp, £16.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 02 240515 1
  • Saville by David Storey
    Vintage, 555 pp, £6.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 09 927408 6

Say ‘David Storey’ and readers of my (and his) generation will recall the final shot of This Sporting Life: Frank Machin (Richard Harris), mired, spavined, raising himself on the rugby field to lurch back into hopeless battle. His life as a professional is over. Football chews up its workforce faster even than the pits. But Arthur doesn’t take it lying down: no longer a sportsman but still a man. Storey adapted his original novel for Lindsay Anderson, who directed the film, but he curtailed the ending. On the printed page, after Machin’s legs have ‘betrayed’ him on the pitch, there is a final scene in the changing-room. The players have had their communal bath. Someone, inevitably, has pissed in it. Machin looks around him, ‘had my ankles strapped, got dressed and put my teeth in’. As in the film, the scene expresses a refusal to be ground down, but in a grittier, less self-glorifying way. Getting your teeth knocked out (something Anderson plays up) can be glamorous: wearing dentures for the next forty years less so.

The changing-room, with its naked truths about manliness, would feature prominently in Storey’s writing over the next three decades. It’s the setting for the play of that name which, thinly fictionalised, reappears from the pen of Frank Attercliffe in Present Times. The homosexual camaraderie of the changing-room – touched on lightly elsewhere – is explored in the most daring of the novels, Radcliffe. It’s not a subject that the chronically taciturn Storey, constrained by generations of Nonconformist decencies, can handle fluently. But awkwardness never stopped him tackling a subject. Tackling is what he does best.

There are other elements which recur in Storey’s work, most of which, I imagine, can be traced back to his own life: the miner father ambitious for his son to be something more (but not necessarily better); the free-booting marquee-erectors’ world, in which for a few years Storey, a muscle-bound Defarge, earned his bread swinging a 14-pound hammer, pitching and striking tents for the champagne parties of his social superiors (it supplies the setting for his play The Contractor); the Slade School, which appears under various pseudonyms, as does his native Wakefield; the years of poverty before This Sporting Life (1960); the years of wealth after it; the prizes and glorious collaborations with Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson; the broken relationships and other breakdowns; the recent years of prizeless oblivion and now the pathos of ‘whatever happened to David Storey?’

The primal scene in Storey’s fiction is to be found in the Booker-winning Saville, in which Colin, the miner’s son, takes his eleven-plus. Storey vividly evokes the huge, echoing, dusty examination rooms, the ink-stained desks, the shepherding, numbering and mysterious instructions, the nervy atmosphere of remembered threats and bribes, the sense of an inscrutable authority, the pointless Cyril Burtian questions designed to measure ‘IQ’ and the elusive ‘G’ (‘How many words can you make from “Conversation”?’). For those who underwent it, the eleven-plus was an experience recalling Beckett’s ‘do not despair, one thief was saved; do not presume, one thief was damned.’ A right or wrong answer to an enigmatic question might well determine the rest of your life.

Born in 1933, Storey took the exam in 1944, the year in which the Butler Education Act came into force. He was one of the saved and made it to Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Wakefield. The problems of the grammar-school boy like Storey were anatomised by Richard Hoggart in the last chapters of The Uses of Literacy. As it fed through to the creative writing of the Sixties, the grammar-school boy’s educated self-alienation gave rise to a lexicon of fashionable literary terms – ‘roots’ (invariably cut off), ‘outsiders’, ‘protest’ and ‘anger’ (often in conjunction with ‘young man’). ‘Grammar school broke him in two,’ Storey says of Len Radcliffe. The abstract term ‘deracination’ doesn’t catch the complexity of the break, of which fiction, Royal Court drama and Woodfall films give a fuller account.

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