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.

Upward mobility was, of course, desirable, particularly in the anticipation of parents. Grammar-school education was a gateway to good things, defined in terms of folk memories of Thirties bad things: security, a steady, well-paid job, house-ownership, a car, all the amenities of ‘cushy’ middle-class life. But upward mobility meant class exile. I knew at least one clever boy who deliberately failed his eleven-plus, to stay with his mates (a disastrous decision, as it turned out).

The grammar school recurs in Storey’s fiction. Oddly, since he throws up so many masking pseudonyms for Wakefield, it is usually given the same name – King Edward’s. Typically, having been crammed for the ‘scholarship’ and pushed into the school by his miner father, the Storey hero loses his way. He is bolshy, good at the wrong sports (despises Rugby Union – gentleman’s football), truants, makes unsuitable friendships. He doesn’t go to university (though he could) but to art college, the bohemian alternative with its greater freedoms and less certain social destiny – ‘the flight into Camden’, as Storey called it.

Flight into Camden is Storey’s only experiment with a female protagonist (a miner’s daughter, nonetheless). The masculine side of his character is represented, typically, by Rugby League. It is well known that Storey found himself in the Faustian situation of getting a scholarship to study at the Slade School just after signing a 15-year contract to play for Leeds. For four years in the early Fifties, artist Jekyll and athlete Hyde, he bounced between Camden and Yorkshire. He finally bought himself out of the contract with three-quarters of the initial signing fee. Camden had won but the psychic divisions would rage on in his writing.

The Storey hero invariably finds himself at bay. Physically, he is a wounded animal and the more dangerous for it. He has a ‘craggy’ face, with some prominently broken feature (a bent nose, missing teeth). He often bears an ostentatiously Brontëan name in which ‘cliffs’ and ‘heaths’ are directly or remotely recalled. He never belongs. One of the fathers in the novels tells his son: ‘When I was younger, your age in fact, I suddenly made what I thought was a discovery: that you have only two choices, either to live in isolation or to be absorbed.’ The fathers in Storey’s fiction tend to choose absorption into pit, family and village. For their scholarship-liberated sons, the choice is less easy.

The problem is that mobility can take you in any number of directions. Which is the right direction for a grammar-school boy – up, down or sideways? Storey’s novels explore various possibilities and destinations. In Pasmore, the art college teacher puts his family together again after it has broken up and slots back into his middle-class professional groove:

In the winter he returned to teaching. Outwardly, despite the events of the preceding year, little had changed. He still had a regular job, a home, a wife and children; the apparatus of his life from his books to the commercial van was virtually the same. Even the despair, it seemed, persisted.

  Yet something had changed. It was hard to describe. He had been on a journey. At times it seemed scarcely credible he had survived. He still survived. He still dreamed of the pit and the blackness. It existed all around him, an intensity, like a presentiment of love, or violence. He found it hard to tell.

Pasmore has a van because at this date, in the late Sixties, vehicles without passenger windows did not attract purchase tax and were popular with impoverished teachers. And even if it had been affordable, a car would have been selling out. The last phrase in Pasmore – ‘he found it hard to tell’ – is generally applicable to Storey’s narration. He finds it hard to tell his stories; they come out knotted, tongue-tied, clumsy. His vocabulary is limited and his grammar occasionally uncertain. As used to be said of Hardy, he demonstrates that you don’t have to be a good writer to be a good novelist, though there are other, snootier survivors from the Fifties and Sixties, like Frederic Raphael, the Charterhouse toff, hatcheting this novel in the TLS, who see Storey as a semi-literate, who should have stuck to his 14-pound hammer and jockstraps.

The end of Saville is more uplifting than most, concluding as it does with the memorable Storeyism, ‘the shell had cracked.’ Colin Saville makes his break, turning like Paul Morel towards the light of the city on the hill. He’s done with school-mastering. ‘You haven’t any lodgings or anything,’ his lachrymose mother tells him as he prepares to catch the train to London. ‘I don’t need lodgings,’ Saville replies, ‘I can always sleep on the street.’

In Present Times Frank Attercliffe (a former footballer with a mad, institutionalised wife), after a dark night of the soul, breaks out of sports reporting for a Yorkshire newspaper to become world-famous with a play about a Rugby League changing-room. It is, as one of his comrades grudgingly puts it, a ‘bleak but promising’ end to his struggles. The ending of A Temporary Life is bleak and unpromising. The hero Colin Freestone (former professional light-heavyweight, broken nose, explosive temper), having given up his marriage (his wife’s mad as well), his affair with a toff’s wife, and his job teaching at the local art college, takes on work as a dustman. ‘This is the job I’ve chosen, of my own volition,’ he defiantly declares. Scraping up dog turds with his council shovel parodies the mining which he has ‘escaped’.

The most curious of Storey’s novels remains Radcliffe, in which the sensitive, grammar-school-educated, artistic hero finally takes a marquee-erector’s hammer to the head of his loutish working-class alter ego and more than friend, and having exorcised his proletarian self, withers away in a prison for the criminally insane. There is no strength left in him. He has murdered his vital part.

A Serious Man is Storey’s first novel for 14 years. The narrator-hero is 65 (though he is not always sure of the fact), exactly Storey’s age. The subject is the usual one of irresistible breakdown savagely resisted. A ‘once well-known author, playwright, painter and draughtsman’ and, more distantly, Slade graduate, tent-erector, bolshy grammar-school boy and miner’s son, Richard Fenchurch is at the end of his tether. His wife walked out on him years ago, with the five kids. His crazy lover Vivienne has killed herself by gulping down a bottle of vodka with a bottle of bleach as chaser. His books don’t sell any more, nor do his plays get staged. ‘Your work is out of fashion,’ his shrink tells him. Not that he was ever what you would call fashionable. There is something inherently displaced about Fenchurch’s art and writing: ‘I’ve never been an author in the way the middle class would understand, nor working class in the way a popular audience would listen to,’ he complains. And he particularly resents being compared to ‘that androgynous aesthete Lawrence’.

He’s washed up. His latest effort is a strange production whose main ideas have been stolen by an ‘infamous existentialist’ Scot, suspiciously reminiscent of the late R.D. Laing. It announces to the world his (Fenchurch’s) discovery of the ‘Pentadic Theory’ – namely, that we have five conflicting selves. Orthodox psychiatry is unimpressed. Fenchurch has been sectioned and locked up for five years in the bin, half that time in a closed ward: ‘Art has led me to the psychiatric department of the North London Royal.’ Lithium has tamed him, but he cannot take care of himself. He lives in Camden in squalor.

Fenchurch is brought ‘home’ to Yorkshire by a daughter of his first marriage. ‘Home’ is another recurrent element in Storey’s work, and the title of one of his successful plays, where it is used in the weasel sense of ‘lunatic asylum’. Home in this case is a grand mansion in Ardsley. He was himself born in the mining village of Onasett, 14 miles away, before going to the grammar school in Linfield. The house in Ardsley is where he courted and won the hand of the daughter, Bea, the child of a newly rich coal haulier.

Fenchurch elects to stop taking his lithium and promptly goes off his head. He intends to write what he calls ‘The Private Papers of Richard Fenchurch’, but even in his unbuttoned madness there are things too private to be written about, too ‘hard to tell’. The centrepiece of the novel, extending to 150 pages, rewrites Lear on the heath. On a manic high, half-dressed, with carpet slippers on his feet, Fenchurch takes a bus from Ardsley via Linfield to his native Onasett, where the pit used to be. He has his sketching tablet in hand. In his head he hears the panting of the winding gear, the rattle of the trucks and the clatter of the miners’ clogs. ‘The past is where I am,’ he declares.

Where he is, of course, is completely round the twist. He accosts his fellow passengers and is patiently reprimanded by conductors and policemen. ‘Are you going mad?’ one of them asks. ‘No, I’m going to Linfield,’ he serenely replies. ‘I have, subsequent to the experiences of the past few months, if not the past five years, acquired a tendency to fall in love with every woman that I meet,’ he tells one unperturbed lady.

The familiar Storeyan CV is reviewed as the ghosts crowd in. Fenchurch has dialogues with his miner father, who explains: ‘I’ve tried to save you from working on your belly eight hours of the day or night, with two hundred yards of rock above your head, smelling like an animal, looking like an animal, thinking like an animal.’ And here Richard is, at the end of his life, a poor forked animal. Sixty-five years on and what is Onasett’s most famous son? The village idiot. Mrs Thatcher closed the pits. The hole in the ground where his father worked on his belly is grassed over. It now looks ‘pre-industrial’. In post-industrial Onasett, drugs, drink and the dole are all that a man has. Even the option of working on his belly underground like an animal has been taken away.

And what is it that is buried in the deepest, most private recess of Richard Fenchurch’s past? Something only to be confronted in the extremity of his lunacy. He had sex with his 52-year-old mother-in-law-to-be while courting his 18-year-old wife-to-be (and possibly after she was his wife – the narrative is vague on the point). ‘Had sex’ is a crude way of putting it. From another angle it was the amour fou Fenchurch’s life. Bella was not your Donald McGill, music-hall-joke mother-in-law. Hot Mediterranean blood ran in her veins and she was exotic, at least by Ardsley standards. But she was 34 years older than him (old enough to be his granny), it was Yorkshire, in the Fifties. As well make love to a pit pony and expect the respect of your changing-room pals.

If homosexuality is a delicate subject in the environment from which Storey and the Storeyan hero spring, mothers-in-law are another. So much so that they can only be mentioned in the prophylactic wrapping of folkloric humour. Fenchurch, as far as one can pick out details from the Bedlamite logorrhoea, never confesses the incestuous hanky-panky with his mother-in-law to his wife (her daughter) or to his daughter (her granddaughter). He does confess it to his shrink and, in their cups, to the departed Vivienne. The ‘Fenchurch Papers’ are destined to remain private, sealed like a patient’s medical records. This is one shell that not even madness can crack.

The novel ends with Fenchurch rescued from his crazed pilgrimage by his daughter. Their relationship is tense. She is not Cordelia. They will not sing like birds in the cage. He flees from her back to Camden to be taken care of by ‘Vaughan’, a mothering Irish slattern from his days at the Slade. ‘I intend,’ he says, ‘to put up a struggle.’ Let’s hope it avails. Storey’s early work, appealing as it did to a transient romanticism about Britain’s working class, was overvalued, or valued for the wrong reasons. It is not accidental that he won his Booker Prize in the aftermath of the last great miners’ victory. His more recent work, notably this last novel, has been neglected or slighted. A Serious Man is not an outstanding novel, but Storey’s fiction and drama, taken as a whole, make up a corpus of unusual consistency and raw power.