It’s often the minor characters in British literature who appear as workers, usually larger than life, like music hall artistes. Dickens, of course, could see the public entertainer in just about anybody, but he was unusual in making people expressive of their jobs, and his novels display a panorama of the gainfully employed. In his fiction, there are twelve merchants and twelve nurses, 47 clerks, three milliners, four editors, three pawnbrokers, thirteen housekeepers, six inventors, two stationers, a postmistress and a pot-boy (Bob Gliddery in Our Mutual Friend), seven surgeons, three dance-masters, a reporter (David Copperfield), a tobacconist (Mrs Chivery in Little Dorrit), two fishermen, 32 teachers, four blacksmiths, six undertakers, 45 lawyers and sixteen landladies, several magistrates, a weaver (Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times), an umbrella-maker (Alexander Trott in Sketches by Boz), and many busy others.
Today, workers in British novels are often vague figures, thin on the page and ghosts in society. Alarm clocks, crowded tube trains, horrible bosses, lunch hours: the life of the average paid employee hardly gets a look-in, skilled labour being no match for expert stasis. We look to characters for their issues – their preoccupations rather than their occupations – and might be forgiven for thinking British people had lost the use of their hands. You could argue all day about how important work is to the understanding of human beings, but there are some writers who make a backbone of labour, as if work is the thing we turn to when all else fails. ‘I’ve got to get busy with something right away,’ Uncle Vanya says, when hope is gone. ‘Work! We’ve got to get to work!’
Early in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton stuffs a packet of sandwiches and a flask of tea into his pocket and is soon at work amid the generators and milling machines. ‘He pressed the starter button, and his motor came to life with a gentle thump. Looking around, it did not seem, despite the internal noise of hurrying machinery, that anyone was working with particular speed. He smiled to himself and picked up a glittering steel cylinder from the top box of a pile beside him, and fixed it into the spindle.’ With the arrival of the welfare-state Zolas, the ‘kitchen sink’ novelists and dramatists of the late 1950s and early 1960s, soap suds and metal filings, factory whistles and wage packets were suddenly subjects. In Arnold Wesker’s play The Four Seasons, an apple strudel is made and baked onstage, as if the real-time-ness of work were a new existential value.
David Storey may have been, even in a heavily contested field, the most inhibited British writer of his generation. He was born in 1933 and grew up in Wakefield, in a family that felt work was destiny and everything else was showing off. His father worked in a coal mine but Storey, while being paid to play rugby league, aspired to be a painter. ‘By commuting for a year between art school in London and rugby club in Leeds,’ the journalist Jasper Rees wrote years later, ‘Storey fashioned for himself a life of a double exile in which no one at either polarity quite understood him.’ He studied at the Slade, and was a decent student under William Coldstream, but he soon turned to writing, keen to capture the world he’d left behind, and felt estranged from. His mighty debut, This Sporting Life, appeared in 1960 and he continued to write novels while turning to the theatre, encouraged by Lindsay Anderson, who was looking for a version of cinéma vérité, a documentary realism, or a theatre of facts, that would upset the drawing-room culture of English drama.
Storey had enormous success, but, for all of it, there was a psychological regress, the strong sense that he was not quite at work in the way that people who respected work should be. He had plays on Broadway and in the West End, but when he returned to see his family in the North, his father would wonder exactly what his son did for a living. He was writing novels that caused him to be called the voice of his generation; writing plays for the Royal Court that changed people’s idea of what theatre was; winning the Booker Prize for Saville; enlarging the scope of British literary culture to encompass working-class life and national malaise and a stymied sense of imperial memory. His influence has never been credited in his afterlife the way it was when he was alive. Other British novels and plays of the era are better remembered, but Storey’s work was deeper and riskier, drawing on misunderstanding and distance, death and disaster – the hallmarks of this posthumous memoir. He explored the class system surrounding labour and the soul of man under social change, and his writing had cousins with a similar aversion to sugar-coating the truth. Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey offered in 1958 a vision of race relations and queer politics that still seems radical today.
This Sporting Life is an original, testy novel, full of guilt and pride about work and leisure – the two poles of English working-class life that would begin to switch position under Margaret Thatcher. Rugby league was an escape but also a way for a burly kid to earn money. The novel’s main character, Arthur Machin, is a classic British New Wave conundrum: fleet of foot but heavy of heart, sensitive but brutalised, free in himself but oppressive to women, craving heroism but sickened by his surroundings in Primstone. (Replace that ‘P’ with a ‘B’ and you get the smouldering picture.) Like many of these heroes, Machin is belligerent, dislikeable, built for shouldering people out of the way and for disappointment. His affair with a local widow, Mrs Hammond, leaves a great deal to be desired about desire, but maybe that’s the English way, or was the English way at the time, which gives the novel its original sting.
Storey put the home life and the sporting life of postwar industrial Britain onto the page, up on the stage and on film. In the decade after he moved to London, he wrote a succession of characters that are running away from a world that ‘knows’ them. Margaret, the miner’s daughter who gets involved with a married teacher in his novel Flight into Camden finds herself eventually surrounded by emptiness in her new life in London. Radcliffe is a novel of passionate dividedness, as the aristocratic Leonard Radcliffe and the housing-estate boy, Victor Tolson, become obsessed with each other. They become close while working for a tent contractor, Ewbank, who later turns up in The Contractor.
The play tells the story of a gang of marquee builders working at a wedding. The Royal Court summoned the tent company Storey himself had worked for in Wakefield to show the actors how to put up the tent. Two worlds, the real and the confected, came harmlessly into contact, or at least it seemed harmless. For the last time before taking a break, Storey writes in A Stinging Delight,
the actors went through the mechanics of handling ropes, canvas, poles and pulleys. The foreman sidled up: he stood beside me, watching as the final effort petered out with sighs and groans. The director, perplexed but not disheartened, called a halt. The crew stood back. They gazed at the shambles of the half-erected canvas, they glanced at the actors, they glanced at the brigadier-like figure of the bemused director.
For the second time the foreman spoke directly. Standing beside me, gazing forward, once more out of the corner of his mouth, ‘Are all these ’omosexuals, then?’
It’s rarely mentioned how unready the professions were for the kitchen-sink ‘revolution’ in British culture, to say nothing of the strain it put on the young artists themselves. The waistcoat-and-watch-chain world of English publishing – as well as the carmine-and-limelight world of Terence Rattigan and the formal English stage – hadn’t the lexicon or the accents of the apprentice boys and shopgirls suddenly crowding the scene. Theatres didn’t have the props. Several years after The Contractor, the harassed designer of Storey’s play Mother’s Day, unable to find a coal-fired range, went to the housing estate where Storey grew up and paid for the removal of the range that had belonged to a neighbour of the family. Life not only led to art, but provided its occasions and its set design. At the Royal Court, Storey writes, stood
the chrome-edged, coal-fired artefact, with oven and mantelpiece, from 89 Manor Haigh Road. I knew the this-is-more-important-than-life-itself attachment Mrs Moore had had to her fifty-year-old range: she had lived a long widowhood in front of it and, before that, the retirement years of her husband. Whatever else might happen to the play, I thought, no ultimate good could come from it.
In 1954, the so-called Derby Survey, published in T. Cauter and J.S. Downham’s The Communication of Ideas, had given the composition of British society as 3 per cent upper class, 25 per cent middle class, 72 per cent working class. The young writers coming down for a spell in London found themselves next to people who had gone to convent school and Rada, nice people but different, loosely self-conscious and super-educated and social in a way the Northerners had never seen. I met Alan Sillitoe in the 1990s, and he was still shy, still standing at the edge of the party. But it was Storey who most powerfully understood the price of the journey, the dissociation, the consequences of leaving home when the scars were still raw, the family illness undiagnosed, to try to become a person. He attempted to hold on to his Yorkshire instincts, but they curdled at the Slade. (Rugby became something you played in Regent’s Park with David Sylvester.) He found himself incredibly frightened and mentally unstable on a trip to Rome around the time of his 21st birthday, and came early to knowing ‘the loss of self suffered by the depressive’. A similar loss of identity occurred when he visited Paris with the artist Nicholas Garland, and again in Segovia. Barbara, his future wife of six decades, had stayed at home. Meanwhile, he was working like a pit-horse. ‘My life,’ he writes, ‘was filled with activities that, separately, would have lasted anyone else a lifetime.’ Storey was typical of that kind of person, some of us perfectly functioning, who never really gets over what happened in childhood, in his case the death of his older brother, Neville. This left him feeling that death had made way for David Storey, but not enough. Neville died six months before David was born. Storey was ‘plagued by attacks of terror from the age of three or four’, accompanied by ‘an unbearable sense of loss’. His work amounts to a kind of existential survival test more than a literary career. The plays came to suggest, rather wonderfully I think, a kind of superannuated Pinter.
There is always a war with real life. Storey describes a rehearsal with John Gielgud (as Harry) and Ralph Richardson (as Jack) of Home, his play about England and everyday madness. The actors are navigating their way around two chairs and a table. Storey starts by showing the two actors before segueing into what’s happening offstage. Reading the memoir it’s difficult to tell where his play stops and the noises off begin.
Jack: Those your gloves?
Jack: Got a pair like those at home.
Jack: Very nearly. The seam goes the other way, I think.
(Picks one up to look) Yes. It does.
Harry: I like your shoes.
Harry: Your shoes are always very good.
Jack: I have them made at …
Harry: I get mine off the shelf.
Jack: Difficult getting them mended.
Harry: I always throw them away.
One day, two female characters emerged in the gallery, oblivious of rehearsals.
A clatter of buckets.
First cleaner: Oi says to im oi says, ‘What yew doin’ darn ere then?’ and e says …
Second cleaner: What’s he say then?
First cleaner: E says …
Second cleaner: What’s e say then?
First cleaner: That’s what I’m comin to innit? E says …
John [Gielgud] (calling): Cleaning ladies! Cleaning ladies!
(Aside) How does one talk to these people?
(Calling) Cleaning ladies! Would you mind being quiet?
(Long pause) Second cleaner: Oo the fuckin ell is that?
Storey’s position was like that of the scholarship boy, ‘at the friction-point of two cultures’, as Richard Hoggart wrote in The Uses of Literacy. ‘The test of his real education lies in his ability, by about the age of 25, to smile at his father with his whole face and to respect his flighty young sister and his slower brother.’ Storey transposed himself, but possibly not all of himself. ‘The grief was flooding out,’ he writes, and it took him years to understand why.
The new writing parlayed with the old, making a case for itself by satirising middle-class assumptions and prejudices. John Braine spent part of the war in Wakefield, and Room at the Top caricatures the kind of theatre that the Royal Court would try to supplant. ‘There was nothing out of the ordinary about the play either,’ the novel’s hero, Joe Lampton, says, after visiting a theatre in Warley as part of his journey up the social ladder.
It had run for three years during the war; I’d missed it being in Stalag 1000 at the time it was produced. It dealt with a very charming upper-middle-class family the members of which nearly committed adultery, nearly made a fortune, nearly made an unwise marriage, nearly missed their true vocation and so on, everything being made right in the end by the wise old grandmother who, rather daringly for this kind of play, spoke the prologue and epilogue swaying to and fro on her rocking chair and fiddling about with a piece of knitting to break up her speeches. I enjoyed it for the same reason that people enjoy Mrs Dale’s Diary – the characters belonged to the income-group which I wanted to belong to.
What you get from Storey’s memoir is a sense of the difficulty of the journey. He wanted to write about his own people and to place himself among them, and to go from there, and take them with him, but what he found is that the sun was always setting behind him, and all he could do was to look over his shoulder and see the ruins he had made monumental. It didn’t look like home anymore; nowhere did.
He describes his friendship with the playwright David Mercer, who grew up on a housing estate on the opposite side of Wakefield.
Our intimacy came from speaking an idiom derived from a common background. An ambivalent regard for our origins united as well as tortured us, making it impossible to reconcile our differences with the past and, to that degree, immobilising the present.
David had already ‘gone mad’ by the time I met him: he had, in his own words, ‘walked in the door of the Tavistock Clinic and asked for help’. He thought my potential for madness unconvincingly disguised, restrained by the exigencies of family life and, to him, a perverse disinclination to accede to those forces that mobilised both his creativity and his incipient attacks of terror … ‘There’s something wrong with both of us,’ he several times declared.
When Mercer died in 1980, some sort of ‘legacy’ fell to Storey, ‘the social, the historiographic, the mental, the political – bequeathed by those northern housing estates and that dour industrial town’. This feeling would last for the whole of his life, bringing him to the point of suicide, an endless, brooding, horrifying conviction that he had been traumatised in the womb, and that the daily world of his father, the coal-black underground world, was a void containing his own soul and that of his dead brother. ‘Everything I have made, and everything I have experienced, has been from within your shadow,’ he wrote sixty years after his brother’s death, ‘the shadow not of your presence but of your death, a ready door, cajoling, at the centre of my mind.’ He began writing this memoir in the 1980s – it stops in the early 1990s, 25 years before his own death – and decided that its publication should wait until he was gone.
A life spent falling apart, while making beautiful things. Work was often his subject, and work was always the relief, if never the cure. The first play Storey saw as a boy was Hamlet at the Grand Theatre in Leeds, and he was irritated by it. It was natural, in that world, to see performance and writing as a flappy-handed form of hysteria and pretension. His best-known novel, Saville, reaches again for the authentic self of people who didn’t have much time for a self, not in that way, until the likes of Storey came along. It’s easy to parody and many would (‘Same Old Storey’ was the Guardian headline), but working-class writing in Britain has often been sneered at, as if those stories were better kept for the music hall or Monty Python. I can’t agree. Saville takes Britain’s official values and beats them like an old carpet. A boy points to his blazer and tells his father the grammar school motto says: ‘Work is Pleasure.’ ‘Not where I work, then,’ the father replies: ‘The one who wrote that has never been down yon.’ It seemed like old territory because it was, no less than the old territory of Faulkner or John McGahern, hard-earned, well-imagined, and filled with a sense of renewing concerns and resonant words. These regions of the imagination might appear to some as hackneyed worlds full of dead people, but Saville, written in the 1970s and set in the 1930s, about a grammar school boy trying to have a go at life, was a story still being played out across the country.
‘None of the plays took me more than five days to write,’ he reports. It was all graft, part of the daylight effort to burrow his way out of the dark, while, like Ewbank in The Contractor, having ‘the feeling of a man who has never really found his proper station in life’. He believed at one time that art could provide a permanence for him. But the brother was dead, the die was cast, the universe was broken, the mind was sick, and only in the luckiest writers does the diagnosis hold the possibility of escape. In Celebration, his play about brothers returning home to a Derbyshire mining town to celebrate their parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary, is a denunciation of improvement and a confirmation of hurt. ‘It ends,’ the critic Frank Rich wrote, ‘with a Chekhovian vision of a family forever locked into the changeless cycle of its sad history.’
In Pasmore, one of Storey’s best novels, the eponymous academic is relocated, as he loses his mind, to the subterranean hell of his father’s working life, struggling for breath in the darkness of the mine. When Pasmore cheats on his wife, his father, an Old Testament prophet in working boots, tells his son he wishes he’d never been born, and this kindles a kind of Lawrentian conflagration. ‘His presence,’ Storey writes of his central character, ‘was ignited by flames, by a heatless inferno; he appeared to pass into another dimension. It was a pit, yet the sides were indiscernible: it was bottomless, yet there was no movement either up or down. It was merely an absence and somewhere, at its centre, he hung there, in torment.’ Storey’s work is less metaphysical than D.H. Lawrence’s, but it shares something of the emotional topography and the sense of male masochism. Both writers were obsessed with the difference between their intellectual tasks and the ‘real work’ done by their fathers, a comparison that could only bring shame, and not only shame but a sense of an unmanly failure to share in the ‘curious, dark intimacy’ of the mine.
A writer’s memoir, whether the author is dead or alive, and whether the book is a compendium of highs, or, as here, a maelstrom of lows, derives its ultimate value from the degree to which it shines a light into the work. A Stinging Delight portrays postwar literary England from the edge of the party, and observes the rampage of class, the persistence of unfairness and the breakdown of idealism in the communities of the North, from the twilight pitheads of West Yorkshire to the crumbling Red Wall around Jarrow. What Mercer identified as ‘our Wakefield sickness’, was really a condition of England problem, the difficulty of rising from nothing and trying to say everything. Storey addresses his dead brother in the same way we all address the past, trying to bridge the gap, trying to shore up our losses, while knowing the closeness has gone with the effort. ‘My signals to the disappearing shore,’ he writes, ‘identified as novels, plays, paintings, poems, were of no account: the sea was rising.’ His last testament will come eventually to prove him wrong.