Reviewed by Harriet
Back in 2004 I had the great pleasure of meeting David Storey – rugby player, painter, novelist, poet, playwright and filmmaker – who had agreed to let me interview him for a book I was putting together*. I was rather in awe of him, and a bit nervous, but he quickly put me at my ease with his kindness and his willingness to answer questions he must have been asked many times before. I’ve never forgotten his answer to my question about how he set about writing: ‘I just start with a first line, and “Let’s see what happens”’. Knowing people who knew him well, I was aware that he suffered from depression, but I’m not sure if anyone realised the full extent of this. A Stinging Delight, his 1994 autobiography only now published for the first time, reveals just how paralysing this was, and the extraordinary struggles he underwent to continue with his working life while undergoing such intense suffering.
If you’re not familiar with Storey, the events and achievements of his life are really remarkable. Born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in 1933, he was the third son of a coal-miner. Owing to ‘an administrative error’, he took the eleven plus exam at nine, and ended up in the local grammar school in a class with boys two years older. He didn’t have an easy time: bullied, beaten by his father for not standing up to the bullies, increasingly aware that his mother was not capable of love, he was forced to get himself a job at the age of twelve to enable the family to keep him at the school. But his job, with a firm of marquee constructors, kept him going throughout his teens – not to mention providing a subject for one of his plays – and provided him with mentor in the form of one of the employees. Throughout it all, though, he felt like an outsider. In the exams at the end of his school education he received the lowest recorded mark for English, and, much to his own and the headmaster’s amazement, the highest recorded mark for Art, and an Art Scholarship.
Now began another phase of life. As well as painting, he started writing a novel (in the lavatory, the only private place in a crowded house). But once again, money was short, so, having played a bit of amateur rugby, he decided to become a professional footballer, and succeeded in getting signed for the Leeds Rugby Union Club. This worked well for the first few years, but when he was offered a place at the Slade Art College in London, life became complicated. So he abandoned rugby and took up schoolteaching, always choosing difficult, disadvantaged schools – seventeen in all. Novel after novel was written, and rejected. But at last he found a publisher for This Sporting Life, based on his rugby-playing experiences. It was filmed by Lindsay Anderson, with a screenplay by Storey, and this led to an exciting new career as a playwright: a succession of his plays appeared to great acclaim at the Royal Court Theatre, and he continued to write novels, with Saville winning the Booker Prize in 1976, (reviewed here in our Booker Prize retrospective).
So – a remarkable trajectory: an unpromising home environment; extraordinary gifts leading to a hugely successful career; a happy marriage; four beautiful children. On its own, this would have made an interesting book. But A Stinging Delight is far more than this. As his daughter Kate writes in the Foreword, ‘Above all, it is about people, grief and love, about the forces that shape who we are’. For the book also tells of the attacks of terror that plagued him from the age of three or four, accompanied by ‘an indefinable sense of loss’. Searching, many years later, for an explanation of this phenomenon, which increased more and more throughout his life, he came to the conclusion that the cause lay in something that happened before he was born. When his mother was three months pregnant, her oldest son Neville, aged six and half, suddenly died. The terrible trauma she suffered, he concluded, would have affected him in the womb, and would explain the attacks of crippling fear that came to dominate his entire life.
The seriousness of this cannot be over emphasised. Here’s how he describes something that happened when he was forty-nine. Quite out of the blue:
Something akin to terror, but of an intensity and comprehensiveness I had not only never experienced but had never imagined, took hold of me entirely. The walls moved, the sky lowered, the ground came up, the trees closed in, the air disappeared – or, at least, a most curious phenomenon, solidified, enclosing me within it.
I went on as if nothing had happened. I smiled. I hid. I typed – and for large parts of the day was obliged to adopt a position in which I believed I would stop myself from coming apart: sitting on a straight-backed wooden chair, arms folded across my stomach, rocking to and fro. From between my lips came a series of noises pitched somewhere between a groan and a scream.
These attacks would continue, and even intensify. There were days when he shook so violently that he was unable to get out of bed. There were consultations with psychiatrists, medication that had no effect, some periods of hospitalisation. And yet, through it all, he kept writing, travelling to New York when a play was staged there, doing interviews, spending time with his theatre friends Lindsay Anderson and Jocelyn Herbert. A Stinging Delight was written in 1990, but Kate Storey’s Afterword relates that the attacks of severe depression continued for the rest of his life, though he remained a loving and supportive father.
In his final pages, he addresses his dead brother – as he has done at moments throughout the book, which is indeed addressed to him:
Everything I have made, and everything I have experienced, has been from within your shadow: the shadow not of your presence but of your death, a ready door, cajoling, at the centre of my mind. From behind it has come not silence but a presentiment, a knowledge of things to come, an awareness of things behind. Its greater darkness has given me light. It has moved my life in directions in which, otherwise, it would never have gone: given me a sensibility I would, otherwise, never have had. Given me freedom by showing me a prison. Given me heaven by showing me hell.
A truly remarkable book about a truly remarkable man. Unforgettable.
*Harriet Devine, Playwrights at the Royal Court, 1956-2006 (Faber & Faber, 2006)
Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
David Storey, A Stinging Delight (Faber & Faber, 2021). 978-0571360314, 410pp., hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)