Profile: David Storey

David Storey juggled art school, writing and playing rugby professionally until his first published book, This Sporting Life, brought success. He trawled his own mining family and their Yorkshire roots for the misfits who appeared in his novels and the plays that stirred audiences at the Royal Court. Although recently out of fashion he is now, at 70, publishing a new novel. James Campbell reports

In David Storey's home town of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, the civic authority has installed plaques in honour of local writers and artists. One marks the home of the Victorian novelist George Gissing, author of New Grub Street, another celebrates the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, while the third is dedicated to Storey. The plaque was attached to the wall of a house on the council estate where Storey grew up in the years before the second world war.

"I got rung up by the Daily Express, saying, 'Have you heard about the plaque on the front of a council house in Wakefield?' And they'd put it on the wrong house. And the tenant of the house was very hostile to something being fastened to his wall, near his front door. He said he had never heard of fucking David Storey anyway, so what's it all about?"

Storey delivers his anecdotes, of which he has a pleasing number, in a leaden-faced manner, in a low Yorkshire voice. "They sorted it out, and moved the plaque from his house to the right house. It says: David Storey, born 1933. Now they're waiting for me to fill in the other space." On the map, Wakefield is surrounded by canals, pits and quarries. Storey has used a town like it as the setting for a number of novels and plays, including his first and probably best-known work, This Sporting Life (1960). When a Storey hero contemplates his native place, he is typically positioned on the outside, or looking down at the bustle of ordinary life in the valley below. The town where Arthur Machin plays rugby in This Sporting Life is characterised by "squat rows of houses... little black hutches nailed together by those big pegs of chimneys... coal lorries parked by the coal slip, ready for the morning".

Coal is the element of Storey's work. His father was a miner who spent 40 years at the coalface, driven by a dream of propelling his three sons into the world of higher education. Mr Shaw, the father in Storey's play In Celebration (1969) tells his sons more or less what Storey's father told him and his brothers: "I've spent half my life making sure none of you went down that pit."

At 61, Storey's father was diagnosed with a lung disease and given six months to live. "I suggested I buy him and my mother a bungalow in Scarborough, which they knew from holidays. I said, it's only six months, you might as well enjoy it. Twenty-three years later I was still paying the mortgage on that bungalow." He conveys the news with deadpan disgruntlement. "His health had been so much improved by the sea air."

Storey lives in a house in a Victorian terrace in Kentish Town, north London, with his wife of almost 50 years. Their four children include the fashion designer Helen, who, her father says with as much bemusement as pride, "published her autobiography at 36". She has collaborated on exhibitions with her sister Kate, a developmental biologist in Dundee. One son works in finance, the other in aeronautical engineering. His wife works in the local Citizens' Advice Bureau.

Storey turned 70 last year. He moves a little hesitantly, and his face expresses an innate shyness combined with gentle curiosity. A fire burns brightly in his comfortable living room, but the coals are merely decorative. Storey's elder brother Anthony, himself the author of several novels, describes him as a "quiet and quietly happy, inward-looking younger brother".

Another brother, Neville, died at six, three months before David was born. The event is central to In Celebration, bequeathing a legacy of guilt shared by all the family. Anthony, who has worked all his life as a psychologist, says that after Neville's death, "our mother favoured David, whereas before Neville's death I had been the favoured [son]. This created a tension that has yet to be resolved."

In Anthony's eyes, it was he who was destined to become the novelist in the family, while David was set on being a painter. In 1967, Anthony published Jesus Iscariot, described by the reviewer in the TLS as "set among the northern working class. It turns on the rivalry between two brothers." Despite the tension arising from their brother's death, "sitting brutally underneath our family life", as Anthony puts it, "we were happy. Our dad was never out of work. We went to new, well-equipped schools, where David's high ability was picked up early."

When Storey let it be known that he intended to go to the local art college, rather than to university, his father responded: "In that case, you can finance yourself." The resistance grew out of the desire to preserve him from a life of coal mining. "But he was also determined that I shouldn't be an artist. I think he would have settled for a schoolteacher." To pay his way through art school, Storey settled into a tripartite existence that sounds enviable now but which he describes as "awful".

Aged 18, he signed a 14-year contract to play rugby league for Leeds (Anthony also played professionally). However, he was soon on his way to the Slade School of Fine Art in London, travelling north for matches, earning £6 a week, and spending the time on the train writing novels.

"It had a very poor effect on the other players," he says of the special dispensation he received to attend the Slade, "who were all young coal miners - this artist swanning in for matches. At the Slade meanwhile I was seen as a bit of an oaf. I only really felt at home on the train, where the two different parts of my life came together."

He played for Leeds A-team for four seasons in the early 1950s, as second-row and loose-forward, but missed the further payment that would have come from graduating into the first team. He was up against his team mates as much as the opposition. "You'd be playing, and you had an opening in front of you and the guy who ought to pass the ball to you passed it over your head to his mate, missing out this outsider from London. Or if he thought there was real trouble in it, he'd give you the ball."

The germ of This Sporting Life came from an actual match at Leeds, when Storey was still in his teens. "I was in the second row, with a player who was playing out his last days. At one moment the ball was at my feet, and I realised that if I picked it up I'd get my face kicked. And I hesitated just that amount, and he didn't, and he got his face kicked. He came up with a very bloody mouth, not knowing what had happened to his teeth. He just turned to me and said: 'You cunt.' The guilt induced by that was enormous, which was what prompted me to start writing about it."

In the novel, Machin divides rugby players into three categories: animal, scientific, nervous. What kind of player was Storey? "Aesthete, I think. I spent much of my time on the field avoiding getting seriously injured. I was always fascinated by the crowd in rugby. It has its own identification with what's going on. For an hour-and-a-half, life is meaningful within the parameters of the game. Various structures are all in place and they're all visible. I suppose This Sporting Life presents a contrast between that and the private life of the player, where the clouds gather."

After more than a dozen rejections, the novel was published by Longmans, Green in 1960 when Storey was 26. The novelist Caryl Phillips, who grew up in Leeds and has written widely on sport, calls it "the best novel about sport I've read. That it's about working-class northern sport, with the concomitant class tension, meant it spoke to me with all the more force. Rugby league, as opposed to rugby union, is very suggestive of northern identity and spirit, something I felt as both a liberating force and a claustrophobic problem. Storey might have felt similarly."

Storey's arrival on the literary scene coincided with the "second wave" of working-class and regional writers, who followed the Angry Young Men - Stan Barstow, Barry Hines, John Braine among them. "Their roots were firmly in the world that I grew up in," Phillips says. "They explored class tensions with an honesty I seldom saw in books by their southern contemporaries, who didn't understand how important it was not to go down the pit, or what the difference was between the lounge and the public bar. Storey was to my mind the most sophisticated writer of the group."

Storey claims not to have been much influenced by the Kingsley Amis-John Osborne generation. He traces his commitment to literature to a "Damascene moment" in a French class at school when he was 15. "The teacher was reading from a poem by Verlaine, 'Chanson d'automne' - 'The violin sobs of autumn wound my heart with a languor unknown...' - and as I was mentally translating it I had this vision that we were all on a railway line, that we were all going to be schoolteachers: you could see marriage, a house, a car, a salary, a pension... and right at the end of the line was the one word, Death. It came across in a matter of moments and it seemed extraordinarily clear. I just decided that I would so something with my life that was different to all that had been expected."

He is acquainted with the other regional realists with whom he is grouped. "There was a kind of ethos that spun you along for a while," he says, "but the volition to write was much more personal than anything that came from being in a movement." Storey's protagonists are not so much rebels as misfits, or, as he puts it, "liabilities". The young man, typically with a sporting background, looking down at "the lights of the town splayed out below", is less concerned with politics than with the scrum of family life. Physically powerful, he finds himself battered by moral forces, social restrictions, assumptions about class and knowing your place.

One of the most memorable scenes in Storey's fiction occurs in his Booker Prize-winning novel Saville (1976), when the posh, magnetic boy Stafford visits young Saville's home in the mining community, and Mr Saville automatically feels uncomfortable in his own living room. In one novel after another, the leading man struggles against deflated expectation, deserted or deserting wife, unsympathetic parents or children, dead-end job. Depression or madness appears before them, as a refuge.

In the elation that came with his debut, Storey wrote another novel in three weeks, Flight into Camden, also published in 1960. It could scarcely be more different from the earlier book, yet a similar claustrophobic atmosphere pervades the two. The narrator, Margaret, falls in love with a married man. They run off to London, intending to evade the intolerable demands of family and community. Margaret's father is a miner, her lover an artist. It is a feminist novel, written a dozen years before the genre became established.

For the author, Margaret's plight echoes the moral pressure he himself had felt in departing Wakefield for London, "leaving behind the recognisable pressures of a home town and entering into a world where you make up your own rules". Phillips sees it as the novel which, in theme and style, showed Storey's "desire to grapple, head on, with the best of literary London. The others, Braine and Barstow, tended to avoid this challenge." Flight into Camden is a tour de force of domestic oppression. It is also the novel that most brings to mind Storey's elder Wakefield master, Gissing, who specialised in characters, frequently women, who are trapped by social circumstance.

Storey used Gissing's final and most personal book, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1902), as a model for his novel A Serious Man (1998). "I had always been attracted to the idea of writing a disguised autobiography," he says. The novel, which appeared after a 14-year silence, is a tale of personal trouble and strife. Like Storey, the hero of A Serious Man has a Damascene conversion to art while hearing the poetry of Verlaine at school. Like him, he is a novelist and playwright, and there are lightly coded references to actual Storey works. The action follows the trail of the hero's depression, from which Storey himself has suffered, and the scattered remains of family relationships.

Autobiographical motifs recur in his work. Colin of In Celebration is in one way or another related to little Colin Saville (in both play and novel, there are brothers called Anthony and Steven, as in both there is an elder brother who has died). They may or may not be related to Colin the ex-boxer with a hair-trigger temper, of the novel A Temporary Life (1973), who like many Storey characters settles disputes with a left hook.

Arthur Machin of This Sporting Life, however, is not modelled on the author during his rugby-playing days. "He's more like the guy I caused to have his teeth kicked in." Of In Celebration, Anthony Storey says: "The play is set in our parents' living room, and the tensions accurately represent those of our family. Unfortunately, there are only two acts. I wish for his own good he would write the third act even now, 35 years later."

As the unpublished novels written on the train between London and Leeds piled up (This Sporting Life was his seventh), Storey decided to try his hand at drama. By then, he had quit rugby and was working as a supply teacher. "I was in a primary school at King's Cross at the time, one of a dozen schools in which I taught, and I came home from work and there was another rejection slip. The thought came to me that maybe it would be better to try writing a play, because there's no description, only the dialogue. So over the weekend I wrote a play about a schoolteacher cracking up."

By the time The Restoration of Arnold Middleton (1967) was produced at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, some half-dozen years later, Storey was a successful novelist (his third novel, Radcliffe , came out in 1963). "The sheer exhilaration of seeing it come alive on stage prompted me to write another five plays in no time at all, feeling that I'd found a whole new venture."

He had had next to no experience of the theatre, but the Royal Court accepted his work and set about producing the plays, one after another. Lindsay Anderson, with whom Storey had formed a close working relationship during the filming of This Sporting Life, was to be the director, eventually doing nine Storey plays at the Royal Court and the National Theatre.

In Celebration was followed in the same year, 1969, by The Contractor, about the erection of a marquee for a party in the grounds of a big house in Yorkshire. Each night, on stage, the huge tent is put up anew, and then dismantled. For the audience, part of the fascination comes from watching something being constructed in the theatre.

The Guardian's theatre critic, Michael Billington, regards The Contractor as "a great play, one of the greatest of all modern English plays. It all springs from this beautiful image of the marquee being put up. People have come up with all sorts of explanations about what it means, from the mystery of artistic creation to the decline of capitalism, and it's all embedded in the play. Storey has an ability to take a simple image and make it resonant - to make simplicity complicated."

Most of Storey's plays were written in two or three days. In the case of Home (1971 winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best Play) - celebrated for the double-act of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson - he wrote two separate versions, equally quickly. When he came to consider them, the one he had thought better seemed dead, whereas the version he believed to be a failure came to life.

The nature of the Royal Court was as important as the character of his familiar director. "There was a great vitality there. I don't think I'd been to the theatre more than half a dozen times before that, usually reluctantly, having been dragged by relatives. The theatre in Wakefield was closed most of the time. They recently staged The Contractor at the Opera House there, which I'd never been in before. I enjoyed watching the tent being put up on stage, in the theatre, in the town which had first generated the idea."

Billington says that Storey has "an intuitive theatrical sense". In 1971, at the height of his success, the theatre historian John Russell Taylor wrote that Storey's plays were "beautifully shaped... so much so that critics have started bandying the name of Chekhov about". They still do, even though Storey has not had a new play produced for more than 10 years.

Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company, who revived The Contractor in a touring production a few years ago, and will soon do the same with Home, says of the plays that "they have a theatricality that people love". For Dromgoole, "there is no more true inheritor of Chekhov's gift" (adding that Storey himself would probably regard that opinion as "complete cock").

Storey resembles Chekhov in allowing his plays to progress by way of feeling, and being in no hurry to make things happen on stage. As in his novels, the emotion gradually increases until it stifles situations that were themselves deadening. Dromgoole stresses the point that Storey's plays are tailored for the proscenium arch, and draws an unexpected comparison with Noël Coward. "They both were painters. They both conceive their plays physically, and they're both very plastically precise. If you take a Storey play or a Coward play out of the proscenium arch, and try to do it in a studio context, it wobbles."

With Anderson, Storey had "an almost mystical relationship", even though their aesthetic approaches were quite different. "Lindsay always started with a total picture of what he was doing, whereas I started with just one line and went on to see what kind of thing accrued to the detail. We worked towards the centre from opposite sides of the ring."

His enthusiasm for attending the theatre has scarcely increased, something he attributes to a "problem" with audiences. "I don't mind seeing a play on my own or with two or three people, but I don't like sitting in the audience. It's some kind of working-class resistance to such a middle-class activity." He adds that he considers this "quite a regressive trait".

Anthony Storey recalls how, on visits to London, he would take a taxi round the theatres "with our David's name on them, in huge letters - on one occasion at three separate places". Yet the last time the two brothers talked about literature "was 30 years ago. Once he told me he had written three plays in a weekend. I answered, 'I'm surprised it took you so long.' My friends and I mock each other as a necessary balancing act. I think David didn't understand this."

Storey's happy relationship with the theatre took a turn for the worse in 1976, with Mother's Day , the last of his plays to be produced at the Court. "It was well received at the previews, but everything went wrong on the critics' night. The actor forgot his lines in the main speech, and it all deflated. The reviews were terrible." The Guardian review began with two words: "A stinker." The next night, Storey got the actors together in the bar to try to encourage them. "And as I was talking I became aware that a group had collected by some steps, in single file. It was the critics. I thought they had all come to apologise. 'It's very good of you to come back,' I said to one, and he replied, 'No, you're blocking the door to the Theatre Upstairs,' which triggered my emotions somewhat. I started verbally abusing them, one by one. By the time I got to Billington... well, it was only slapping him about, really."

As Billington recalls it, "David was lying in wait for us in the bar, and he started having a go at everybody. When I felt his hand on the back of my head, I thought he was giving me an ironic cuff. But a cuff from David is not quite like a cuff from other playwrights." Billington says he scarcely thought any more of it. "The surprising thing is that playwrights don't do it more often."

Recent Storey novels have also tended to receive harsher treatment than the first five or six. After Saville, which won the Booker Prize in 1976, the latest in what must have seemed an unstoppable flow of awards (for example, there were three New York Drama Critics Awards in four years), his reputation became obscured.

Reviewing the novel Present Times in the TLS in 1984, Valentine Cunningham complained of repetition and a "heavy touch", seeing the former rugby player hero's domestic misery as "an extraordinary threnody of despair about and hatred against The Way Things Are Going for Middle-Aged White Men in Our Britain".

A later novel, As It Happened (2002), was roughed up in the Observer by Adam Mars-Jones: "Grammar is loose to the point of non-existence. Sentences routinely run out of structure about halfway through." Phillips suspects Storey's recent obscurity "has to do with two factors: an increased sophistication in form in the English novel, as heralded by [Salman Rushdie's] Midnight's Children (1981). Then there was a different approach to writing about class, for example in Martin Amis's Money (1985). Mrs Thatcher's insistence on class mobility, and the beginnings of a 'classless society' helped to make Storey's work seem passé. For younger readers, he might as well have been writing about Victorian England."

As for theatre, Billington believes Storey's stature has shrunk, if only temporarily, "partly because he was championed by Anderson, and after Lindsay's death he seemed to lack a sponsor. It's also a comment on the fashion-conscious nature of English theatre, whereby tomorrow's trendy dramatist is always to the fore. Think of Edward Bond, Arnold Wesker, John Arden and Peter Nichols, who have had to endure similar periods of neglect in our ravenous search for the new. But there has been a restoration of Storey recently, in Oxford and Chichester, as well as the revival of Home in the West End some years back. All these productions got rave reviews."

Storey's new novel, Thin-Ice Skater, was begun in the early 1970s. He put it aside, as he often does with work (there are 15 plays that have never been produced), getting it out of the drawer again only in 2002, "and it all seemed to fall into place. Things I hadn't been able to write seemed to come naturally. Like a play, it all came out quite quickly."

The novel, written largely in dialogue, involves the relationship between a film director, as superficial as he is successful; his wife, a famous actress now in a mental hospital; and the director's supposed brother, much younger and abnormally reclusive, who narrates the tale. Storey found it relatively easy to project himself into the mind of a teenager.

"It's an innocent's view of extravagant behaviour. One aspect of it is my disenchantment with writing for the cinema - in the sense that you know beforehand what's going on, or what you're aiming to do. That seems to me a false way of working." In the early days, he wrote a few films, and was offered a five-film contract as a director by the BBC, before deciding to concentrate on novels and plays. "I suppose I was bored by knowing in advance what the objective was."

Storey's fiction by itself ought to prove sturdy enough, over time, to secure his reputation as one of the most original writers of his generation. Others among his admirers, while not wishing to diminish his novels, think of his theatrical work as his distinctive strength. As Dromgoole wrote in his study of the modern theatre, The Full Room (2001): "Posterity is our last resort. And if posterity is true, it should reveal a giant in David Storey."

· Thin-Ice Skater is published by Jonathan Cape on February 12 at £10.99.

David Storey

Born: July 13, 1933, Wakefield, Yorkshire.

Educated: Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Wakefield; Wakefield Art School; Slade School of Fine Art.

Married: 1956, Barbara Hamilton (two sons, two daughters).

Novels: 1960 This Sporting Life, Flight into Camden; '63 Radcliffe; '72 Pasmore; '73 A Temporary Life; '76 Saville; '82 A Prodigal Child; '84 Present Times; '98 A Serious Man; 2002 As It Happened; '04 Thin-Ice Skater.

Some plays: 1967 The Restoration of Arnold Middleton; '69 In Celebration, The Contractor; '70 Home; '71 The Changing Room; '73 The Farm; '74 Life Class; '80 Early Days.

Some awards: 1963 Somerset Maugham Award; '71 Evening Standard Best Play; '76 Booker Prize; '69, '70, '72 New York Drama Critics Award.


James Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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