Britain’s greatest post-war novelist is reported as having died today, at the age of 83. It seems a rather extravagant claim for David Storey, who, lumped together with other writers who had the great advantage of not coming from London or the Home Counties, as ‘kitchen-sink’ and ‘angry young man’, drifted out of fashion just as he was producing some of his greatest work. But I can’t think of many who come close to the Yorkshireman. Doris Lessing maybe, possibly Ballard and Burgess, certainly Graham Greene if you count him as post-war. But Storey deserves to be remembered in that pantheon, that Champions League elite.
For most people, though, he is probably best remembered as a playwright, and for This Sporting Life – later a film with Rachel Roberts, Richard Harris and the peerless Alan Badel. And sure, it was a brilliant novel and an even better film. But I think he surpassed all that with A Temporary Life, Flight into Camden and Saville, the last of which won him the Booker Prize. ‘Lawrencian’, the critics all said, patronisingly.
And the critics could only put up with that often bleak, terse and uncompromising northern prose for so long. Especially once these provincial, working-class writers such as Storey and John Osborne and John Wain revealed themselves to be rather less amenably liberal than the critics assumed they would be, or thought that they should be. Indeed some of Storey’s later (and admittedly weaker) novels were stridently at odds with the liberal mindset. That disaffection had of course always been here, but the growth of feminism and identity politics in the 1970s and beyond left the brilliant Storey marooned and, for some, almost untouchable. A kind of pariah.
If you get a chance, check out Saville, or A Temporary Life (with its hilarious take down of the narcissistic cul de sac of modern art). Storey’s genius – the didactic flow of the writing, the brutal sentences, the repetition for effect – has been adopted by other, later, northern writers: the late Gordon Burn, for example, or David Peace. You can even hear echoes of it in the poetry of Simon Armitage. It always struck more of a chord with me than did the McKewans and Amises and Swifts and Barnes’s, good though they undoubtedly are, in a very London sense. RIP and with much love and respect, David Storey.