Throughout his memoir, A Stinging Delight, David Storey wrangles with a sense of loss that was hardwired into him before he was born.
It’s safe to say that this is not a conventional autobiography by the late Wakefield-born playwright, painter, Booker Prize-winning novelist, teacher, bus conductor and Leeds Rugby League Club player, or, as he has it, “a father, a lover – a bum”.
Rather than an exhaustive recall of a life, this memoir sets out to delineate the motor behind Storey’s art: the death of his eldest brother, aged six, from breathing difficulties following a chest operation. The tragedy occurred when Storey was just a three-month-old foetus and he believes that the event caused his mother’s grief to flood his developing constitution, imbuing him with a crippling mental illness. This is why he awakes every morning stricken with a terrifying sense of loss. But the damage proves to be a “deathly gift”. This “prison” fires his creativity and suffuses his work with loss: “In This Sporting Life Arthur Machin loses Mrs Hammond; in Flight into Camden, the heroine, Margaret Thorpe, loses her love; in Radcliffe, everyone loses everything.”
The events recounted in Storey’s memoir loop back, overtly and obliquely, to his brother’s death. Throughout his autobiography, Storey moves around the death and its impact on him, eyeing it and adjusting his descriptions. It’s a “canopy of terror”, “a black, implacable cargo”, and an “unspecified grieving”, wringing more nuance from it as the narrative unfolds.
The images and events that make the cut work hard. On his way back from a camping trip with the Scouts in the North Yorkshire Moors, Storey witnesses a dead boy in the road following a traffic accident. The boy’s parents, mad with grief, sit beside him. The grisly sight features, perhaps, because it mirrors the senselessness of Storey’s brother’s death, Storey’s parents’ grief, and it might also give an insight into the darkness that Storey harbours. The mother’s screams are akin to what was fed into Storey’s nervous system while he was in the womb.
Meanwhile, Storey imagines his brother as an outsider and the characters he meets and creates are also outsiders, including his grammar school teachers, the rugby trainer at Leeds, Storey’s chaotic friend and fellow playwright David Mercer, also raised in Wakefield, and the flasher and the abattoir worker whom Storey encounters when he’s working the Wakefield to Leeds bus route. It’s another thread quietly stitching the memoir together, telling us, with a light touch, how Storey has absorbed the “vividness” of his brother and how he’s colouring this telling of Storey’s life.
The rigour and artfulness of A Stinging Delight is striking. The moments that echo each other, back and forth across its pages, are part of this. The rude verse written by a 13-year-old Storey, which his father is endearingly mortified by, anticipates the publishers who later tell him that his work is too obscene to publish. And Storey shoots films in the manner he which he earlier teaches in rough East End schools – “invigorating, unformalised, instinctive”.
As Storey’s career flourishes and he scouts for locations in Wakefield for the film of his novel This Sporting Life, his parents’ lives wind down. And the tent firm he works for in Yorkshire where he pitches marquees is later contracted to make the set for another of his plays at the Royal Court. “Why don’t you fuck off?” the foreman tells Storey when he tries to give him instructions.
Which brings us to the gaze that Storey settles on things. It’s unstintingly objective and wry. When on the telephone to his elder brother, he quietly hangs up when his sibling repeatedly shouts “You’re nuts!”. When his tutor at the Slade School of Art compares his work, after much thought, to “excrement”, there’s no aside from Storey. But his amusement fizzes between the lines. He undercuts every accolade and humour is never far away.
Storey turns this playful, non-partisan eye on the art world he enters after he leaves the incarceration of Wakefield School of Art for the Slade, London and beyond. It’s rollicking fun. The eccentricities of Albert Finney, Ralph Richardson and Lucian Freud are all served up, while intoxicating asides include Storey mulling theatre’s magic and also the genesis of his play The Changing Room. His art, novels, plays, films, paintings and drawings (works from The Hepworth Wakefield’s 2016 exhibition A Tender Tumult open each section of the book) are a distraction from, a panacea for, and the result of the anxiety and depression that Storey is sure his mother passed on to him when his brother died.
In Saville, his 1976 Booker Prize-winning novel, a mother and her baby, born shortly after his brother dies, is described thus: “It was as if her grief had come out of her and was now lying there, to hold.” His brother’s death put Storey in a circle of hell, both horrifying to discover and to read about. “Hell, I was discovering, had no optimum condition. The unimaginable is realised and precedes the unimaginable again.”
But his art sprung from that hell, and unremittingly so. And so we have A Stinging Delight, and the world is the richer for it.
A Stinging Delight is published by Faber & Faber and available to buy from June 3, 2021.