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Appreciation: Jack Trevor Story

Life on the instalment plan

“You’re an arsehole, Brian!” — Jack Trevor Story’s final words on the phone to me five days before he died, sitting at his typewriter. The previous week I had visited the Milton Keynes farmhouse to do a concluding interview for a biography, finding Story (obituary, December 9) cheerful and keen-minded, despite a recent headlong fall downstairs (he showed me the blood). Face to face he was always warm and helpful, but he hated being treated as an eccentric, an isolated old has-been.

    We had begun corresponding in the late seventies, after discovering that we were both William Saroyan fans. Most writers seem to hate letter writing but Jack’s letters came in torrents; I have drawers stuffed with them. It was intimidating until I realised there was no need to respond to specifics; next time, be would be on to other things.

    Early In 1990 he suggested I write a biography — odd since he wrote his own life in instalments. But his imagination was too strong and his method too undisciplined to allow him to write the relatively conventional book that would at last unravel the bewildering complexity of his life — all those wives, women and children. We began to do interviews, and he was able to talk through the phases and episodes with minimal digression.

    There was a big gap last winter during his period of “lunacy”. He spent several weeks in a psychiatric ward and for ages afterwards was severely depressed. The condition was cured, strange to say, by the painful experience of a kidney stone. He emerged from hospital this time mentally a new man. Soon afterwards he had a badly-needed hernia operation and became more mobile. He resumed writing, beginning a new autobiographical fantasy work and sending me what appeared to be random chapters. The lunacy hadn’t affected his inimitable style.

    Jack Trevor Story had a reputation as a womaniser but was at pains to stress that in reality he was a romantic through and through. I don’t believe sex was his favourite pastime. “Only men who can’t do it have large families,” he was fond of saying. In his day be had earned large sums but he always seemed to be short; even so, he occasionally bought me a drink. He saw himself as a writer in the classic tradition, but his paranoid self got the better of his desire to be taken seriously. That side of his character he concealed from me when we were together, though I often felt it in his letters (which I still expect the postman to bring) and occasionally on the phone.

He was probably right to call me an arsehole; I stupidly replied in kind, by letter. I am thankful I followed it with another in which I managed to say how much I admired his brave stand against old age, infirmity, isolation, loneliness, carers, literary oblivion, and death itself.

Brian Darwent

Copyright © The Guardian 1991

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