died December 7, 1991.
View from the rapids
NOTHING anybody wrote about Jack Trevor Story was ever
half as funny as the stuff Jack wrote about himself, and plenty of
journalists tried. Story’s very presence was enough to transmute
life into comedy. And, like breathing mist on to a window, his
characters came to life. Sometimes they even threatened to sue.
one thing you could safely predict about Story is that he would remain
broke all his life. A Guardian profile of him in 1970 said as much, and
there was never any danger that he would disprove it. Anyone who could
sell the sole rights in The Trouble With Harry to Alfred Hitchcock for
£150 was destined for the bread line. That was one of Story’s earlier
and better known novels.
title of another, also filmed, was Live Now Pay Later. It became a
catchphrase for a style of life, but it was always Jack’s personal
motto. When he was discharged from his second bankruptcy, he strode from
court beaming and saying: “Thank Christ I can get into debt again now.
I’m going to find myself one of these marvellous credit cards.”
the one-liners, and the publicity-grabbing statements designed to send
himself up as well as the whole celebrity industry, Story never
thought of himself as a funny man. He simply thought life was funny, and
that everyone around him was funny, even his loved ones; and the
loved one was apt to up sticks and leave after a year or two of being
parodied in print. Maggie, the character to whom Jack devoted his
Saturday column in the Guardian in the early seventies, had a huge
following of readers who assumed she was an invention. She wasn’t. She
was a sensible (and, it goes without saying where Jack was concerned)
bonny Scottish lass who finally protected her privacy by fleeing abroad.
column became an elegy for his lost love, and Maggie rang one day and
said her employers in Brussels were threatening to sue Story and the
Guardian for libel. I took the call and assured her, touching wood as I
did so, that there were no legal grounds. But after that I did begin to
wonder about intrusion into private grief.
Street mythology is that people get fired when they are on holiday. In
Jack Story’s case, he got fired while I
was on holiday: he was my signing and I was a fan as well as his
editor, so my immediate boss waited for me to be away before wielding
the axe, an act of butchery which, I never refrained from pointing out
to the culprit, brought an unprecedented shoal of letters from mortified
readers. Jack thought his executioner was right and I was wrong. But
he was still receiving letters about the column 20 years later.
Trevor Story started life is a butcher’s boy in Cambridge. He sold
his first story to John o’ London’s when he was working as an
electronics engineer with Marconi. Soon afterwards [about 10 years later
in fact - GL] he joined the Sexton
Blake Library and wrote 30 [20? - GL] pulp paperbacks. This taught him the quick
way into a narrative, an accomplishment he never lost. One of his later
stories starts: “Beryl had been with the firm for 15 years when the
elder partner asked her to take her knickers off.” The approach may
lack subtlety, but it wants for nothing in pace.
it was a wonderfully agile style: he shot the rapids of his own stream
of consciousness. He had an acute eye for the starched daintiness of
middle-class manners, like Orton but without the vicious streak. His own
models were George Orwell, the novelist rather than the essayist, and
William Saroyan and James Thurber. He had Fielding’s robust love of
life, but he often wrote of death, as though it were some kind of social
Keynes corporation found a farmhouse for him to live in when he became
Arts Council writer-in-residence in the late seventies. He never moved
out. There weren’t many places he could afford to move to; his 40
novels and hundreds of short stories brought him an annual income of
Sad really; but then Jack
Trevor Story never thought
Copyright © The Guardian 1991
Photo by Jane Bown, used by kind permission