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Jack Trevor Story,  born 1917, 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.

    The 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.

    The 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.”

    Despite 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 occasional 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.

    Jack’s 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.

    Fleet 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.

    Jack 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.

    And 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 gaffe.

    Milton 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 around £2,000.

Sad really; but then Jack Trevor Story never thought so.


Michael McNay

Copyright © The Guardian 1991                 

Photo by Jane Bown, used by kind permission

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