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JACK TREVOR STORY was a writer more often in the news for his complicated private life than for the books he wrote. His books (even his Sexton Blake detective stories) were idiosyncratic enough; his lifestyle thumpingly so. There can have been, surely, few popular writers (as a breed a fairly conservative bunch) who at one time shared a council house with both wife and, for want of a better word, mistress, all three having signed a contract setting out future nocturnal arrangements by rota, the fruits of both unions squashed up in the remaining bedrooms.

Story cheerfully thumbed his nose at the conventions and, like all genuine naifs, was always mildly puzzled when things as they had a habit of doing -- got out of hand. His invariable response to a trying domestic situation was to flee, usually in the direction of someone younger, in some cases preposterously younger.

He seemed to spend his life fleeing from wives, not-quite-wives, responsibilities, tax inspec­tors and never quite making it (his first wife Evelyn was still doing his washing 20-odd years after he had left her). He certainly never escaped the Inland Revenue, who were the cause of his two famous bankruptcies. But those were perhaps acts of revenge on the Revenue’s part at his incorrigibility. Over the years Story’s books rarely made money (once he received a royalty cheque for 72p), as he was always very careful, at least in the public prints, to point out. But he was even more circumspect about his earnings from films and television series, rarely mentioning the rather large sums that went spectacularly astray during the good years of the late Fifties and Sixties (like the £9,000 that ran through his im­provident fingers in New York in 1968). Perhaps most of Story’s troubles could be placed at Alfred Hitchcock’s door. Hitchcock bought the film rights to his first book, The Trouble With Harry (1949, a black comedy about trying to dispose of an unwanted corpse) for £100 and then dealt them on to Paramount for over $20,000, of which Story received not a cent. A shock to the psyche like that is enough to destroy the financial sensibilities of a saint.

He was always a writer, his first published work appearing in Electronics and Instrumentation, because after an assortment of jobs (butcher’s boy, clerk, lathe operator: a period richly evoked in his autobiographical novel Hitler Needs You, 1970) he had joined Marconi Instruments, becoming an electronics designer, later head of special products, later still editor of their house journal. He could still spout convincingly about conductivity calibration and silver/silver/chloride-calomel cell chains 30 years later.

While at Marconi’s, and chiefly inspired by the American writer William Saroyan (about whom he could get mildly tedious unless gagged), he began selling neatly-turned short-shorts. He wrote Protection For a Lady (1951), a gangster-and-jazz novel whose only merit was that it did not read like Peter Cheyney, and Green To Pa­gan Street (1952), a not too sentimental East End slice-of-life. Going freelance on the strength of these he discovered that proper novelists do not make an awful lot of money, and began hammering out pulp Westerns Pinetop Jones: Fugitive, Blood Feud, South of Arroyo, etc under the name “Bret Harding”, urged on by his then “wife” Ross Woods who also wrote Westerns, only better.

By the mid-1950s he had two families to support (Evelyn plus five children, Ross plus three) and writing short stories, scripting newspaper strips, and becoming the editor of a magazine the month before the owner went bankrupt, hardly covered the rent for one (the menage a trois had by now bifurcated). His fortunes revived when he began a six-year association with the Sexton Blake Library during which he wrote 20 excellent Blakes and found his style (a distinctive blend of black farce and comic paranoia).

At the same time he wrote successful films for Anna Neagle and Herbert Wilcox (Those Dangerous Years, 1957, Heart of a Man, 1959, Wonderful Things), scripts for a multitude of television series (including No Hiding Place, Dixon, Danger Man and Budgie), as well as what some consider his finest comic novels, the Albert Argyle trilogy: Live Now Pay Later (1963), Something For Nothing (1963) and The Urban District Lover (1964).

Went the day well? Due to his extraordinary capacity for self-sabotage, by no means. He was a libidinous and charming man, and quite often events un­rolled as they did (disastrously) simply because he fancied an af­ternoon with the curtains closed. Film offers began to dry up and his television ideas, never conven­tional, became wilder and more unusable; on the domestic front plate-throwing was a not uncommon occurrence.

In a sense the best of times was the period (late Sixties/early Seventies) when he inhabited a room overlooking Hampstead Heath with a poodle (legacy of his ex­girlfriend Jan, who had sensibly escaped to the Channel Islands) and Maggie (30 years his junior), writing a hilarious weekly column for The Guardian detailing their life together on the edge of catas­trophe. When Maggie left him, readers breathlessly tuned in each Saturday to his state of mind, groaning at his failures, cheering when he met Elaine (40 years his junior; later, for a time, his sec­ond, legal, wife). The books-of-the-column, Letters To An Intimate Stranger (1972) and Jack On The Box (1979), are among his most entertaining.

He briefly flirted with the New Wave in British science fiction (pessimism and apocalypse) and propagandists for the genre such as Mike Moorcock (erstwhile sub­editor on the Sexton Blake Library) hailed him as a kindred spirit. But Story’s comedy had already taken on a bleaker tinge after a night in December 1968 when he was dragged into Notting Hill police station for a breathalyser test, emerging the next morning on crutches.

This traumatic experience was duly recycled into his fiction, for all Story’s novels were autobio­graphical in the sense that they were like a tracing of his life done with an unsteady hand. Nearly everything that befell his narrators (chronic debt, film-scripting, wives, girls, living on a caravan site) had happened, more or less, to him though friends’ activities could sometimes spark off a useful idea.

A little comic masterpiece was The Money Goes Round and Round (1958), a fictionalised account of how a fellow pulp writer tried to smuggle into England a fortune in thousand-peseta notes in the wheels of his car.

He became a public figure a consulting bankrupt, ever to be relied on for a quote calculated to enrage the prodnoses; the bloke to ring if you wanted a good, self-mocking line on the trials and tribulations of leading a double life. A hankerer after young girls (his record was probably though who knows? an age-gap of 50 years between him and consenting partner), his fame inevitably rubbed off on his various consorts, rarely to their disadvantage (though one or two seemed later to forget they had taken Story on with their eyes firmly open).

Jack Trevor Story was a maverick in a greying world. He was also this has to be admitted often utterly irresponsible, at any rate where dependants were concerned. Yet most in the end family, friends, ex-inamoratas, editors, producers (though probably not the Revenue) forgave him his sins.

His later work was increasingly fantastic, bizarre, off the wall. Up River, which dealt hilariously with a KGB experiment causing a plague of permanent erections in the West, actually got published. A novel concerning Frank Harris in cahoots with the Dutch Bulb Growers’ Association in a plot to unseat the Kaiser did not. Alas.

It would be foolish to exaggerate his literary status. Many loathed his books. Yet there are those who judged him to be, at his best and with all cylinders firing, one of the most inventive comic writers Britain has produced.

  Jack Adrian

  Jack Trevor Story; writer, born 1917, died Milton Keynes 5 December 1991.

Copyright © the Independent 1991