David Storey, a novelist, playwright and ‘such a nice man’
'I could always tell it was him from miles away – he wore the same overcoat every day, a sort of grey and dark herringbone tweed'
03 April, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Hunter Davies and Melvyn Bragg have paid tribute to David Storey
PLAYWRIGHT and author David Storey, who has died aged 83, had a reputation for gruffness – but friends say this was a misreading of his Yorkshireman’s approach to life.
The one-time rugby professional, whose plays and novels became landmarks in the mid-20th century canon, was a softly spoken, kind figure, fascinated by the arts as well as the sport he would draw on for inspiration.
He grew up in Leeds and came to live in London in the early 1950s when he studied at Slade School of Art.
After graduating he taught at a school in King’s Cross, and it was while working there he penned his best-known novel, This Sporting Life, in 1960. It was partly based on his own experiences as a professional rugby player in Leeds in the early 1950s.
He adapted it into a hit film, starring Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts, in 1963. He would then write a novel, Flight into Camden (1961), before becoming known for a series of plays in the 1960s and 1970s, produced at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square. He would win the Booker Prize in 1976 for his novel Saville, which told of a Yorkshire childhood.
He lived for more than three decades in Willes Road, Kentish Town, where he was a familiar figure.
Dartmouth Park based writer Hunter Davies was a friend and the pair would meet while strolling across Hampstead Heath.
He said: “For about 10 years, I used to meet David on the Heath every winter. Around once a week, our times and paths overlapped, and we would walk together to Kenwood, have coffee, then walk back.
“I could always tell it was him from miles away – he wore the same overcoat every day, a sort of grey and dark herringbone tweed. And you could also recognise him from his slouch and his muscular upper body which got more hunched over the years. We had the North in common, and love of sport, and used to talk about that – and of course books, rubbishing agents and publishers. Then there was also our families – some of them went to same local schools as my children”
Mr Davies added: “He was a bit gruff, grunty, non-committal, dour even, but when he smiled, usually stopping and staring at me – then his whole face lit up. Then we would walk on.”
Broadcaster Melvyn Bragg recalled spending time strolling across Hampstead Heath in conversation with the playwright.
“I first met him in the 1960s – we would often bump into each other,” he said. “We were friends – we were both from the north, we had similar working-class backgrounds, both writers and so we had plenty in common and always got on very well.”
Mr Bragg said the novels and plays captured a particular period of post-war British history but their strengths were such that they continued to be relevant today.
“He has a secure place in both fiction and theatre,” he added. “Work goes in and out of fashion but he is a very fine and very important writer. He was always sure of what he wanted to do. He received great help from the Royal Court Theatre – Lindsay Anderson helped him realise his ideas.”
His work was among the best of the late 1950s, when kitchen sink dramas were fashionable, and the 1960s, when provincial and working-class voices were given platforms.
“He was one of the many radical playwrights of the time, so he was not isolated,” Mr Bragg said. “He was one of a number of very talented British writers of the period.”
In later years, he wrote poetry and would also return to art, with a critically acclaimed exhibition hosted in 2016 at the Hepworth Gallery in Yorkshire.
Despite a sometimes gruff reputation – he reportedly once confronted critics who had given him a poor review, striking Guardian theatre writer Michael Billington and calling him an idiot – his approach to life was gentle.
“Above all, he was such a nice man,” Mr Bragg said. “I would see him on the Heath or at a café in South End Green and I will remember him with great affection, talking gently as he walked. He was an excellent conversationalist.”
His wife, Barbara, died in 2015. He is survived by two sons and two daughters.