This Sporting Life

This Sporting Life, 1963, Cinéma de rien

This Sporting Life

Bill Hartley recalls a once vibrant sub-culture

The death last year of author and playwright David Storey saw one of the last ‘Angry Young Men’ leave the stage. Storey was born in Wakefield in 1933 and may have been among the first beneficiaries of the 1944 Education Act, arguably one of the few pieces of government legislation that really did change the lives of working class people for the better. It took Storey, a miner’s son from a Wakefield council estate on to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School and then to the Slade School of Fine Art. As a consequence, Storey was an author who could do a cover illustration for his work as in his 1976 novel Saville, an edition of which carried an abstract but still recognisable view of his home town. Rather unusually, Storey funded his time as a student by playing Rugby League. It is perhaps an indication of how reasonable railway fares were back in the early fifties that Storey could travel from London to Leeds to play rugby and still be in pocket. It must have also taken some nerve, an art student now living ‘down south’ getting changed for a game in a dressing room full of coal miners.

Actually Storey belonged to a narrower group of writers which would include his near neighbours so to speak, John Braine (Room at The Top) and Stan Barstow (A Kind of Loving). These writers were literally and figuratively close to each other and class is a pervasive theme in their work. Arguably it is all ancient history now since class distinctions have changed so much. There are no longer the mysterious codes of etiquette and behaviour that JB Priestley wrote about when he created his northern town of Bruddersford.

An interesting difference though between Storey and his fellow local authors was that their heroes were men struggling to develop and get beyond the class structure which circumscribed their lives. Braine’s Joe Lambton is a ruthless operator who will do whatever it takes to get on. Even Barstow’s ex grammar school boy Vic Brown, a much gentler character, looks down pityingly on a former classmate who has failed to progress and is now on the shop floor of the engineering works, in this case quite literally since Vic is in shirt and tie upstairs in the drawing office. Storey’s characters, in contrast, are often misfits and none more so than Machin in This Sporting Life

The book has been described by one critic as ‘the finest novel about professional sport written by a professional sportsman’. It was filmed and directed by Lindsay Anderson, the start of a long collaboration between the two men. There is a memorable opening scene in which Machin, played by Richard Harris, loses his front teeth as a result of foul play. Storey recalled that it was based on an actual incident when he hesitated going for a loose ball causing a team mate to intercede and sacrifice his teeth as a consequence. The shame never seems to have left the author. Later the semi concussed Machin is treated by an unsympathetic dentist. Those who know their Wakefield of the 60s will recognise a school dentist who took referrals from a local rugby club. Indeed. a number of other thinly disguised portraits of local people appear in Storey’s work. A personal favourite is the principal of a local technical college, a former army officer, who viewed catching his staff in conversation with each other as idleness at best and possibly mutiny. He would break up such gatherings sarcastically commenting: ‘what’s all this a mothers’ meeting?’

This local flavour is also reflected in one of his best known plays The Contractor (1970) first performed at the Royal Court Theatre and directed by Lindsay Anderson. It is a play notable as one critic put it for ‘testing the boundaries of theatre’. In it a group of men erect and dismantle a marquee being used for a wedding. Those with local knowledge will recall a certain contract hire marquee firm which used to operate in Wakefield. Theatre critics may not have been the best people to appreciate a significant line in the play. The Contractor remarks that he ‘employs miners with shot lungs and fitters with missing fingers’. In a nutshell this describes the two major sources of work in the Wakefield district at the time, mining and the engineering trades which supported the industry. It also tells us what happens to men who can no longer work in these jobs. They are reduced to cheap labour for the Contractor. It certainly reflects the harsh attitude which prevailed in a city where a fatal accident at work was an ever present risk for many men.

Whilst some of Storey’s characters may be considered misfits the class divide isn’t ignored in his work. There is a scene in Saville where the son brings home a ‘posh’ friend from the grammar school causing his father, a miner, to feel uncomfortable in his own home. It makes one wonder if Storey whilst a pupil at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School had unwittingly done the same thing himself. There is plenty of the same to be found in This Sporting Life as the brooding but athletically gifted Machin earns his place in the team. As one critic remarked, Storey was the only author ‘who knew what it was like to be raked and stamped on by opponents and then patronised over drinks by the chairman in the boardroom’.

Another of Storey’s plays which attracted considerable critical attention was The Changing Room (1971). This award winning three act drama took him back to the world of Rugby League, which he used to sketch out the hopes and fears of a group of semi-professional players. These are men who toil in a variety of mundane jobs during the week but on Saturdays switch to onfield combat. The action takes place before kick-off, at half time and when the game is over. Critics who saw the 1996 revival noted how much the play had begun to date and indeed those who saw it first time round commented on how it reflected a fast vanishing culture built around a group of men and their commitment to the team.

Even in his own lifetime then, Storey’s works were becoming period pieces. The world he knew so well was vanishing rapidly. Wakefield is no longer the centre of a coalfield and Rugby League at least at the highest level is now a game played by full time professionals with ample opportunities to train, rather than by manual workers fitting it in around the day job. His work may be of its time and harder then for some modern readers to appreciate. For those interested in social history though, Storey’s work provides plenty.

BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire

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