Friday, 3 September 2010

Romantic Egotist: An Unauthorised Biography of Jack Trevor Story - Brian Darwent

It is difficult to know where to start with this book. I read it because of my love of Story’s work, but I have to say I found the experience to be loathsome. On a very basic level, the book is badly written. The style is pedestrian. It rambles and, as a result, it confuses. It hasn’t even been properly proofed as spelling mistakes and typographical errors abound. As a biography it fails on a basic level. It cites no sources and seems to contain nothing that could not be gleaned from Story’s fiction (always a dubious prospect for whilst Story was known to mine his own life extensively for material, it was fiction he was writing).

Whilst we are offered a vaguely chronological amble through Story’s life, it is not placed in any but the narrowest social context. Rather like placing something on its own in a display case. Having no idea of how usual or unusual were Story’s circumstances in his early life, for example, it ends up being presented as something of a freak show. A person’s formative years are important to an understanding of their life, especially if their life is considered worth documenting. Without that background, without that context, we are adrift from the very beginning.

And this continues. Jack Trevor Story was a writer. Yet much of the work is glossed over as if the author of the biography didn’t want to talk about the books and other writings beyond mentioning that they were written at a certain time. To me this rather misses the point, particularly as some of Story’s work is now difficult to get hold of. Even a dedicated collector like me has only a fraction of his output. And where the work is mentioned, I could not shake the feeling that it was being sneered at.

This was a missed opportunity on a grand scale. Jack Trevor Story was a complex man whose life was equally complex, not to say complicated. He was certainly a highly talented, not to say unique writer - a man who never let his work settle into a rut. One would think that the point of a biography would be to try to unravel the complexity and explore the writer’s life and his work. In the end, however, we are left with the impression the author gave up trying, that it was all too much like hard work, that he expected Story to dictate his life to him in a coherent fashion. Story certainly wasn’t happy with what he saw of it. Neither was I.

Story’s life and work is fascinating, as is the milieu in which he worked. The opportunity is there to explore how publishing worked for the jobbing writer in the ‘50s and ‘60s and beyond; how the television and film industry treated writers (and still does); how someone managed to keep writing and producing fresh material despite (and because of) the events in his life. The opportunity is also there to place Jack Trevor Story where he firmly belongs in the top rank of writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Sadly, all that has been wasted.

If you want to know about Jack Trevor Story, do not seek out this book. It would be a waste of effort and money. Seek out Jack Trevor Story’s books instead. There you will find writing of rare talent that outshines much of what passes for literature today; that is genuinely comic; and which reflects the chaos that is modern life.