In which The Author revisits the
life and career of Jack Trevor Story
(First published on Aberdare Online, 16 January 2007)
At about four this morning, blasted from a codeine-induced dream by a madman in a car whose radio was louder than the static-bound one I’m listening to now, I picked up a book from the bedside cabinet. It was Jack on the Box by Jack Trevor Story.
I first came across that name when I was in school in the early 1980s. Savoy Books, the maverick Manchester publishing house, had reissued some of his novels, along with new Science Fiction by Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison.
At that time I was only interested in the SF, so it was several years later that I started reading Jack’s weekly column in The Guardian. Rambling, witty, opinionated, melancholy (but never self-pitying) and laced with an acerbic wit, his columns – along with the cryptic crossword, of course – soon became the highlight of a Saturday morning.
The radio’s packed up altogether now, so in keeping with Jack’s own interests I’ve put some jazz on the stereo (although he was more of a trad man than a bebop fan).
By then his books were out of print (all of them!) but I was lucky enough to find some Savoy editions over the years. Jack’s books had suffered the worst fate of all – remaindered by the publisher, they had been shipped out to bargain shops and reduced to marginally less than the original cover price. I remember buying two in Gloucester, one in Cardiff, and the fourth at the second-hand stall in Pontypridd Market. I was so amazed at finding it there that I felt guilty about paying the asking price and not offering the guy more.
Jack wrote literally dozens of books under his own name, ‘uncountable short stories’ (according to a tribute website I found this morning), TV plays, columns, and two of his novels were adapted into films (notably Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry). In the late 1970s, ATV gave him his own television show. He seems to have had quite a high profile at that time. Looking through Jack on the Box you get another side of the story (no pun intended) entirely.
Jack Trevor Story was a drinker, a father, a family man (according to the biography in one of his Savoy reprints he ‘was married twice and … had at least eight children’), a lover of women, a musician, a prodigious talent and a true British eccentric. In spite of his phenomenal output he lived from day to day in a flat in Hampstead because it was cheap, amongst his fellow Bohemian spirits (before Hampstead became home to the likes of Jude Law and Oasis), fending off the taxman and listening to his old jazz records while waiting for his publisher to call.
The publisher’s biog at the front of The Urban District Lover says, ‘His articles and short stories have appeared in Punch, The Listener, The Sunday Times, Men Only, Knave, The Times and The Guardian‘ – what a spectrum of opinion.
In retrospect, Jack reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s marvellous writer/philosopher Kilgore Trout. Trout’s stories only ever got published as padding in porn magazines, obliging their author to trawl the drugstores and seedy bookstores of small-town America in order to collect his own published work.
Jack’s Albert Argyle trilogy (Live Now, Pay Later, Something for Nothing, and The Urban District Lover – all reissued by Savoy Books, 1980) are snapshots of life in the 1960s, not in Swinging London, but in decidedly unswinging small town England.
Stuck in a dying industrial town somewhere along the A5, Jack’s self-deluding hero scams and shags his way through the trilogy, bringing into being children and problems in equal measure, somehow convinced that he’ll make it rich one day. Aided and abetted by a cast of chancers, spivs and crooks, and stymied at every turn by the movers and shakers who run the town from the golf club and the masonic hall, Albert is more in tune with Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones than with the laboured class satires of Tom Sharpe. Taking in the trends of the day (HP, trading stamps, the new freedoms of the times) Jack’s social comment is a valuable piece of social history. If you like the cult UK films of the mid-to-late 1960s, you’ll probably enjoy Jack’s books.
Reading Jack on the Box, one gets a flashback to a different world of publishing. At one point he writes: ‘I have published with Allison & Busby, Macmillans [sic], Secker and Warburg, George Harrap, W. H. Allen, Penguin’ – a roll-call of distinguished British publishers, all but one of which have now been subsumed by the multinationals. Like his kindred spirit, the late Jeffrey Bernard, Jack was a throwback to the days when people became writers by accident, not after taking a degree in Creative Writing somewhere.
Those were days when one’s publisher would call round for tea and discuss the latest (invariably ‘work in progress’) novel. In those days the bookshops resonated with the names of James Hadley Chase, Dennis Wheatley, Barbara Cartland, Mills and Boon. They’re a throwback to innocent days when publishing was a game carried out by gentlemen, deadlines were flexible (at worst) or non-existent (at best), and most booksellers were well-meaning amateurs.
I like the story Roger Bayliss, a freelance publishers’ rep and a good friend of mine for many years, once told me.
A Scottish teacher took early retirement and sank his life savings into a bookshop in a goddessforsaken town on the east coast. A dozen times a week reps would turn up and sell him five copies of the latest pap from their burgeoning lists. Eventually his shop was fit to burst with unsold stock.
At this point, our hero received an invitation to a Booksellers Association conference in Glasgow. On the day he closed the shop and drove all the way there, hoping more for moral support than any practical help. He sat through turgid meetings and presentations (as one does at these things) until a chap from Collins Distributors, down the road in Bishopbriggs, came on to give a talk about the supply chain. At one point, the speaker mentioned the high level of ‘returns’ they were experiencing from certain chains.
Our hero nudged the woman next to him and said in disbelief, ‘Does this wee fellow mean to say you can send them back?’
Jack was a victim of corporatism, the disease that has robbed British literature of original voices. It’s filled the shelves with talentless ‘authors’ who now try to write their derivative tales of Hampstead realism (no names, no pack drill – you know who you are, Nick Hornby!), paid for with five- or six- figure advances, just waiting for the returns men to visit them when they least expect it, like the Grim Reaper armed with a signed authorisation note instead of a scythe.
Michael Moorcock, his long-time friend, fellow contributor to the Sexton Blake Library, and now literary executor, occasionally awards the Jack Trevor Story Prize. It works like this:
The rules vary. They are fairly arbitrary. Sometimes it’s a fair selection made from a number of writers. Sometimes it’s to a writer who could do with the dosh (but is funny). Sometimes it depends on the size of the bribe offered to the committee. Which, sometimes, is just me. This year it will be a bit of all of the above …
When the prize was first awarded it was scrupulously fair. But, as in the course of all such prizes, it is now totally corrupt.
It is generally awarded for a work of fiction or body of work which, in the opinion of the committee, best celebrates the spirit of Jack Trevor Story. The conditions of the prize are that the money shall be spent in a week to a fortnight and the author have nothing to show for it at the end of that time. This is to recall Mr Story’s famous reply to the bankruptcy judge who enquired where a substantial sum of money paid to him for film rights had gone — ‘You know how it is, judge. Two hundred or two thousand, it always lasts a week to a fortnight.’
Jack Trevor Story died in December 1991, at the age of 74. He lived too early to benefit from the Internet. It would have enabled him to sell his books direct to his fans. I wonder what he would made of the new technology.
I quite like the idea of Jack sitting at his reluctantly-purchased (or more likely borrowed) computer, typing his random jottings to an unknown audience of one or ten or a thousand readers. In an odd but satisfying way, sitting at my PC and doing just that, I feel as though I’m keeping Jack’s spirit alive …
STORY, J. T. (1980) Jack on the Box. Manchester: Savoy Books.