Families who rose by escaping the mines…

DAVID Storey and his brother were said to have been told by their Yorkshire miner father: “I’ve spent half my life making sure none of you went down that pit.”

This story about Storey was included in his obituaries, and it set me thinking. Storey did not follow his father down the pit, but instead became an artist, novelist, playwright and poet, therefore putting himself as far away as possible from the dusty maw of the pit where his father had worked.

For some years, he lived a life that was neither here nor there, studying art at the Slade in London and travelling back to Yorkshire to play rugby league for Leeds, a sporting profession that funded his artistic one. The experience was said to have made him feel an outsider in both locations. As the Daily Telegraph obituary wrote: “His northern rugby team makes regarded him as a ‘poof’ – while his classmates at the Slade thought him an uncultured northern oaf. The only time he felt free was on the train, where he began to write.”

He used his sense of alienation in a series of novels, of which the seventh – the book that made his name – was This Sporting Life.

Although I read this in the obituaries, I knew the story anyway, as it was told to me last year by his daughters.

At the time Storey, who has died aged 83, was in a sense bringing his life full circle: he had started out as an artist and, after a life spent writing, was returning to art with an exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield, where he was born and where he attended the local grammar school. Or, rather, his art was returning but he did not.

Storey wasn’t well enough to travel at and the exhibition was launched by his daughters, who came in his place. The Yorkshire Post asked me, as super short notice, if I was free to do the interview. I was and did – and it proved to be a happy experience.

If Storey’s father had wanted to make sure his sons did not follow him down the pit, what happened to that family seems to illustrate how quickly families could rise through the classes when starting in the 1950s and 1960s.

David Storey had a life entirely different to that of his father, even if the hard graft of Storey Snr stayed with him: his father was angry that he went to Wakefield Art College instead of university, and refused to pay the fees. This left Storey with a furious work ethic: “He never got over the guilt he felt as disappointing his father,” again according to the Telegraph. “At the height of his powers as a writer, he would work eight-hour shifts, seven days a week, 365 days a year, retaining only a small fraction of his output for publication.”

Two generations on from their miner grandfather, Storey’s daughters have continued the rise: Helen Storey is the fashion designer turned professor of fashion; and Kate Storey is a professor of developmental biology. Both are pin-sharp lovely women and it was a pleasure meeting them.

I wonder what the modern equivalent of the pit might be. Perhaps it is the call centre or something. The trouble with awful modern jobs is that they are likely to be boring, insecure and demeaning; but they are not likely to be as physically awful as working down a pit.

This made me wonder whether the impetus to improve that fired up David Storey’s miner father continues today. Do parents say: “I’m not having you going to that call centre – it’s hell down there.” Probably not but perhaps they should.

Incidentally, growing up ordinary in the unremarkable middle classes is perhaps not much of a social propellant. In fact, I am less well off than my father, who retired as a lecturer 20 odd years ago, although I have recently taken up a spot of lecturing, so there is a sort of family circularity there.

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