David Storey, author of This Sporting Life, dies at 83

David Storey died on Sunday (March 26) at age 83.
David Storey died on Sunday (March 26) at age 83.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

LONDON (NYTIMES) - British writer David Storey, who drew on his experiences as a miner's son, a farmworker, an art student, a professional rugby player and a teacher to create novels and plays that won acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, died here on Sunday.

He was 83. A niece, Samantha Storey, said the cause was Parkinson's disease and related dementia.

Though David Storey struggled for recognition at first, he went on to win Britain's premier fiction award, the Man Booker Prize, in 1976 for his novel Saville, in which a miner's son breaks away from his background.

Two of his novels were shortlisted for the award. Three of his works were named best play by the New York Drama Critics' Circle, all within four years in the 1970s. He also earned two Tony nominations.

It was as a playwright that Storey was probably best known; his plays have been performed in some 60 countries. Yet it was as a novelist that he first gained notice, with This Sporting Life, published in 1960, which won the Somerset Maugham Fiction Award. A vividly told tale of a maverick miner turned rugby player, the novel was adapted for film in 1963, with a screenplay by Storey, and won Oscar nominations for its lead actors, Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts.

This Sporting Life was soon followed by two more novels notable for their bold characterisation and narrative energy: The Flight Into Camden, narrated by a miner's daughter who falls for a married teacher, and Radcliffe, about two unlikely childhood friends - one moody and intelligent, the other physically powerful - whose relationship takes a homosexual turn when they meet again as young men.

Radcliffe was shortlisted for the Booker prize, as was Storey's novel Pasmore, published in 1973, centred on a university lecturer whose comfortable life unravels.

By 1966, Storey was established enough for the Traverse Theater in Edinburgh to stage his play The Restoration Of Arnold Middleton, which he had written in a single weekend six years earlier, at a time when he was despairing of his novel-writing career. The tale of a troubled schoolteacher, it transferred to London, where Storey, who had seldom gone to the theatre, found himself acclaimed as a dramatist.

"The sheer exhilaration of seeing it come alive onstage prompted me to write another five plays in no time at all," he said. Two he threw out, but the others were staged in 1969 and 1970 at the Royal Court Theater in London.

The three plays - all directed by Lindsay Anderson, with whom Storey developed what he called "an almost mystical relationship" - were In Celebration, about the turbulent reunion of a miner's family scarred by the death of a son; The Contractor, in which wrangling workmen were seen first raising and then lowering a tent for a wedding reception; and Home, in which John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson portrayed elderly men precariously surviving in a mental institution. Storey said he had written Home in three days.

In Storey's stage world, characters were misfits, at odds with their roots, their environment, their work, their relationships, their inner selves. "All my plays ask for a more whole, grander view of life," he once said. "But there's always sadness at their endings."

The youngest of four sons, David Malcolm Storey was born in public housing in the Yorkshire town of Wakefield. Thanks to his father's determination that David not follow him into the coal mines, he was educated at a prestigious local grammar school and, it seemed, was destined to become a teacher.

But he appalled his parents by deciding that a safe, secure profession was not for him. He attended the local art school rather than a university, and then won a place at Slade. A career as a painter seemed likely. But to pay for art school, Storey, an athletic 18-year-old, signed a contract with the Leeds Rugby League club, which meant commuting between Yorkshire, where fellow players disdained him as "this artist swanning in for matches," he said, and London, where fellow students thought him "a bit of an oaf."

He was, he added, at home only on the train, and he used the journeys to write novels, if unsuccessfully at first. He had to wait until he was 26, married and working in assorted London schools as a teacher before This Sporting Life, his seventh novel, found a publisher. Though Storey's plays often reflected Britain's class tensions, they resonated with audiences around the world and with people of all classes.

Storey remembered Princess Margaret's coming backstage after a performance of In Celebration, a tale of emotional ferment in mining country, telling him that she had left behind a friend sitting alone and weeping. As the princess told it, an usher had asked the friend if the play had upset her. "It's just like the royal family," she sobbed.

Though he had his angry moments - he famously hit the critic Michael Billington in 1976 over a bad review - Storey was a mild, modest man who lived quietly in London with his wife, Barbara, whom he married in 1956. She died in 2015. He is survived by two daughters, Helen Storey, a professor of fashion science at the University of Arts/London College of Fashion, and Kate Storey, a biologist; two sons, Jake, a finance director, and Sean, who works in aerospace defense strategy; a brother, Anthony; and six grandchildren.