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A Stinging Delight: Memoir of misery with moments of joy

David Storey addresses book to twin who died in womb and maps toll it took on his life

A Stinging Delight
A Stinging Delight
Author: David Storey
ISBN-13: 978-0571360314
Publisher: Faber
Guideline Price: £20

“Death”, wrote Saul Bellow, “is the dark backing a mirror needs before we can see anything.” For the English novelist and playwright David Storey, death wasn’t just the mirror’s backing but the mirror itself, as well as the windows, the curtains, the wallpaper and cushion covers. I can’t necessarily recommend his memoir, which he hesitated to publish during his profoundly troubled life. But I will certainly never forget it.

The book takes the form of a message addressed to his older brother, who died when Storey was still in the womb, a cataclysm that the author believes left him “constitutionally damaged”. His mother was traumatised, despairing and, through the womb wall, he believes, he was permanently altered. “My life had been spent,” he says, “at the centre of this process, placed there at the biological moment when the central nervous system had come on tap. I ‘became’ death the moment I ‘entered’ life, the one registering as the other.”

As a baby he never cried, but from the age of three or four he would wake up with a sense of immeasurable terror and loss. It felt, every morning, as though someone had died – only when he counted the family up he found, like John Berryman, that no one was ever missing. His father would go down the Wakefield pit, which he simply called “hell”, and return to slump barely conscious in his chair.

Moral tyrant

His mother was the household’s moral tyrant. When the constitutionally anxious David soiled himself as a child, she found the underwear and, rubbed his shit into his eyes and mouth, holding his face up to the mirror as she screamed, “Smell it!”


“It was”, writes Storey, “the only embrace from her that I recall.”

He was a profoundly gifted man, but his talents feature lightly. It’s something of a surprise when, as though on a whim, he becomes a professional rugby player. “I would begin the three-bus journey to the Headingley ground in much the same manner as a man might go to meet his executioner or a corpse be cajoled up from the ground.”

At the Slade School of Art, he wins the prestigious Prix de Rome. The success only plunges him into a more profound despair, just as every subsequent escape seems to deliver him into the heart of a deeper exile. It’s a pattern that would repeat throughout his life, the man and his reputation rotating like diurnally opposed stars, one plummeting lower as the other soared upwards.

His first novel, A Sporting Life, is an immense success. When he turns his hand to playwriting he is swiftly declared the voice of his generation. His depression only worsens. After he wins the Booker Prize for Saville, he is plunged into an unremitting bout of misery, barely able to move from his bed, shaking, trembling, feeling at every moment as though he has just been pushed from a cliff.

Spectacular eloquence

This certainly isn’t a misery memoir, but it is a memoir of misery. Storey’s light touch with characterisation and occasional, spectacular eloquence make it a mellifluous, if nothing like a pleasant, read. It is also a tale he has told himself many times. A Stinging Delight is strong on stinging, a little weaker on delight. Its author lived like a man tied naked in a ditch of nettles while someone shovelled dirt over his face, his life seeming at times to be little more than a half-century-long waterboarding.

And what of his older brother, the ghostly figure to whom Storey feels inevitably bound? As the book progresses, he becomes an ever more abstract figure. At times, the reader forgets him for whole passages, only to be reminded by a sudden passage of direct address that he never leaves Storey’s mind. But it’s not clear that his brother’s death can account for his older brother’s lifelong campaign of harassment towards him. Storey writes this off as an expression of displacement – when he was born, his living brother was sent away for four weeks to live with an aunt.

It’s not, in truth, an entirely convincing explanation. Storey’s attitude to his family is characterised by a urge to forgive at all costs, to send money and support them, despite their evident disdain for his chosen life. Whether his mother was really only the means of transmission – her womb simply the membrane through which death passed into life – seems uncertain to me. What’s certainly true of the absent brother is that, being dead, he did not need to be forgiven. He could, by his ghostly presence, explain everything.

I returned after the book to a passage Storey quotes from his novel Pasmore, about depression: “It was merely an absence and somewhere, at its centre he hung there, in torment.”