Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976. In such a vast novel it is inevitable that the pace will occasionally quicken and slacken, but a book like this can be read over weeks, almost dipped into as the passing phases of Colin’s life unfold. David Story was born in Wakefield, and so was I. It could be argued that his most famous and perhaps still most successful work is “This Sporting Life”, a portrait of a Rugby League player who achieves local fame and then notoriety as his life and career blossom and then fall apart. It was filmed in the early 1960s, with Richard Harris playing the starring role. Along with about 28000 others, I was in Wakefield Trinity’s Belle Vue ground soon after midday to make sure that I got a standing place by the railings next to the pitch to see Trinity play Wigan in a cup-tie. I was only ten and needed to be early because, had I been further back amongst the crowd, I would have seen nothing. Wakefield beat Wigan 5-4, with Fred Smith scoring the only try of the game at my end. They went on to win at Wembley that year, beating Huddersfield in the game where Neil Fox used a drop goal strategy not seen before or since.
But before that cup-tie against Wigan, the packed Trinity ground became a film set. We were all unpaid extras as Richard Harris and members of the Trinity second team filmed some actions Sequences for “This Sporting Life”. I show no disrespect for Richard Harris by recalling that the sequence required a whole string of takes, necessitated by the fact that the star kept dropping the ball! I have seen the film several times, but I have not yet managed to spot my short-trousered legs behind the sticks at the Belle Vue end. They are there, somewhere.
I digress at length from my intended review because Colin, the central character of Saville, could easily have been me, or perhaps my older brother. Like Colin we were brought up in a small Yorkshire mining village. Also like Colin we went to a grammar school and experienced similar tensions and contradictions as a result of social class differences. And again like Colin we both became, as a result of that education, something previous generations of our permanent-feeling community had never aspired to, perhaps never knew existed. Unlike Colin, we did not aspire to become writers, except of course for me, who eventually tried to become one! It was the education that changed everything and this aspect of Saville is beautifully portrayed, right down to the visit to the old Kingswell’s shop in Wakefield to buy the ludicrously expensive school uniform, a source of pride for the miner’s family, but also a pointer indicating how lives will inevitably diverge.
Saville also deals with how social mores were changing in the new second half of the twentieth century. Colin’s parents simply could not relate to how his life was developing, perhaps finding hardest to stomach the individuality that he developed and was determined to express. It was a quality you could not pursue when, as poor people, your lives were always inter-dependent. The communal nature of their poverty made this a desire they could not comprehend and occasionally his pursuit of his own ends was seen by them – perhaps quite rightly – as errant selfishness. Of course, we now live in an age where the individual is the norm, the indivisible unit of society and, perhaps, where an idea of community is mere nostalgia.
Above all else David Storey’s Saville evokes a time and a place. It also evokes a language, a dialect that preserves the use of thee, thy, thou and thine and, although occasionally laboured, the book’s specialised vocabulary and syntax create the sound of a Yorkshire twang.
Saville has no vast themes, no overtly historical settings against which the characters enact their lives. Rather it concentrates on a social and economic setting which was quite peculiar to these mining communities in Yorkshire. But this is the book’s real strength. What we have is a social document, as powerful and yet as specific as some of its nineteenth century equivalents. Now, after the closure of the pits, though the villages remain, these communities have disappeared to be replaced by settings that perhaps offer less chance of social mobility or self-respect than in Saville’s time. This provides and irony that my own novel set in these same places might bring into focus. But in Saville’s time, the idea that the pits would close never entered anyone’s head, a fact which makes Colin’s transformation through the book remarkable, credible and yet ultimately sad, since we now see it as effectively driven by necessity, not choice.
27 August 2007