The Trouble with Rolfie. By Jan Needle

In the light of the Rolf Harris conviction, and the horrifying (supposed) shenanigans among  the great and good who sit in judgement over us (and now, as from Sunday, the divine Maggie apparently up to her neck in it) it's fascinating to go back a few decades and see what people were writing as entertainment.

I may have mentioned Jack Trevor Story before. For those of you who don't remember, or who are too young, he was a writer who appeared every Saturday in the Guardian, musing about his own weird life and those of the people he knew best.

Man about town. He made pin money working for a model agency that specialised in ugly people
Many people thought the word Story was descriptive of the pieces, and not his surname. It was not. He was, apparently, a sort of Gypsy from the eastern counties, whose father was killed in the First World War, whose stepfather was genuinely born a Gypsy, and whose life read remarkably like picaresque fiction.

He was an errand boy. He was a butcher's boy. He went to night school for five years, and became an electrical engineer at Marconi's. He sold his first short story in 1944, aged 27, and three years later Alfred Hitchcock bought and filmed his story The Trouble with Harry. A few years on he gave us Live Now Pay Later.

Those of us who followed his weekly life were by turns bemused, amused, rendered pop-eyed, and even horrified. He had a string of children, and a couple of wives, ex-wives, and girlfriends. The one we all knew best was called Maggie (not the divine Maggie mentioned above), who was many years younger than he was, and finally upped sticks and ran away to join the Common Market. Provide your own explanation.

His books were often achingly funny, and usually not a little disturbing. He could never have become a literary giant, because his prose and his ideas were uncompromisingly real. He was not a bullshitter, and appeared to despise the breed. He wrote too many novels, too many TV dramas, and three thousand  words a day. Clearly a dilettante!

In France a couple of weeks ago, I found one of his books, which I first read when I was in my early 20s. It's called One Last Mad Embrace, and he could no more have got it published today than he could have flown. The hero is a writer called Horace Spurgeon Fenton and the heroine is a twelve-year-old virgin called Ariadne, with whom he goes to bed.

Lolita caused Nabokov a lot of trouble, but Lolita this is not.  As I said, Jack Trevor Story is not yer literary lion. This is a romp composed of sex, violence, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, with Horace and Ariadne consummating the affair buried in a pile of saturated Scottish peat while a demented gunman tries to kill them. Incidentally, although they've only known each other for a fortnight, the little girl is now possibly as old as 18 (her mother would deny it), and may possibly already have had an illegitimate child. Odd for a virgin, but in Story’s stories, nothing is ever what it seems.

Whether strictly within the law or not, however, what Horace Spurgeon Fenton gets up to is completely 'out the window' in terms of today. Take this sequence for instance:

'Now may I ask you one thing and will you tell me the God’s honour truth?' [Horace speaking]


'Mm. I swear it.'

'Mm. I swear it.'

'Are you really twelve years old?'

She laughed and started putting on something filmy over her head.

'Well,' she said, chattily. 'That's what men usually ask you first.'

Ariadne yawns, and a little later comes the explanation:

If I sniffed around that little scene any longer it would become pornography and also it would lose its accuracy; the things that happened to stop me would click into place just in the nick of time like a Whitehall farce and give you entertainment instead of truth. This is the truth – just that yawn. All this poor little showbiz kid’s troubles were in that yawn. This is not a novel; nothing that happens to me is as convenient as that. She stuck at 12, me stuck at 51.

Entertaiment instead of truth? Can Jack Trevor Story be serious? Are there limits to what a novelist can explore, and the way that he or she explores it? Has the passage of time and fashion changed the nature of the word and concept we call ‘serious’? How loud – and how sincere – would the howls of rage be now?

I love a book that worries me, and more so one that didn't worry me at all when I first read it, when I (and the world) was younger. What has changed? Who has changed? And I wonder how old wee Maggie is now, and if she still lives in Belgium.

Incidentally, Jack Trevor Story’s account of the break up was called Crying Makes Your Nose Run, as far as I remember. Laughter and tears. It’s a massive combination.

Growing old more gracefully than Jack? But then, he only played the guitar, if I remember right...
One day, perhaps, he will achieve that strange, strange status - he'll become a literary lion. Unlike many people who are there already, I think he might well have deserved it.

PS Went to Liverpool on Saturday to see Kneehigh's version of John Gay's Beggar's Opera. Well, when it gets within distance of you on its tour, do yourself a favour and see it. At the Everyman, it got a standing ovation. I've been a theatre goer for decades, and that I have never seen before. It was so wonderful, words fail me. Written by Carl Grose (of she hath played the trumpet in my bed fame) and directed by Mike Shepherd, with amazing music by Charles Hazlewood. I have a degree in drama, and this production made me remember why I bothered. It's called Dead Dog in a Suitcase, and it's fantastic.


CallyPhillips said…
Shame this went up so late in the day (thought you'd been censored or maybe self censoring!!) Too delicate a subject to go into in any depth here methinks though I have much to say about the subject! Would have to read some of JTs's stuff before making a comment but suspect that Kirsty Eccles 'The Price of Fame' (avaliable as an ebook near you!) may come at the situation from a slightly different angle.
JTS is fiction/fact. Kirsty Eccles is fiction/fact.... its the 'facts' that hurt people but what is the responsibility of fiction? Answers on a postcard please.
Dennis Hamley said…
I knew JTS. In the 70s, he was writer in residence in the very new, still mud-spattered Milton Keynes. He often did little writing workshops in pubs and I often went, ostensibly to help. I remember a little old lady sitting in the corner one night nursing a glass of orange juice and writing a wonderful, wonderful poem which she called Daffs. How I wish I still had a copy. But Jack was a really larger than life man. He didn't have many friends in MK but he had a lot of disciples. He had one hubcap hanging on his wall from every car - there were many - he had bought in America and was either smashed up, stolen or, in some cases repossessed, which accounts for LNPL. His Guardian articles were a long, long lament over the loss of Maggie. I never thought that such a long-running outcry of grief could be so funny. I devoured them every week.

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