Sunday, 2 May 2010

Alan Sillitoe Dies

A couple of years ago I heard Alan Sillitoe in a literary festival. Sillitoe, wearing a hat (and a very crumpled black jacket) and looking very sprightly for his eighty years, arrived with an ancient contraption, and told the near-packed hall that he was going to conduct a small experiment. It was a Morse code operating device and Sillitoe went on to elucidate at some length how the machine operated and the clever things that had been done with it in the Second World War. The scholarly (and very entertaining) discourse had nothing to do with why the great man was there that evening; it was something that seemed to have caught his fancy at the time. The experiment concluded, Sillitoe drank a glass of water, making gulping noises, exaggerated by the microphone attached to his shirt collar. He then walked to the centre of the podium, sat in the chair opposite the interviewer, and said, ‘Right, then! Where do you want to start?’ Over the next one hour Sillitoe regaled the audience with anecdotes laced with humour and marked by eccentricity. I remember one concerning the making of the film based on his most famous novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning that had the audience in splits. He said that the novel that influenced him most profoundly and inspired him to become a writer was Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist. He informed, almost as an aside, that most of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was written under an orange tree. He revealed that in the six years preceding his debut novel he had written four full length novels, ‘each one four-hundred page length’. He said that the novels were highly derivative, influenced as he was in those days, by the styles of Kafka and Joyce. He did not send these novels anywhere for publication.

After the talk finished, I stood in the queue to get his autograph. When my turn came, I told him, as I put in front of him on the table my copies of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, that I was a great fan of his work. He looked up at me quizzically, as if he was not quite sure whether I was serious, before responding, ‘That is very kind of you.’ Emboldened by his response, I lied that I had in my collection many books of his (I had only five ) but I had not brought all of them with me. When he heard this, Sillitoe looked up at me and smiled. Then he said, ‘Good. You’d have required a wheelbarrow to bring all those books.’

Alan Sillitoe was a prolific writer. In addition to the more than two dozen novels, a volume of autobiography, collections of short-stories, he also published several volumes of poetry, a couple of plays, and several books for children. However, it was his debut novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the first collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, for which the posterity will remember him. The searing, uncompromising account of the working class Britain in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, with its truculent, sardonic, womanising, and selfish protagonist, Arthur Seaton, earned Sillitoe (along with Jimmy Porter, John Brain, and Kingsley Amis, who wrote novels with vehemently anti-authority protagonists) the epithet of ‘Angry Young Writer' in the 1950s. He was also, perhaps unfortunately, pigeonholed as a writer of ‘working class’ novels. I am not sure how comfortable Sillitoe—who subsequently wrote on myriad subjects ranging from mental breakdown, political fantasy, revolution in Algeria, and even comic picaresques— felt with this straitjacketing. Years after the publication of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he remarked, ‘the greatest inaccuracy was ever to call the book a working class novel for it is really nothing of the sort. It is simply a novel.’

There were many who thought that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was an autobiographical novel, no doubt because it is set in Nottingham, where Sillitoe grew up, and the protagonist worked a lathe in a factory, which is what Sillitoe did for a few years, before he joined the RAF. Sillitoe dispelled this notion, too, by clarifying that while the novel mirrored the sort of atmosphere he grew up in, it was a work of imagination in that ‘all the actors in it are put together from the jigsaw pieces assembled so that no identifiable characters came out in the end.’

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was followed by the superb collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; one of the stories—that which gave the short-stories-collection its title—was made into a film. Like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the short-story collection was remarkable for the unromanticised account of working class lives. My personal favourite is a story entitled 'Match’, in which a rancorous, resentful middle aged man returns home in rage after his football team loses a match and picks up a violent quarrel with his wife which would be the beginning of the end of his marriage.

None of Sillitoe’s subsequent novels achieved the critical and commercial success of his first two books, which is a great shame, as among them were gems, every bit as brilliant as the first two books, which were grossly underappreciated. He wrote three more novels—Key to the Door, The Open Door, and Birthday—tracing the fortunes of the Seaton brothers, the protagonists of his sensational debut novel. I have read Key to the Door and BirthdayKey to the Door is so forceful in its story-telling, the impact is almost physical. Birthday, which came out more than forty years after Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, showed that Sillitoe had lost none of the gifts of evocative details, in this case the process of growing old. It is one of those books where the observation ‘just like life’ is not a cliché.

Alan Silitoe was born in an impoverished working class family. His father was an illiterate tanner, who had to endure long periods of unemployment, and one of the abiding memories of Sillitoe's early life was piling up the meager belongings of the family in a wheelbarrow and being constantly on the move—from one temporary address to another—to avoid rent-collectors. His father was a man of violent temper, and another vivid memory from his childhood was of his mother shouting at his father ‘Not about the head, not about the head’, as he went about bashing Sillitoe. Despite this, Sillitoe would appear not to have been alienated from his family: in a literary festival he narrated the touching story of how he went to Nottingham to meet his father with his first published novel and the old man, who couldn't read, wonderingly turned the book upside down in his palms and asked him whether it meant he would not have to work for his living. Sillitoe went to the local elementary school and was enthusiastic about English literature; however he failed the entrance exam and, aged fourteen, like many young men of his background, began working in a bicycle factory. Later, he worked in a lathe factory. In 1945 Sillitoe enlisted in the Royal Air Force as an air traffic controller, and, while posted in Malaya, he read Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, which was to have a lasting impact on the young man. While serving in the RAF, he contracted tuberculosis, and, after spending a year in various RAF hospitals—he read avidly during his protracted convalescence—, he was ‘pensioned off’ at the age of twenty-one. Back in Nottingham he met the American poet Ruth Fainlight in a bookshop. The two fell in love and in the early 1950s sailed for the continent. Over the next six years they led an hand-to-mouth existence in France, Italy and Spain on Sillitoe’s RAF pension. During their stay in Majorca, Spain, the couple befriended Robert Graves, who encouraged young Sillitoe to write. Then he began writing another novel, much of which was composed in the autumn of 1956. This novel was sent for publication and was rejected by four publishers. Another one accepted it but suggested changes in the novel’s ending. Sillitoe, who at the time had not published a single novel and had no other source of income than his meagre RAF pension, refused. The novel was eventually accepted by WH Allen and published in 1958. It was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

In a memorable ‘Desert Island Discs’ interview a few years ago, Sillitoe said that all he ever wanted to do was to achieve enough success that would enable him to plod away, writing a book a year and pleasing himself.

That’s what Sillitoe went on to do. He has left behind a solid body of forceful fiction. When the Times Literary Supplement published a list of fifty greatest post-war British authors, Sillitoe was one of them.

A truly great writer has died.