The long-distance runner
Niall McGarrigle speaks to Alan Sillitoe, the writer of such modern classics as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, who disputes his early labels of "Angry Young Man" and voice of the working class
Shortly after Alan Sillitoe had his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, published in 1958, he went to visit his father to show him a copy of the book. His father could neither read nor write, but when his son said, “Look Dad, my story has been made into a book”, Christopher Sillitoe paused for a moment before exclaiming: “Bloody hell! You'll never have to work again!”
But work is what Sillitoe has done ever since, as the author of some 50 books, including poetry, plays and stories for small children. He has driven himself continuously in his writing for the last half century, somewhat like the character Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, who develops his skill and stamina with a daily regime of hard exercise and toil. The crucial difference between Sillitoe and Smith however, is that the author always wants to get over the finishing line; he always wants to reach the goal in front of him.
Now aged 79, the Nottingham-born novelist still maintains a heavy regime of writing for several hours a day, seven days a week, “No Sabbath for me”, he has been quoted as saying. And at a recent literary talk in Derry, he says he will continue to work for as long as he can, as he strives to perfect his style of “clear, uncomplicated English”.
Dressed in a tweed jacket and cream chinos, the small-framed Sillitoe explained: “Between the 10 years I started writing and getting published in 1958, I had to learn a new method of communication. And it wasn't until about half way through these years that I started reading a wonderful book by Thomas De Quincy called The Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
“And as I read I could see at last that good English was clear English. And that was a stage that I had to fight to get to – mixing up this clear English with the ordinary speak of the people, so I could see my way through to writing about the folk I had grown up with. It was as complicated and as simple as that.”
Sillitoe grew up in a home that was devoid of books and left school at the age of 14 to work in the local Raleigh factory in Nottingham. However he did find some inspiration for his early literary ambitions close to home.
“When World War II began I had a couple of cousins who had been called up into the army and in about six weeks they deserted and came home,” revealed the author. “But they had to find a way to make a living and the thing that came easiest to them was to become burglars in the city of Nottingham. And when they visited our home, they would tell us details of what they did and I thought to myself ‘Some day I might write about them!'
“So I bought a large notebook and wrote down details of their appearances, where they lived and of course added in the times and addresses of the shops and offices they had been in. I thought this was an extremely good idea as a young writer, until one day I was at school and my mother found this book and was horrified at the explicit evidence she had discovered. When I came home she clipped me over the head and threw the book into the fire and said ‘What are you doing? You'll get us all arrested!'”
With his early writing ambitions in check, Sillitoe went off to join the RAF in 1946 for three years as a wireless operator in Malaya but during this time he was struck down with TB and laid up in hospital for close to 12 months. It was here that he began reading many of the great books in the world and decided to devote himself to writing, with the aid of his military pension.
“At first I thought this was a disastrous experience as it meant I would be kept in hospital for a very long time,” said Sillitoe. “But in a sense it worked out well because during that time I began to read seriously: the Bible in its entirety, all of Shakespeare, all the great novels from Russia, Ireland and America and so on. And it was during that time that I decided to become a writer, I think to prevent me from going mad. Looking back now, it was extremely important I became familiar with all those great books, because to become a writer you need to know what has went before you.”
After his recovery, Sillitoe travelled and lived in France and Spain, where he met his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, and where he also befriended Robert Graves (“A great piece of fortune as he would lend me many of his wonderful books”), who helped him find his own voice and subjects that he could write honestly about. He explained: “The first novel I attempted was a mish-mash of all the things I had been reading at the time, Huxley, DH Lawrence, Dostoevsky and so on. It didn't work, but being young I thought it was a work of genius!
“Fortunately, I gave him (Graves) one of my dud novels to read and he said that I knew how to tell a story, but why not write about the place that I grew up in – Nottingham? The advice clicked in and as a result I produced Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.”
Sillitoe's first two books, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959), remain his best known works and those most loved by his readers, despite the fact the author feels his other writing is of a higher standing. Both stories were made into seminal feature films soon after they were published. They starred Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay respectively and launched the writer into the heights of popular and critical acclaim.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was a tale of working-class life through the roguish and masculine Arthur Seaton and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was a short story narrated by an angry and anti-establishment Borstal boy who throws a cross-country race to spite his guardians.
Consequently, Sillitoe was described as part of the generation in 1950's literature known as ‘The Angry Young Men' and was said to have provided a voice in mainstream culture for the working classes – two labels that he strongly denies: “I didn't feel that way at all. I had no real class feelings, I had no idea what working class meant; I certainly wasn't working class. When people talked about the generation of angry young men that appeared in British literature in the 1950s I certainly wasn't one of them – I was living in Spain at the time!
“I wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in Mallorca. I was sitting under an orange tree and started writing in my notebook about a young man falling down the stairs in a pub after 15 pints and seven gins. I finished the story and sent it to a London magazine and I thought it was a reasonable effort.
“The story was rejected however, but you never waste anything, so I thought I would continue this adventure of a young man working as a labourer in a factory in my home town and the novel began to take shape.”
The book was subsequently given to an agent in London. It was sent out to publishers but came back several times, with one claiming that no matter how well it was written, the ordinary people would have no interest in it. Fortunately for Sillitoe and every generation of book readers since, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was sent out to one final agent, WH Allen, who decided to publish the story.
It was without doubt the emergence of a new talent in mainstream British literature and one that Melvyn Bragg noted later as: “a writer who has tried to tell the truth about a section of society that was, until he came along, largely ignored".
“Of course every writer needs their own thumbprint and generally you have some connection in reality with the person you are writing about,” explained Sillitoe. To emphasise the point further during the Derry talk he produced his own Morse code key – a skill he learned during his spell with the RAF – and sent out the message “Long life and good luck to you all” to the audience. It was an apt device in which to display the importance he firmly places on simple, uncomplicated language.
He added: “Once you learn Morse code as a language it has a kind of poetic rhythm; it goes into your brain and you never forget it, like English. And for me it became a kind of therapy. If I am sitting in my work room in London completely fed up and not able to write another comma, I listen in on the radio for Morse code and pick up all sorts of arcane messages. It may be Russian bombers flying over the Artic Circle or messages circulating from the French police. It is a language that fascinates me to this day.”
A similar thing can be said of Alan Sillitoe's writing; it is a language that is also plain and uncomplicated, and it too always carries a message that is well worth decoding.