The Long Distance Writer – Alan Sillitoe

by NJ McGarrigle

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 did ever since then: as the author of some 50 books, including poetry, plays and stories for small children. He had driven himself continuously in his writing for the last half-century, like his anti-hero 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 was Sillitoe’s desire to always get over the finishing line; to always reach the goal in front of him.

He died in 2010 aged 82, but the Nottingham-born novelist maintained a heavy regime of writing for several hours a day, seven days-a-week up until his death.

“No Sabbath for me”, he used to say, as he strove to perfect his style of “clear, uncomplicated English”.

I met the author several years ago in Derry. Dressed in a tweed jacket and cream chinos, the slight, small-framed Sillitoe told me: “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 – ‘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.”

Alan Sillitoe

He grew up in a house 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. 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, 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 British 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. 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 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 he 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.

“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 and 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 most beloved by his readers. Both stories were made into seminal feature films soon after they were published, launching Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in their long acting careers, and giving the author both popular and critical acclaim.

Tom Courtenay in ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’

Sillitoe was part of the generation in ‘50s literature labelled as the ‘Angry Young Men’, whom were said to have provided a voice for the working classes in mainstream culture – two ideas that he strongly rejected.

“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 and 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 one final roll of the dice saw WH Allen publish the story. Writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg noted later on the importance of reading ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ for the first time: “(Here was) a writer who tried to tell the truth about a section of society that was, until he came along, largely ignored”.

Sillitoe may no longer be writing, but the voice he has left us will always run true.