Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In Memoriam - Alan Sillitoe

Alan Sillitoe (1928-2010) wrote novels and plays which brought attention to the plight of the poor working class in postwar England. Perhaps his most recognized book was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in which a young factory worker (Arthur Seaton) views society as a contrast between living a raucous Saturday night life versus a sober, responsible Sunday morning life.

Sillitoe was born to a family of straitened means in Nottingham, England. He left school at 14 to working in a factory and then, under-aged, joined the RAF. It was during this time he contracted tuberculosis giving him the time to begin writing.

His novels gave an anti-authoritarian voice to the working class and depicted the reality of life in England after the war. As a writer he was labeled along with other so-called Angry Young Men (Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis) and his subjects were often refered to as "kitchen sink realism" (thnk Coronation Street). Sillitoe and the other Angry Young Men rejected this name, disliking any sort of label. His novels will be remembered as, not only terrific stories, but also as works of social criticism. They were also considered groundbreaking for his use of vernacular working class dialect.

One of his later works, Birthday, revisits Arthur Seaton (of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) as an older man. Arthur is a little mellowed by time but has not lost his fire. Sillitoe faces aging head-on not shying away from physical changes and the loss of friends. Arthur is less angry than he was in the day and has matured into a loving and compassionate parent and husband. It was a satisfying conclusion for those who were fortunate enough to read the first book when they themselves were angry young men (or women).

Sillitoe has left behind a large body of work which is already considered to be classics of his generation.

1 comment:

  1. I recognise all the titles featured in your attractive display except for Leading the Blind. I will hunt down a copy in the weeks to come. You might also care to feature some of my own favourites: Raw Material (an experiment in autobiography), Men, Women and Children (a quite wonderful short story collection), Mountains and Caverns and A Flight of Arrows (collections of place-haunted essays) and three essential novels -- The Widower's Son, Her Victory and The Open Door. The truth is that Sillitoe's presence followed me through school and higher education. I remember dropping into a small bookshop in Glasgow, aged 16, and discovering Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Lover arrived shortly afterwards. One Saturday in summer, aged 18, I seized on The Death of William Posters and The Flame of Life. Jump now to some point beyond the millenium. I am still on the Sillitoe road. There's Alan Sillitoes's Nottingham, for a start, with the wise looking author on the book's cover. There are more freshly minted novels, Birthday and Snowstop. Another collection of surprising stories, The Crocodile Playground. The chance to reread an underrated novel, Down From the Hill. The appearance at last of a full autobiography, Without Armour. An authorised biography by Richard Bradford. One rainy afternoon in a secondhand bookshop I discover The Saxon Shore Way: From Gravesend to Rye, an atmospheric text by Alan and photographs by my favourite landscape recorder Fay Godwin. Oh, and don't forget the Collins edition of his collected poems. I was a little cross with that because there were poems missing from his sequence Snow on the North Side of Lucifer. What lay behind it all? What was his appeal? My friend James Campbell profiled him for the Guardian but he didn't get close to the mystery. Nor can I. Alan Sillitoe takes me to a place, and places. Somewhere I need to go. He is Janus, looking both backwards and ahead. He does something with time, but I'm not sure what. Laughter is never far away. He is truly European, rooted in Russian and Yiddish sensibility. He is as English, too, as Fielding, Dickens, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Hardy, Bennett, Forster, Kipling, Chesterton, Belloc, Masefield, AE Coppard, Auden, Priestley, Waugh, Greene, Green, Elizabeth Taylor, Golding, Murdoch, Burgess, Amis, Hughes, Larkin, Barstow, Storey, Drabble, Kavanagh, Farrell, Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Lively, Ackroyd, Garner, Raphael, Fowles, Osborne, Wesker, Pinter, Bragg, Braine and Stanley Middleton are English. (England, you are a fertile land.) Alan Sillitoe had an extraordinary capacity for hope. It is rare enough in any time. I see him in one of his own poems, bending down to wipe off the swastika daubed on a city wall. (John Haggerty.)