Caught by the River

Alan Sillitoe

24th May 2008

from The Guardian

words; John Crace, Photo; Eamonn McCabe

There’s a great story about Alan Sillitoe that’s always done the rounds. He’s hanging out in Mallorca in the late 50s, writing six or seven unpublished novels, when he asks fellow expat Robert Graves to do him a favour and read his latest effort. The distinguished writer duly obliges and offers Sillitoe five terse words of advice. Stick to what you know. Bish-bosh, Sillitoe mines his Nottingham roots and launches his career with Saturday Night, Sunday Morning – one of the defining books of the postwar era.

Like many great stories, though, it’s not quite true. “I had actually written a number of short stories based in Nottingham before Robert made that suggestion,” Sillitoe laughs, “and when he did I just thought, ‘Bugger this, what does he know? Why should I take any notice of him just because he’s old and famous?’ It was only two years later, when I was sitting under an olive tree working on The Adventures of Arthur Seaton [the book that would become Saturday Night, Sunday Morning] that I decided to pour in some of the incidents from the short stories to give the narrative more life.”

But what the hell? The first version is so much neater, so let’s go with that. “If anyone should be able to edit their own life it’s a writer,” he says. “So I’m happy to rewrite my history. Anything to make the story more fun and interesting.” It’s the kind of advice that creative writing students at Ruskin College might well be hearing a great deal more of in the near future now that Sillitoe has been asked to give guest lectures at the Oxford college. And it will be strictly lecturing, he is quick to point out. “I don’t have the time to go help knock students’ unpublished novels into shape.”

Still driven

Sillitoe was 80 in March, but his only concession to growing older has been to give up smoking, and even then he’s reserving the right to take it up again. He kicks-starts each day with the 15-minute exercise regime of press ups and jumps he learned in the RAF more than 60 years ago – “Why on earth would I want to stop?” – and he still works with much the same intensity he always has. At an age when most people are winding down, he’s still driven by the inner voice that tells him that a day not spent writing is a day wasted.

These days he can remember the titles of other people’s books rather better than his own. There again, with more than 50 novels, plays and collections of poetry to his name, it would be probably more surprising if he could. Even so, he’s playing it safe at the moment and the manuscript of his current novel is lying, untitled, on the desk of his west London flat. He’s not happy with it yet and has set himself a deadline of the end of the year to finish it; nor is he prepared to say too much about it beyond that it’s set in Nottingham in the present day. But it’s clearly in some sort of shape as it’s type-written and he always writes the first few drafts by hand – not out of some sentimental attachment to the past but out of practical necessity. “I need to write at the same speed I can think,” he says. “By hand, I write at 22 words per minute, while I type – [another hangover from his RAF training] at 90 words per minute. Which is far too quick.”

He’s big on such details. Sillitoe trained as a wireless operator in the war and still practises taking Morse code every day. He’s got a machine that generates code on his desk, and at night sometimes scans the airwaves: “There’s far less traffic than there used to be, but you can find it if you look. There’s a French station that broadcasts a poetry magazine in Morse. It starts slowly every Monday and speeds up towards the end of the week; I guess it’s their way of keeping wireless operators in training in case the computer system collapses. For me, it’s just a kind of therapy.”

Sillitoe readily admits that it’s an unusual way to pass the time, but he’s never been that bothered about what others might think. However, he does worry about what he has to pass on to Ruskin students. “I’ve really only got one story,” he shrugs, “and that’s mine; I’m not sure that I can tell anyone else how to write. About 20 years ago an American university asked me to fill out a 50-page questionnaire on the creative process. I didn’t know what to say and was tempted to write any old crap and sign it Virginia Woolf. Then I thought, fuck it, that’s just childish, so I didn’t bother. I can’t make those kind of generalisations.”

But he can make practical suggestions. His first is to read everything you can. The second is to read yet more. He spent five years in the early 50s devouring anything he could get his hands on, from Plato and Aristophanes up to Mailer and Salinger. “How else are you going to get a feeling for language?” he says. “And besides, you don’t want to waste years writing War and Peace only to find it’s already been written.” For Sillitoe, these five years were a way of filling in the gaps in a formal education that had ended when he was 14; so there’s a touching symmetry that towards the end of his career – even he would have to concede that – he’s chosen Ruskin, a college dedicated to giving working-class adults a second bite at education, as the place to pass on what he’s learned.

Fear and chaos

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham in 1928. His father worked in the local Raleigh bicycle factory. Money was tight, and his home life was both chaotic and frightening, with Sillitoe often left as a helpless spectator while his father beat up his mother. His only line of escape was to withdraw within himself.

“I was sent to the local infants school, staffed by pale, etiolated female teachers whose boyfriends had all been slaughtered on the Somme,” he recalls, “and each day one of them would read out loud to us from the King James Bible. I don’t think anything much sank in, but I just loved listening to the sound of the words.”

In a characteristically un-PC turn of phrase, he adds that his mother then got him into a school for “subnormal” children. “She’d heard that the kids who went there got much better food than at other schools,” he smiles, “and she wanted to make sure I got plenty to eat. Eventually, though, it dawned on everyone that I wasn’t actually learning very much and I was moved to a junior boys school.”

Imagined worlds

Here lessons were mainly spelling and tables tests. He loved it. “It was somehow quite beautiful,” he says. “I loved the clarity of it, the knowing that something was either right or wrong. Getting things right meant that your brain was working.”

It also gave him one of the few measures of control in a childhood that was otherwise chaotic, and once he could read and spell he was free to explore the imagined worlds of Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard as well as start creating his own. He had his first run-in with the censors at 12. “My mother found a story I had written in a notebook about my cousins being caught thieving after they deserted from the army, and she ripped it up and told me I shouldn’t be writing that kind of stuff.” Was he pissed off about this? “Well, yes, but it was a comparatively gentle act of censorship in comparison with what was to follow with the film script and play of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, where I had to make the abortion unsuccessful. The authorities hated the new generation of w
orking-class realism, but they couldn’t stop it.”

It was his grandmother who spotted that Sillitoe was bright, and at her suggestion he sat the 11-plus for Nottingham high school. And failed it. Twice. “Not many writers can claim that honour,” he adds proudly. So instead of going to the grammar school, he went off to the local secondary knowing that his education was going to finish when he was 14. “It didn’t feel like that big a deal,” he shrugs. “It’s what happened and I wasn’t that disappointed. Besides, there was a war on and all I really wanted to do was join the RAF.”

Sense of regret

There were a few years before he was old enough to do that, and when he was 14 he was taken on at the Raleigh factory and enjoyed the feeling of having money of his own. His father told him he was mad when he signed up with the Air Training Corps at 17 – “you could enlist with them a year earlier than with the RAF” – but all he wanted to do was become a navigator and drop bombs on Germany.

The war ended before he got his chance, and he admits feeling ambivalent on hearing the fighting was over. “I’m fairly sure I’d have been one of those who were killed if it had continued. But I couldn’t help feeling a sense of regret at having missed out on something important.” What he did get was a two-year posting to Malaya, and it was on his return to England in 1948 that his life changed.

He’d been planning to join the Canadian air force – “you could earn twice as much over there” – and he’d travelled up to Liverpool for his final medical (“they wanted to check you were in the same shape as when you signed up”) before getting discharged from the RAF. Instead of getting a clean bill of health, he was told he had TB – “some bastard must have coughed over me” – and he was packed off to the RAF hospital in Wiltshire for nine months before being sent home on a pension of £5 per week.

The money gave him the freedom to do exactly what he wanted. And, with the American poet, Ruth Fainlight, who would later become his wife, he upped sticks for the south of France. “I was just desperate to get away from England,” he says. “Everything was so grey, so hard. There was still rationing in England and I can remember passing through Paris en route to Menton and being amazed by all the food on sale in the shops.”

On the move

He didn’t last long in France. But then he didn’t last that long in any one particular place, as he and Fainlight were forever on the move, finding cheaper places to stay and meeting new friends. The only constant was reading and writing, and in 1959 Sillitoe finally hit gold with Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. He found it slightly odd to find himself lumped in with the Angry Young Men group of writers as he’d spent most of the previous nine years sunning himself abroad, but otherwise fame left him somewhat unfazed.

“I was doing what I wanted,” he insists, “and nothing was going to get in the way of that. A Hollywood studio offered me £50,000 to write a film script after the success of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and I thought about it for a bit and then told them to fuck off. I even moved to Tangiers when the film came out as I didn’t want to get caught up in all the hype.”

Sillitoe has been writing and moving with the same restless energy ever since. And there’s little sign of him letting up. So what final piece of advice would he offer wannabe writers? He thinks for a moment. “Make as much time for yourself as you can,” he says eventually. “Go on the dole, pretend to go off sick from work, steal or borrow off of your parents; anything that will buy you time.”

“I’m not sure we can suggest that kind of thing in the Guardian,” I reply.

“OK,” he demurs. “Then just tell them to use their imagination.”

It sounds as good a place to start as any. And to end.

Curriculum vitae

Age: 80

Job: Writer, guest lecturer, Ruskin College

Selected books: Saturday Night, Sunday Morning; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner; A Man of His Time

Likes: taking Morse code, reading

Dislikes: present Labour government. ‘I’ve voted Labour all my life but I couldn’t bring myself to do so this time. They are incompetent and want too much control. I abstained instead.’

Married with two children

(CBTR thanks to Mathew Clayton)