Vandaag is het reeds tien jaar geleden dat de Engelse schrijver Alan Sillitoe is overleden.
Alan Sillitoe was born in Nottingham on March 4, 1928, to working class parents. Like Arthur Seaton, the anti-hero of Sillitoe’s first novel “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, his father worked in the Raleigh factory. He left school at the age of 14, but spent his time reading. He served in the Royal Air Force, where he was a wireless operator (*). After returning to England from Malaya, he was discovered to have tuberculosis and he spent sixteen months in an RAF hospital. Pensioned off at 21 on 45 shillings a week, he lived in France and Spain for seven years in an attempt to recover. In 1955, whilst living in Mallorca with his lover, American poet Ruth Fainlight, and in contact with the poet Robert Graves, Sillitoe commenced work on “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, which was published in 1958.
Influenced in part by the stripped-down prose of Ernest Hemingway, the book conveys the attitudes and situation of a young factory worker faced with the inevitable end of his youthful philandering. As with John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger” and John Braine’s “Room at the Top”, the novel’s real subject was the disillusionment of post-war Britain and the lack of opportunities for the working class. It was adapted as a film by Karel Reisz in 1960, with Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton. These “new” working-class novels are different from the “older” novels, not only because now they are written by people with a working-class background, but also because the hero is more an anti-hero (compare with the works by David Storey or Keith Waterhouse). E.g. in “Saturday night” Arthur Seating becomes a communist, not because he subscribes to the ideals, but as a way of personal salvation. (Frank Dawley, the main character in “The death of William Posters”, even leaves his pregnant girlfriend for becoming a communist. William Posters on the other hand, does not want to leave but decides to cope with his problems. He is a Christ-like figure in Frank’s eyes, but Christ-like figures have to die of course, so Frank kills him in the end.)
His story “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” was also adapted to film in 1962, this time directed by Tony Richardson, and starring Tom Courtenay. It is the story of a borstal boy, who is caught stealing with his friend. However, he is a very good long distance runner and the director of the prison wants him to win the yearly cup. Therefore he gets a lot of liberty for training. During these trainings he thinks of escaping, but he prefers to run the race. He is undoubtedly the strongest, but in front of the tribune he begins to walk so that the second guy crosses the line first. This was his revenge against the hypocritical authorities.
Among the other stories in the volume we discern first of all “Uncle Ernest”. A lonesome man spends a lot of money for two children (two girls of eigth and fourteen). He hasn’t any children himself and these two are all the happiness he gets in life. But the police thinks that he is trying to win the eldes for sexual pleasures and prevents him from seeing them again. He probably inspired Pete Townshend for his “Uncle Ernie” in “Tommy”.
In “Mr.Raynor the school-teacher” a frustrated school-teacher neglects his class (they will all stop school after that year anyway) by looking out of his window to the girls in the dressing-shop. One of these girls (he loved her, but she already had a fiancé) has died lately.
“Noah’s Ark” is a story of two young (poor, of course, not meant pejoratively but, as Sillitoe writes only about his own surroundings, when he was young, he is bound to situate his stories always in the working-class suburbs of the pre-war-period) boys, who are going to the fair, but by lack of money, they have to try to enjoy everything for free. In that way the most timid of the two gets hurt when he falls from a turning “Noah’s Ark”, while trying to avoid the attendant.
In “On saturday afternoon” young Sillitoe sees someone, who is trying to hang himself. He even helps him by warning him that the rope won’t do, but the chap doesn’t want to believe him. The attempt fails and the police, alarmed by a neighbour, arrive and tell him that committing suicide is illegal. When the man protests that it’s his life, a policeman replies: “No, it isn’t.” In the hospital, however, the man jumps through the window and crashes on the street. In this way he proved that, after all, it was his life. But, says Sillitoe, I will never commit suicide, because it’s so stupid when one fails.
In “The Match” Lennox and Fred are going to a game of football. Their team looses. Lennox (about 40) comes home and is cruel to his wife and children. At last they leave him. Fred (just married) doesn’t complain about the food and has another fuck.
“The disgrace of Jim Scarfdale” is about a neighour of the Sillitoe family. He always lived with his mother and in this way he surprises everyone by marrying a pretty student-girl. The marriage only lasts six months however: the girl was part of a leftist movement and had only married him because he was “a working-class hero”. She left him when it turned out that he wasn’t a hero at all. In fact, he preferred his soccer and his slippers to a political meeting. Jim goes back to his mother, but he has picked up a nasty habit: he stays out late at night. One day he is arrested by the police for attacking little girls…
Finally “The decline and fall of Frankie Butler” is about a queer youth of twenty – obsessed by the idea of an oncoming war, idea inherited of his father – who leads a gang of children against the children of another street. When the real war start, his violence increases too and he can no longer be trusted to run freely. Sillitoe has a sympathetic view on him and considers him as normal in a cruel and abnormal world.
In 1990 Sillitoe was awarded an honorary degree from Nottingham Trent University. The city’s older, prestigious Russell Group university, The University of Nottingham, also awarded Sillitoe an honorary degree in 1994.
Sillitoe has written many novels and several volumes of poetry. His 1995 autobiography, “Life Without Armour”, was critically acclaimed on publication and offers a view into his squalid childhood.
In 2007 “Gadfly in Russia”, an account of his travels in Russia spanning 40 years, was published. Sillitoe was married to Ruth Fainlight. They lived in London and had two children.
Ronny De Schepper
(Thanks to Wikipedia for the biographical notes)
(*) In “The key to the door” the main character has the same job in Malaya. Confronted with bureaucracy, he becomes a communist.