Alan Sillitoe

by John Boland

From what I’ve read about Alan Sillitoe, who died recently, he seemed to be an admirable man as well as a fine writer – and far removed in basic values from some of today’s most celebrated authors, for whom rock-star fame and fortune appear to be as important as their supposed vocation.

Certainly I can’t think of another contemporary novelist who would instruct his publishers, as Sillitoe did from early in his career, not to enter any of his books for literary awards – and this despite the fact some of his 40-odd novels might well have won the Booker or Whitbread or Impac or whatever.

But his scorn for literary kudos was of a piece with other aspects of his attitude to life and literature. Although born into poverty in Nottingham, he intensely disliked the Angry Young Man label that he was given on the publication of his  first two books – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959) – and indeed he remained uncategorisable (and, partly because of this, undervalued) to the end of his long writing life.

His no-nonsense individualism extended to politics, too. His initial admiration for communism evaporated when he learned of the brutality and human rights abuses of the Soviet regime, and on a visit to Russia he was courageous enough to speak out about them in the presence of Brezhnev.

As an author, he simply got on with the business of writing the books he wanted to write – novels, short stories, poetry, essays, plays – while remaining happily married for 51 years to the poet Ruth Fainlight. How uncool is that?

Many of his books are no longer in print, which is a pity, but newcomers to him might begin with his bracingly honest 1995 autobiography, Life Without Armour, or Richard Bradford’s fine 2008 biography, The Life of a Long-Distance Writer. They may then wonder why they haven’t read him before.

From what I’ve read about Alan Sillitoe, who died recently, he seemed to be an admirable man as well as a fine writer – and far removed in basic values from some of today’s most celebrated authors, for whom rock-star fame and fortune appear to be as important as their supposed vocation.

Certainly I can’t think of another contemporary novelist who would instruct his publishers, as Sillitoe did from early in his career, not to enter any of his books for literary awards – and this despite the fact some of his 40-odd novels might well have won the Booker or Whitbread or Impac or whatever.

But his scorn for literary kudos was of a piece with other aspects of his attitude to life and literature. Although born into poverty in Nottingham, he intensely disliked the Angry Young Man label that he was given on the publication of his first two books – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959) – and indeed he remained uncategorisable (and, partly because of this, undervalued) to the end of his long writing life.

His no-nonsense individualism extended to politics, too. His initial admiration for communism evaporated when he learned of the brutality and human rights abuses of the Soviet regime, and on a visit to Russia he was courageous enough to speak out about them in the presence of Brezhnev.

As an author, he simply got on with the business of writing the books he wanted to write – novels, short stories, poetry, essays, plays – while remaining happily married for 51 years to the poet Ruth Fainlight. How uncool is that?

Many of his books are no longer in print, which is a pity, but newcomers to him might begin with his bracingly honest 1995 autobiography, Life Without Armour, or Richard Bradford’s fine 2008 biography, The Life of a Long-Distance Writer. They may then wonder why they haven’t read him before.

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