Alan Sillitoe

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Neil Millar (review date 6 September 1968)

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SOURCE: “Fierce Burnings in Private Wildernesses,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 60, No. 240, September 6, 1968, p. 9.

[In the following mixed review, Millar asserts that Sillitoe shows great skill in A Tree on Fire, but that the novel fails as great art.]

Loud words shouted, soft words spat. A grunt in a mess of silence, a groan in a world's aching. A tree on fire, a house on fire, a nation on fire, a world not even watching.

A luminous fog of events. A glittering mist of words shot with little lightnings of epigram and swirled by sooty eddies of lust. The artist who despises those who don't understand him—and makes no effort to understand them. The artist as petty cheat and major victim; the artist as oaf, wit, clown, casual Casanova. The artist as disaster always about to happen, a kind of gray imminence; the artist as metaphysician and as tempestuous master of a tempestuous, teeming household. The artist as artist. The artist as Alan Sillitoe. Sillitoe as everyone.

This is a novel of ideas, and therefore every character tends to speak the author's thoughts and language. (Whether the author believes himself is a different matter.) It is the nature of such a book to be unnatural, and A Tree on Fire is sincerely artificial. Here the great action is mental because the novel assumes the primacy of mentality over matter. Not only is the human mind more interesting than the human body; it is more human. And certainly more wise; whenever the body interferes with the story it makes a fool of itself. This is a perceptive realism behind a nonrealistic drama.

The fatuity of the flesh is clearly demonstrated by both the artist Handley (and his assorted women) and the heroic Frank Dawley who seeks to find himself—or extinction—in fighting for the freedom of Algeria. Dawley leaves his women to fend for themselves while he goes on his death-or-Dawley mission in desert and mountain. Such courage is selfish—perhaps because it is desperate. A brave man searching for himself “e'en in the cannon's mouth” may think he has found himself already, and may loathe what he found.

The artist is less heroic and more memorable, drawn larger than life and smaller than morality, honest only in his art. Yet some harsh generosity flickers about this hard-hating lover, ex-writer of begging letters. Handley is the rightful owner of new wealth, new fame, and these blessings threaten to break his marriage. He cherishes his long-loved wife as she cherishes him—enduringly, passionately, often savagely, with a kindness surpassing silence and a ready fury always likely to draw blood.

Some of the author's several tongues are snugly in his cheek: his message requires it. He writes on various levels: allegory and realism, parable and paradox. Most of the book is well worth reading once; some is worth reading and rereading: the skimmed-over surface tells little, but conceals treasure. From time to time the hurrying reader stumbles on what seems like a hummock of nothing: closer inspection may reveal that the mound is alive.

Mr. Sillitoe writes a poet's prose; he feels as a poet: injustices (except, perhaps, to women) sting him. A Tree on Fire is a work of great talent, although perhaps not a work of great art. Art is flame, shaped and shining against darkness; this book seems more like a brush fire on a brilliant day. But only a very gifted writer can make any sort of flame with ink.

Because of the allegory which infuses it, the book (like Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for...

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Godot) rewards according to the perceptions brought to it. Like the play, it deals with wildernesses of the mind; unlike the play, its metaphysic seems to leave no room for deity looming and inscrutable in the infinite wings of the tiny human stage. For most of the characters there is no hint that perhaps, after all, a divine plan and a divine affection may somehow, somewhere, exist. Perhaps that is why in Mr. Sillitoe's valleys of despair, so few dry bones put on the living flesh of tenderness. The bush burns, burns, and is consumed.


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Alan Sillitoe 1928-

British novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, playwright, screenwriter, and author of children's literature.

The following entry presents an overview of Sillitoe's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 6, 10, 19, and 57.

One of England's most prolific contemporary authors, Sillitoe is known for his candid and compassionate depictions of British working-class life. He is part of a generation of writers known as the Angry Young Men—including John Wain and Kingsley Amis—whose defiant male protagonists fight against the deprivations and injustices of Britain's stringent class system. Although Sillitoe often portrays disillusioned characters who are either unemployed or trapped in unskilled occupations, his works utilize a realistic prose style, allowing the emotions and concerns of his characters to appeal to a universal audience.

Biographical Information

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham, England, on March 4, 1928. His father, a tannery worker, was functionally illiterate and often unemployed. The family lived in poverty and at times went hungry. Sillitoe had to leave school at the age of fourteen to go to work in a bicycle factory. After several months he quit the factory to protest the low wages. A series of various industrial jobs followed until Sillitoe joined the Royal Air Force just before his eighteenth birthday. He served as a radio operator in Malaya for two years until he contracted tuberculosis and subsequently spent sixteen months recuperating in a military hospital. This extended hospital stay was the beginning of Sillitoe's literary life, as he immersed himself in reading. Sillitoe married American poet Ruth Fainlight in 1959 and relocated to France. Later, the couple moved again to the Spanish island of Majorca, where he studied the craft of writing, composing both fiction and poetry. Author Robert Graves was also living in Majorca at the time and greatly influenced and encouraged Sillitoe's work. Sillitoe returned to England in 1958. He has been a prolific writer, composing short stories, novels, screenplays, poetry, and nonfiction. Film versions were also made of his novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and his short stories “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” and “The Ragman's Daughter.” He won the British Authors' Club Prize for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1958 and the Hawthornden Prize for his short story collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959).

Major Works

Much of Sillitoe's fiction revolves around working-class life in Nottingham, England. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning follows the life and loves of Arthur Seaton, a bored young factory worker whose daily existence is comprised of good wages, sexual adventures, and wild weekends at the neighborhood pub. His occasional fishing excursions and retreats to the countryside, as well as his rebellious nature and refusal to be worn down by an unfair system, save Arthur from embracing a wholly destructive lifestyle. Sillitoe's William Posters trilogy—The Death of William Posters (1965), A Tree on Fire (1967), and The Flame of Life (1974)—recounts the personal struggle of Mr. Frank Dawley. Reacting to signs marked “Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted,” Dawley invents a character named William Posters, who symbolizes the proletarian struggle for equality. A Start in Life (1970), Sillitoe's picaresque novel, tells the story of Michael Cullen, an unskilled worker who breaks out of his middle-class life by obtaining a job in real estate. When Cullen enters the world of crime, the novel becomes a thriller, replete with a gold-smuggling ring, twists, turns, and a host of secondary characters. By the end of the novel, Cullen vows to reform, but in the sequel, Life Goes On (1985), Cullen returns to his criminal life—this time as a courier in a heroin-trafficking operation. Her Victory (1982) traces the escape of a woman named Pam from her troubled marriage in Nottingham. After an attempt to commit suicide, she is saved by Tom, another isolated soul, and the two try to forge a new life together in Israel. The protagonists of Last Loves (1989) are typical examples of Sillitoe's defiant male characters. In the novel, George and Bernard, who served in Malaya during World War II, return there in an attempt to find insights into their past.

In addition to his novels, Sillitoe has written several collections of short stories. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is best known for its title story, which was adapted for film by Sillitoe himself. Set in a boys' reformatory, this piece revolves around a cross-country race. The story's adolescent narrator, Colin, seeks victory until he realizes that the race was conceived only to flaunt the reformatory's rehabilitation program to the region's governor. Although winning the race would gain Colin social acceptance, he intentionally loses and retains his self-respect. In the collection Men, Women, and Children (1973), Sillitoe explores issues of abandonment and betrayal. “Before Snow Comes” tells the story of Mark, a divorced man who falls in love with Jean, whose husband has deserted her. After he cares for her and her children emotionally and financially, she leaves him to reunite with her husband. Sillitoe has also authored several volumes of poetry, children's novels, and essays.

Critical Reception

Sillitoe has been a prolific writer of poetry, novels, and short stories, but he has not met with the same critical success in every genre. Sillitoe's poetry, for example, has not received wide critical acclaim; in fact, commentators complain that his poetry is filled with abstractions that can only be understood in the poet's own mind. In his review of Sillitoe's Collected Poems (1993), John Lucas argued, “Too many of these poems are muffled by dead language, inert rhythms and pointless stanza divisions, as though Sillitoe is determined to come on as a ‘poet,’ but has chosen to leave behind virtues that make him at his best a valuable writer of fiction.” Although his subsequent collections did not achieve the success of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Sillitoe's short fiction is generally considered superior to his novels. Reviewers have found fault with Sillitoe's later novels in particular, often asserting that the plots “fumble” or “miss their mark.” Other critics maintain that Sillitoe can be too heavy-handed with his satire, especially when writing about white-collar characters, whom he tends to caricature. Several critics applauded Sillitoe's portrayal of a female consciousness in Her Victory, although many feminists felt the character of Pam capitulates at the end of the novel and lacks the emotional growth of a truly emancipated character. Most reviewers have noted that Sillitoe's ability to realistically evoke the world of working-class Nottingham is his greatest strength as a fiction writer. Despite the overwhelming bleakness of his literary world, critics continue to praise Sillitoe for his proficiency at finding beauty and hope in a world of despair. Walter Sullivan described it as Sillitoe's “ability to perceive the rare stroke of beauty in the midst of drabness, the butterfly—if I may be permitted this ancient image—perched momentarily on the pile of dung.”

Victor Howes (review date 24 February 1969)

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SOURCE: “Alan Sillitoe—The Novelist as a Poet,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 61, No. 75, February 24, 1969, p. 9.

[In the following review, Howes contends that Sillitoe focuses too much on specifics and not enough on life's universalities in the poems of Love in the Environs of Voronezh.]

George Bernard Shaw once subdivided a group of his plays into “Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant.” By almost anyone's critical standards, Alan Sillitoe's poems, Love in the Environs of Voronezh, would be classed as Poems Unpleasant.

Mr. Sillitoe employs an elliptical style, knotty, hard to unravel, like the speech of people who grudge their words and spit them out sparingly. His poems are filled with implicit violence: with knives, bullets, bombs, with verbs like “to savage,” “to razor,” “to rifle out and kill.” His images seem to be forcibly held together by some subjective logic of the poet's own—a logic the reader can grasp only in subjective flashes of intuition. Cataclysm seems always to impend, as the images threaten to pull apart and leave us face to face with chaos.

Mr. Sillitoe is fascinated with the opposition of fire and ice. Characteristically he offers

midnight-midday frostbitten forest fires
Burning into the dust and honeymilk.
And eating even the iron through.

And again,

a fire engine races through
A freak snowstorm …
Will it skid into oblivion …
And leave only the snow of heaven
To put all fires out?

With Sillitoe one feels the impulse to say extravagant things, to squander words without any reserve of credit to back them up. He addresses himself, in one poem, to a “star that beats in me like a fish.” In another, he confides, “I am a tree whose roots destroy me.” He lullabies a baby with the words, “Goodnight sweet baby, sleep / Safe in the uplands of oblivion / Beyond the iced bite of the moon.”

In the present collection, his third book of poetry, there are poems about the ways of love, mainly destructive; poems about animals, about the exploration of space, poems of withdrawal from, and occasionally return to, the world, poems about identity, dreams, survival.

Some deal with travel, inspired by a journey Mr. Sillitoe made to the Soviet Union. But whether they explore the world outside or within the poet scarcely matters, for both groups are marked and marred by the poet's preoccupation with the bizarre. The Eurasian landscape through which he moves becomes merely another symbol for his inner journey.

Black ice smoulders all around …
Ninety degrees of bitterness preserve
Mosquito eggs. There is death
From fire but not by ice
As the list of winter
Pulls into the mitten of the sun.

Alan Sillitoe is an English novelist of considerable reputation. Two of his books, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, have provided the bases of films. These are widely admitted for their sensitive depictions of English working-class life. Mr. Sillitoe has worked in Majorca under the direction of the poet and novelist, Robert Graves, and there is no question about his powers of language, or his power to write angry, tortured poems, filled with images of rejection and negation.

Furthermore, great art can be made from such materials: witness Othello, the satires of Swift and Pope, and many of the poems of Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson. But for art there must be objectivity and aesthetic distance; there must be a sense of the larger life of humanity going on about its business, “eating,” as W. H. Auden has put it, “or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

Only fleetingly, as in the title poem, a celebration of a city rebuilt from its ashes, does Mr. Sillitoe show us that he glimpses life's continuities. For the most part he seems to be standing up too close to his canvas either to see it steadily or to see it whole.

Principal Works

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Without Beer or Bread (poetry) 1957

*Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (novel) 1958

*The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (short stories) 1959

The Rats and Other Poems (poetry) 1960

Key to the Door (novel) 1961

The Ragman's Daughter and Other Stories (short stories) 1961

Road to Volgograd (nonfiction) 1964

The Death of William Posters (novel) 1965

The City Adventures of Marmalade Jim (juvenilia) 1967

A Tree on Fire (novel) 1967

Guzman, Go Home and Other Stories (short stories) 1968

Love in the Environs of Voronezh and Other Poems (poetry) 1968

A Start in Life (novel) 1970

Raw Material (memoirs) 1972

Men, Women, and Children (short stories) 1973

The Flame of Life (novel) 1974

Storm and Other Poems (poetry) 1974

Mountains and Caverns: Selected Essays (essays) 1975

The Widower's Son (novel) 1976

Pit Strike (play) 1977

The Incredible Fencing Fleas (juvenilia) 1978

Snow on the North Side of Lucifer (poetry) 1979

The Storyteller (novel) 1980

The Second Chance and Other Stories (short stories) 1981

Her Victory (novel) 1982

The Lost Flying Boat (novel) 1983

Down from the Hill (novel) 1984

Sun before Departure (poetry) 1984

Life Goes On (novel) 1985

Tides and Stone Walls (poetry) 1986

Nottinghamshire (nonfiction) 1987

Out of the Whirlpool (novel) 1987

The Open Door (novel) 1988

Last Loves (novel) 1989

Leonard's War: A Love Story (novel) 1991

Collected Poems (poetry) 1993

Snowstop (novel) 1994

Life without Armour (autobiography) 1995

Alligator Playground (short stories) 1997

The Broken Chariot (novel) 1998

The German Numbers Woman (novel) 1999

Birthday (novel) 2001

*Sillitoe authored a screenplay adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1960, and a screenplay adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner in 1961.

Virginia Quarterly Review (review date Summer 1969)

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SOURCE: A review of Love in the Environs of Voronezh, in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer, 1969, p. 96–97.

[In the following review, the critic maintains that Sillitoe's Love in the Environs of Voronezh exhibits “only flashes of authority.”]

The scant handful of successful poems in [Love in the Environs of Voronezh] is barely able to save it from a plunge into a totally monotonous performance. Too many of the poems are of the sort one finds monopolizing the worksheets of undergraduate poetry-writing classes, half-realized poems which neglect the possibilities of metaphor, dealing instead in uninspired abstractions, as in “We”: “We-I have destroyed you / WE-I have finished you off / Torn you out of me,” or employing trite images such as the mask in “I Tell Myself”: “I tell myself as if it's true / I wear an utterly complete disguise / Which is myself.” Generally the poems lack richness of texture and syntactic variety. If Sillitoe could have maintained the sense of rhythm, the aural qualities, and the honesty of his title poem, he would have a truly skillful performance rather than one possessing only flashes of authority.

Times Literary Supplement (review date 18 September 1970)

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SOURCE: “A Naturalist No More,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3577, September 18, 1970, p. 1026.

[In the following review, the critic argues that Sillitoe's A Start in Life is not as good as the author's earlier work.]

In the stories in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959) and The Ragman's Daughter (1963) and in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which also began as sketches of life in Nottingham, Alan Sillitoe was able to recreate, in its own idiom, a whole vein of experience which had usually got into literature only as material for comic character stuff in the way of Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion or for militant reportage in the way of Orwell's Wigan Pier. The life concerned is one of hard-grafting, in all sense of that word—of living in old rows of industrial housing, working in down-town factories, getting outlet and satisfaction through semi-licit or illicit pleasures, from screwing the overlooker's wife to shooting foxes on a Sunday.

The idiom matters as much as the experience. Its hard snap and unpredictable humour still crop up in his novel of 1965, The Death of William Posters, whose title (not really made good in the book) is based on the splendid joke that “Bill posters will be prosecuted” means the authorities have it in for a scapegoat called Posters. In this new novel[, A Start in Life,] that sort of voice can be still heard in snatches, like “Her middle name was Audrey, which she favoured most, Tawdry Audrey from Tibshelf, who got off the bus one Saturday night in Worksop market place.”

This ability to root his art in the life of the poorly-off has made Sillitoe our outstanding portrayer of what Arthur Miller has called (in his classic introduction to his Collected Plays) “that sub-culture where the sinews of the economy are rooted, that darkest Africa of our society from whose interior only the sketchiest messages ever reach our literature or our stage.” It is presumably what Raymond Williams means when he speaks (in The English Novel) about finding in Sillitoe and David Storey late “followers” of Lawrence, a “narrower, more jagged edge” of evoked communal experience. Sillitoe himself, in a recent Guardian interview and in his introduction to the Heritage of Literature edition of Saturday Night, has repudiated the label of “working-class writer.” But the label is surely invidious only when it implies that the artist is dealing with a rather limited area that is somehow less human than other ways of life. What matters is that since, in William Posters, Sillitoe took to presenting the London middle-class scene, his touch has become fatally uncertain; whole tracts of his novels have been sketchy or forced; and he has resorted to literary modes which he cannot master.

A Start in Life is (yet again) about a man who breaks out of the hard-grafting life of the unskilled worker in the Midlands. The first seventy pages are (yet again) in the vein of the brutally breezy life-story told by the rogue male himself. But Sillitoe clearly signals his desire to break away from “regional” naturalism in the devices he resorts to. Narrative is interrupted for minor characters to tell their life-stories, in the manner of a Fielding novel: names are ludicrously fitting—Claudine Forks the husband-hungry Nottingham girl, Claud Moggerhanger the London racketeer, Bridgitte Appledore the rosy au pair girl from Holland, and Kundt the womanizing journalist from Sedenborg in Sweden … This kind of thing, along with the deliberately unlikely meetings and reencounters and getaways, prompts the publishers to credit Sillitoe with “reviving the picaresque.” He also “revives” Ian Fleming by bringing in a master criminal, who organizes big-time gold smuggling from inside an iron lung.

The result is inchoate. A thriller must be tightly plotted or it is nothing. A typical turning-point in A Start in Life is when the hero, quite implausibly, confides certain crucial details to a girl-friend. This might suit the deliberately cavalier linkings of picaresque, but here it jars horribly with a wholly different vein—the quite deep and subtle probings of psychological contrariness which Sillitoe is able to give the narrator when he is introspecting:

If I had taken the pains to see, which wouldn't have been all that far beyond me, to the deepest recesses behind his eyes in which that picture lurked in black and grey and red, of his wife's head tilted in the mud and staring at some innocent barge going by in the moonlight, I might have saved her, and him. But I didn't because somehow my feet were no longer plugged into the earth, and my aerial was withered in its contact with heaven. It seemed I had been living underwater not to have known the truth of what was so obvious … I saw everything clear and sharp with the bare eye, but a lazy idleness inside kept a permanent clothbound foot on the deeper perceptions that blinded me from action.

His best work of some years ago and the force which he still fitfully commands continue to give Sillitoe a claim on our attention. But there is a chance that his talent may fray itself out for good unless he now makes himself become less headlong in his output, perhaps by holding back from easy identification with the rogue male and by weighing up more thoughtfully what it is that he has against our present way of life.

Further Reading

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Levin, Martin. Review of Men, Women, and Children, by Alan Sillitoe. New York Times Book Review (22 September 1974): 40.

Levin praises the individual feelings evoked by Sillitoe's stories in Men, Women, and Children.

Maitland, Sara. “Worthiness.” Spectator 249, No. 8052 (6 November 1982): 29.

Maitland lauds several aspects of Sillitoe's Her Victory, but asserts that the work as a whole is flawed.

McCarthy, Tom. Review of Alligator Playground, by Alan Sillitoe. Observer (4 January 1998): 14.

McCarthy offers a generally favorable assessment of Sillitoe's Alligator Playground, but points out some stylistic problems with some of the stories.

Mewshaw, Michael. Review of The Lost Flying Boat, by Alan Sillitoe. New York Times Book Review (14 October 1984): 26.

Mewshaw complains that the characters in Sillitoe's The Lost Flying Boat often speak in clichés which limit the novel.

Quirk, Eugene F. “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” Film Quarterly 9, No. 3 (1981): 161–71.

Quirk analyzes the changes made between Sillitoe's short story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” and his subsequent screenplay based on the story.

Additional coverage of Sillitoe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography: 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9–12R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 26, and 55; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 14 and 139; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; and Something About the Author, Vol. 61.

Victor Howes (review date 7 October 1971)

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SOURCE: A review of A Start in Life, in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 63, October 7, 1971, p. 7.

[In the following review, Howes lauds Sillitoe's A Start in Life for its humor and comic characters.]

In the spill-a-minute world of the animated cartoon, the comic hero by turns falls off a cliff, is knocked flat as a tortilla by a steamroller, is exploded by a giant firecracker, and in the next frame—always jauntily intact and in the finest of fettle—embarks upon still another pratfall.

Alan Sillitoe's latest novel[, A Start in Life,] has a hero like that. Obedient to a formula as old as the novel itself, Sillitoe's rogue male takes on the world with all the gusto of a Don Quixote assailing a windmill. Never mind how many times it flails him down, in the next episode he's up again and fighting.

Born out of wedlock, not knowing who his father is, Michael Cullen early opts for a career in real estate. His taste for extralegal activities quickly gets him sacked. With his ill-gotten profits, he buys a car and heads for London, where he intends to live by his wits. Drifting into a series of jobs, he finds employ first as a bouncer in a sleazy night club, then as chauffeur to London's biggest racketeer, finally as an international gold smuggler.

Cutting athwart his life of crime are the stories of his numerous love affairs. The girls Michael Cullen meets possess vocabularies that seem never to have included the word “no.”

Briefly synopsized, A Start in Life cannot help sounding sordid. But what redeems the novel from sordor is Michael's unflagging high-spirits, the undercurrent of satiric social comment, and the beyond-good-and evil naiveté of Michael's narrative voice. “The pure of heart shall inherit the earth,” he confides, “and what could be more pure of heart than a simple good-natured desire for money and an easy life that would harm none of my fellowmen?”

Michael's greatest resource is his resourcefulness. His gift for lies, for assumed identities, for improvising in tight situations make him a match for Odysseus, the master of all escape-artists. His ready way with women, his skill in handling children, his kindness to such downtrodden members of society as Almanack Jack, make him, in spite of his amorality, one of the most lovable picaros to come down the pike since Fielding's Tom Jones.

A Start in Life is a real lark, a picaresque novel brought into the age of the automobile and the airplane. Kidding the conventions of the chance meeting of old acquaintances, the long-lost father bit, and the happy ending with all sinners cheerily “cultivating their gardens,” the novel portrays a shooting-gallery full of comic types.

Two of British novelist Sillitoe's previous fictions, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner have been made into films. A Start in Life cries out for cinematic rendition.

Russell Davies (review date 29 November 1974)

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SOURCE: “Trouble at the Dacha,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3795, November 29, 1974, p. 1336.

[In the following review, Davies provides an unfavorable assessment of Sillitoe's The Flame of Life.]

The Flame of Life completes a cycle which began in 1964 with The Death of William Posters and continued with A Tree on Fire. Bill Posters has been prosecuted far enough. Alan Sillitoe has taken some time getting round to this conclusion, but he is able to present, in an author's note, a certificate of diligence: during the progress of the new book “three other novels were written, two books of short stories, two film-scripts, and a volume of poems.”

This makes him very nearly as prolific as Albert Handley, the painter who lords it over his own rural commune almost to the end of this curious and garbled book. Albert is a creator/monster who seems to have grown out of the author's fears of self (the clues to identification include Albert's Schimmelpenninck cigars, a small tin of which is seen protruding from Mr Sillitoe's shirt pocket in the jacket photograph). He is a Gulley Jimson intoxicated by the privileges of a self-made man. Among the lower strata of the community the resonances are more variable and eccentric. The wildly frank breast-baring, the socialist/anarchist undertones of political debate, the climactic firing off of a revolver in the yard—these give the air of a Chekhovian dacha populated by disaffected remnants of the IT Home Affairs staff.

Amusing to contemplate in the abstract realm to which it belongs, this communal experience is a bore to live through page by page. The flame of life is choked off not only by the dull smoke of theory—the inmates of communes habitually waste much time wondering what is keeping them there—but also by the wet blanket of the author's presence. Mr Sillitoe has lived with this narrative so long that none of it “escapes” him, as it were: nothing takes fire from him and goes crackling off on its own. Thus even as the 300th page approaches, it is still difficult to tell the characters apart, to lend or withdraw moral support as the focus shifts, chapter by chapter. The intrusions of Albert are exaggeratedly welcome, for though his patron-bedding sexual bout with Lady Daphne Maria Fitz-Gerald Ritmeester in Chapter One is deeply bogus, it feeds on a lunatic rumbustiousness that has one looking forward to a repeat of this kind of behaviour. It never comes. This leaves only the internal ravings of the rest: Cuthbert, failed priest, nihilist and poseur; Dawley, revolutionary activist and insubstantial shade; Ralph, sobbing depressive and ultimate heir to a vast and vastly implausible fortune; Dean William Posters, pot-smoking heir to Mr Sillitoe's bad joke (see above); several women even less well differentiated than their consorts; and the dog, Eric Bloodaxe, howling gothically in the distance, where the reader would like to be. But Mr Sillitoe is cunning enough not to allow a moment's escape: one whiff of fresh air to clear the brain, and we'd realize that this material is incombustible.

Walter Sullivan (review date July 1975)

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SOURCE: “Erewhon and Eros: The Short Story Again,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 83, No. 3, July, 1975, pp. 537–46.

[In the following excerpt, Sullivan discusses the strengths and weaknesses of the stories in Men, Women, and Children.]

. … The world of Alan Sillitoe and the characters who inhabit it are as different as they could possibly be from the glittering figures and the handsome landscapes of V. S. Pritchett. As readers of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning will remember, the sun seldom shines in Nottingham, and when it does break palely through the industrial haze, it illuminates crowded shabby houses, dripping gutters, weed-choked gardens. The people drink and fornicate, drink and commit adultery, drink and work when they have to, hating every moment they spend in the factory and most of the moments that they spend at home. Marriage itself in the Sillitoe canon appears as a kind of blight, the ceremony guaranteed to make unpalatable those things which when done out of wedlock appear to be fun. Speaking of Mark in “Before Snow Comes,” which is one of the best of the generally good stories in Men, Women, and Children, Sillitoe puts the case thus: “He had two brothers and two sisters, all of them married and all of them divorced, except one who was killed in a car crash. It wasn't that his family was unlucky or maladjusted, simply that they were normal and wholesome, just conforming like the rest of the world and following in the family tradition with such pertinacity that at the worst of times it made him laugh, and at the best it sent him out in carpet slippers on Sunday morning to buy a newspaper and read what was happening to other families.”

The fictional possibilities of such a wasteland are obviously limited. Even in the world of [John] O'Hara's upper crust there are financiers and artists, professionals and heiresses, politicians and gangsters. But Nottingham is monolithic, unrelieved in its ugliness, and its citizens are cut from a common mould. Take them anywhere—to a borstal, to the army—and Nottingham goes with them: it is a way of life, a religion that admits no renegades. The wonder is how Sillitoe manages to write not only competent but occasionally brilliant fiction within such rigid limits. He succeeds because of his ability to perceive the rare stroke of beauty in the midst of drabness, the butterfly—if I may be permitted this ancient image—perched momentarily on the pile of dung.

I must be careful not to overstate the case. Most of Men, Women, and Children is about boredom and betrayal: husbands who leave their wives, wives who leave their husbands, parents who abandon their children, lovers of all kinds who prove untrue. The protagonist in “Scenes from the Life of Margaret” has trouble enough when the story opens, having been forsaken by her husband and left with three children. At the end she is once more pregnant and her lover has gone too. But it is Margaret alone among the patrons of a tearoom who will go—fruitlessly as it turns out—to the aid of a dying old man. Mark in “Before Snow Comes” is that rarest of all Nottingham citizens: he loves order. Another of Nottingham's deserted women becomes his mistress. He mends her broken fence, makes repairs on her house, saves his money to take her and her two children on holidays. But at the last she leaves him to go off with her returned husband and does not stop to say good-bye.

Finally there is “A Trip to Southwell” which is about a seventeen-year-old boy and a fifteen-year-old girl and their initiation into the grim patterns of adult existence. Mavis's older sister has already lost her virtue—if such an old-fashioned assertion can have any meaning when applied to Sillitoe's characters—and Alec is willing, even anxious, that Mavis should remain pure. She and Alec love: they kiss and fondle each other with innocent passion. Then he must go to Southwell, and when he returns she has fallen. Facing her from outside her doorway, he cannot tell whether she is pregnant. But the change in her is apparent and he is deeply hurt and still very much in love and inclined to blame himself for what has happened to her. He would marry her, regardless of whether or not she is to bear another's child, but she will not go out with him. The story ends on the note of his speculation: could the kisses he gave her have started the process which brought her to this?

Sillitoe's work is restricted to be sure. He would be a better writer if he knew more or if he allowed himself more space in which to operate. …

Frederick H. Guidry (review date 4 August 1977)

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SOURCE: “Sillitoe Novel Traces a Soldier's Growth and Switch to Civilian Life,” in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 69, No. 177, August 4, 1977, p. 22.

[In the following review, Guidry praises Sillitoe's use of the interior monologue in The Widower's Son.]

A military man is Alan Sillitoe's newest hero [in The Widower's Son], opening up for the author a wide range of metaphor having to do with campaign and strategy, attack and defense, victory and defeat, as applied to personal relationships.

William Scorton, whose experience is chronicled here from his teens to his early fifties, has a character that appears to have been as much reinforced as created by military life. So it may be incorrect to blame the army for the downfall that temporarily wrecks his adjustment to civilian life. The role of master-gunner suited Scorton, put his aggressiveness to respectable use. But after 20 years, including some time as an officer, he was ready to explore the outer world. “I love you,” he tells his wife, Georgina, assuring her with customary directness that she will not be hurt by the change. “The army phase of my life's ended. I want another to begin. I'm not the sort who rots away.”

Georgina, a brigadier general's daughter, has good reason for doubts about the next phase of their life together. She knows the positive side of military service and its ability to provide purpose and structure for the individuals under its control. The author thus seems to have stacked the cards against his central characters—service children inadequately prepared for mid-life crises which are intensified in this instance by a sudden switch to civilian life.

But if army life provides the basic tone of this story, it is far from limiting. Scorton's musings, his struggles to do right, his puzzlement over aspects of the human condition, though couched often in terms of military experience and observation, are easily appreciated for their general aptness and poetical intensity.

Mr. Sillitoe's earlier novels include Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. He is an accomplished writer of evocative dialogue. But his most appealing passages are those of interior monologue—those impromptu gropings toward a coherent and satisfying view of life—typified by Scorton's thoughts while bicycling:

There was no monotony in pedaling, as if the wheels worked a well to draw up thoughts from underground. Times had altered. People often felt this when they got older, but he had entered a state of calm beneficial chaos where regimentation of the spirit no longer had any place. … Nothing stays still—even my bicycle when I'm not thinking of pedaling. Chaos mustn't get the upper hand, though we don't want to get back to the brainless and soulless sort of order we had before.

Such blending of points of view—the author describing, his fictional creation ruminating, almost indistinguishably—bring the reader into subtle union with the very essence of the story: self-knowledge attaining ever higher levels.

Daniel J. Cahill (review date Spring 1982)

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SOURCE: A review of The Second Chance and Other Stories, in World Literature Today, Vol. 56, No. 2, Spring, 1982, pp. 339–40.

[In the following review, Cahill explores Sillitoe's affinity for depicting ordinary people in the stories comprising The Second Chance.]

In a long and prolific career that goes back to the mid-1950s, Alan Sillitoe has proved himself to be one of the most incisive recorders of what life is really like for the working class of England today. His twenty-fifth book, The Second Chance, is a collection of short stories written during the past twenty years. All the stories have been previously published in various periodicals, but this collection has special value because it focuses upon the persistent affinity which Sillitoe displays for the plight and torment of ordinary people whose lives are without dreams of happiness. The author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, Sillitoe understands with the weight of deep personal experience the need for a second chance, the dim belief that tomorrow will be better.

The title story involves a bizarre longing to revive the dead. In southern England an elderly couple, the Baxters, who have lost their son Peter in the Battle of Britain, are living out their days in unabated grief. One day the husband spies a young man in a hotel bar who bears a startling resemblance to the dead Peter. The young man and the Baxters need “a second chance,” and the three form a complex alliance of feeling and adopted roles. The young man is really a cheap crook waiting to seize the best advantage of the Baxters. In a risky and suspenseful plot, Sillitoe turns the tables, and material and emotional greed topple each other. The plot owes something to Pinter in the metaphor of the intruder into house and heart. Sillitoe is at his very best as he explores the fear and abraded emotion of people feeding on each other.

In contrast to this novella-length narrative, all the remaining stories of the collection are brief, and the main intent of each seems to converge on several characters whose lives have crossed on the path of love. “The Meeting” and “The Confrontation” are among the best examples. These are stories which seem to rise out of Sillitoe's conviction that the lives of the most ordinary people may illustrate the grand compromise that is all our lives. No dreams are ever fulfilled, but always there remains the redeeming hope for “a second chance.”

Joan Reardon (review date 21 November 1982)

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SOURCE: “Complex People Plunge into Love,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 21, 1982, p. 6.

[In the following laudatory review of Her Victory, Reardon asserts that “Sillitoe has reached a new level of craftsmanship and a degree of resonance that will outdistance his earlier work.”]

Trendy novels of consciousness and change often seem “self-help” books with their persistent directive to open windows to new experiences. So, while Alan Sillitoe's latest book[, Her Victory,] might easily be read as a message “to reach out and touch someone,” the novel does, in fact, deliver much more than the plot promises.

Her Victory is not limited to the simple story of a woman who had “married at 20 and had come out at 40 with her heart so bruised that it seemed as if she couldn't do anything except turn into a cabbage and rot in the earth.” And the complexity of the novel's characters—seemingly ordinary people who must come to terms with their past in order to live in the present—cannot be ignored despite the deceptive commonplaceness of their names.

From beginning to end, the troubled and triumphant tale of Pam's escape—from life with George in Nottingham to her residence in Israel with Tom and their infant daughter—holds the reader's attention. But Pam's inner struggle with the “two people she was” is an unforgettable experience for anyone who has had to make those decisions that are usually irrevocable.

Pam's determination to leave her parental home and a satisfying job in order to marry George was her first decision. It proved disastrous. Walking out on her husband and son was her second. “Both decisions had affected her so profoundly that all she had ever learned had come out of them.” Unable to bear the chill of loneliness and the nightmare of a return to George any longer, she attempts suicide in the London walk-up that she has made her home. The effort fails when she is rescued by a retired seaman who had taken up residence in the flat next door.

The narrative that follows—the story of a lonely man who “had battened down the hatches of [his] spirit during 30 years at sea”—complements Pam's own story. Tom's isolation, though different in kind and degree, is similar to hers. His past is hidden in the “documentary belongings” stored in his deceased aunt's apartment. Because Tom has saved Pam's life, she now can save his by helping him reconstruct his life, discover his mother in photographs and diaries, and eventually assume an identity that is both comfortable and true. In the long process of “sorting each other out,” they forge a relationship that ultimately leads to a shared life in the Promised Land, a “romantic story” without a tragic end—but tragic, nonetheless.

Her Victory is a novel about “aloneness,” a testimony to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that a man and a woman can torture each other in the isolation of togetherness. Because Pam's domestic life with George was played out in scenes of insensitivity, psychological harassment and even physical attack, the “defining process of marriage” had unleashed the demons of violence in her own soul. To escape the past, to refuse to return when George and his brothers forcibly try to reclaim her, ill-prepares Pam for loving Tom. Their commitment is a long and difficult process involving an initiation into communal love with another woman. It is a personal victory before it becomes a shared one. And it is a riveting story.

With this book, Sillitoe has reached a new level of craftsmanship and a degree of resonance that will outdistance his earlier work. Hers is not the only victory. Sillitoe has won his own.

Sophia B. Blaydes and Philip Bordinat (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Chariots of Fire,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, 1983, pp. 211–14.

[In the following essay, Blaydes and Bordinat analyze the use of William Blake's “Jerusalem” in Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Colin Welland's Chariots of Fire.]

The evolution of great literature into popular culture is vividly seen in the films The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962) and Chariots of Fire (1981) through their use of William Blake's lyric “And did those feet,” commonly known as “Jerusalem.” Written and etched about 1804–1808, the poem is the conclusion to the “Preface” of Blake's prophetic book Milton. Arguing with Milton, Blake urges the English to free themselves from “either Greek or Roman models” that had “curb'd” Shakespeare and Milton, and he urges them instead to turn to their own inspiration and prophecy. He asks that the “Young Men of the New Age” be “just and true” to their “own Imaginations.” Blake then introduces the poem:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among those dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my Arrows of desire
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold
Bring me my Chariot of fire.
I will not cease from Mental Fight.
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green & pleasant Land.(1)

By the 1880s the poem had become the motto of the Guild of St. Matthew's weekly paper. Set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916, the combination of words and music became an anthem first for the men in World War I and after the war for the British Labour Party. By 1923 the words and music were published as a hymn for English congregations. More recently it has been brought before larger and more international audiences as the thematic background music for two highly successful British films: Loneliness, adapted by Alan Sillitoe from his short story by the same name and directed by Tony Richardson; and Chariots, written by Colin Welland, directed by Hugh Hudson, and produced by David Puttman.

Over the years the lyric has been transformed from an individualized, prophetic injunction to an anthem of popular culture. Each succeeding use of the lyric demonstrates the leveling of Blake's ironic statement into superficial messages that ignore some of the most subtle, ambiguous, and symbolic poetry available to us. The lyric seems now to mean whatever the age wishes. The poem is Blake's exhortation to the English to unshackle themselves. As Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., recently observed, “Both Milton and Blake wished to return to original Christianity as it was laid down by Christ and his apostles,” and, for both, “God awakens the spirit of imagination in the poet who, in turn, must awaken the same spirit in his audience.”2

Written after the Industrial Revolution took hold in England, Milton and its prefatory lyric reflect Blakes's rejection of a social and economic milieu that almost destroyed the power and individuality of man. Emphasizing man's spirit and his mind, Blake reveals his abhorrence of war and his hatred of reason. As the prophet or God's instrument, Blake insisted he wrote “‘from immediate dictation. … I dare not pretend to be any other than the secretary.’”3 With the imagery and symbolism of Christ as the “holy lamb of God,” Blake asks if the early English walked with Christ. He asks whether God's light shines now through the clouds that rest upon the English hills. Pursuing the image to its bitter moment, Blake then asks whether God's country was built among England's factories and mills. By the third stanza, Blake turns from a series of questions to declarative statements rich in power and purpose. With the weapons of war—a bow, arrows, a spear, and a chariot—Blake repeatedly excites the reader to follow him to the glory of God, but not through actual battle. Instead, the last stanza explains that the bow “of burning gold,” the “Arrows of desire,” the “Spear” that is revealed by the clouds, and the “Chariot of fire,” are metaphors for the weapons of “mental fight.” Blake's battle is at first personal with the emphasis on “my” until the last two lines of the poem, where he returns to the plural mode of the first two stanzas. He closes, asserting that the sword will not “sleep in my hand,” until all of the English have succeeded in building “Jerusalem,” symbolic now of freedom from the tyrannies of society, especially those that repress and destroy man's imagination and prophetic energy.

That meaning of Blake's poem was profoundly affected in 1915 or 1916 when Sir Hubert Parry set it to music. Perhaps because the song arose from a need to have an anthem of sorts during World War I, it became associated with nationalistic causes. Published in sheet form in 1916, the “tune … immediately and lastingly received popular approbation.”4 First sung at a concert in Albert Hall, it was adopted by the Federation of Music Competition Festivals as their anthem, but even more important, the song became a second national anthem by the 1920s.

Over the years the same words with which the poet rejected established institutions and beliefs have been ironically embraced by English political parties and churches, and have invested ceremonies with nationalistic fervor. While some occasions may indeed echo the spirit of the original, more often the poet's words have become ironic footnotes. Such is the cast in the two films Loneliness and Chariots. In each, Blake's lyric serves both as an inspiration and as an ironic counterpoint to the filmmakers' depictions. Coincidentally about running and winning, both films are more importantly about freedom and individuality. An examination of the two films reveals that Blake's words and the music to which those words were set become integral to the purposes of the filmmakers and that those purposes are ironically antithetical. Both use “Jerusalem,” the earlier film, as an important, pervasive leitmotif, the latter as part of the title and as inspirational punctuation. In addition, neither film provides a clear understanding of Blake's poem.

In Loneliness, Colin Smith, a rebellious Nottingham youth, rejects the controls of the establishment by stealing a car and robbing a bakery. He is caught and sent to a Borstal where his talent as a long-distance runner enables him to join the establishment. He need only win the challenge cup for the governor, who suggests to Smith, “The greatest honour a man could ever have would be to represent his country at the Olympics.” Smith, angry young man that he is, rejects the opportunity. Having left his opponents far behind in the race, he stops a few yards short of the finish line and stares defiantly at the governor. Before a shocked crowd, he refuses to win. Smith has chosen to remain outside the establishment.

As in Loneliness, in Chariots the outsider defies the British establishment through running. The film depicts the true story of two outsiders. Harold Abrahams, who is Jewish, runs to exalt his people, and Eric Liddell, who is Scottish, runs to glorify his God. Here, as in Loneliness, characters reject establishment rules: Abrahams by hiring a professional coach, and Liddell by refusing to run on Sunday. Abrahams and Liddell hold to their convictions in the face of establishment pressures, and, ironically, they become national heroes by winning Olympic gold medals. Both Loneliness and Chariots depict outsiders who battle the establishment and win on their terms. Smith wins by losing and he remains outside the establishment; so did the angry young man of the nineteen sixties. Abrahams and Liddell, unlike Smith, win and become heroes, though, like Smith, they retain their integrity and identities as outsiders. Although both films use the hymn in different ways, they distort Blake's poem. In Loneliness, Tony Richardson, like Blake, protests against the way things are in England. Richardson and Alan Sillitoe in his screenplay answer Blake's rhetorical question, “And was Jerusalem builded here / Among those dark Satanic Mills?” with a resounding “No.” Richardson introduces the hymn, with its twentieth-century, patriotic associations, as a leitmotif for the establishment. For example, the film opens with strings intoning “Jerusalem.” Trumpets join in as a police van moves along a country road. The camera moves inside the van where it focuses on Smith, several other “new boys,” and two guards. The hymn continues as the youths comment on their arrival at the Borstal with a mixture of fear and bravado. The hymn recurs when Smith rebels against the inept psychiatrist, when Smith reacts against the platitudes of the governor, who pompously states, “You play ball with us; we'll play ball with you,” and when Smith resists the detective who promises lenience in exchange for a confession. Again “Jerusalem” is played when Smith's rival is beaten by the warders. Midway in the film, the words of the poem accompany the music, when the local minister leads the Borstal boys in a rousing chorus of the hymn. As the film ends and Smith is reprimanded by a warder, the soundtrack repeats the boys' chorus of the final quatrain of “Jerusalem.”

The hymn produces a different irony in Chariots because the filmmakers intended to criticize the English establishment5 through Abrahams, an intense Jew, and Liddell, a Scottish missionary. Both overcome or deny the establishment. In so doing, the protagonists seem to justify the use of Blake's poem in the film's title and as the hymn for the postlude, for Chariots does present “Men of a New Age.” Yet neither runner is English establishment, and neither wins for England. Abrahams runs to rise above the anti-Semitic establishment: “And run them off their feet!6 Liddell is equally a man whose inner convictions take precedence over patriotism. In response to the Prince of Wales' request that England be placed before God, Liddell responds, “Sir, God knows I love my country. But I can't make that sacrifice” (p. 140). In neither case was the principal motivation of the two outsiders patriotic. Yet, “Jerusalem” majestically closes the film with the fervor of England's second national anthem.

While “Jerusalem” appears in both films, it performs different functions in them. In Loneliness it is the most pervasive and affecting part of the soundtrack, offset only by a jazz melody that accompanies Smith's most satisfying, euphoric moments when he is free and running. When Smith is most beset by the restrictions of the establishment, the soundtrack plays “Jerusalem.” In Chariots, although the title arises from it, “Jerusalem” is less significant. Instead, the dominant music is an original melody that heightens the intensity of the races. The most obvious use of “Jerusalem” occurs at the end following the service for Abrahams after his death in 1978. Ironically, Blake's song here celebrates the death of an outsider with all the pomp and ceremony available to the establishment, but the irony is unintentional.

From a poem that urges a new Jerusalem to be won by mental fight, Blake's lyric has been transformed into a vehicle of easy ironies and emotional charges. The hymn in each film demands little thought and no familiarity with Blake's poem or his concern for personal freedom and inspiration. In Loneliness and in Chariots, it is used for irony and patriotic fervor. Perhaps it is a tribute to the power of the words and the ambiguities of the images in Blake's work that the poem can be so varied in its form and meaning. It becomes in Loneliness a powerful extension of the theme of the angry young man; it becomes in Chariots an evocative affirmation of the establishment; but it remains in Blake a powerful exhortation to his English readers to arm themselves for that mental fight of independence. The impact of popular culture on literature is often recognized, but where is it more clearly and ironically depicted than through the evolution of Blake's poem and its use in two successful films of our time?


  1. Blake: Complete Writing with Variant Reading, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 480–81.

  2. Angel of Apocalypse: Blake's Idea of Milton (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1975), pp. 158, 183.

  3. Allardyce Nicoll, William Blake and His Poetry (1922; rpt. New York: AMS, 1971), pp. 117–18.

  4. Companion to Congregational Praise, eds. K. L. Parry and Erik Routely (London: Independent, 1953), p. 312.

  5. James McCourt, “The New York Film Festival,” Film Comment, 17 (1981), 61.

  6. W. J. Weatherby, Chariots of Fire (New York: Dell, 1981), p. 33.

Valentine Cunningham (review date 6 November 1983)

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SOURCE: “Biggles and the Murks,” in Observer, November 6, 1983, p. 31.

[In the following excerpt, Cunningham provides a favorable assessment of Sillitoe's The Lost Flying Boat.]

Not all trite-seeming fictional packages disclose tosh when you unwrap them. A few sleuths actually turn out to be Grail-seekers, some ordinary Coral Islanders end up as Lords of the Flies. And the overt simplicities of Alan Sillitoe—this time a generous freight of boyish-looking adventure stuff—can prove most deceptive ones.

When Adcock, Sillitoe's wireless-operating narrator [in The Lost Flying Boat], meets Bennett, the ex-RAF bomber-pilot who's urgently crewing up a flying-boat to go snatch a trove of German gold coins off an Antarctic island, he spots the man's cigars: Partagas. Or, as he notes (quick on the alphabetics), Saga Trap backwards. And saga modes certainly proliferate hereabouts. It's RAF Bigglesforth time as the great plane's clutch of doomy hards—‘bespoke tragedians’ they're called—heads out for every trouble that a rival gang, assorted ‘gremlins’ in the works, and this kind of Press on Remorseless, All In It Together, And Then There Were Five plot can sling at them.

But, it soon eventuates, they're flying into no mere saga trap. In fact, they're in a much more intriguing corner, a giant solipsistic container laden with their fears, violences, suspicions, and their good and bad recollections of the war. They thought they were escaping from nightmares of nights in Lancasters over Essen and Berlin, and putting their troubled peacetime marriages behind them. But whichever way they fly is confusing and hellish—especially for Sparks Adcock, accustomed to using human signs to codify, sort out, make plain, but condemned now to radio silences and mounting haziness on a flight into inexplicables, moral murks, a hermeneutics of darkness. Boy's Own hero meets frustrated semiotician. It's a rather dazzling convergence. …

David Craig (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “The Roots of Sillitoe's Fiction,” in The British Working-Class Novel in the Twentieth Century,” edited by Jeremy Hawthorn, Edward Arnold, 1984, pp. 95–110.

[In the following essay, Craig traces the development of Sillitoe's fiction throughout his career.]

I've only to say I hate Nottingham, he thought with a silent ironic laugh, for all the years it's put on me to come into my mind as clear as framed photos outside a picture house.1

This sentence from Alan Sillitoe's third novel expresses the thoughts of a character, Brian Seaton, and not the author's own. Yet it does suggest Sillitoe's conflicting views of the city where he grew up—the seed-bed of his experience. When he was asked at the Lancaster Literature Festival in 1982 what his old community thought of him, his reply was: ‘I was asked once to a reception given by the Soviet Cultural Attaché in London, and there I met the Mayor of Nottingham. He didn't want to talk to me. They don't like what I've done.’ Revulsion from the squalor and harshness of the old place—a deep-laid sense of its normality and homeliness and vigour: these two clusters of feelings are forever surfacing and going under again in Sillitoe's imagination, heating to boiling-point and dying away again. Working-class Nottingham comprises the gamut of human nature. It is what a free spirit is driven to flee from. Both these ‘incompatible’ attitudes lie at the root of his vision.

This vision (by which I mean an author's whole sense of the world and its possibilities) abides fairly unchanged through Sillitoe's work for 20 years, from the writing of the episodes that became Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to several of the key stories in Men, Women, and Children and even the very recent The Storyteller. Here is what Dickens might have called a ‘keynote’ passage from Saturday Night:

And trouble for me it'll be, fighting every day until I die. Why do they make soldiers out of us when we're fighting up to the hilt as it is? Fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government. … Born drunk and married blind, misbegotten into a strange and crazy world, dragged-up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at the weekend and getting to know whose husbands are on the night-shift. …2

This would at once be recognizable as Sillitoe. The prose moves with a headlong energy felt in the impact of the alliteration, the choice of a word like ‘rattling’ where a kind of heartfelt violence matters more than objective accuracy, the wish to generalize or opinionate which comes out in phrases only just enough removed from cliché to create specific meanings.

Six years after that, in The Death of William Posters, Frank Dawley, factory worker on the run from his old life, says to a nurse who takes him in and gives him a meal:

Most of my mates wanted an easier job, less hours, more pay, naturally. But it wasn't really work they hated, don't think that. They didn't all want to be doctors or clerks, either. Maybe they just didn't like working in oil and noise, and then going home at night to a plate of sawdust sausages and cardboard beans, and two hours at the flicker-box with advertisements telling them that those sausages and beans burning their guts are the best food in the country. I don't suppose they knew what they wanted in most cases—except maybe not to be treated like cretins.3

This is a lucid, considered statement on behalf of his class. A little earlier in the same sequence, it has felt like this from the inside:

He was on the main road after the soldier's lift, doing ninety and dashing around like a tomcat after its own bollocks, tart wild and pub crazy after a stretch of high-fidelity that he'd stood so long because he was temporarily dead, thinking: ‘I go round in circles, as if in some past time I've had a terrible crash, and the more I drive in circles the more I'm bleeding to death. I don't feel this bleeding to death because it's slow and painless (almost as if it's happening to another man and I'm not even looking on, but am reading about it in a letter from a friend hundreds of miles away) but I know it's happening because my eyes get tired and I'm fed up to my spinal marrow, while the old rich marrow I remember is withering and turning black inside me. …’4

The rough, ribald vernacular ingredient in this is still very much Arthur Seaton but the imagery symbolizing personal depths is more prominent than before and may represent an effort to act on some profound advice that David Storey had offered in a review of The Ragman's Daughter two years before:

In Sillitoe's work there is an ambiguity which is never resolved: the feeling that the revolution he would set up in society is in fact a revolution inside himself, and one which he has not yet acknowledged. Society—‘Them: The Rats'—is his externalising of something inside; a black and subtle aggression directed not against society but more truly against his own experience; his attempt to exorcise some incredible pain out there rather than within himself.5

In spite of this, the old ranting and railing at society, to say nothing of the old effort to define the real meanness in it, persists into the stories in Guzman, Go Home, especially ‘Isaac Starbuck’:

He turned north into the patchwork country. A rabbit-hutch bungalow stood for sale in a rabbit-food field. He imagined it worth three thousand pounds. Could get it for a couple of quid after the four-minute warning. Five bob, perhaps, as the owner runs terrified for the woods, hair greying at every step—if I wanted to own property and get a better deal in heaven.

Needle shivering at cold eighty, he felt something like love for the machine under him, the smooth engine swilled and kissed by oil, purring with fuel, cooled by the best water. Out of the rut of family, the trough of drink and the sud-skies of low-roofed factories. …6

Headlong he rushes past or away from the settled or average life, this hero (for the author allows little to qualify or resist him) who seethes with ungovernable energies that never find a way of gearing themselves to a fulfilling life.

These inseparable elements—the irrepressible urge to tear and break away, the feeling of unfulfilled personal powers—are as present as ever in Men, Women, and Children, especially in the earliest story and the latest, ‘Before Snow Comes’ (1967) and ‘The Chiker’ (1972). Mark, the hero of ‘Before Snow Comes,’ hovers, as usual, on the border between settled, domestic life and an outcast limbo: he is divorced, and his love affair with Jean, a married woman, expires in a doomed way. At the core of his nature lies this typically embattled vision:

He worked at a cabinet-making factory as a joiner, making doors one week and window frames the next, lines of window frames and rows of doors. The bandsaws screamed all day from the next department like the greatest banshee thousand-ton atomic bomb rearing for the spot-middle of the earth which seemed to be his brain. Planing machines went like four tank engines that set him looking at the stone wall as if to see it keel towards him for the final flattening, and then the milling machines buzzing around like scout cars searching for the answers to all questions. … It was like the Normandy battlefield all over again when he was eighteen, but without death flickering about. Not that noise bothered him, but he often complained to himself of minor irritations, and left the disasters to do their worst. It was like pinching himself to make sure he was alive.7

A ‘chiker’ is a peeping Tom, and Ken, who does the chiking, is a middle-aged man who rankles and smoulders at other people's sexual lives (his daughter and her boyfriend on the settee, young couples on the common at night): ‘Maybe all men of his age felt young enough to be their own sons. … Now he was in the same boat and felt as if, on his way up through the orphanage and army, marriage and factory, he'd not been allowed to grow older properly like some people he knew.’8 So he hotches to break out and away, and empathizes with unattached young men going towards the station with luggage in their hands. But he himself is embedded in habitual living (he works as a waste-paper baler in a factory) and his deep-seated conflict between rootedness and escape is caught in the terrific closing sequence where he goes berserk at the canary singing in his living-room, shoves it in its cage onto the fire-grate, and starts to kindle a fire under it. But he lets the match burn his fingers, opens the cage door, and sits there sobbing as the bird stops singing: ‘He looked blankly at the bird and the wide open door of its cage, but it seemed as if it would never make a move. It sat on its perch and kept quiet, waiting for him to shut it before beginning its song again.’9

So the man (always the man) yearns to escape and harks back to his roots. Only five years ago the urge outwards (or drift south) was still the tendency of The Storyteller.

He didn't know what had got him into such daftness. Telling tales in pubs! And for money? Show your teeth when you laugh like that, you ginger-haired bastard. Donkey-head. He lived a mile away, so the story of his story might not reach home. In any case they would be so drunk at chucking-out time that they wouldn't remember much of what happened by Sunday morning. You live in hope, but you die in squalor. Maybe he'd leave home, and do it in Leicester. Never cack on your own doorstep. Move South to Northampton and, after a week or two at the pubs there, go and cheer up the car workers of Luton, which would be good practice for when he finally chucked himself into London.10

This novel, however, strikes me as forced and over-written: few of the story-teller's stories could conceivably be delivered in any actual lounge or public bar; and this is typical of the novels Sillitoe has written in the second part of his life, from A Tree on Fire through A Start in Life to The Storyteller. They tend to be horribly uncertain and fumbling, or lunging, in their touch. The Sillitoe who writes a sort of picaresque thriller set in the Home Counties in A Start in Life or a mixture of war novel and celebration of the Great Artist in A Tree on Fire no longer seems sure about what level he is working at or what voice to use. Characters are non-credible (e.g. John the mad radio genius in A Tree on Fire) even though the mode of the book is still apparently realism, and they are allowed to utter lengthy manifestos or self-advertisements in the guise of lifelike dialogue. When we are most insistently invited to treat them as incarnations of vitality or creativity, we can only back away from their overweening egoism, or the implausibility with which it is dramatized. At the same time—for the past 19 years—he has never set a larger work in his old home community (although he has continued to use it for perfectly sure-footed short stories). The question I will try to answer in this essay is: has Sillitoe failed to make himself at home in any way of life other than his original one? Or to put it another way: are there shortcomings in his talent which can be overlaid by the sheer intimate knowledge of a place and its people but become glaring when he has to rely more on invention and less on memory?

The working class (those who live by the sale of their labour-power and draw no income from surplus-value created by others) make up three-quarters of the population of countries like ours. Yet such is the chronic cultural imbalance that working-class experience has always bulked little in our literature (at least in printed books; in television film and drama things are rather better). Nevertheless, since the later fifties—since the coming-of-age of working-class offspring able to benefit from the results of the 1944 Education Act—the lives of the majority have at last been able to find outstanding imaginative interpreters, especially Sillitoe, David Storey, and Barry Hines.11 The catch is that a writer's habits, the company he keeps and where he lives, are likely to distance him from his roots and move him into the milieu of the middle and upper-middle class (Census Class II, professional and managerial). This in turn can become the writer's subject but this depends on his or her adaptability. Lawrence, for example, was supremely quick at seizing on the essentials of an alien way of life—what would-be militant critics used to call ‘betraying his class.’ The examples of Hines and Storey are instructive in another way. Hines has worked steadily in veins known to him from his youth in Barnsley, in the West Riding, from his vision of how an undersized lad from a one-parent family could fulfil himself in his relationship with animals to his most recent novels about young people and women struggling to make a living in a country ridden by slump. For Hines, it is a matter of being loyal to a class: he sees it as political work to present the dilemmas and qualities of the unprivileged. Storey is much less political; his interests are more inward and psychological. Yet even he is more strictly focused on his old class—the coalfield workers and their families in the Wakefield area—than is Sillitoe. As recently as Saville (1976) Storey was still moved to spend the most detailed attention on the people from the little houses, who bike or bus to work underground—the milieu also of Hines's television plays and novel The Price of Coal (1977, 1979). Yet because a miner's child can climb the schooling ladder to a clean and ‘respectable’ job, Storey has equally shown the precise circumstances, and the strains, of this process, in the later parts of Saville and in Pasmore (1972). Sillitoe has his own version of this tendency to move out and away; as we have seen, it is never by that usual ladder of GCE passes, further education, and a white-collar job, nor by that other usual ladder or bridge, emigration (unless Frank Dawley's time in Algeria fighting for the FLN counts as that). Arthur Seaton, Isaac Starbuck, Ken the Chiker itch to take off (but never do) through a sheer chafing at the programmed life. No social path appears to open out before them. The most ambitious and sustained break-out, Frank Dawley's in the ‘Bill Posters’ trilogy, is purely lonely: he grafts a solidarity with the oppressed people of Algeria onto his inner escapism: ‘You worked with those at the bottom in order to be reborn.’12

This contrast between Sillitoe and the others applies also to his view of the old home community. For Hines, it is simply there: his unblinking naturalism presents the life of the housing estates and the working men's clubs as just a mixture like any other, although we can infer a cutting-edge of solidarity with the workers from the advantage given to the anti-Royal wit of the miners in The Price of Coal and the undeceived dourness with which George Purse looks after his gentleman at the grouse shoot in The Gamekeeper (1975). For Storey the old home community is a milieu in which people (miners and their wives) have settled for half, in which they have, often literally, lain down under cramped and mean conditions and to some extent lost the power of living fully as a result.13

By contrast, Sillitoe has a much heartier relish and a more settled appreciativeness for the ordinary urban way of life than Hines or Storey. He also turns against it more bitterly. These ‘incompatible’ attitudes must now be looked into more closely.

Sillitoe's appreciation for the big Midland city in all its sprawl and shabbiness comes out at its purest in the well-being that all kinds of characters repeatedly feel when they are at home in it, for example Arthur Seaton just before being beaten up by Jack's soldier mates:

His footsteps led between trade-marked houses, two up and two down, with digital chimneys like pigs' tits on the rooftops sending up heat and smoke into the cold trough of a windy sky. … Winter was an easy time for him to hide his secrets, for each dark street patted his shoulder and became a friend, and the gaseous eye of each lamp glowed unwinking as he passed. Houses lay in rows and ranks, a measure of safety in such numbers, and those within were snug and grateful fugitives from the broad track of bleak winds that brought rain from the Derbyshire mountains and snow from the Lincolnshire Wolds.14

In the most basic way the city is a shelter against the elements, and though Arthur's well-being here is inseparable from his sexual contentment, the environment is still crucial to his state of mind, as it is towards the end when the summer routine of fishing along the nearby canal bodies forth his ease in the coming marriage with Doreen:

Another solitary man was fishing further along the canal, but Arthur knew that they would leave each other in peace, would not even call out greetings. No one bothered you: you were a hunter, a dreamer, your own boss, away from it all for a few hours on any day that the weather did not throw down its rain. Like the corporal in the army who said it was marvellous the things you thought about as you sat on the lavatory.15

In such places we feel—and it is a very rare feeling to get from literature—that the main protagonist can at the same time be both himself and part of the urban social norm. He doesn't necessarily have to separate himself from the mundane and average to be himself, to be fulfilled. Almost the opposite is true of all the other protagonists in this line of writing, from Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers to Pasmore and Saville, and Billy Casper in Hines's A Kestrel for a Knave.

This ability to be at ease in the city is not simplistic or sentimental on Sillitoe's part. In a fine early story, ‘The Fishing-Boat Picture,’ the postman is presented throughout as comfortable in a dull way, not much bothered when his wife walks out on him, phlegmatically willing to welcome her back for weekly evening visits when her lover has died, and this is figured in the calm townscape mid-way through the story:

I was at home, smoking my pipe in the backyard at the fag-end of an autumn day. The sky was a clear yellow, going green above the house-tops and wireless aerials. Chimneys were just beginning to send out evening smoke, and most of the factory motors had been switched off. The noise of kids scooting around lamp-posts and the barking of dogs came from what sounded a long way off.16

But Sillitoe knows the limitations of this readiness to make do, and when the postman has not quite been able to bring himself to invite her back, he senses his mistake and is left realizing (after her accidental early death) that he has failed:

I began to believe there was no point in my life—became even too far gone to turn religious or go on the booze. Why had I lived? I wondered. I can't see anything for it. …

I was born dead, I keep telling myself. Everybody's dead, I answer. So they are, I maintain, but then most of them never know it like I'm beginning to do. … Yes, I cry, but neither of us did anything about it, and that's the trouble.17

Sillitoe's people are workers to the core—not token or courtesy workers or abstract human natures with a few proletarian trimmings. They can at times feel their work to be part of themselves, as in a natural moment like this from ‘Before Snow Comes’:

He would get clean steel nails and set out those laths and offshoot wasted planks from the trunks of great trees that he got cheap because one of his mates worked there, and brush off the sawdust lovingly from each one, feeling it collect like the wooden gold-dust of life in the palm of his hands and sift between the broad flesh of his lower fingers.18

Here Mark is working for himself, or for Jean (it is her garden), but his feeling for materials and processes springs from his whole working life and it is a feeling which in places grows outwards to the extent of making us feel that a person can be at home in a factory—can overcome the alienating effects of divided labour and distant management. At times this seems willed—done more to enforce a doctrine than to express something the author knows and is sure of from the bottom of himself, as when Frank argues with Myra in The Death of William Posters: ‘“All I believe in is houses and factories, food and power-stations, bridges and coalmines and death, turning millions of things out on a machine that people can use, people who also turn out millions of things that other people can use. It's no use harping back to poaching rights and cottage industries.”’19 Is this not too flatly asserted as speech, too void of character or idiom? The same stiffness comes over the style when Frank, in the Algerian desert, likens his belonging to the freedom fighters' war-machine to his first experience of turning a metal part to the specifications on a blueprint, or when Brian at the end of Key to the Door looks forward to working in the same engineering shop as his dad and going to union meetings in the evening.20 The test is in the quality of the language, and in this respect the long passage presenting the start of Arthur's week in the bicycle factory seems to me faultless:

Arthur reached his capstan lathe and took off his jacket, hanging it on a nearby nail so that he could keep an eye on his belongings. He pressed the starter button, and his motor came to life with a gentle thump. Looking around, it did not seem, despite the infernal noise of hurrying machinery, that anyone was working with particular speed. He smiled to himself and picked up a glittering steel cylinder from the top box of a pile beside him, and fixed it into the spindle. He jettisoned his cigarette into the sud-pan, drew back the capstan, and swung the turret into its broadest drill. Two minutes passed while he contemplated the precise position of tools and cylinder; finally he spat onto both hands and rubbed them together, then switched on the sud-tap from the movable brass pipe, pressed a button that set the spindle running, and ran in the drill to a neat chamfer. Monday morning had lost its terror.21

This is the first passage I know of in our literature (nearly two centuries after the first power-loom was patented!) which evokes a factory-worker's experiences from the inside with the finesse that writers have given to all the others in the human range. The emotion suggested in the course of a very practical or technical passage is pleasure in the way things are and in being adept at them. The passage persuades me that a lively and feeling person can find that his own prowess or physical—mental needs are satisfied, at least for a time, by that industrial job. For five or six generations, since the start of the industrial revolution, our writers had figured the factory as Hell.22 And certainly the full-fledged forms of mass production, on the moving assembly-line, make up a fairly monstrous system; the experience many Ford car workers have of it is summed up in sentences like ‘The line here is made for morons’ or ‘Wind me up at 8 a.m. and that's that.’23 But there are jobs and jobs within the factory. ‘The factory’ is no more to be stereotyped, as though it was all one and the same, than are ‘the home’ or ‘marriage.’ It is a vast theatre of the most various human skills and experiences. To do it justice we need, not a single black or blank stereotype (Hell), but a complicated picture rich in evidence from the grassroots.

Sillitoe is equivocal about these roots and tends to deny their relevance to his work. In an introduction he wrote for an edition of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning he refers to the ‘so-called “working-class”’ and goes on to say:

The greatest inaccuracy was ever to call the book a ‘working-class novel’ for it is really nothing of the sort. It is simply a novel, and the label given it by most reviewers at the time it came out, even the intelligent ones who should have known better, was simply a way of categorizing a piece of work they weren't capable of assessing from their narrow class standpoint.24

Partly this is the resentment of a young writer at the patronage of people surprised that a novelist could spring from a line of factory workers. But only two years ago he could still write:

I was amused when reviewers and journalists referred to me as a ‘working-class’ novelist. In spite of the stage on which I set many of my novels and stories I had ceased to be connected to that part of life from the moment I enlisted in the RAF. Before that time I hadn't heard the phrase, and wouldn't have known what it meant. Then when I became a writer I simply did what any other novelist does, which is to use the first 18 years of his or her life in order to begin writing novels and stories.25

To this, I believe, we have to answer ‘Never trust the artist. Trust the tale,’ and the tale of Sillitoe's worth trusting above any other I take to be ‘The Good Women.’ It was first published in the Daily Worker from 26 May to 2 June 1962 and then (with significant small softenings of wording) in The Ragman's Daughter. One of its many strengths is that it centres on a character quite distinct from the author—an ordinary working-class mother—whereas in much of his fiction it is only the man, the impatient, overweening, anarchic man, who is fully created and the other characters are a foil to him. Liza Atkin is a woman learning to be militant. Her first experience shaped by politics comes over to her as purely personal: her elder son is killed in the Korean war by an American plane spreading napalm meant for the Communist lines near by. Her dogged sanity shows in her refusal to be funereal about him: ‘Liza came down the street next day with a loaf of bread in her hand, biting a piece off now and again. … Months later Liza was walking along a lane near Wollaton, and remembered how, at the beginning of the war, Harry and Alf had been evacuated to Workshop. Harry had been sick all the way there on the bus, and she laughed now to think about it.’ But she faces her pain squarely: ‘Korea was a world, a word, as far off now as somebody else's dream, that had killed Harry, called him up and bombed him to ashes for no good reason, like when you have too many kittens you dunk some in a copper. It wasn't necessary, it was wrong, the bad thing to do.’ When it thunders, she projects her rage into the storm: ‘I don't know who to blame, she thought, but go on, rip and claw the effing world to pieces. Tear up that bleddy town, sling it to hell.’

Again the story is rare in Sillitoe's work in that Liza finds an outlet for her personal anguish: it transmutes into militancy. When she goes to work in the bike factory, she shows her independence by refusing to be a soft touch when a shop steward assumes he can recruit her for the union without even a minute's explanation, but when a strike is called against being put on short time, she exults in it because ‘it was a way of doing damage to those who bossed the world about'—and because the best rank-and-file speaker at the meeting and the march reminds her of her dead son.

He makes two speeches, and they are crucial. Unlike any other political speeches in fiction (most notably the red-dawn rhetoric in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle), they are very well written, whether as trenchant expressions of a viewpoint or as dramatic imitations of public speaking in a vernacular:

‘Well, they can give us that we want in this dispute (and they will, make no mistakes about it) and they can give us a raise when we force the boggers to it, but as far as I'm concerned, it'll be like them smallpox jabs I had. It wain't take. It's not a raise here and a bit of an improvement there that we want—none of it'll take. It's a whole bloody change'—his wide-apart fists gave a slow forceful turning motion as if at the wheel of some great ship and making a violent alteration in its course—‘a turnover from top to bottom. …’

As the main narrative comes to an end, the prose balances wonderfully between evoking this particular woman's thoughts and a slightly more impersonal vision which gives us, more convincingly and clearly than anything else I know in the literature of our time, a definition of the impasse, the locked-up potential, which exists in our world:

‘I knew we'd get what we wanted,’ Liza said, exulting before those along the bench at how she had marched downtown with 2,000 men, as if inviting them to tease and remind her of it as often as they liked. Yet she felt that the strike had never really ended, that such a downing of tools meant little because instead of coming back to work they should have stayed out solid and gone on from there.

Something other than the mere petty end of an industrial dispute lay beyond them, the half-felt, intangible presence of an abyss that needed crossing for everything to be settled once and for all. They had had enough, but Liza, passing the thousands of components through her gauges at the bench, recalled the tall young man speaking on the first day of the walk-out, and knew that he and many others scattered through the factory also considered that something else was in front of them, a great space of freedom and change not too far beyond the feet and eyes.26

To write so well about ‘that part of life,’ you cannot have ‘ceased to be connected’ with it. Your line through to it must be clear and many-fibred, even though it now consists of memories, language-habits, and, presumably, surviving family relationships, and not any longer of actual membership. Sillitoe's own wisest thoughts on the class question, at the level of explicit comment, occur in the Author's Note to Men, Women, and Children where he writes:

I again use Nottingham and its county as my stage, though it is unnecessary to point out that the breadth of activity, of movement and suffering, is as intense and deep when undergone by the people on this stage as on any other … emotions have to be delineated in the minds of people who are not usually prone to describing them. The same emotions and feelings are of course felt by them as by more voluble and literate people. … [They] have the same sufferings as kings and queens, but their daily problems are more fundamental and tormenting.27

He has also said that the great problem for a writer starting out is ‘to remain true to what he has’28 and on the evidence of his work we have to say that what he has is an undying imaginative participation in the lives of the people he lived amongst for his first 19 years. It is because these were working-class people that it is necessary, and not misleading, to call him a working-class writer.

In Men, Women, and Children Sillitoe also says that ‘Those complicated people who are less down to earth are in many ways easier to describe, or at least no more difficult.’ His own practice suggests that for him this is actually not so. I question whether he has ever successfully created a character from the middle or upper-middle class. Yet his later novels have, inevitably, taken him in that direction. At the same time he has been trying out veins of boisterous, not to say frantic, picaresque. The result is this kind of image of artists, intellectuals, media people, and other types from ‘Home Counties, Census Class II’:

One crumby pub was bunged up to the gills, but along the bar was a face I'd seen before. … He was a tall man, dressed in a high-necked sweater and an expensive tweed jacket, the sort of casual gear that must have cost far more than a good suit. His face was, I suppose, sensitive because of the thick lips, putty skin, and pale eyes. He wore a hat, but in spite of this I was struck by the length of his face and head, which did not however make him as ugly as it should have done. … it was sharp-eyed June who told me he was a writer by the name of Gilbert Blaskin.

This writer's conversation consists exclusively of far-fetched drivel, monologues elaborating the plot of his ‘latest novel’ and the like, and after one such sequence the hero (a refugee from the Midland working class, of course) puts him down as follows: ‘I got up and put the coffee back on the stove, while he chewed the fat of his insane liver that lived off the fat of the land. I wished I'd been working in a factory so that I could have told him to belt up and get some real work done.’29

My criticism of this kind of thing is that it is too approximate and the authorial prompting too browbeating. Sillitoe doesn't have the satirist's gift of letting us see the precise features of the original just under the deformities of the cartoon. Whenever he touches at all on the lives of the white-collared, he is driven to violent caricature. This disfigures the whole part of the ‘Bill Posters’ trilogy which is set in England, particularly amongst the family of Albert Handley, the Great Painter, who stands for anarchic creativity. His wife's haranguing of a visiting Sunday-paper journalist is typical:

‘There are some people to whom being an out-and-out bastard gives strength. Oh, I don't mean the weedy or puffy sort who never have the strength to be real bastards anyway, like you. But I mean the man who, not strong in the beginning, like Albert, soon finds himself becoming so when he gets money, and the urge to be a swine gets into his blood.30

The context leaves us in no doubt that the Handleys embody Life, as against the half-life of almost everybody else, and the author tries to equip them with radical credentials which will complete their image as the last word in fearless authentic living. None of this has the least reality: Handley's eldest son, Richard (one of seven children), is at one point supposed to be sending the plans of ‘secret bases’ to Moscow rolled in a bundle of New Statesmans.31 Satirist's licence? Yet, throughout, the Handleys triumph much too easily for us to feel that they are in any way placed or qualified by their creator. The feeling is that they embody what he has now come to be himself—a part of privileged, successful England yet still hankering to defy and discredit it.

The lesson would seem to be that if you are to do so, you must at least have become, imaginatively, master of the middle-class milieu in which you now find yourself. One touchstone for this is Storey: as we have seen, he has gone on cleaving more closely to his old class than has Sillitoe, yet when he has needed to present the owners, managers, and rulers, his touch has been unerring. Consider the subtlety with which the manipulations of Weaver, the works owner and rugby club director in This Sporting Life, are evoked by physical and dramatic means.32 Or think of the truly sinister power (created by terse, low-key writing from which violent moments erupt) of those twin figures, Helen's husband in Pasmore and Newman in A Temporary Life (1973). Both are ‘self-made men’ (counterparts of Claud Moggerhanger in A Start in Life): without the least strain or excess Storey is able to establish them as black presences below the surface of the business world—representatives of those club-owners and property dealers who have taken recently to funding the British fascist parties, setting up connections with the Mafia-based drug trade, and so on.

The most complete touchstone is Lawrence—from the same part of England as Sillitoe, making the same moves as his career blossomed, earning the same equivocal standing in his old community. Lawrence shows a valuable self-knowledge in the letter where he remarks on one of his own working-class qualities, as he sees it, a ‘jeering and purpleism,’ which are also common in Sillitoe but given free rein, not understood self-critically. Both men curse strait-laced, habit-bound England in very similar terms so far as explicit comment goes. But here the resemblance ends. Lawrence feels to be as at home when he is characterizing the ‘well-bred’ intellectuals, mine-owners, and hostesses in Women in Love, for example, as he is when he is evoking the shabby-genteel life of Ursula and Gudrun's parents. Again, when he moves amongst the London smart set and their horse-riding county friends in St. Mawr, he is able to dramatize them satirically while not deforming or diminishing their reality as persons; he writes about this milieu with decisive sardonic criticism but not with animus (Leavis's valuable distinction33). For example, with that caricature of Gilbert Blaskin in A Start in Life compare this image of Rico, the dilettante painter son of an Australian baronet, being got at by his dissatisfied young wife (‘moderately rich … Louisiana family, moved down to Texas'):

‘Rico dear, you must get a horse.’

The tone was soft and southern and drawling, but the overtone had a decisive finality. In vain Rico squirmed—he had a way of writhing and squirming which perhaps he had caught at Oxford. In vain he protested that he couldn't ride, and that he didn't care for riding. He got quite angry, and his handsome arched nose tilted and his upper lip lifted from his teeth, like a dog that is going to bite. Yet daren't quite bite.

And that was Rico. He daren't quite bite. Not that he was really afraid of the others. He was afraid of himself, once he let himself go. He might rip up in an eruption of life-long anger all this pretty-pretty picture of a charming young wife and a delightful little home and a fascinating success as a painter of fashionable, and at the same time ‘great,’ portraits: with colour, wonderful colour, and at the same time, form, marvellous form. He had composed this little tableau vivant with great effort. He didn't want to erupt like some suddenly wicked horse. …34

Lawrence is able to conceive of such a person psychologically even while he places him satirically as a social being. For Sillitoe, people from outside his old home community are nearly always butts. And this connects with the spasms of aggression when he tries to get Them in his sights—his gun-sights.35 In spite of such violent squaring-up, and the constant use of ‘Communism’ like an incantation (no main character is ever a Communist but the cousins and uncles, off-stage, often are), it is very rare for Sillitoe to present a substantial conflict between Us and Them. (The clearly articulated industrial dispute in ‘The Good Women’ is an exception, as is the Algeria section of the Frank Dawley trilogy). The more rebellious of the Us people are therefore left to fulminate in a kind of vacuum—to pedal round and round in the cycles of their rage without their energy being geared to anything much outside themselves. And Sillitoe seems not to know this clearly enough, which gives rise to the wild swipes at the white-collared and also to a great deal of overblown phrase-making, mixed metaphors, a diarrhoea of adjectives: as Storey puts it in that important early review, ‘whenever passion fails, it's the words themselves that unsuccessfully he tries to whip along.’

The final thoughts of that review remain hard to dissent from, even though Sillitoe has produced another 20 years' work since then:

Continually it's suggested that society alone inspires rebellion without any awareness that we are condemned to find in society very much of what we wish to find there. … If one is increasingly exasperated by Sillitoe's beating at those out there rather than at the thing inside it is because his particular pain—the agony that runs like an underground torrent through Saturday Night and Sunday Morning—is one that is so important and yet one that is rapidly being sentimentalised. He has shown us his gesture, and we've seen it; now let us hear the cry within.36

My own review of A Start in Life 14 years ago arrived at a kindred point when it said that Sillitoe's talent ‘may fray itself out for good unless he now makes himself become less headlong in his output, perhaps by holding back from easy identification with the rogue male and by weighing up more thoughtfully what it is that he has against our present way of life.’37 I still hope that he may try to explore the deeper, more psychological levels of experience, bosses' as well as workers,’ in the industrial community with the intensity that he has been so good at focusing on its more outward incidents and characters.


  1. Alan Sillitoe, Key to the Door (London, W. H. Allen, 1961), p. 241.

  2. Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (London, W. H. Allen, 1958), p. 213.

  3. Alan Sillitoe, The Death of William Posters (London, W. H. Allen, 1965), p. 44.

  4. Op. cit., p. 34.

  5. David Storey, ‘Which revolution?,’ The Guardian (18 October 1963).

  6. ‘Isaac Starbuck,’ in Alan Sillitoe, Guzman, Go Home (London, Pan Books, 1970), p. 114.

  7. ‘Before Snow Comes,’ in Alan Sillitoe, Men, Women, and Children (London, W. H. Allen, 1973), p. 68.

  8. ‘The Chiker,’ in Sillitoe, Men, Women, and Children, p. 146.

  9. Op. cit., p. 155.

  10. Alan Sillitoe, The Storyteller (London, W. H. Allen, 1980), p. 37.

  11. See my ‘Sillitoe and the Roots of Anger,’ in David Craig, The Real Foundations (London, Chatto and Windus, 1973), pp. 270–1, 277–9.

  12. Alan Sillitoe, A Tree on Fire (London, W. H. Allen, 1979), p. 151.

  13. See David Craig, ‘David Storey's Vision of the Working Class,’ in Douglas Jefferson and Graham Martin, eds., The Uses of Fiction (Milton Keynes, The Open University Press, 1982), pp. 126–9, 135–7.

  14. Sillitoe, Saturday Night, p. 163.

  15. Op. cit., p. 210.

  16. ‘The Fishing-boat Picture,’ in Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (London, W. H. Allen, 1959), p. 85.

  17. Op. cit., pp. 94, 99.

  18. Sillitoe, Men, Women, and Children, p. 67.

  19. Sillitoe, William Posters, p. 259.

  20. Sillitoe, Tree on Fire, p. 192; Key to the Door, pp. 444–5.

  21. Sillitoe, Saturday Night, pp. 28–9.

  22. See David Craig, ‘Images of Factory Life,’ Gulliver II 11 (1977), pp. 100–1; Craig, ‘The Crowd in Dickens,’ in Robert Giddings, ed., The Changing World of Charles Dickens (London, Vision Press, 1983), p. 87.

  23. Huw Beynon, Working for Ford (London, Allen Lane/Penguin Education, 1973), pp. 114, 119.

  24. Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, ed. David Craig (London, Longman, 1968), pp. viii, xii.

  25. Alan Sillitoe, ‘Writing and Publishing,’ London Review of Books (1–14 April 1982).

  26. Quoted from both versions: Daily Worker (26 May–2 June); Alan Sillitoe, The Ragman's Daughter (London, W. H. Allen, 1963), pp. 169–72, 182, 185–6.

  27. Sillitoe, Men, Women, and Children, p. 10.

  28. Special Correspondent, ‘Alan Sillitoe,’ The Times (6 February 1964).

  29. Alan Sillitoe, A Start in Life (London, W. H. Allen, 1970), pp. 173, 184.

  30. Sillitoe, Tree on Fire, p. 27.

  31. Op. cit., p. 41.

  32. See Craig, ‘Hear Them Talking To You,’ in The Real Foundations, pp. 266–8.

  33. F. R. Leavis, D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (London, Chatto and Windus, 1955), p. 276.

  34. ‘St Mawr,’ in The Tales of D. H. Lawrence (London, Heinemann, 1934), pp. 561–2.

  35. Sillitoe, Saturday Night, pp. 134–5; The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, p. 33; William Posters, p. 315: ‘The kick at his shoulder was the joy of life.’

  36. Storey, ‘Which revolution?.’

  37. The Times Literary Supplement (14 September 1970).


I list below books which include treatments of the working class by the principal authors discussed in the body of my article.

Patrick MacGill, Children of the Dead End (Dingle, Co. Kerry, Brandon Books, 1982; first published London, Herbert Jenkins, 1914).

Patrick MacGill, Moleskin Joe (London, Caliban Books, 1983; first published London, Herbert Jenkins, 1923).

Patrick MacGill, The Rat-Pit (Dingle, Co. Kerry, Brandon Books, 1982; first published London, Herbert Jenkins, 1915).

Michael McLaverty, Call My Brother Back (Swords, Co. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1979; first published London, Jonathan Cape, 1939).

Michael McLaverty, Lost Fields (Swords, Co. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1980; first published London, Longman, 1942).

Frank O'Connor (pseud. of Michael O'Donovan), Collected Stories (New York, Knopf, 1981).

Frank O'Connor, Collection Three (London, Macmillan, 1969).

Frank O'Connor, Collection Two (London, Macmillan, 1964).

Frank O'Connor, The Cornet Player Who Betrayed Ireland and Other Stories (Swords, Co. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1981).

Frank O'Connor, An Only Child (London, Macmillan: Knopf, New York, 1961).

Frank O'Connor, The Saint and Mary Kate (London, Macmillan, 1932).

Frank O'Connor, The Stories of Frank O'Connor (London, Hamish Hamilton, 1953).

James Stephens, The Charwoman's Daughter (Dublin, Gill and Macmillan, 1972; first published London. Macmillan, 1912).

James Stephens, ‘Hunger,’ in Desire and Other Stories (Swords, Co. Dublin, Poolbeg Press, 1981; first published as a booklet under the pseudonym ‘James Esse,’ Dublin, The Candle Press, 1918. Included in Etched in Moonlight, London, Macmillan, 1928).

Alan Sillitoe with Joyce Rothschild (interview date 24 April 1985)

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SOURCE: “The Growth of a Writer: An Interview with Alan Sillitoe,” in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 127–40.

[In the following interview, Sillitoe discusses his creative process as well as the primary influences on his work.]

Alan Sillitoe, recognized as one of England's foremost living writers, was born in 1928 in Nottingham, England, and grew up there in impoverished circumstances. His father was a tannery worker, often unemployed, who could neither read nor write. During the 1930s, in the worst years of the depression, the five Sillitoe children often went hungry, and the family moved from one overcrowded slum dwelling to another. At the age of fourteen, Alan Sillitoe left school to work in the Raleigh Bicycle Factory. Protesting what he considered an unfair wage, he quit the bicycle factory after a few months and moved on to a series of other factory jobs. In 1946, not quite eighteen years old, he joined the Royal Air Force and served as a radio operator in Malaya for two years.

Sillitoe contracted tuberculosis in Malaya and was forced to recuperate in a military hospital for sixteen months. By the time he received his military discharge (in 1950), he had decided to become a writer. Moving first to France and then to the Spanish island of Majorca, he spent the next eight years mastering his craft, working on both poetry and fiction.

His first success came in 1958 with the publication of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which received the British Authors' Club Prize. The publication of a short story collection, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, followed in 1959. It too won critical acclaim. Within the next several years, the successful films based on these two works brought fame to Sillitoe in the United States as well as in England and increased the number of readers interested in his work.

Sillitoe left Majorca in 1958 to resume residence in England. He now lives in Kent with his wife, the American-born poet Ruth Fainlight. A prolific writer, Sillitoe has produced fourteen novels in the last twenty-five years, as well as four collections of short stories, six books of poetry, and a collection of essays. Sillitoe's recent works have received mixed reviews in the United States, but in Great Britain and throughout Europe his writing has continued to excite readers and earn the praise of literary critics.

At the time Alan Sillitoe first came to public notice, he was seen as one of “Britain's angry young men,” a group of 1950s writers that included the playwright John Osborne and the novelists John Braine, John Wain, and Kingsley Amis. Called “angry” because of the hostility toward social institutions and norms that was evident in their work, these writers tended to be identified in the public mind with the disorderly young working-class males they had created as fictional protagonists. In the years following the 1950s, these writers—each an important figure on the British literary scene—pursued decidedly different goals. Today, in some ways, Sillitoe may be seen as the most clearly proletarian of them all; although his concerns have broadened and deepened, he remains an eloquent spokesman for the British laboring classes. Nor is his anger at certain forms of institutionalized oppression very much abated.

Yet, in Sillitoe's case, any simple description of allegiance is deceptive. His fiction affords a critical view of many working-class values. Furthermore, his commitment to individualism both in his life and in his work overrides the promptings of class loyalty. Like another product of Nottingham, D. H. Lawrence, Sillitoe in his fiction depicts characters developing “consciousness” and thereby facing up to their own individuality. For him, as for Lawrence, the ultimate truths of existence are to be found in the individual psyche and—in particular—in the wellsprings of desire that are located in the unconscious. For Sillitoe's protagonists, some measure of freedom comes almost inevitably as soon as the individual breaks through the barriers to psychic self-knowledge. With that freedom comes a rejection of restrictive group identifications.

In keeping with his individualistic commitment, Sillitoe's most defiant public action was to refuse to comply with the British census of 1971—a symbolic act of protest against governmental infringement of privacy, for which he was prepared to go to jail (although, as it happened, he received a fine instead). Over the years, Sillitoe has steadfastly refused to become part of the British establishment.

Looking back over Alan Sillitoe's impressive body of work, one can now see Arthur Seaton, the young trouble-making factory worker who is the protagonist of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as a type that recurs as a secondary character in later novels. Seaton begins as a charming rogue, but by the novel's end we find his spunky recalcitrance reduced to timid respectability. Twenty years ago critics were struck by this novel's socioeconomic determinism—viewed one way, Arthur Seaton is emasculated by a society that denies him any access to power. Yet one sees today that the novel may be read another way. In this second view, Seaton acquiesces too readily in the conditions that circumscribe his life. In Sillitoe's more recent fiction, the characters who are worthy of our respect manage to alter circumstances that they find to be untenable.

The precursor of Sillitoe's later individualist heroes is Colin Smith, the teenage-thief-turned-athlete described in the title story of the collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. In that story, the plot turns on the emergence of “consciousness”—a combined physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral awareness—coming almost inevitably to a character who has become attuned (through long-distance running) to his body and psyche. Smith's refusal to win the race that others have trained him for and his opting to remain an outlaw are (in the context of the story) morally justifiable decisions. However, Colin Smith is not granted an enlarged perspective that might have enabled him to move freely in the world. In contrast, the male protagonists in such subsequent works as The Death of William Posters (1965), The Widower's Son (1976), The Storyteller (1979), and Down from the Hill (1984) do gain a widened perspective and are thereby empowered to move beyond the confines of working-class existence.

One of this author's strengths has been his ability to create complex, compelling female characters. It is thus not surprising that his 1982 novel with a woman as the central figure reveals Sillitoe at the peak of his descriptive and plot-generating powers. This novel, Her Victory, presents a complicated, but essentially affirmative view of male-female relationships. He is currently at work on another novel.

The interview recorded below took place at Auburn, Alabama, on April 24, 1985, in relaxed, informal circumstances.

[Joyce Rothschild:] Mr. Sillitoe, some years ago you were cited (in the book on you by Allen Penner) as thinking of yourself as primarily a poet rather than a writer of fiction. Would you say the same thing about yourself today?

[Alan Sillitoe:] I started writing poetry first as a very young man, and I continue to write poetry. But I suppose it doesn't meet all the needs of my psyche, and that's why I find myself writing fiction as well. I am a bit fearful of inquiring too deeply into my motives for writing—I don't want to know too much about my unconscious. However, I trust it as the source of whatever it is that makes me a writer.

Can you tell me something about how you began writing?

In a way, it was an accident, a result of my coming down with tuberculosis when I was stationed in Malaya as a young man in the Air Force. I was forced into the hospital and had to lie still for about a year. It was then that I began to read—of course I had read as a child, but I mean that now I began to read seriously and to think about what I was reading. I read everything I could get my hands on that year, starting with a translation of The Odyssey, which was the first thing I happened to take off the book trolley in the hospital. I didn't know anything about Homer, but I was enthralled by the story, so I asked if that fellow Homer had written anything else, and of course I was given The Iliad. I went on to Sophocles, Terence, and Greek and Roman history. All of this I read in the hospital that year when I was twenty. That reading changed my view of the world. As a consequence, I decided that I would try to be a writer. I had wanted a career in aviation, but now because of the tuberculosis I couldn't have that, and had to find something else to do. I was discharged from the Air Force with a small pension (enough to live on if one were very frugal), and I spent the next nine years or so living as frugally as I could—which in those days meant going abroad. I lived first in southern France and then in Majorca. During that time I read nearly everything that was worth reading, and I began to write, both poetry and fiction. Robert Graves, who was a famous poet by that time, was also living in Majorca. After I showed him some of my poems, he encouraged me to continue writing.

What have been the major influences on your fiction?

My early fiction was more or less a mixture of Aldous Huxley, D. H. Lawrence, and Dostoevsky—it was not very good, terribly derivative. I destroyed all that early work. But it was important for me to write all that in order to exorcise those influences and find my own voice. I keep the Bible by my bed, and I am always reading it, for the beauty of the prose. I also keep by my bed a book called A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, which my wife's father sent me as a gift many years ago. The stories in that book have been a great influence on my writing. I admire especially the Yiddish tales of Israel Joshua Singer (the brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer) and his great novel, The Brothers Ashkenazi. The Yiddish stories taught me a lot about the possibilities of storytelling. I learned from them that you don't have to follow a linear progression. You can wander a bit, which is more my style.

Have you been particularly influenced by any other authors?

Most of the books I read as a child were the usual juvenile fare, adventure stories that were not especially memorable. But I recall reading over and over again Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo. Something spoke to me in that book about the condition of my existence. Later, when I was a young man and had begun to write, I read D. H. Lawrence's novel The Rainbow, which is set in Nottinghamshire, where I grew up. It was a revelation to me to read a book that was about places I knew. It suddenly occurred to me that I could write about my own life rather than write adventure stories that were impossibly romantic and had nothing to do with life as I knew it.

What is it that leads you to write a particular story?

I always start with a character. I become interested in a certain character, who might be inspired by a real person I know or sometimes a relative I have been told stories about. Sometimes I build the character on a fleeting glimpse of a person I saw only once. For instance some years ago my imagination was captured by the face of a woman of about forty whom I saw one day walking down the Portobello Road, near my home in London. Her face was not beautiful, but it interested me; she looked as though she was going through some sort of crisis. I began to imagine what sort of experiences had brought her to that particular part of London at the time I saw her, and out of that process of imagination came a novel, Her Victory, in which she was the central character.

I usually do not plan out a novel more than a chapter at a time. If you do that, there's more opportunity for spontaneity, that is, for allowing unexpected things to happen. Spontaneous things that happen are more truly representative of human nature than anything you might force in a story to make events follow a certain line. I may begin with an idea of how a story will end, but that idea will often change through what the characters have taught me.

You've often been considered a political writer. Do you consider that you write from a political perspective?

Well, the short answer is no. I've thought a lot about it, and one or two stories I've written directly from a political point of view, and in fact I don't think they have been very successful. One of them is a story called “Pit Strike,” which was based on the 1974 coalminers' strike in England. “Pit Strike” was in a book called Men, Women, and Children; the story was later made into a television film. The other story I think of as political is “The Good Women,” which appears in a book called The Ragman's Daughter. But, with possibly those exceptions, I have always refused to be drawn into politics. I think it's fatal for a writer or any artist. This is not to say that George Woodcock [a British-Canadian writer on political themes] and others like him are too political. I'm saying that it's not for me. If I tried to further a political cause by writing fiction, I would not get the best out of myself. It's a matter of expediency, really, almost as much as belief.

I'd like to follow up with a somewhat political question. Do you think the class system in England is going to last?

The class system in England is probably as solid as it ever was. I think it's the last thing that will go. As England sinks into the ocean, there will be a flag on top, the emblem of the class system—it'll be the last thing to go down. I don't say that on the glib assumption that it's a bad thing necessarily. It has a lot of charm, a rather cozy feeling for a lot of people. Not for me because I have never felt part of it. When I was a child in my sort of ghetto, I didn't realize that any other class existed, so I couldn't care about a class system. Then I went into the factory, where class doesn't exist—you simply work. It's mind-deadening work, and you're selling yourself for what you earn. When I went into the Air Force, there was a hierarchy, but not class. You were judged according to your accomplishments. When I came out of the Air Force, I had a pension and went to live as an expatriate in France and Spain.

So the class system never really crossed my consciousness. It comes into my work simply because it is in other people's lives about whom I write, but it never worried me. But I think the English people love it. If they didn't love it, they wouldn't have it, you know. I think it's there to stay. All I can say is good luck to them.

As you know, you've been characterized as an “angry” writer, one of the “angry young men.” Would you comment on that?

I've never thought of myself as angry, particularly. In fact, I never write when I'm angry, or sad, or happy. I like to write when I'm feeling dispassionate and detached—so as to get things down right. As for being a member of a group called the “angry young men,” I have never quite understood how that idea developed. When I was writing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the stories collected in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, I didn't know John Braine or Kingsley Amis or John Osborne and I hardly knew at all what they were writing. We're all very much unlike, as our subsequent work has shown. I don't think I have been influenced by any of them in a significant way.

Does it bother you that people want to talk about your fiction—the works you just mentioned—written twenty years or more ago?

No. I don't worry too much about that. I just put my head down and write.

I'd like to change the subject a bit, to explore the subject of your early life. Do you have any bitterness at the lack of education you received? Or do you think it was perhaps to your advantage?

I don't have any bitterness, no. I was always grateful that I was given as much education as I was. One learned how to read, one learned how to write, one learned the rudiments of geography and a few other things. In fact, given the resources they had and the raw material they had to deal with, I think the teachers were very dedicated—quite good, really. I was disappointed when I didn't pass the eleven-plus exam—the examination that determined whether or not you would go on in school and would be prepared for university. But I think it was out of the question anyway. I think out of this small school about two passed. You know when you're presented with I. Q. questions, everything looks like Chinese ideograms—unless your parents have gone into town to a bookshop and purchased a set of similar examination papers and have had you practice for weeks beforehand so that at least you're familiar with the form of the questions. But then, if I had passed as I wanted to, the question would have been who would pay for my uniform, who would pay for my books—my parents wouldn't have done it. My grandmother might have done it, but I'm not sure.

When I came out of the Air Force, I thought to myself, maybe I should go to the university now. So I spoke to someone who knew how to get in, and he said, “Well, okay. What you've got to do now is start learning Latin.” Because in those days you had to pass an examination in Latin before you could get into the university. I had already started to write, and I thought that, well, I would just stay on as I was and write and see how much I would make of it. No, I was never bitter. Disappointed, that's something else, but not bitter. I think if I had been to a university I might have been writing clear English two or three years before I was. So I might have been published at the age of 27 instead of 30. And who is to say that my voice wouldn't have been stifled? I don't know. I think that if I had been to an American university, the chances are less that my voice would have been stifled. If I had been to an English one, I might have easily become ashamed of my background and hidden it and never gotten my real voice out.

I believe that you were too young to fight in World War II. Did you have any relatives who did fight?

I had more relatives who deserted. Many people deserted during the war. Some I knew just came home, burned their uniforms, and led a life of crime. They didn't want to fight. Oh, eventually they did fight. They were caught and went back into the army and acquitted themselves with sufficient honor. But, generally speaking, anyone who joined up was considered to be a fool, even in wartime.

But this didn't apply to me. I really wanted to join up. I volunteered when I was seventeen, right before the European War ended. Right up to the end, one didn't believe it would end. You thought it was here for good. You couldn't conceive of a time when there would be peace. And I thought that in a couple of years I would be in it with the rest of them. When the European War ended, I thought the Japanese War would be on for another two years, but it ended the same year. So I was let off the hook. I'm sure I would have been killed because I had volunteered for Air Crew and passed the Air Crew Selection Board because I had been a cadet for four years learning aviation. So I was pre-channeled to be a pilot on a carrier. I wanted to be a navigator, but they wouldn't take me as a navigator—I had to be a pilot. I wanted to be a navigator in a bomber over Germany so I could drop bombs—that was my idea, horrible as it sounds.

Was there much bombing in Nottingham?

Not very much. I think there was one raid when over 200 people were killed, but that wasn't considered much at all. There was always a bit of skirmishing going on because Nottingham was so near Derby, where there was a Rolls Royce aero-engine plant.

Do you think of World War II as an important experience? Did it change things in England at all?

It fundamentally changed England in some ways. But not to the extent that they'd cut their own throats by having some kind of bloody revolution. They didn't want things to alter unrecognizably. The war changed things to the extent that a vast improvement took place in everyone's lives. I mean that there is no connection between poverty today and the poverty that existed in the 1930s. That sort of poverty is unthinkable today. Nobody would put up with it. Today there are three million unemployed in England. They all draw some kind of dole. So they are being “bought off” from social unrest by the dole. Now, where is the money for the dole coming from?—from the North Sea oil revenues. Instead of using the North Sea oil revenues to finance a second technological revolution, they're using it to pay off the unemployed. So when the oil revenues disappear, and they have no more money to pay the unemployed, then there may be trouble.

It's interesting to me that you married an American, the poet Ruth Fainlight.

Well, there I am tempted to say it's just chance, which is what one says when there's no easy answer. I met Ruth in a second-hand bookshop in the town of Nottingham. She was just twenty, and I wasn't much older. I didn't know that she was an American. Her English accent was very good—she had been living in England since she was fifteen. I thought maybe she was from Canada. We got to know each other, and after a year or so we left everything and went to France. We thought we were going away for six months and came back six years later. We got married in 1959. We have a son, David, who's now twenty-three. He's a photographer, doing quite well on his own.

Do you read much contemporary writing?

They're not precisely contemporary, but I'm reading the memoirs of Hector Berlioz now, a chap I greatly admire. I seem to be reading all the time—something. Do you know William Kennedy, a writer from Albany, New York? He wrote Ironweed and Legs, which is about Legs Diamond. Those are wonderful novels, part of a trilogy, that I read recently. I tend to read a lot of American writing. When we were living in Majorca in the fifties, all the stuff was American. Styron, Salinger, Mailer—you name it, we were reading it. We weren't getting anything from England. The American lot had plenty of vigor—still does.

Your latest novel, Down from the Hill—is it available in the United States?

The British publisher is Granada. I'm not sure that the book is going to be published in the United States. The general reaction of the two or three American publishers that saw it was that it was a bit too English, too parochial, or whatever they call it. That was their reaction to The Widower's Son, as well. This is a similar type of novel, though it's shorter, only about 200 pages.

It's a simple story about a young boy of 17 who works in a factory. In the summer of 1945 he decides to go on holiday on his bicycle. He had planned to go with a friend, but the friend pulled out at the last minute, so he is on his own. This circuit of 300 to 400 miles which he does around the English Midlands takes place when he is at his absolute peak of consciousness. He works in a factory and is about to join up. He feels good, the world is wonderful, even the war in Europe has just ended. Also a few weeks before there had been a general election. Labor had just won a landslide victory. He feels this is a turning point, not only for him but for the whole country. That section of the novel, which is three-quarters of it, ends when he gets back to Nottingham.

The first part of the novel is in the first person, while the last part is in the third person. It has the same man some 38 years later, who is driving on the same circuit and recreating this earlier journey. And as he's going on his way, the news is coming through of Mrs. Thatcher's enormous landslide victory. It's one of those novels which is about the discovery of the past; but it's also about the realization that, in England at least, nothing changes.

Despite your disclaimers, then, you certainly seem to have a political outlook and definite allegiances.

Yes, of course, coming from the background that I do, I am always on the side of the workers. But I have come to see how complicated certain situations can be—like the coalminers' strike this past year—and to believe that often neither side is completely right.

I have not found much reference to religion in your early fiction, but in later work you sometimes seem to be wrestling with ideas about God—as though you can't entirely dispense with the notion of the existence of God. Would you care to comment?

My family when I was growing up was so poor that we were even below the “religion line.” That is, we didn't go to any church. I was not raised with any religion. That was not unusual among people living in the Nottingham slums at a subsistence level. Probably as a result, I have never been much attracted to religion. But the idea of God is a powerful concept that no writer can entirely disregard. It has occurred to me that writing may be my way of coping with the ultimate questions of existence.

Which of your works of fiction are your favorites?

Raw Material is a book with anecdotal chapters about my four grandparents and my aunts and uncles, interwoven with “philosophic” chapters in which the narrator speculates on the connections between lying and fiction. It is a book I often read from when asked to give a public reading. Because it is so hard to say where the literal truth changes to fiction, I have always thought that Raw Material should be classified as fiction, even though it could also be called a memoir.

Basically, as a writer, one doesn't dwell too much on work that is already written. Probably, out of my fiction, I like best The Widower's Son and Her Victory. These are closest to my heart. They also took the most out of me to write—each one nearly killed me. Perhaps they mean most to me because they cost me so much to write. As I get older, it gets harder to write, not easier. That's good. It means that one's perceptions are more complex.

In The Widower's Son, the main character, William Scorton, makes a crucial decision to leave the army, his career up to then; it is a decision that costs him his marriage. I found his decision surprising, given the fact he has been brought up to be a career soldier and has obviously been successful at it. Would you comment on Scorton's decision?

If you remember, Scorton's wife, Georgina, has just had a miscarriage, and he has taken her for a vacation to Belgium, to view the battlefield at Bruges where he fought during the war. He misguidedly decides—on impulse, just after they have made love—that he must get out of the army because if he doesn't the marriage is going to collapse. She's central to his life—the army is as well, but at that point he veers over into her court. They've had a troubled marriage, and this occurs to him as what he must do to save it. But of course it doesn't turn out as he anticipated.

You don't think his decision was a rejection of what the army represented?

No, certainly not consciously. I think one acts basically according to one's unconscious mind. Life would be in a sense more satisfactory if you never had to make a decision because if you don't make a decision, then sooner or later a decision is made for you. And that's the true decision.

I think at that time Scorton had no idea he was going to leave the army, but it suddenly spoke out of him at that particular point. By then, when he had said, “I'm going to leave the army,” he had committed himself, and pride and, in a way, stupidity made it so that he couldn't go back. And the more his wife objected to it, even less could he go back. In other words, his subconscious, or fate, was pushing him along a certain course. He had to get out of the army because he was on a way to gaining his new life, which was apparent by the end. That was the turning point of the novel when he said, “I'm going to leave the army.” All the rest of his life he had been following the precepts of his father. From that point on, it was decided by his subconscious that “This isn't me, something's got to change.” He didn't consciously think that he might lose Georgina as a consequence, but his subconscious decided that he would damn well lose Georgina if that were the price. Of course, the two of them were not meant for each other, which was obvious from the beginning.

In the course of breaking up with Georgina, William Scorton has some kind of emotional breakdown. Do you think he had to break down in order to change?

Well, yes. Fundamentally, it seems to me, there's no growth without great pain. It always takes some kind of crisis for a human being to move into a new dimension of awareness.

In Her Victory, the main character is a woman of about forty who makes an abrupt change in her life, like Scorton. She's a fairly ordinary woman who suddenly realizes that she must leave her husband—he has been behaving very badly to her, and that seems to be the reason she must leave, but it's not the real reason, which is a need to save her soul. So she flees to London and arrives without money or friends—in a state of crisis. It is from that crisis, a state of desperation really, that eventually her strength emerges. The novel is about the victory she achieves.

How aware are you of imagery and symbolism when you write?

I don't theorize when I write—or think about symbols and such—that would be disastrous. I think about human beings. Later, sometimes, I can see patterns of imagery, but I don't think about these when I am writing. Of course, one does many drafts of a story or a novel and considers some aspects of craftsmanship in later versions which one doesn't earlier.

Do you view the process of writing poetry as different from the process of writing fiction?

I see poetry as a quite separate and fundamental part of me, very distinct from the fiction in that it comes only on inspiration—rather than through the exercise of craft and conscious encouragement as does fiction. Poetry writes itself much more than fiction, but having said that, and having the page (or so) of raw material in front of me, I find that the work then begins. Whereas I often put a story or a novel through as much as eight drafts, a poem can be worked a score of times before real clarity of meaning emerges, as it must before it can be considered finished.

I try never to be obfuscatory in anything, and certainly not in poems—relying mainly on free verse rhythms. I studied, and still study, prosody, and experiment occasionally in traditional forms, but usually I use my own basic personal (Biblical sometimes) free rhythms. I'm not saying that poetry must be deadening in its simplicity, but I don't think that one should be too esoteric to the extent that one assumes the reader can apply all the footnotes and translations of foreign phrases. Maybe a poem needs to be read carefully a couple of times, but after that it should be fairly plain.

Do you read reviews of your work?


Do you get helpful advice or ideas from them?

No, never. I read reviews. And I get irritated. If I get bad reviews, well, I don't care much. I suppose the publisher likes for you to get good reviews. If I get consistently good reviews, I think it is time to cut my throat because I feel that I am doing something wrong.

Would you tell us something about the novel you're currently writing?

The novel I'm working on now is about a man, some sort of writer, who comes from a background without consciousness. That is, he comes from an environment where people tend not to think about themselves, their choices, their lives—they don't have the habit of doing so. This man has become a writer, which means that he has become conscious in a way that people of his background usually are not. The novel is the story of how he got from the one place to the other. Obviously, there's a lot of my story in this, but it's not entirely about me.

William Hutchings (essay date Spring 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Work of Play: Anger and the Expropriated Athletes of Alan Sillitoe and David Storey,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 35–47.

[In the following essay, Hutchings examines the role of sports and the athlete in the work of Alan Sillitoe and David Storey.]

“At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost,” Karl Marx observed in Das Kapital, “it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity” (422). Nowhere has this observation been better exemplified than in the English novels of working-class life since the late 1950s. Whether toiling at lathes like Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Arthur Machin in David Storey's This Sporting Life or at a milling-machine like Smith's in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the protagonists of such fiction typically find that their actions soon became automatic, reducing them as workers (and, more importantly, as human beings) to mere operative extensions of the factory's machinery in exactly the way that Marx described. For virtually all of these working-class protagonists, the body and its pleasures provide refuge from the workaday monotony, fragmentation, and dreariness of factory-bound life in a class-ridden world. At the end of the week, having received their pay packets, they leave behind the factory with its noise and smells, eager to have “the effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory … swilled out of [their] system[s]” in the “cosy world of pubs and noisy tarts” (Sillitoe, Saturday Night 7, 33) for which such novels are renowned. For many, however, sports provide an equally vital source of such pleasure—and, for those who play the pools or frequent the betting-shops, the prospect of supplementary profit or loss as well. To some fans, such as the narrator of Sillitoe's short story “The Match,” a team's dismal fortunes on the playing-field even presage a crisis in the day-to-day relationships of family life; to some athletes, such as the narrator of This Sporting Life, a team's collective endeavors provide a welcome release for the frustrations and pain that such personal relationships involve. Even to those who no longer play the game, like the middle-aged sportswriter who is the central character of Storey's novel Present Times (1984), the world of sport—with its clear rules and its unambiguous outcomes—provides a haven from the various cultural upheavals and controversies that rive the modern family as well as contemporary society as a whole.

For spectators and participants alike, the importance of the “game” extends far beyond the vicarious enjoyment of fans' team-loyalties and the athletes' personal accomplishments. Yet, as characters in Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Storey's This Sporting Life and The Changing Room come to recognize, sport, play, and even the body itself have been expropriated by exactly the social “establishment” from which they are alienated. Turned into the “work” of professional rugby for Storey's characters and into officially mandated “games” in Sillitoe's novella, “play” and sport become dehumanizing, no longer fulfilling their original and essential recreational functions in the way that they did in earlier times. Although in both authors' works the characters' participation in sports affords them a certain personal satisfaction and fulfillment that life in the “real” world cannot provide, the fact of the athlete's expropriation not only provides a crucial symbol for the causes of the characters' alienation and anger but also has implications well beyond their particular time, class, and society.

Almost invariably in such fiction, the protagonist is repeatedly described as being “big”—a standard image of the worker in twentieth-century art of all forms, of course, from Soviet Socialist Realism to the murals of the W. P. A. Yet, as Sillitoe has pointed out in one of his essays in Mountains and Caverns, such a portrayal of a working-class protagonist had particular importance in England in the mid-1950s when

working men [who were] portrayed in England by the cinema, or on radio and television, or in books were … presented in unrealistic terms … behaving in the same jokey but innocuous fashion. They lacked dignity in fiction because they lacked depth.


In stark contrast to Alfred Doolittle, Andy Capp, Alf Garnett, and countless others, Arthur Seaton and Arthur Machin tower over their parents and over their bosses at work—even though, symbolically, Seaton's “tall frame was slightly round shouldered from stooping day in and day out at his lathe” (Saturday Night 58); even Smith in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is taller than the other boys, though not specifically described as big. For many, such size reinforces an equally sizable ego: “it makes you feel good,” Arthur Machin is told by the woman he loves; “it makes you feel big—you know how you like to feel big” (This Sporting Life 147). Through his success at Rugby League football, Arthur Machin finds both recognition and a source of supplementary income, both of which are means by which, he explains, he “kept his head above the general level of crap, and that … was the main thing” (18).

Beyond such fundamental considerations, however, the sport also provides an outlet for important emotions that cannot be expressed in his workaday world. Specifically, Storey's protagonist finds particular satisfaction in the arousal of

a kind of anger, a savageness, that suited the game very well. … This wildness was essential to the way I played … [and] seemed to correspond to my personality. … [It was] a preliminary feeling of power. I was big, strong, and could make people realize it. I could tackle hard, and with the kind of deliberation I took a pride in later, really hurt someone. I was big. Big! It was no mean elation.


Similarly, as Sillitoe's narrator runs across the chilly fields at dawn, he finds both an elation and a release for the anger that he feels for the “In-laws” of ostensibly respectable society:

Them bastards over us aren't as daft as they most of the time look. … They're cunning, and I'm cunning. … If only “them” and “us” had the same ideas we'd get on like a house on fire, but they don't see eye to eye with us and we don't see eye to eye with them … the pig-faced snotty-nosed dukes and ladies—who can't add two and two together and would mess themselves like loonies if they didn't have slavies to beck-and-call. … [But] standing in the doorway in shimmy and shorts … I feel like the first bloke in the world. … And that makes me feel good, so as soon as I'm steamed up enough to get this feeling in me, I take a flying leap out of the doorway, and off I trot.

Loneliness 7–9)

Whether, like rugby, a particular sport requires a subordination of self to the collective endeavors of a team, or whether, like long-distance running, it allows free rein to the individual alone, each athlete finds—uniquely, through the experience of sports—an “alternate reality” into which the problems and anxieties of the everyday world no longer intrude.

Yet even though sports allow such outlets for the anger and frustrations that build up in their lives, the athletes in both novels soon find that they themselves—and, indeed, their respective sports as well—have been expropriated by the very same “establishment” that they rail against, so that (as a character in This Sporting Life complains) “a great game … [is being] spoiled by people who try and make it something else” (185). Specifically, in Storey's works it is being made a business, even an industry—with paid managers and owners whose interests do not necessarily coincide with those of their workers, the players. Before he has even signed his contract, Machin is told that he is now “property of the City” team (This Sporting Life 59), and he soon remarks that “they bought and sold players” like any other commodity or product. Consequently, the athletes can no longer be regarded primarily as human beings; their success or failure on the field becomes a matter that must be assessed in terms of profit and loss rather than any more “humane” values. Voluntarily co-opted as part of a system of paid performance for commercial entertainment, Machin soon realizes that he has not only been dehumanized but even reduced to the level of an animal:

I was an ape. Big, awe-inspiring, something to see perform. … People looked at me as if I was an ape. Walking up the road like this they looked at me exactly as they'd look at an ape walking about without a cage … [a] thing to make them stare in awe, and wonder if after all … I might be human.


On and off the playing field, no less than when he stands at his lathe in the factory, Machin has been dehumanized by the work of play. As a professional athlete—no less than as a factory worker—he is an operative cog in a commercial, mechanistic enterprise whose owner is far removed from the struggles and sufferings of those who toil on his behalf.

Although Smith in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner is certainly not a professional athlete like Arthur Machin, he has been expropriated in exactly the same way by the “establishment” that runs the reformatory in which he is confined. The novella's opening line makes this expropriation unmistakably and emphatically clear: “As soon as I got to Borstal they made me a long-distance cross-country runner” (7; emphasis mine). During the weeks of his training for a championship race, Smith is repeatedly encouraged to “win them the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long Distance Cross Country Running (All England)” by the borstal's governor—an “owner” who, like the capitalists caricatured in any form of agit-prop, is a “pot-bellied pop-eyed bastard” with a grey moustache and “lily-white workless hands” (11, 9). In fact, his relationship with Smith is defined in explicitly contractual terms, a quid pro quo befitting an employer and employee:

“We want hard honest work and we want good athletics,” he said as well. “And if you give us both these things you can be sure we'll do right by you and send you back into the world an honest man.”


Although Smith receives no remuneration of any kind for his efforts in the race (not even a quid in exchange for all of his quo), his running—no less than Arthur Machin's rugby—has clearly been made a form of contractual work rather than play. And like Machin, Smith finds this expropriation dehumanizing and compares himself to an animal (though his chosen simile is less unflattering than Machin's ape metaphor): “They give us a bit of blue ribbon and a cup for a prize after we've shagged ourselves out running or jumping, like race horses, only we don't get so well looked-after as race horses, that's the only thing” (8). Not even the cup and blue ribbon will be Smith's own because they will belong instead to the winning institution—a reform school qua factory whose product is “honest men”; its governor/manager never once suggests that the athlete should win for himself—that the laborer should receive the reward of his toil—or even that (altruistically) the sport can provide a sense of personal achievement and a satisfaction all its own whether he wins or not. Accordingly, Smith recognizes that the victory, which he is quite capable of achieving, “won't mean a bloody thing to me, only to him, and it means as much to him as it would mean to me if I picked up the racing paper and put my money on a hoss I didn't know, had never seen, and didn't care a sod if I ever did see” (12). Because Smith's athletic endeavors receive no recompense of any kind, whereas Arthur Machin's are at least a professionally contracted and compensated job, Sillitoe's protagonist is seemingly the more wholly expropriated of the two; yet, in cunningly subverting the plans of those who seek to keep him under their control, Smith is also the more defiant and independent of the pair.

Against all such attempts at dehumanization and expropriation, the narrators of both novels affirm the existence of an innately human alternative. However successful others may be in “owning” the athlete's body (which, like a factory's machine, is well-maintained, powerful, efficient, and smoothly functional), they can never control his mind, subdue his emotions, quash his spirit, or quell his independent will. Thus, as Smith contends, he retains a vital freedom of thought and feeling—an unsubduable psychological independence—that those around him fail to acknowledge and/or refuse to take into account:

I'm a human being and I've got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that [the governor] doesn't know is there, and he'll never know what's there because he's stupid. … I can see further into the likes of him than he can see into the likes of me … and I'll win in the end even if I die in gaol at eighty-two because I'll have more fun and fire out of my life than he'll ever get out of his.


Relying on exactly the same “cunning” and the pleasures of “thinking” that Arthur Seaton cites in claiming “it's a hard life if you don't weaken” (Loneliness 7; Saturday Night 34, 28, 32), Smith deliberately loses the race that he could easily win; in so doing, he unmistakably asserts a fundamental human freedom not to suborn himself, not to conform, and not to comply.

For Arthur Machin as well, the primacy of powerful and innately human “feelings” abrades against his “professional” obligations as an athlete—though the emotions involved are more adult (and more amatory) than the adolescent rebelliousness that fuels the defiance of Sillitoe's long-distance runner. Although the hard physical contact involved in professional rugby provides an ample outlet for his anger and frustration, and although the perquisites of being a celebrity (an expensive car, ostentatious dinners, public recognition) provide an ego-gratification that exceeds even the salary that he earns, his attempts to express more tender emotions cause much of the turmoil in his life. In the rough-and-tumble sometimes brutally violent world of the playing field, Arthur Machin excels and is appropriately rewarded; in the fragile often stormy relationship with the woman he loves, he encounters a pain no less acute—and no less real—than the pain caused by the physical injuries he gives and receives. Paradoxically, the strain that besets his loving relationship with Mrs. Hammond, the widow from whom he rents a room, is caused by the very same personal traits that contribute so much to his success at rugby: aggressiveness, recklessness, ruthlessness, and a certain impervious disregard for whoever or whatever might thwart his attempts to achieve his goals. As he gains more and more acclaim for exhibiting these traits in the game, he becomes increasingly insensitive in seeking an intimate relationship, until, in his frustration, the type of conduct that is appropriate and applauded on the field obtrudes in—and disrupts—the home as a sudden brutal outburst of domestic violence occurs.

Although the nature of his chosen sport itself inherently demands a number of his macho traits, such tendencies are accelerated by the fact that he is a paid professional who is economically (as well as socially and psychologically) rewarded for successfully behaving in this way. Accordingly, Arthur admits,

I was a hero … [but also] the big ape again, known and feared for its strength, frightened of showing a bit of soft feeling in case it might be weakness. … No feelings. It'd always helped to have no feelings. So I had no feelings. I was paid not to have feelings. It paid me to have none.

This Sporting Life 163)

Nevertheless, as his frustrated love for Mrs. Hammond, his anger, and his grief over her death near the end of the novel demonstrate, powerful and vital human “feelings” have not been entirely suppressed despite the dehumanizing pressures that accompany the work of play. Through their resurgence, even in unpredictably and unacceptably explosive ways, such emotions clearly demonstrate that the athlete has not been wholly expropriated by the economic system that “owns” him. Rather than merely a well-functioning body that seems impervious to pain, Arthur Machin is a complex and fully human being with feelings that—like those of Sillitoe's long-distance runner—are not entirely subject to any form of control; he is, accordingly, a man rather than a mechanism, “A. Machin” rather than “a machine.”

The fact that the pervasive influence of economics alters even the most fundamental meaning of the word “play” is particularly evident in The Changing Room (1972), Storey's ostensibly “plotless” drama. For the play's athletes and nonathletes alike (the players, the trainers, the team's owner, and even its janitor), the sport is a source of supplementary income—a commercial enterprise—rather than the source of enjoyment that “play” is traditionally held to be; the rugby match is a contractual rather than a wholly “voluntary” obligation, a form of work rather than play. Subtly but surely, the insidious influence of commercial “professionalism” becomes evident: the owner of the team does not watch it play, retiring to the locker room to warm himself and to enjoy a drink and conversation instead; the team's subsequent victory celebration commingles the players' satisfaction at their achievement and their relief that, in miserable weather and despite physical pain, another of their contractual performances has been completed. As Christopher Lasch has observed, economic concerns taint the basic nature of sports as

the managerial apparatus makes every effort to eliminate the risk and the uncertainty that contributes so centrally to the ritual and dramatic success of any contest. When sports can no longer be played with appropriate abandon, they lose the capacity to raise the spirits of players and spectators, to transport them to a higher realm. Prudence and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of games, come to shape sports as they shape everything else.

(“Corruption” 30)

Among players who can be sold or traded like commodities and retired by a decision of the owners, the whole concept of being a team is (as Lasch suggests) “drained of its capacity to call up local or regional loyalties” and therefore

reduces itself (like the rivalry among the corporations themselves) to a struggle for shares of the market. The professional athlete does not care whether his team wins or loses (since losers share in the pot), as long as it stays in business.

(“Letter” 40)

Although the athletes in Storey's work are “professional” in that they are paid for their participation in the sport, it is not their primary occupation (or “profession”); all also hold “regular” jobs in the world “outside.” They play intensely and unrestrainedly, but they are by no means obsessed with winning—a subject they hardly mention among themselves; neither is there any concern about “representing” their particular locality. The owner of the team gives a typical pregame speech inciting them on to victory, but he takes little actual interest in the game itself. The players, like workers aggrieved at the policies and practices of management, complain about the stinginess of the owners and want a “more hygienic” system of separate showers to replace the common bath. A distinction between the workers/players and the owners/management is thus clearly evident in The Changing Room; the intrusion of economic issues—including charges of corporate (“Club”) stinginess, low compensation, and unhygienic conditions—has blurred the age-old distinction between “work” and “play.”

Yet regardless of the compensation that any of the characters receive, the “realm” of sport remains vitally separate from their lives in the “outside” world and their jobs there. The essential reason for this is that, as Johan Huizinga remarked in Homo Ludens, “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life. It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8) wherein specific and binding rules are observed and administered by impartial officials and a definite hierarchy—in which each person is expected to perform a specific role and duty that he knows well—prevails. In fact, as Huizinga points out, “inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. … Play … creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection” (10). For players and spectators alike, the game offers a ritualistic reenactment of an unending struggle between competing forces; in Storey's play, the central conflict is between “us” and “them,” the primary terms used to refer to the teams. Yet, as in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, this fundamental dichotomy provides a metaphor for much larger issues in the world “outside” the realm of games and “play.” Within the microcosm that the artificial world of sports provides, such struggles are resolved with a certain finality at the end of the match; yet, paradoxically, there are no final victories. As in the macrocosm of the world “outside,” the major struggles of self against other and “us” against “them” are never completely and unambiguously resolved; even at world championships and after tournament “finals,” one hears “Wait until next year!”

Although their “play” is actually contractual “work,” Storey's rugby players find that their experience as members of a team provides a personal satisfaction that their job in the “outside world” lack. As Christopher Lasch has pointed out,

Modern industry having reduced most jobs to a routine, games in our society take on added meaning. Men seek in play the difficulties and demands—both intellectual and physical—which they no longer find in work. … Risk, daring, and uncertainty, important components of play, have little place in industry or in activities infiltrated by industrial methods, which are intended precisely to predict and control the future and to eliminate risk.

(“Corruption” 40)

In the workplace, standardization and automation have supplanted individual craftsmanship and personal pride; as work is ever more deprived of personal responsibility and integrity, sports remain a haven in an increasingly mechanized, literally “heartless” world. Specifically, the experience of being a member of a team offers Storey's athletes a number of attributes that are seldom if ever found elsewhere in life: a functional and hierarchical “social” order in which each player knows his clearly defined “position”; a role suited to his particular skills, on which others rely and the success of the collective enterprise may well depend; authoritative rules; reliably impartial officials whose decisions are immediate and (usually) irreversible; “a temporary, a limited perfection”; personal autonomy and accountability; the opportunity to display carefully developed skills and individual judgment; and an unambiguous resolution that yet allows the prospect of a different (and, to the loser, more appealing) outcome on another day. All of these attributes share one all-important characteristic: certainty—the quality that is most absent in the modern age of doubt, anxiety, alienation, and anomie.

Among the players themselves, therefore, the experience of “belonging to” the team provides a temporary union that is forged through common purpose and shared endeavor. As they change their clothes and prepare to play the game, the athletes must set aside their various differences and the preoccupations of the outside world and assume new responsibilities and interdependencies as members of a team. Confirmed through wholly secular rituals that are unselfconsciously but unfailingly performed, this crucial “change” remains beyond the reach of those who have expropriated the game for purposes of their own, transforming it into an economic enterprise and commercial ceremony. Unlike traditional religious rituals, which confirmed a union and a significance lasting beyond the duration of the activity (and sustained the participants until their next involvement in the group), the wholly secular rituals of the changing room perform no such function; nevertheless, the lives of the players would clearly be less satisfying without them. Though the effects are both fleeting and impermanent, the athletes achieve an instance of order and unity that their lives in the outside world cannot provide.

Significantly, This Sporting Life ends in the locker-room rather than on the playing field itself because the latter is the site of the devalued commercial ritual that the game has become. As he joins in the players' postgame horseplay as a new team member undergoes an initiation with a ceremonial shower (a secular rite of passage), Arthur Machin achieves—through a renewal and confirmation of the team bond—a brief respite from the still-intense personal grief that he feels over the death of Mrs. Hammond. Like Paul Morel's decision to turn away from his self-absorbing grief at the conclusion of D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Arthur Machin's action in the novel's final scene does not in any way deny the intensity—or the sincerity—of the grief he feels; yet by participating in the collective life of the team and taking part in one of its wholly private rituals, he too has “chosen life” rather than the death, personal isolation, darkness, and despair that are associated with the “outside” world.

Because long-distance running is an individual sport rather than a team effort, Sillitoe's Smith finds no such communal bond in the experience of sports, nor does he seek any such affirmation. Yet for him, too, the sport provides a haven from the factorylike regimentation and routine of borstal life, and it allows him to assert his individuality and self-reliance in a way that his workaday life in the “outside” world seldom affords. Unlike his job at the factory lathe, running allows him complete autonomy; success in the race—like success in his criminal activities—requires careful planning, agility, strategic maneuvering, and the assumption of risk. As Lasch points out, “risk, daring, and uncertainty, important components of play, have little place in industry or in activities infiltrated by industrial methods, which are intended precisely to predict and control the future and to eliminate risk” (“Corruption” 24). Because the sport has been expropriated by the governor and others like him, however, the rewards for taking such risk will not be his own. By deliberately refusing to win the race, Smith reaffirms the importance of daring, risk, unpredictability, and personal autonomy. Just as he was punished for his similar assertion of autonomy in his criminal activity, he is punished for having defied the authorities and violated their social norms—though he becomes a hero to the other boys, who recognize the significance of what he has done and understand the paradox that, under the circumstances of such expropriation that makes work out of play and attempts to dehumanize the worker/athlete into a mere mechanism, deliberately and defiantly to lose is to win.

Whereas Sillitoe's depiction of sports was not derived from any personal experience as an athlete (as he explains in “The Long Piece” in Mountains and Caverns), Storey's portrayal of the world of rugby-league football in This Sporting Life was based on his own first-hand experience as a member of a team. While a student at the Slade School of Art in London in 1953, Storey returned home each weekend to England's industrial north, where he played professional rugby for Leeds. Thus, he led a dual life, dividing his time between the physically demanding “public life” of a professional athlete and the private creative life of an art student; after each match, he would return to London to resume a type of life quite apart from (and perhaps incomprehensible to) the working-class teammates with whom he was regularly, though temporarily, united on the field of play. Years later, during an interview published in Sports Illustrated, he described the experience as follows:

The pleasure to me is in the pitch of endeavor, sustaining it, going beyond it. In many ways I hated rugby, but it allowed people to do marvelous things. Often the real expression occurs at the point of physical and mental exhaustion. I recall one very hard game, played in pouring rain on a pitch that seemed to be 15 feet deep in mud. My relations with the team were at their worst. I should have hated every minute of that match, but suddenly something almost spiritual happened. The players were taken over by the identity that was the team. We were genuinely transported.

(Duffy 69)

That the experience was “something almost spiritual” is a crucially precise phrase, suggesting Storey's conscious realization that a truly “spiritual” (that is, religious) experience cannot by definition arise from a wholly secular activity and cannot occur in a desacralized world.

The same evolution from participation to “spectatorship” shapes the histories of both sport and theater; yet, as Huizinga contended in Homo Ludens, so much of the ritual value of sports has been lost in modern times that “however important [the contest] may be for the players or spectators, it remains sterile … the old play-factor [having] undergone almost complete atrophy” as a result of “the fatal shift towards overseriousness” in sports “play” (198). Yet notwithstanding the devaluation of sport (and life) by professionalism and the less-than-heroic stature of modern man, the rugby match and related activities do manifestly provide something “real” in the players' lives. “The ancient connections between games, ritual, and public festivity,” which Lasch described in his essay on “The Corruption of Sports,” have been diminished but not eradicated because play retains “its capacity to dramatize reality and to offer a convincing representation of the community's values … rooted in shared traditions, to which [games] give objective expression” (30). Like the “sacred space” of traditional religions, the playground is, as Huizinga observed, “hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” (10).

The fact that these terms are even more applicable to the activities of the locker room is fundamental to Storey's works: unlike the commercial public ceremony of the game itself, the “change” is literally “an act apart,” occurring within a “temporary world within the ordinary world,” a wholly secular sanctuary to which only those with proper “credentials” are allowed access and in which the players' particular and binding but nontraditional rituals are unselfconsciously performed. The significant action of the play is the temporary reaffirmation of what Huizinga termed “the feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms” (12). Despite his dour conclusion in the final chapter of Homo Ludens that the “ritual tie [having] now been completely severed sport has become profane, ‘unholy’ in every way, [having] no organic connection whatever with the structure of society” (197–198), Huizinga also maintained (in his first chapter) that vestigial formal elements of ritual and play survive today:

The ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play … particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world. … A closed space is marked out for [play], either materially or ideally, hedged off from the everyday surroundings. … Now the marking out of some sacred spot is also the primary characteristic of every sacred act. … Formally speaking, there is no distinction whatever between marking out a space for a sacred purpose and marking it out for sheer play. The turf, the tennis-court, the chess-court, and pavement hopscotch cannot formally be distinguished from the temple or the magic circle.

(18–20; emphasis mine)

Accordingly, the playing field is the profane world's counterpart of the “sacred space” of a theocentric culture. Yet much more than the public arena, the locker room constitutes a secular “holy of holies”—a “closed space” that may be entered only by those who are responsible for the performance of the public ritual that relies to a remarkable degree on “the feeling of being ‘apart together’” that is fostered among them. As Lasch has observed, sports constitute the most efficacious modern means whereby both participants and observers may be (in Storey's phrase) “genuinely transported”: “Among the activities through which men seek release from everyday life, games offer in many ways the purest form of escape. … They obliterate awareness of everyday reality, not by dimming that awareness but by raising it to a new intensity …” (Lasch, “Corruption” 24). Though none of the team members could articulate its significance, each finds in the experience of sports a personal renewal through the affirmation of the team bond—and a unity, transcendence, and significance that would be missing from his life otherwise. Storey's meticulous depiction of this event, “invisible” though it is, affords an insight into the athlete's experience as an athlete that is unique among the depictions of sports in modern literature.

The expropriation of the athlete is not exclusively economic, however, as Sillitoe's works reveal; its basis is more broadly social, having its origins in the power of one person or group to “have the whip-hand over” others (Loneliness 13), demanding allegiance to an institution, class, city, or state. Accordingly, in his essay on “Sport and Nationalism” in Mountains and Caverns, Sillitoe argued that “The Olympic torch is a flame of enslavement” for exactly this reason (84), expropriating athletes as champions of the state in much the same way that Storey's athletes become “property of the City.” Against such dehumanization and what Sillitoe in Her Victory termed “the slavery of expectation” (392), both authors assert remarkably similar alternatives, though vaguely defined by both as just “feelings” and “thinking.” Implicitly, these are a recognition of individuality and the inner self, persistent and defiant even in a mechanized world. For Arthur Machin, it is the belated recognition of the importance of his love for Mrs. Hammond; for Smith, as for Arthur Seaton, it is an affirmation of the unsubduable “thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me” (Loneliness 12)—including the essential freedoms not to conform, not to “play along,” not to win for others' sakes, and not to live by others' expectations and desires. Despite Marx's assertion to the contrary, both authors' works demonstrate that not “every atom of freedom” has been confiscated by those seeking to expropriate “the many-sided play of the muscles” in play as well as in work. In the anger and defiant self-assertion of their expropriated athletes—rather than in that of their counterparts still in the factories—Sillitoe and Storey alike have found a crucial symbol that not only embodies the predicament of people in a specific time, place, and class but also resonates throughout modern societies as well.

Works Cited

Duffy, Martha. “An Ethic of Work and Play.” Sports Illustrated 5 Mar. 1973: 66–69.

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1950.

Lasch, Christopher. “The Corruption of Sports.” The New York Review of Books 28 April 1977: 24–30.

———. Letter/reply in “Corrupt Sports: An Exchange.” The New York Review of Books 29 Sept. 1977: 40.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production. Trans. from the third German ed. by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Ed. Frederick Engels. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Lowery, 1872.

Sillitoe, Alan. Her Victory. London: Granada, 1983.

———. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. New York: NAL, 1959. 7–47.

———. “The Match.” The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. 105–113.

———. Mountains and Caverns: Selected Essays by Alan Sillitoe. London: Allen, 1975.

———. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. New York: NAL, 1958.

Storey, David. The Changing Room. London: Cape, 1972.

———. This Sporting Life. 1960. New York: Avon, 1975.

———. Present Times. London: Cape, 1984.

Judith Grossman (review date 20 March 1988)

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SOURCE: “Jilted by His Fairy Godmother,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 20, 1988, p. 2.

[In the following review, Grossman offers tempered praise for Sillitoe's Out of the Whirlpool.]

Alan Sillitoe's favored theme, since his debut in 1958 with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, has always been the quest of a disadvantaged hero for the magical key to a better life. In Out of the Whirlpool, a new short novel, he offers an unsparing reconsideration of the terrors and delights of the poor boy suddenly become lucky. In the process, Sillitoe revisits his own roots—in 1950s Nottingham, England.

Nottingham is also the home territory of D. H. Lawrence. And in fact, Out of the Whirlpool resembles a minimalist replay of Lady Chatterley's Lover, with the conclusion gone sour. Instead of the romantic gamekeeper, we have Peter Granby, unskilled laborer in a furniture factory, age 19; and in place of the aristocratic lady of the woods, we have Eileen Farnsfield, the handsome, 40-ish widow of a suburban architect, who befriends Peter and hires him as caretaker.

It's a match made somewhere other than in heaven, yet for a while, the precarious balance in the relationship works. He gets a rewarding sexual partner, and wider experience of the world. She finds herself recovering a taste for life, enjoying Peter's sweet looks and open sexuality.

Since Peter's family seemed to have had no resources for nurturance beyond the bare survival level, and his mother died of cancer while he was in his early teens, the age difference suits him fine. In his imagination of happy endings, the fairy godmother makes the perfect bride. But Eileen knows better: She hasn't the maternal temperament, and besides, she's not about to make herself look ridiculous in the eyes of her upper-class friends. For her, caste rules apply.

The crisis between them, when it comes, is a sharp, violent battle whose outcome seems inevitable from the start. Yet there is renewed hope at the end in an alliance with a young West Indian woman. It may be the immigrants who will help resolve the ingrown class-conflicts.

Sillitoe has great sureness of touch with his environment here, even in passing glances at the decaying industrial landscape: “A pebble dash of ice and snow covered the old lime kilns near the canal, bricks scattered like pieces of thrown-away cake. You could see where the oven doors had been.” He knows all the dog breeds of his neighborhoods and he knows exactly what passes for haute cuisine in Eileen's suburb (wine with the pot roast, cream on the dessert).

This highly specified vision is paired with a real compassion for the young victims of the urban underclass. They are, Sillitoe sees, victims not just of exclusion from mainstream benefits but also of the careless incompetence of their own brutalized elders. Bad fathering is not excused by circumstances. Nor are long-suffering women let off: They won't think or plan; they are selfishly content with trivial pleasures.

You feel, reading, that Sillitoe has earned a right to the anger that smolders here. But Out of the Whirlpool might have been a stronger work if the targets of his indignation were challenged more abrasively.

In substance, the book explores a gentle adolescent's furnishing of his heart and soul. On the other hand, its style, which is often graceless, denuded to the point of mutilation, reveals a profound disgust with the realities that are handled. The result is an impression of conflicting rather than complex purposes.

Peter Farmer's line illustrations capture the wispy appeal of the young hero, as well as the grotesqueness of his elders.

D. A. N. Jones (review date 18 May 1990)

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SOURCE: “Never Go Back,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4546, May 18, 1990, p. 535.

[In the following review, Jones considers the realism and tragedy of Sillitoe's Last Loves.]

As they grow older, men sometimes dream of revisiting foreign lands where they served as soldiers, when they were only twenty. The experience is likely to be disappointing and discouraging: it is a matter of nostalgia—the pain in a desire to return. [In Last Loves,] Alan Sillitoe has constructed a sombre story about two ex-servicemen, George and Bernard, revisiting Malaysia, where they fought against the “bandits” forty years ago when they were young hopefuls. Bernard is still a fairly hopeful man, self-assured, expecting to get his own way: he has been given this holiday trip by his kindly wife, as a sixtieth-birthday present, and she has also paid for George, his old Army friend, to accompany him. George is dour, thoughtful and quietly dissatisfied: he is a retired schoolteacher, recently divorced after an unsatisfactory marriage. Bernard, a comfortably ageing businessman, still looks (to George) quite handsome, proud and confident, as he seemed in his twenties, “showing that early photographs, albeit in black and white, and maybe even for that reason, did not lie.” Bernard is quite happy to see himself in the mirror, but when he looks at recent photographs of himself, he becomes almost despondent.

Arrived in Malaysia, they take a taxi to visit Fort Perth, where they used to spend their leaves, sunning themselves on the beach. The area now houses a divisional headquarters of the Malaysian army and the elderly men are afraid to take photographs. “They'll think we're snapping military installations,” says George. He feels that the young George, “the person of forty years ago, had died somewhere along the way. … And believing in all the formalities he had come back to bury him.” Bernard had hoped to stand on the beach where once they photographed one another, wearing white tailor-made drill; but suddenly he too feels dead and their taxi seems a hearse. Looking at Malaysia and glossy, businesslike Singapore, Bernard concludes: “After forty years it was like seeing a film in Technicolor, a soulless remake of the original faded classic of black and white.”

However, a subsequent chapter, pursuing this photographic imagery, finds George reflecting: “Memories of the old days made it impossible to forget why he was here, but the black and white film of then and the Technicolor production of now were slowly merging. Maybe by the time they left the difference would be minimal.” This flicker of hope is stimulated by the inviting presence of a younger woman, an Englishwoman called Gloria, holidaying in Malaysia for similar nostalgic reasons: she is tracing memories of her dead father, a colonial official and subsequently a prisoner of war. In this mood, she attaches herself to the two old soldiers, particularly to George. Bernard does not object or express jealousy: he has enjoyed several discreet affairs during his comfortable marriage—and so (he presumes) has his kindly wife.

The story marches to its grim conclusion, skilfully prepared. The old soldiers are not acting their age. Their conversation, generally stodgy and bufferish, sometimes takes on a jaunty, barrack-room tone: their behaviour becomes imprudent and reckless. Rather bored by aeroplanes, taxis and grand hotels, with their practised smiles, Bernard finds a badly-built urinal and deliberately makes it collapse. George takes over the saddle from a pedi-cab driver and pedals away in dangerous exhaustion. They lead Gloria on a long, hot, hilly walk and then accept a lift on an earth-mover, clinging to the sides as it rattles and bumps. Finally, the three of them go to the edge of the jungle, where once George and Bernard battled with the enemy. One of the party, deeply depressed by bad news from home, gets lost—and another must search for the missing person, through the jungle in pounding rain. These incidents could have been presented as comic sketches; but although the author is sometimes witty, the story is not at all funny. It is more like a tragedy, realistic in its observation, about ordinary, ill-at-ease, rather dull people meeting their appointed doom. Sillitoe has thoughtfully used his experience to bridge the gulf between the 1940s and the 80s, between bold twenty-year-olds and soured sexagenarians, without patronizing either.

William Hutchings (review date Spring 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of Last Loves, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 304–05.

[In the following review, Hutchings offers a mixed assessment of Sillitoe's Last Loves, contending that the novel lacks the “complexity and mythical resonance” of earlier works.]

Exactly forty years after their military stint in Malaya, George Rhoads and Bernard Missenden, lifelong friends who are the protagonists of Alan Sillitoe's Last Loves, return together to now-independent Malaysia on what is (at least initially) a sentimental journey, “a nostalgia tour to find out whether or not those faded black-and-white photographs stuck in the disintegrating sellotaped [sic] albums had any meaning.” Though their quest for such insight and personal validation is initially thwarted in the nation's much-changed cities, where few vestiges of places they remember still remain, they realize that they must ultimately return to the islands' primordial jungle, the site of the most dangerous moments of their military career, a locale that has been virtually unaffected by the intervening years.

For Sillitoe too, their journey constitutes a literary “return”: the Malayan jungle (the site of his own military service from 1947 to 1949) has figured repeatedly throughout his fiction, both as a literal setting and as a recurrent metaphor. The most autobiographical of Sillitoe's early novels, Key to the Door (1960), reaches its climax in that jungle—an existentially self-defining moment when its protagonist Brian Seaton must decide whether to kill a Malay insurgent, an “enemy” with whose cause he secretly sympathizes; his arduous ascent of the jungle-laden mountain known as Gunong Barat is equally an attempt to penetrate the complexities of his mind and soul. The jungle entanglements encountered in Sillitoe's work are thus not only physical but metaphysical as well. Even his characters who have never left England's industrial cities repeatedly characterize their world in “jungle” terms of essentially amoral struggle and strife: Arthur Seaton, for example, the factory-working (anti)hero of Sillitoe's first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), insists, “It's a good [but also a hard] life if you don't weaken,” a concise summary of the modern urban jungle's social Darwinist code.

Nevertheless, it is in the literal jungle of Malaysia that the long-standing friendship of George and Bernard receives its ultimate test, that painful truths are unexpectedly realized, that new insights and fulfillment are finally and fatally achieved. Self-described as formerly the “craziest bastards in the platoon,” they indulge occasionally in the kind of antic disruptiveness for which Sillitoe's protagonists are renowned, though they do so primarily to prove themselves capable of being still rowdy after all these years. They are accompanied on their journey by a woman named Gloria, who has traveled from England to Malaysia to learn more about her father's life there as a prison administrator during the war; she is the most insightfully developed female character in Sillitoe's fiction since Pam Hargreaves, the protagonist of Her Victory (1982).

With the rather somber retrospectiveness that first appeared in Sillitoe's fiction in The Widower's Son (1976), Last Loves deftly and sympathetically depicts his characters' relatively mundane domestic lives as well as their search for a meaningful past; however, it lacks the complexity and mythic resonance of The Storyteller (1979) and The Lost Flying Boat (1983), individual novels from his later career that seem more likely to endure.

William Hutchings (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: “Proletarian Byronism: Alan Sillitoe and the Romantic Tradition,” in English Romanticism and Modern Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Allan Chavkin, AMS Press, 1993, pp. 83–112.

[In the following essay, Hutchings delineates how “Sillitoe's characters are … in many ways the modern-day working-class counterparts of the Byronic anti-hero.”]

Camus came to the conclusion that, after all, the artist was a romantic. I began there. Where I am now I know exactly; but where I'm going I never shall know till I get there.

Sillitoe, A Tree on Fire, chapter 2

Separated from the lives and times of the English romantics by approximately 150 years, living in the industrial cities in the north of England, the working-class protagonists of Alan Sillitoe's best-known fiction would at first appear to have little or nothing in common with literary characters from the romantic period—and least of all with the alienated but aristocratic personalities created by George Gordon, Lord Byron. Certainly, Sillitoe's characters lack any semblance of introspective melancholy or cosmic Angst associated with Byron's Childe Harold, for example, and they have had neither the benefits of advanced education nor the countless other opportunities afforded by aristocratic privilege and leisure. Nevertheless in a surprising number of ways, Sillitoe's early novels redefine the traditional romantic/Byronic anti-hero in specifically modern, working-class terms, despite the manifest differences that are attributable primarily to class, historical period, and economic privilege. Such fundamental differences between them notwithstanding, the avowedly iconoclastic attitudes of Sillitoe's working-class anti-heroes constitute, in effect, a form of proletarian “Byronism,” characterized by (1) a heedless disdain for conventions of bourgeois propriety, (2) a willingness to flout society's conventional morality and (particularly) its sexual constraints, and (3) a rebelliousness against government and other forms of repressive authority, regimentation, and dehumanization. Thus, Sillitoe's characters are—unbeknownst to themselves—in many ways the modern-day working-class counterparts of the Byronic anti-hero.

Throughout Sillitoe's novels of the 1950's and 1960's, the romantically anti-heroic qualities of his protagonists become increasingly apparent, and their commitments to romantic ideals of revolution become increasingly radical as well as ever more overtly—and militantly—expressed. Whereas Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) expresses such rebelliousness only in occasional rhetoric, relatively innocuous acts of disruption of his factory's routine, raucous sexual escapades (worthy of Don Juan), and socially disruptive behavior, Smith in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959) takes direct if symbolic action to subvert the plans of what is, to him, a repressive regime that controls his life in the borstal where he is confined. In Key to the Door (1961), Brian Seaton secretly sympathizes with the Communist insurgents in Malaya, where he is stationed during World War II; at a crucial moment, he declines to shoot one of the rebels with whom he has a face-to-face encounter, thus helping to further (however passively) the revolution that his “enemy” supports. In The Death of William Posters (1965) and A Tree on Fire (1967), the struggle for Algerian independence is actively supported (at great risk to their own lives) by Sillitoe's protagonist Frank Dawley and his friend Shelley Jones, characters whose lives establish them—to a remarkable degree and in particular detail (though they are not poets)—as the twentieth-century's counterparts of Byron and Shelley themselves. However, in order to understand the full extent of Sillitoe's surprising affinity for (and literary assimilations of) the English romantic poets in general as well as Byron and Shelley in particular, one must first assess the centrality of his concept of romanticism in his particular world-view.


As Raymond Williams noted in an interview in the New Left Review, there has historically been a particular affinity between the English working class and the English romantic authors:

It seems probable that the English working class was struggling to express an experience in the 1790s and 1830s which in a sense, because of the subordination of the class, its lack of access to means of cultural production, but also the dominance of certain modes, conventions of expression, was never fully articulated. If you look at their actual affiliations, what is striking is a great grasping at other writings. Working people used Shelley; they used Byron, of all people. … These works could only have been approximations or substitutes for their own structure of feeling.


Yet, as Sillitoe's novels of the 1950's and 1960's reveal, the working-class “use” of a “structure of feeling” that was embodied in the works of Byron and Shelley—and, indeed, in romanticism in general—was not limited to the early nineteenth century.

During an interview with John Halperin published in 1979, Sillitoe contended that even in the late twentieth century “as long as writers are writing we're in a Romantic age rather than a Waste Land age” (Halperin 189). Though he has not elaborated on the remark and has not defined precisely what he means by a “Romantic age,” a number of specifically romantic ideals found vigorous (if generally unremarked) reexpression in Sillitoe's early fiction. The contours of his “romanticism” are also apparent within the context of his most autobiographical book-length work, Raw Material (1972, rev. 1977, 1979):

1. For Sillitoe, as for so many of the romantics, being a writer involves an on-going and intensely personal quest for truth, which can be found only through the personal and particular. Thus, he contends,

I am a writer because I do not know what or who I am, though in trying to find out I may by a fluke help others to know who they are. If so I trust it will persuade them to go on living and not despair about the fate of the world or themselves. You have to go beyond the limits of despair to reach the truth.


Like Wordsworth, Sillitoe seeks to convey a more universal truth that transcends the particularities and details of his personal “raw material”; like Byron, he freely transmutes autobiographical experiences into fiction.

2. Like the Romantics, Sillitoe retains a faith in the perfectibility of mankind and “the better world I hope to see on earth,” and he emphasizes the importance of “striv[ing] as I do to create [paradise] for everybody, to construct it in [one]self as an example for others” (RM 26)—in much the same way that Byron maintained “his indomitable search for an earthly Eden” (Marchand 354). Road to Volgograd, Sillitoe's adulatory (virtually Utopian) non-fiction account of his visit to the Soviet Union in 1963, characterized the “Workers' Paradise” as virtually the Writers' Paradise as well.1 In his later (post-1970) writings, however, this quest for a newly-created “better world” is more often associated with the state of Israel.

3. Having been fascinated by maps even as a child, Sillitoe has long maintained the importance of travel, associating it with a concurrent inward quest or self-exploration—as in Wordsworth's Prelude and Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, among countless others. In Key to the Door, for example, Brian Seaton's quest culminates in Malaya during an attempt to ascend the mountain called Gunong Barat; in The Death of William Posters and A Tree on Fire, Frank Dawley becomes a “new man” in the deserts of Algeria during that nation's struggle for independence. “A man must travel, and turmoil, or there is no existence” Byron wrote in a letter of August 1820 (quoted in Marchand 331)—a sentiment with which Sillitoe would surely agree.

4. Even for Sillitoe's earliest protagonists, whose opportunities for travel have been severely limited (i.e., Arthur Seaton and Smith), the world of nature provides a welcome respite from the factory and the city, where (as for Wordsworth) the grimy world of “getting and spending”—and, especially, manufacturing—is “too much with us.” Although Sillitoe is primarily an “urban” writer, who seems to share the disdain of one of his characters for those who “swoon and rapturize over wild flowers, and all the false crap of Lawrence and Powys and Williamson, [who constitute] the ‘I am a wild beast and proud of it but still very sensitive … because my father was a bastard to my mother’” school of literature (ATOF 77), his characters often find particular solace (of whatever kind) out in nature. Arthur Seaton, for example, has one of his most memorable illicit trysts with another man's wife in the woodlands outside the city, and he does his best “thinking” while fishing at a favorite spot alongside a canal that overlooks—but is not a part of—the urban landscape. For Smith, the fields across which he runs at dawn connote a freedom that is, obviously, quite the opposite of the restraint imposed by the borstal in which he is confined. Such freedom is especially lyrically evoked in the film version of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1960, directed by Tony Richardson from Sillitoe's own screenplay); the film also adds a romantic interlude between Smith and his girlfriend at the seaside near Skegness which is not included in the novella. Nature is far more adversarial and untamed in Key to the Door and the William Posters trilogy, wherein the jungle and the desert (respectively) are the sites of their protagonists' struggles as well as their eventual hard-won insights. As Raw Material makes clear, the origins of Sillitoe's view of nature can be traced back to his childhood, as he lovingly evokes his grandparents' rural home, which he often visited as a child—a countryside locale that provides a stark contrast to industrial Nottingham, where he and his parents lived during the depression of the 1930's and the subsequent war.

5. Like his romantic forebears, Sillitoe insists that the emotions are far more important than reason, since

Whatever is done to the heart, and whatever the heart does back, it must be trusted and obeyed absolutely. The only protector is your own heart. It will lead you into the wilderness, but carry you through peril and despair. And if it finally betrays you, you will only have lived in the way you were meant to live.

RM 75)

Nevertheless, with a typically romantic view of the inevitability of suffering, he insists that “the heart must be bruised before the truth comes out. How else can one find it?” (RM 40)

6. Like Wordsworth and Blake, Sillitoe maintains in Raw Material that “a child is a mystic, and what he lacks in intelligence and worldly knowledge he makes up for in earnestness and depth of feeling” (59). Although this assertion is a clear recapitulation of Wordsworth's paean to the child as a “Mighty Prophet! Seer blest! / On whom those truths do rest / That we are toiling all our lives to find” in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (lines 114–116), its doctrine is seldom if ever apparent in Sillitoe's novels, where children seldom figure significantly. One notable exception, a boy known as Smog in A Start in Life (1970), is far from being “a six-years' Darling of a pygmy size!” (“Ode,” line 86).

Although these contours of Sillitoe's beliefs establish him squarely within the romantic tradition, the precise extent of his knowledge of specific works cannot be as readily ascertained. The fact that he is, by his own admission, a voracious reader has frequently been overlooked in critical assessments of his works; apart from citing the picaresque elements of his novels and his place within the tradition of the “rogue's tale” from Defoe and Fielding onwards (a “low” and/or popular form of fiction, unlike more “serious” and “reputable” literary works), most critics have focused primarily on the importance of his working-class background and the Marxist implications of his writings.2 Such assessments wrongly (if implicitly) assume that this self-taught writer—who had left school at the age of fourteen to work in a bicycle factory, having twice failed to win a scholarship to an English preparatory school—lacks any developed awareness of the literary tradition. Thus, for example, Anthony Burgess (who is surely among the most erudite and polymathic writers of the postmodern era) contends that Sillitoe's fiction, which he admires for its vitality and its Lawrentian “poetry of the body … [and] of the family,” ultimately lacks “the discipline of art” (Burgess 149)—ostensibly an aesthetic deficiency that can be attributed at least in part to Sillitoe's presumed unawareness of the literary tradition and/or his lack of formal education. Yet in his essay for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Sillitoe remarks that, since he “had not gone through three years of university training on how to write essays or vivisect poems,” his first novel was not “the composition of some pastiche, with a dash of cynicism and a peppering of false worldliness, plus the unthinking acceptance of everything that traditional society stands for” (380). Although he had always loved books during his childhood (when two of his favorites were novels of the French romantic period, Hugo's Les Misérables and Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo), his “real” education had begun when, in Malaya during the Second World War, he was hospitalized with tuberculosis:

I began to read whatever books seemed interesting on the library trolley which was pushed up to my bed two or three times a week. I had hardly read any adult matter before, and an endless feast began. … While quietly lying there I read, among other things, translations from all the Latin and Greek classics I could get my hands on, and as much English poetry as I could find. Another patient had an old school edition of Wordsworth's poems, and there was a section at the back on prosody, a subject I had never heard of before. In a week I had taken it in, and then sent off for Egerton Smith's classic work The Principles of English Metre.


Despite the fact that Sillitoe has neither mentioned any particular favorites among their authors nor offered further details about specific books that he then read, one can safely assume that reasonably complete collections of all of the major romantic poets were among the books that were then available to him; in fact, for all the reasons cited above, their works seem to have been the most influential in shaping his literary (as opposed to his socioeconomic and/or political) world-view.

Toward the end of Raw Material, Sillitoe deplores “the descending death-trap ceiling of tight-arsed Victorian hypocrisy and repression” which “crushed for more than a hundred years” the vitality of earlier literature—including, presumably, that of the romantics, though he specifies “the generous and lecherous spirit of the eighteenth century” (178), to which his own picaresque novels—including A Start in Life (1970) and its sequel Life Goes On (1985) as well as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning—have often been compared. Elsewhere, however, he alludes less obliquely to favorite romantic works: thus, for example, when alone at night in the outermost radio hut in the Malayan jungle (where Sillitoe himself served as a radio-operator during the Second World War), Brian Seaton sends Morse-coded transcriptions of Coleridge's “Kubla Khan,” feeling “exhilarated in knowing that such a poem was filling the jungles and oceans of the Far East, coming, if anyone heard it, from an unknown and unanswerable hand.” He also sends Keats's “‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ … singing hundreds of miles out into darkness, perhaps reaching the soul of the man who wrote it and maybe also touching the source of golden fire that sent down these words to him in the first place” (246). In his previous novels, however, any such “romantic” affinities were far less overt, although—when viewed in the context of his later writings—the incipient formation of Sillitoe's unique “proletarian Byronism” may yet be found in the portrayal of his defiant, rebellious, and “angry” young anti-heroes who gave new and vigorous voice to the “structure of feeling” of the modern English working class.


Whereas many of the protagonists created by the generation of working-class writers who became prominent in the mid-1950's and were known (misleadingly) as the “angry young men” have railed bitterly against society's injustices and/or sought to escape their proletarian backgrounds, Sillitoe's characters seem more comfortable with their working-class origins. Typically, they express neither the vituperative resentments of John Osborne's Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger (1956) nor a desire to “escape” or “rise” into the middle class like Joe Lampton in John Braine's Room at the Top (1959), among others. Yet, paradoxically, there is throughout Sillitoe's early writings an increasingly ardent—and intensely “romantic”—interest in an ideology of revolution. Without exception, the protagonists of his novels written between 1958 and 1967 are as strongly attracted by the idea of social revolution as their counterparts were in England's romantic period—and they are also increasingly actively engaged in helping to bring such radical changes about.

The first—and most wholly rhetorical—manifestation of this romantic/rebellious “spirit of feeling” occurs in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as Arthur Seaton proclaims that

Once a rebel, always a rebel. You can't help being one. You can't deny that. And it's best to be a rebel so as to show 'em it don't pay to try to do you down. … It's a hard life if you don't weaken, if you don't stop that bastard government from grinding your face in the muck, though there ain't much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow their four-eyed clocks [faces] to bits.


Working at his lathe in the bicycle factory in Nottingham, twenty-one-year-old Arthur Seaton is confined in one of the “dark Satanic mills” that William Blake decried. The piece-work routine of factory life requires only actions that soon become automatic, in effect reducing him to a mere operative extension of the factory's machinery—exactly as Karl Marx described it in Das Kapital: “At the same time that factory work exhausts the nervous system to the uttermost, it does away with the many-sided play of the muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity” (422). Yet although Arthur's “tall frame was slightly round-shouldered from stooping day in and day out at his lathe” (58), it is patently clear that (despite Marx's hyperbole) NOT “every atom” of Arthur's energy is suborned by factory, despite the best efforts of its owners and managers: Arthur's rowdy behavior on and off the factory floor asserts the primacy of the body—of energy, and thus of life itself—against the demands for automaton-like conformity that the industrial system imposes and requires.

From the moment when, at the beginning of the first chapter, after having downed seven gins and eleven pints of ale in a drinking contest, Arthur Seaton tumbles headlong down a flight of stairs at the local pub on a raucous Saturday night, it is clear that—both literally and figuratively—he is a man of almost larger-than-life capacities. He is, in fact, a violator of all decorum, a despoiler of middle-class proprieties, and a seducer of other men's wives. Yet beyond the rowdy humor for which the novel is deservedly well-known, there is in Arthur Seaton the prototype of a decidedly proletarian hero who, despite his defiance of all traditional (middle-class) norms of “respectability,” is in many ways the modern counterpart of earlier comic scapegraces—a character who not only engages in a variety of (mock-)heroic adventures but also (albeit reluctantly) by the novel's end proves himself capable of a certain “redemption” through surprisingly traditional means. In the beds of his various girlfriends and the “cosy world of pubs and noisy tarts” (33) in which, each weekend, “the effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of [his] system in a burst of goodwill” (7), Arthur finds the pleasures and satisfactions that make his life worthwhile. Yet, for all his vaunted rebelliousness and exuberant iconoclasm, his primary means of resistance amount to little more than a defiant assertion of personal autonomy, a refusal to submit to regimentation and conformity, and the secret subversion of authority through “thinking” and “cunning.”

This “thinking” and “cunning,” which constitute his main defense, are precisely those qualities that (as Marx pointed out) the modern industrial worker is presumed not to need; given little or no opportunity to express such attributes on the job, he is therefore—erroneously—assumed not to possess them. As a result, any manifestation of such qualities becomes a form of subversion, a pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake whatever the risk may be. Thus as Arthur maintains in the closing paragraphs of the novel,

There's bound to be trouble in store for me every day of my life, because trouble it's always been and always will be. Born drunk and married blind, misbegotten into a strange and crazy world, … working with rotten guts and an aching spine, and nothing for it but money to drag you back there every Monday morning.

Well, it's a good life and a good world, all said an done, if you don't weaken, and if you know that the big wide world hasn't heard from you yet, no, not by a long way, though it won't be long now.


Arthur's final affirmation that his is ultimately a good life is central to an understanding of both his character and his ideology of secret subversions. “Though no strong cause for open belligerence existed as in the bad days talked about, it persisted for more subtle reasons that could hardly be understood but were nevertheless felt,” Sillitoe writes (53); it is, accordingly, a crucial part of the ethos (or Williams's “structure of feeling”) in his working-class milieu. Thus, though Arthur contends that he would willingly blow up the factory with dynamite if given the opportunity (and handed the plunger by somebody else), he also remarks that it's “not that I've got owt against 'em, but that's just how I feel now and again. Me, I couldn't care less …” (34). Similarly, though he boasts that he voted for the communist candidate in the most recent election—and illegally used his father's voting card to do so, since “that's what all these loony laws are for … to be broken by blokes like me”—his motive in doing so was “to 'elp the losin' side” whose “poor bloke wouldn't get any votes” otherwise (31). Arthur Seaton is not a committed ideologue or a revolutionary zealot—for the simple reason that he is having too much fun otherwise.

Whereas Arthur Seaton's secret subversiveness is primarily expressed through his rhetoric rather than overt political action, the adolescent protagonist of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner undertakes a defiant, public action that is, in effect, an existential commitment to subvert the plans of those in authority over him. As a self-described outlaw and outcast who is alienated from the normative values of the prevailing culture of his times, he—far more than Arthur Seaton—is Sillitoe's first true modern counterpart of the romantic anti-hero. Like Byron's Cain and countless others, he defines himself fundamentally and unrelentingly in adversarial terms—a fact that is established in the opening sentence of the story: “As soon as I got to Borstal, they made me a long-distance cross-country runner” (7; emphasis mine). The relationship between “them” and “me” (later, “us,” including the other boys) is readily apparent, as is “their” power and “their” ability to define their young charges' lives. Significantly, Smith is given no say whatever in the matter; without being consulted in even a perfunctory way, he is told what he will be and given a training regimen that will, “they” confidently expect, “win them the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long-Distance Cross-Country Running (All England)” (11; emphasis mine). Selected for his slender build, he is assessed with the objectivity of an odds-maker calculating the prospects of a race horse; thus, even from his initial moments in the borstal, “they” treat him as if he were a thing rather than a human being. Specifically, the race horse metaphor is extended throughout the first of the story's three segments: Smith realizes that his victory in the race “means as much to [the governor of the borstal] as it would mean to me if I picked up the racing paper and put my bet on a hoss I didn't know, had never seen, and didn't care a sod if I ever did see” (12). Nor does he care about the perfunctory reward to be gained if he wins, “a bit of blue ribbon and a cup for a prize after we've shagged ourselves out running or jumping, like race horses, only we don't get so well looked-after as race horses, that's the only thing” (8). Smith's decision that he will deliberately lose the race, disclosed to the reader in the early pages of the story, is motivated primarily “because I'm not a race horse at all, and I'll let him know it” (12), asserting fundamentally human freedoms that the romantics also cherished: the freedom not to be dehumanized, not to suborn himself, not to conform, and not to comply.

Smith's “us-them” duality is further characterized as the fundamental opposition of “Out-laws” like himself and “In-laws” like the governor of the borstal and all other ostensibly “respectable” and law-abiding citizens. Though he recognizes that such people “have the whip-hand [another race horse metaphor] over blokes like me, and I'm almost dead sure it'll always be like that” (13), he defies and derides them with characteristic vigor:

Them bastards over us aren't as daft as they most of the time look. … They're cunning, and I'm cunning. If only ‘them’ and ‘us’ had the same ideas we'd get on like a house on fire, but they don't see eye to eye with us and we don't see eye to eye with them … all the pig-faced snotty-nosed dukes and ladies—who can't add two and two together and would mess themselves like loonies if they didn't have slavies to beck-and-call. …


Like the forthright, earnest, and profane narrative of Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1954), the frankness of which shocked readers in the 1950's, Sillitoe's vernacular style, diction, and rhythm in this novella stretched (and therefore helped to redefine) the “acceptable limits” of discourse in English fiction. Though seemingly non- (or sub-) literary by the prevailing standards of its day (no less than Wordsworth's diction and subject matter in Lyrical Ballads), Sillitoe's work accurately—and even lyrically—captured the language really used by young men, particularly when in a state of confinement.

Like Brendan Behan's autobiographical Borstal Boy (1958), The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner introduced readers to the realities of borstal life as seen through the eyes of a teenaged protagonist who, despite the anti-social acts of which he was convicted, proves himself to be an exuberant, irrepressible, and defiant anti-hero, expounding values that remain irreconcilable with the ideology of the prevailing culture but are none the less important for all that. With Orc-like energy, Smith defines himself against the entire respectable, staid, repressive, and “reasonable” In-law world; his foremost adversary is the (Urizen-like) Governor of the borstal, the nameless embodiment of all authority figures who exercise institutionalized control. Like Arthur Seaton, Smith assumes that “it's war between me and them,” though he also asserts that “it's a good life … if you don't give in to coppers and Borstal-bosses and the rest of them bastard-faced In-laws” (11). Like Arthur, too, he relishes the “fun and fire” to be gotten out of life (12) and is not seriously interested in social or political issues, noting that “government wars aren't my wars; they've got nowt to do with me, because my own war's all that I'll ever be bothered about” (15). Nevertheless, as he runs across the chilly fields at dawn, Smith enjoys the solitude in nature, “feel[ing] like the first and last man on the world, both at once” (8). Away from the crowded dormitories and the class-ridden society of the outside world (where he worked at a factory milling-machine), he spends the time “doing a lot of thinking … and that's what I like” (10). Yet, predictably, he has no regrets about the activities that brought him to the reformatory, and he has no serious intentions of reforming his ways.

The final section of the story takes place during and after the race itself. Assuming the lead easily, he plans to lose the race deliberately when he is within sight of the goal line and being observed by not only his fellow confinees but also “the pop-eyed potbellied governor” and “a pop-eyed potbellied Member of Parliament who sat next to his pop-eyed potbellied whore of a wife” (33)—thus subverting the confident expectations that others have for him and frustrating their plans for his future and his life. In so doing, he not only repudiates the entire English “public school” ethos of sports (in which the governor and member of parliament, as representatives of their class, unquestioningly believe), but he also asserts—though he would not recognize it as such—an existential freedom to say no. Like other existential (and Byronic) heroes, he accepts full responsibility for his choice, well aware that his defiance will bring retaliation; although he is relegated to the hardest and dirtiest jobs in the borstal for the weeks remaining in his sentence, he remains a hero to the other boys.

Within the context of this existential self-definition, Smith's insistence on his own kind of “honesty” becomes clear. In choosing to run rather than to race, to set his own standards rather than to compete against (and thus define himself in terms of) others, he asserts the fundamental—and ultimately romantic—primacy of the self: he refuses to allow others to impose their conventional expectations on his behavior, thereby restricting his freedom. Like Huckleberry Finn—still another adolescent out-law from the ostensibly lower classes of society—Smith resists all attempts to “civilize” him, though he maintains that, despite his criminal record,

… I am honest, that I've never been anything else but honest, and that I'll always be honest. … I think my honesty is the only sort in the world, and [the governor] thinks his is the only sort in the world as well.


Smith's “honesty,” like that of his romantic forebears, affirms the truth of feelings rather than propriety, of personal integrity and existential autonomy rather than “civilized” decorum and unthinking conformity. It also entails an acceptance of life's hardships and pain, represented by his father's “Out-law death” (43) from stomach cancer, refusing to be hospitalized, rejecting the doctors and their drugs, defiant until the last; in contrast, the governor and other In-laws are said to be “dead from the toenails up,” and their counsel to “be honest … [is] like saying: Be dead, like me … and settle down in a cosy six pounds a week job” (13). The alternative is an exuberant joie de vivre that is effectively symbolized in the narrative's frequently lyrical descriptions of running (though Sillitoe himself was never an athlete himself, nor was confined in a borstal—as he responds to his most-frequently-asked questions); “I'll win in the end,” Smith contends, “even if I die in gaol at eighty-two, because I'll have had more fun and fire out of my life than [the governor]'ll ever get out of his” (12).

Clearly, his running has been made a form of contractual work rather than play. Yet not even the cup and blue ribbon will be Smith's own, since they will belong to the winning institution—a reform school qua factory whose product is “honest men.” Its governor/owner/manager never once suggests that the athlete should win for himself—that the laborer should receive the reward of his toil—or even that (altruistically) the sport can provide a sense of personal achievement and a satisfaction all its own whether he wins or not. Accordingly, Smith recognizes that the victory, which he is quite capable of achieving, “don't mean a bloody thing to me” (12). In cunningly subverting the plans of those who seek to keep him under their control for their own benefit, he affirms the existence of an innately human (and fundamentally romantic) alternative to the prevailing social and economic ethos: however successful others may be in “owning” the athlete's body (which, like a factory's machine, is powerful, well-maintained, efficient, and smoothly functional), they can never control his mind, subdue his emotions, quash his spirit, or quell his independent will. Thus, in making sure that this race is indeed “not to the swift,” Smith proves that, in the words of the Book of Ecclesiastes, the more important “battle” is also “not to the strong.”


In many ways, the publication of The Death of William Posters (1965)—the first volume of a trilogy that also includes A Tree on Fire (1967) and The Flame of Life (1974)—signified a new direction in Sillitoe's writing, although its affinities with romantic rebelliousness in general and Byronic attitudes in particular are more explicit than ever before. The trilogy is a far more ambitious and complex undertaking than any of his previous works, presenting the interconnected lives of three central characters in addition to numerous secondary ones, and its settings range from the world of London's avant-garde art galleries to the deserts of Algeria during its war for independence. The Zeitgeist of the 1960's and early 1970's pervades its diffuse plot as well: the “anger” of the earlier works, which had so startled readers in the staid 1950's, pales in comparison to the rage of the militants and ideologues of the later decade. Unlike the relatively innocuous “secret subversions” that are carried out by the central characters in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the rebellion that is joined by the protagonist of The Death of William Posters is an act of genuine political defiance rather than a symbolic (or token) gesture; the literal battles in which he fights require a far more serious existential and ideological commitment than Smith or Arthur Seaton would ever conceivably be called upon to make. Clearly, therefore, in writing the William Posters Trilogy, Sillitoe intended to reach beyond Nottingham and its narrow “cosy world of pubs and noisy tarts” (SN&SM 7) with which his fiction had become identified—and to extend the range and scope of his fiction by assaying more profound themes of art and politics, creating characters whose involvements and activities are more closely attuned to the ideological, social, and artistic upheavals of their times.

Whereas the earlier novels typically ended with their protagonists' arrival at the threshold of a significant and imminent transformation in their lives, The Death of William Posters begins with such a threshold being crossed: Frank Dawley, a twenty-seven-year-old working-class machine-operator, abandons his wife and child, his job in the factory, and his home for no apparent reason other than that “he had to leave, yet without knowing why” (48), having become simply and thoroughly sick of it all. Having sold his car to raise cash to support himself, he sets out with a knapsack to follow the open road toward self-discovery; fundamentally, it is a romantic quest, a search for moral and political answers on how best to live. Its first premise is a rejection of the spirit-stifling domestic conventionality that is represented by both his unhappy marriage and his soul-stifling job in the factory. Despite the familiar pattern of the alienated, lusty, brawling, working-class protagonist that was established in Sillitoe's earlier fiction, Frank Dawley is some ways quite different—and he makes clear his disdain for men like Arthur Seaton as he remembers “one of his Nottingham mates who, unless he got blind drunk, spewed his guts up, and was knocked to the ground in unequal fight, didn't feel he'd had a good time—the sort of thing that now seemed a waste of life to Frank Dawley” and, apparently, to his author too (150). In fact, Sillitoe parodies the entire tradition of ostensibly “angry young men” as another of his characters considers

the voting Labour masses that still seemed to inhabit the North: cloth-capped, hardworking, generous and bruto, or that was the impression she got from reading a book (or was it books?) called Hurry On Jim by Kingsley Wain that started by someone with eighteen pints and fifteen whiskies in him falling downstairs on his way to the top.

DWP 143)

In her confusion, she conflates John Wain's Hurry On Down (1953), Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954), John Braine's Room at the Top (1957), and Sillitoe's own Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1957) into one mega-“angry” novel—as if, in the public's mind, to have read one is to have read them all. Such a novel is, nevertheless, clearly quite different from the work that Sillitoe had undertaken in the William Posters trilogy.

There is, however, no “real” William Posters; he is, instead, a figment of Frank Dawley's imagination, a modern-day renegade like Robin Hood, an outlaw and outcast whose legendary misdeeds have confounded Nottingham officials (including, presumably, its sheriff) as well as authorities elsewhere, who inscribe on various public surfaces the warning that “Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted.” Throughout the years, Dawley has elaborated the legend, which, like many myths, is not entirely or explicably consistent. Initially, Frank is said to have “endow[ed] the slovenly Bill with the typical mentality of the workman-underdog, the put-upon dreg whose spiritual attributes he had been soaked and bombarded with all through his school, home, and working life” (13)—though such a character would surely be incapable of the (anti-)heroic deeds that are later attributed to him. Despite the claim that “Frank had fought [such influences] off, being like him in no single way at all” (13), he also contends that “maybe if [Bill] hadn't been persecuted … he'd have turned out a different man, been a bloke like me who'd got a job in a factory and … been a good worker for the union” (15). Yet, in his anti-authoritarian response to the threatened prosecution and persecution, Frank finds that “in some big way Bill Posters had also been responsible for his [Frank's] exploding out of life so far, leaving wife, home, job, kids and Nottingham's fair city where he had been born, bred and spiritually nullified” (13). When Bill and Frank have broken out of the old life, the anti-heroic aspects of the mythic, working-class figure become more apparent:

He must know no rest, for they were still out to get him. … Bill was always in a hurry, travelling furtively, travelling light … But the great and marvellous thing was that they never got him! Bill had been on the run from birth and was more than a match for his persecutors … [who would] never catch Bill … for he was clever and … too smart to give himself away[, and] … infamous in these streets for generations. …


Accordingly, in many ways William Posters is Frank Dawley's alter-ego, unfettered by domestic responsibilities and the mundane routine of a factory job, free to travel at will, clever enough to violate whatever laws and social conventions he dislikes, and cunning enough to thrive in defiance of all forms of authority. As such, he shares a number of the traits that characterized Sillitoe's earlier protagonists, with their unsubduability and their secret subversions, in which they take both pride and delight. Yet, for all this “outlaw” rebelliousness, William Posters (like Arthur Seaton and even Smith) remains fundamentally domestic, which is per se a capitulation—in contrast to the genuinely revolutionary activity which Frank Dawley eventually undertakes in the deserts of Algeria.

Maintaining that “there's no place for me on this right little tight little island” (DWP 193), Frank admits that he is running away from himself to find himself. Accompanied by his lover Myra Bassingfield, whose husband died in a car crash while trying to run down the pair when making their escape together, he leaves England for the continent, travelling from Paris to Barcelona before going on to Majorca and Granada. On the steamer from Barcelona, he meets Shelley Jones, an American expatriate, a former advertising executive who gave up his job, trained in Cuba, and now travels the world giving covert aid to nationalist insurgencies and anti-imperial revolutionaries throughout the world; he is currently headed toward Tangier, from where he will be gun-running for the Algerian FLN in their struggle against the French. Frank readily agrees to become Shelley's co-driver, seizing the opportunity “to get out of his spiralled airtight shell and carry violence to the enemy camp” for the first time in his life (DWP 246). He thus commits himself to an outlaw action that William Posters would never have dared to undertake, being “too English for this world” of radical political commitment, having “never had a Bren [submachine gun] at his shoulder” (DWP 264, 265). The novel ends as Frank successfully takes part in his first ambush in the Algerian desert, the gun's “kick at his shoulder [being] the joy of life” (DWP 268). In effect, he has laid the ultimately ineffectual William Posters to rest by committing his life to the furtherance of militant, radical, and literally revolutionary change.

In much the same way that, in James Joyce's Ulysses, the seemingly mundane events in the life of Leopold Bloom on a June day in Dublin in 1904 recapitulate adventures of Ulysses that are recounted in Homer's Odyssey, Frank Dawley is in many ways the twentieth-century proletarian counterpart of George Gordon, Lord Byron during the portion of his life following his separation from his wife—a period that includes his final exile from England and his activities in support of the struggle for Greek independence. Although such correspondences are far less intricately detailed than those in Joyce's work, and although the differences between the two lives are manifest, the pattern that they constitute can hardly be coincidental; the parallels suggest not only a provocative concept of contemporary Byronism but help to account for some of Frank Dawley's actions that may seem at best only vaguely motivated otherwise. Thus, for example, the novel begins immediately after Frank Dawley has left his wife and family at the age of twenty-seven, the age at which Byron left his marriage; although Frank Dawley's reasons are not specifically explained, there is no suggestion of the type of lurid accusations that were brought by Lady Byron against her husband. Frank Dawley's involvement with other women also echoes Byron's own amorous entanglements (an affair with a nurse named Pat Shipley precedes his relationship with Myra, who later bears his child). The more important parallels occur during Frank's self-imposed sojourn abroad, however—and even his resolution to flee forever “this … tight little island” (DWP 193) exactly echoes Byron's own, as the latter used the same phrase in a letter written late in 1816 (quoted in Marchand 260). Although Frank Dawley's travels take him through France and Spain rather than Switzerland and Italy as Lord Byron's had done, each journey ultimately leads to the battlefronts of the foremost national liberation movements of their times, in Algeria and Greece respectively.

Within this Byronic context of romantic revolutionism, Frank Dawley's initial meeting with the appropriately named Shelley Jones takes on added significance; like his namesake, Sillitoe's character of Shelley is younger than Frank, far more erudite and intellectual, and much more radical in his ardent commitment to international revolution. His effect on Frank is the same as that of the earlier Shelley on his friend Byron, which Leslie Marchand has described:

Shelley, who [was] himself an ethereal presence, opened up wide vistas in Byron's mind … [through] the spell of [his] eloquence. … It was a novelty for Byron to find [in Shelley and his party] agreeable persons untrammeled by the conventions of society, well read and intelligent, with sensitive appreciation, ready to discuss any subject under the sun with speculative intensity.

(Marchand 241–42)

It was, in fact, Shelley who rekindled Byron's interest in the Greek struggle for independence (Marchand 360). Sillitoe's Shelley, like his namesake, is a radical nonconformist in virtually every aspect of his personal life, and each has abandoned the security of his conservative backgrounds (in the Sussex gentry and on Madison Avenue, respectively) to devote himself to radically idealistic causes. Each is also an ardent follower of the foremost theorists of political revolution of his day—Godwin and the founders of the French revolution in the early nineteenth century, and Mao Tse-tung, Ngoyen Giap, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro in the 1960's.

Like Byron in support of Italy's Carbonari in their attempt to “send the Barbarians of all nations back to their own dens” (Marchand 324) and in his aid to the Greek effort to overthrow the Turks—and, indeed, like Brian Seaton with his secret sympathies for the Malayan insurgents in Key to the Door—Frank Dawley supports the FLN's struggle against the French as a form of anti-imperialism and pro-nationalism. In the twentieth century, of course, these also coincide with a distinctively communist ideology that Byron—with his belief in “an aristocratic or gentlemanly leadership” as well as his “distrust of the mob and lack of sympathy for democratic or proletarian, or even middle-class, control or participation in government” (Marchand 321)—definitely would not have shared. Yet whereas Byron's support of the Greek cause was primarily financial (a type of contribution that Sillitoe's proletarian protagonist is unable to make), Frank Dawley's commitment to the revolution places his life in even more immediate jeopardy as he literally (i.e., physically) provides munitions to the guerrillas in their desert outposts, accompanying Shelley on their gun-running missions and taking part in firefights and acts of sabotage against the French. In so doing, he carries out the sort of direct action for which Byron longed when, as a leader of the Suliotes in 1824, he planned to lead a night raid against Turkish ships to damage their rigging and drive them onto the rocks (Marchand 434). Accordingly, The Death of William Posters ends with just such a night-time ambush against a French convoy, although the enemy “vessels” that are destroyed in the twentieth-century work are airplanes rather than ships. The novel ends with Frank Dawley in the desert in the aftermath of the battle, his fate unknown; it was shortly after Byron's planning the above-mentioned battle that he became ill and died.

Nevertheless, as the novel's title indicates, it is William Posters—not Frank Dawley—whose death occurs by the end of the book, and for him too there is a significant “Byronic” parallel. As Frank Dawley's adventurous but imaginary alter-ego, William Posters is a proletarian folk- (or mock-) hero who, despite obvious differences in class background, bears the same sort of relationship to his “creator” as Byron's variously imagined romantic outcasts and exiles bore to Byron himself. Like Childe Harold and others, William Posters is a quasi-autobiographical figure who “constituted his [creator's] secret life and his greatest pleasure and gave a quiet satisfaction to his days” (Marchand 271). Yet, paradoxically, he is also quintessentially English and thus unable to break through the social conventions that Frank Dawley has come increasingly to deplore. Thus, although William Posters is a self-styled rebel and outcast whose “secret subversions” earn him a certain anti-heroic notoriety, he (like Arthur Seaton) has never really questioned—or seriously threatened to undermine—the status quo in any radical or genuinely revolutionary way. In much the same way that, for Byron, exile became the essential first step in overcoming “the canting generalizations and pomposities of English poetry [and English life, as well as] … the fetters of British propriety” (Marchand 273), Frank Dawley must escape British factory life and William Posters' insufficiently radical, stolidly proletarian mentality, respectively:

Thirty years had taught him nothing except that life was good but limited (the innerlife anyway that the society he'd been brought up in told him existed)—limited in everything, depth, space, decision, strength. … He felt at the forward point of the world. … The new man of the world must work and live as if he weren't going to be alive the next day. … It was a new way to live, and, even now, he was trying it, the first kick-off started the day he left the Nottingham world of moribund William Posters.

DWP 232)

In the exhilaration of the successful ambush and its aftermath, Frank finally repudiates William Posters as “that soul-anchor … that snivelling muffle-capped man on the eternal run who'd never had a Bren at his shoulder” (DWP 263, 265). Although Frank Dawley is still literally on the run as a guerrilla, his actions are the result of a far more intense ideological commitment, on which he has staked his life, undertaking responsibilities for actions that are far more substantially subversive (if necessarily still secret) than any portrayed in Sillitoe's fiction heretofore.

When their story resumes in A Tree on Fire, Frank and Shelley are veterans of many successful acts of sabotage and desert skirmishes. While Shelley plans to board a ship and return with more arms from Morocco or Libya, Frank has resolved to “stay [on the Algerian front] while the fighting lasted, looking on his commitment as the great oceanic end of the line for him, the wide spaces of the world that he must allow himself to be swallowed by if he was to do any good in it” (126)—much as Byron regarded his support of the Greek cause. In Shelley, he recognizes “a nonchalant, easy-going man whose idealism and sense of purpose seemed so much nearer the bone than that which had impelled Frank to set out on this ideological adventure” (134), during which he has learned that “the freedom of the wide-open wilderness had no meaning, was a myth” since “nothing had been escaped from, only entered into … push[ing him] deeper into the prison of [him]self” (133). Although Sillitoe expressed his unequivocal disdain for the poetry of T. S. Eliot in his interview with John Halperin, his description of spiritual desolation and the desert as the site of a subsequent personal renewal invites comparison with The Waste Land: “to go into the desert meant emptying oneself of all that was bad in order that what should have been there in the first place could then enter” (ATOF 148), he contends, shortly after the insurrectionists have sought shelter from a dust-storm in the shadow of a (red?) rock (137). Specifically, Frank Dawley finds himself “in the transition from a life in which he had grown old to a new life in which he had not yet learned to live, needing … the heart and brain of a newborn man who now wanted to be on his own” (139); he is, in effect, the modern-day counterpart of the romantics' emergent “new man” (Orc-like, even Promethean), unshackled as a result of liberating, radical, and literally revolutionary societal change.

Like his romantic predecessor, Sillitoe's modern-day Shelley has devoted himself to “trying to prove that [he] can live alone, without man and without God” (his own version of The Necessity of Atheism), and he forfeits his life at an untimely age, having never wavered in his dedication “to the cause of helping people towards the togetherness of socialism” (142). Although his life ends in the desert from gangrene-infected wounds that he received in battle (rather than in a boating accident of the kind that killed his namesake), he dies visualizing the sea:

If the wave broke, he would drown. It became olive-green, white cloud at the top. The black cloth fell over him again, and he saw no more sea.


Like the drowned, Shelley Jones at his death “was unrecognizable, mouth black and torn from the grind of teeth, eyes unable to open” (181), and his death affects Frank Dawley with “a pouring out of sorrow and loneliness, heartache and despair” (188) that is as profound as Byron's grief over Shelley's demise.

Like Byron, too, Frank Dawley becomes gravely ill relatively shortly after Shelley's death—although, unlike his romantic predecessor, Sillitoe's protagonist survives his illness and returns to England and to his two families (i.e., his wife and children in Nottingham as well as Myra and the son he has never seen), for both of which he has come increasingly to yearn, as Byron did also while in Greece. Yet whereas Byron died without fulfilling any such desires for renewed contact with his family, Frank Dawley not only survives but also finally achieves a life-changing realization in the desert, enabling him to begin (yet again) a new spiritual quest, based on a recognition of personal responsibility:

In the clarity of his mind he speculated on how many sins one had to commit before reaching the kingdom of heaven, how many good people abandon who had come to lean on you more heavily for support than you realized in your malformed desire to be free of them. Your life depended on people who needed you. Nancy and the children, Myra and their child …—he had abandoned them to help people whom he wanted to need him, but who, in reality, had learned well enough how to help themselves, a break with settled fate in order to control the circumstances of his own life.


Following his nearly-fatal illness, Frank Dawley returns to England with plans not only to unite his two families but to join the chaotic commune-like existence of the large family of his long-time friend Albert Handley, a now-famous artist whom he had first met soon after setting out on his journey toward self-discovery. For all his resolve to return to personal domestic responsibility, Frank Dawley—like Albert Handley and his bizarre family—remains fundamentally determined to avoid “the bourgeois trap” (217). Nevertheless, his function as a modern-day Byronic revolutionary effectively comes to an end in the desert, just as Byron himself died in Greece with the goals of the (eventually successful) insurgency that he supported still unachieved.

Although the parallels between Frank Dawley and Lord Byron (and those between the two Shelleys) constitute the principal romantic parallels in the trilogy, there are other noteworthy romantic motifs and affinities in A Tree on Fire. Like Frank, Albert Handley characterizes himself as a “revolutionary by faith” (92), though he contends that “no artist has the right to go and fight for the oppressed peoples, etc.” (109), since such an action would entail an abandonment of his “higher calling”; his art—like Frank's political commitment—is a product of the spiritual “unknown desert-emptiness that he'd stumbled into and taken the courage to cross” (90). Later, his reflections on the chaos of his family life echo the romantic concept of the artist's internal and external Sturm und Drang:

In the middle of a long great storm the ability to know was replaced by the necessity to act. It was chaos that decided what you could and would do, so that all you had to do was prepare for it, unless you were an artist, in which case every form of storm was already in you—everything.

He looked for confirmation of this to his recent painting. …


Like Gulley Jimson, the narrator-protagonist of Joyce Cary's The Horse's Mouth (1944), Albert Handley is a genial genius-cum-reprobate whose quasi-religious “primitive surrealistic realist” paintings (DWP 95) seem to have particular affinities with those of William Blake in the romantic period (and, perhaps, Stanley Spencer in more recent times).

The novel's most surprising—and most ironic—romantic obeisance occurs in its final chapters, which involve Albert's brother John, a war-deranged invalid who for fifteen years has confined himself to the family home, tirelessly transcribing Morse-coded radio-signals in the hope that, from out of the heavens, “they might one day yield a precise solution to the whole pattern of his life that he could fall down before and worship” (ATOF 66). Suddenly and without warning, after setting fire to his brother's house, he goes to rescue Frank Dawley and bring him back from Algeria. After finding him near death in an Algerian hospital and securing his passage home, John goes to Paris (the romantics' center of revolution, to which he too is now committed), convinced that a new revolutionary triumverate of “Energy, Imagination, and Intelligence were to replace the autocratic triumverate of Inertia, Stagnation, and Reaction” (351) which had, in turn, supplanted the romantics' cherished ideals of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality among “the lumpen-bourgeoisie” (368). Yet, crossing the English channel from Calais, he places a revolver in his mouth and fires, as the

stacks of loose papers in foolscap sheets [which are his] years of radio-logs … tak[en] down … in the hope of finding and hearing and recording for himself and everyone a message from some non-existent God or god-like fountain beyond all the layers of the stars that might contain the precious message of life that would fill him with energy, imagination, and intelligence. … The hundreds of sheets of paper covered with his neat writing scattered like … dead leaves. …


This startling image obviously evokes the closing sonnet of Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind,” with its hope for a revitalizing of the revolutionary spirit:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

(lines 63–70)

John's transcriptions of radio-messages from the empyrean are the (devalued) modern counterparts of Shelley's neo-Platonism, and it is symbolically appropriate that his death, like Shelley's, occurs on a boat—with his brains as well as his words being scattered by his self-extinguishing (pistol-) fire. Yet, coming as it does at the end of the second novel of the trilogy, this overt obeisance to Shelley's poem might also herald a similarly hoped-for revolution—to which the many of the novel's readers in 1967, at the height of tumultuous international social upheaval that was then held to be the dawning of a new and Aquarian age, might plausibly have felt themselves to have been particularly well attuned.

In describing the trilogy in his 1985 essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Sillitoe rather dismissively remarked that “the thousand pages of these three books deal with the political attitudes of the 1960s” (386)—and subsequently added that he “didn't really get into [his] stride as a writer until [his] midforties, marked by the publication of The Widower's Son (1976),” the novel that followed completion of the trilogy (388). “At that time,” he adds, “there was a change of gear” (388), though its nature remains unspecified. In part, perhaps, the change involved abandoning his exploration of the political ideologies of revolution that figured so prominently in the trilogy and, less ardently, in the earlier works as well. Yet it is also possible that Sillitoe had “gotten into [his own] stride as a writer” by working out his relationship to the literary tradition in general and the romantic poets in particular, whose works and world-views pervade his writings to a degree that is far more extensive than recognized heretofore—denoting an “anxiety of influence” being worked through in the early novels, which (paradoxically) were recognized even from the outset as the expression of a new, vigorous, and vital literary voice that was also—and remains—uniquely his own.


  1. In Sillitoe's brief discussion of Road to Volgograd in his autobiographical essay for the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series (1985), however, he remarks that “at that time there seemed to be more freedom for the writer and artist (and therefore for everybody else) since before the Revolution, and my optimistic tone expressed it. Later visits showed me however that it was only a temporary change, and that the rigid orthodoxy of the Russian system was incapable of liberalisation. When I went as a tourist to Russia in September 1967 I gave a lecture at the Gorki Literary Institute, my theme being that of ‘Freedom for the Writer.’ It didn't go down very well with the authorities, but the students liked it” (386). Road to Volgograd has not been reprinted since its initial publication.

  2. See, for example, Allen R. Penner, Stanley S. Atherton, Peter Hitchcock, and Ronald D. Vaverka. For comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, see David Gerard.

Works Cited

Atherton, Stanley S. Alan Sillitoe: A Critical Assessment. London: W. H. Allen, 1979.

Burgess, Anthony. The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction. 1967; New York: Pegasus, 1970.

Gerard, David. Alan Sillitoe: A Bibliography. London: Mansell, 1988.

Halperin, John. “Interview with Alan Sillitoe.” Modern Fiction Studies 25:2 (Summer 1979), 175–189.

Hitchcock, Peter. Working Class Fiction in Theory and Practice: A Reading of Alan Sillitoe. Ann Arbor: UMI Press, 1989.

Marchand, Leslie A. Byron: A Portrait. 1970; Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critical Analysis of Modern Capitalist Production. Trans. from the third German ed. by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Ed. Frederick Engels. London: Swann Sonnenschein & Lowery, 1872.

Penner, Allen R. Alan Sillitoe. New York: Twayne, 1972.

Sillitoe, Alan. The Death of William Posters. 1965; London: Grafton Books, 1986.

———. Key to the Door. 1961; London: Grafton Books, 1986.

———. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. New York: NAL, 1959. 7–47.

———. Raw Material. 3rd rev. ed. London: Grafton Books, 1987.

———. Road to Volgograd. London: W. H. Allen, 1964.

———. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. New York: NAL, 1958.

———. A Tree on Fire. 1967; London: Grafton Books, 1986.

———. Untitled autobiographical essay. Contemporary Authors' Autobiography Series. Ed. Adela Sarkissian. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1985. Vol. 2, 371–389.

Vaverka, Ronald D. Commitment as Art: A Marxist Critique of a Selection of Alan Sillitoe's Political Fictions. Uppsala: U of Uppsala P, 1978.

Williams, Raymond. Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. London: Verso Editions, 1980.

John Lucas (review date 12 August 1994)

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SOURCE: “Nurtured by the Wasteland,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4767, August 12, 1994, p. 24.

[In the following review, Lucas provides an unfavorable assessment of Sillitoe's Collected Poems.]

In the preface to this ample volume, [Collected Poems,] Alan Sillitoe explains that it contains fewer than half the poems he has published during his writing career. “Fat and gristle,” he calls the work he has discarded, adding that what he has chosen to include has been subjected to “extreme revision” and represents “the meat” of his achievement as a poet. It also “displays the emotional history” of Sillitoe's “heart and soul.” I don't complain of such unguarded candour, however old-hat the phrasing may seem to be; nor is there reason to doubt that the pruning knife has been hard at work. What is to be regretted is that the cutting and re-writing haven't done much for the candour. Too many of these poems are muffled by dead language, inert rhythms and pointless stanza divisions, as though Sillitoe is determined to come on as a “poet,” but has chosen to leave behind the virtues that make him at his best a valuable writer of fiction.

His first verse collection, The Rats, was written, he says, while he was working on Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. But where, in the poems, can you find any evidence of the ear for local speech, the vivid understanding of particular lives, that distinguish his novel? “The wasteland that seemed to Mr Eliot death / Nurtured me with passion, life and breath.” Admittedly, the lines that follow these try to itemize how and why “The wasteland was my library and college,” but they do so with such clumsy, reach-me-down vocabulary and rhymes that they quite undermine the claims the poet hopes to make for his unsentimental education. This is not so much candour as schlock.

Matters improve when he moves away from Nottingham, although he never shakes off the habit of slovenly writing. “A broad and solid oak exploded / Split by mystery and shock / Broken like bread / Like a flower shaken.” Exploded and split? Broken and shaken? It's odd that Sillitoe should have a thing about trees and woods—several poems celebrate or “deal” with them—when he has so little regard for how they actually look or for their histories or the space they occupy. But then Sillitoe the poet hasn't much sense of any of these things. Perhaps for this reason one of the most interesting of his poems, called “Lancaster,” has for subject the displaced and displacing experience of being taken for a (peacetime) flight in a Second World War bomber:

the botch of Leicester
Railways of Rugby, the sandstone of Oxford
The peace of Abingdon and the first view of
the Thames,
Canals and rivers of new reality, calico
Hiding all in me, unseen from my chosen

The language is at best journalistic, but the sense of not belonging. “My place forever looking down and in,” comes across as near to the writer's “heart and soul.”

Unfortunately, the looking seldom amounts to more than tepid adjective-noun constructions. Even the poems Sillitoe has selected from Tides and Stone Walls offer very little by way of imagistic sharpness, and this is in spite of the fact that they were originally written to accompany work by the photographer Victor Bowley. “It's what the tide reveals / When it huffs and leaves / That means so much.” Maybe, but given that we're never told what in fact is revealed, we have to take the claim on trust. Perhaps Sillitoe felt he couldn't and/or shouldn't try to compete with the photographs, and this is entirely understandable. But the sad truth is that left to themselves the poems drop into an incoherent mutter. “Bombs are the enemies of bricks”; “Blood makes history, / And desolation / A winter's day.” Reading these and other poems that between them make up Sillitoe's Collected, you come to feel that it's the product of someone endlessly ill at ease with a medium he nevertheless cannot bring himself to do without.

Edward Blishen (review date 7 July 1995)

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SOURCE: “A Life in Notts,” in Times Educational Supplement, July 7, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review of Life without Armour, Blishen asserts that much of the information in the autobiography has been utilized in Sillitoe's novels and short stories.]

He was looking out of the window—for once not writing, he seems to remember [in his autobiography Life wthout Armour], being in a vacant mood—when he saw a youngster in vest and shorts trotting past. He scribbled on a clean sheet of paper what he took to be the first line of a poem: “The loneliness of the long distance runner …” But no second line came, so he put it away, and got on with a long poem called “The Rats.”

For eight years he had been trying to break into print. There'd been The General's Dilemma, a novel drawing on his passion for world politics and warfare. (At 15 he had set out to write a history of the war, alongside the dossier he was keeping on the illegal activities of his cousins: if his mother had not come across this last, the whole family might have ended up in prison, victims of the stubborn chronicler they'd spawned). There was The Palisade, and Mr Allen's Island, and much else: hope kept going by an agent as obstinate as himself.

Now he was in Bishop's Stortford, after six years abroad, largely in Majorca, where Robert Graves, having read one of the manuscripts, said: “Why don't you write something set in Nottingham? That's the place you know best.” Though until he was 19 he had read only two adult novels, he had soon thereafter got on to DH Lawrence, that other local lad who had moved into Europe, towards the sun, and flowered there: and had begun by writing “something set in Nottingham.”

Alan Sillitoe does not say if he was stirred by Graves's advice: but lately he had begun work on a novel with the tentative title The Adventures of Arthur Seaton, for which, with the unflinching cannibalism of the writer-in-waiting, he had drawn on several of his (of course, unpublished) short stories.

Arthur Seaton, hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as it ended up being called, was to be, extremely famously, a young man impatient with what he thought of as his enslavement to the lathe in the bicycle-making factory. Alan Sillitoe had worked at the same lathe, but with satisfaction: “The magic of turning out each separate object never left me.”

Like Arthur Seaton, like the long distance runner (when at last that remarkable story wrote itself), he was marked by “an enduring disrespect for authority,” which he attributed to the influence, this way or that, of his father, who had “the mind of a ten-year-old in the body of a brute.” But he was endlessly patient, growlingly dogged, into the bargain: all along the years there are these photographs of him biting into his pipestem, the eyes reflecting the undivertable imagination within but being also stern, obdurate.

Sillitoe has told us much of all this in his fiction: and at first that seems a problem. There are stretches in the autobiography, spoken as the memoirist must speak them, as from a witness box, where I longed for what I thought of as the superior truthfulness of this or that short story or novel, spoken from the freer, warmer platform that the fictioneer occupies. But after a time one sees that the methodical trudge of the plain account of oneself has curiously valuable additions to offer.

Take the childhood. Sillitoe says he grew up as one of those referred to in Robert Graves's and Alan Hodges's The Long Weekend as “the unkillable poor.” If it was a wonder that they were not killed by hard luck and penury, it was a wonder also that they did not kill each other. Sillitoe's father added to his streak of violence the frustrated fury of an illiterate. It is an example of the writer's refusal of self-pity that he says his father's hatred of his love of reading might have been a spur, and a reason to be grateful.

An early memory is of his mother making sure the blood from an injury inflicted by her husband dripped into a pail and not on the carpet. Sillitoe says, in his gruffest tone, that his was a paradise of a childhood compared to that of a Jewish boy or girl in the Warsaw ghetto. Yes, you want to say, of course: but this does not mean it was not awful to have to struggle up as children in Sillitoe's condition had to struggle up.

It is another valuable feature of the autobiography that it makes it plain how this determined child preserved himself. He had a passion for maps, and for the names of foreign places and people, and for the geography of the sky as well as that of the earth. He made his way forward via the Air Training Corps: became so good at navigation and the rest that he was accepted as a trainee pilot for the Fleet Air Arm, though later he withdrew: became an airfield controller.

All that, culminating in service in the RAF, has fed much of his fiction. But here we are helped to see clearly the young man who had perfected his armour against a world coldly ready to do him down. Intent here too on giving the strictest possible report on himself, Sillitoe says he had, out of what he thinks of as supineness and obtuseness, melted thought into action: he was not going to let the mind have much of a say, since this would lead to worry, and so to uncertainty: “And I wasn't having any of that.”

But odd bits of experience were prising thought and action apart: music, for example, especially, for some reason, Bizet's L'Arlesienne; and among all the books he was reading, the two he'd come to know while still an adolescent, Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Then, to make it certain that his “not sufficiently unhappy state” should be fully, cruelly reformed, there was tuberculosis: “From wanting to be first-class everything I was suddenly defeated in an area where no trouble had been expected at all.” This defeat, of course, was the first step towards a tremendous victory, when out of all that writing came the dramatic first success. Typically he says he was not dismayed when 15 years earlier his second attempt at the scholarship failed: as he puts it, he knew he was going to enter by way of the ceiling, not the cellar.

Not that he allowed any forward step to be easy. Tom Maschler would have taken Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for McGibbon and Kee, but wanted to edit it: and Sillitoe, having learned to write the hard way, was not going to be told by anyone how to revise his novel. Marvellous: though anyone reading him now, with whatever admiration, might wish he'd allowed editorship in respect of his addiction to the unrelated participle. (Alarmed, I imagine his teeth tightening on that pipestem).

His refusal to be thought of in any fashion that might be regarded as pigeonholing him makes him furious about being described as working class. He is a writer, he holds, like any other, one who happened to have emerged (receiving his first underwear ever at kitting out for the RAF) from awkward circumstances in down-town Nottingham. Again one thinks, yes of course: but read the short stories, especially the earlier ones in this selection, and try to think of some way of avoiding his wrath whilst putting the case that they offer remarkable views of the British working class just before, during and just after the Second World War.

What does Alan Sillitoe himself think of the difference between the platforms offered by fiction and autobiography (this autobiography, by the way, ending with the transformation in 1958 of the ugly duckling into the industrious swan: what followed, he says, disappointingly, would amount to a mere list of books produced).

When I rang him with the question the answer was instant. “In fiction,” he said, “one always embellishes. Things have a patina that the imagination gives them.” There was a slight pause. “Nothing in my fiction,” he said, “is me.”

Andy Croft (review date 21 July 1995)

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SOURCE: “Don't Thee ‘Tha’ Me,” in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 362, July 21, 1995, p. 39.

[In the following excerpt, Croft offers a positive review of Life without Armour.]

The first book Alan Sillitoe ever owned, given to him when he was nine by a kindly teacher, included an extract from The Count of Monte Cristo in which Dantes escapes from the dungeons of the Chateau d'If; soon afterwards, he bought a second-hand copy of Les Miserables. “Between them they lit up my darkness with visions of hope and escape.” One was a story of escape, the other of justice: “powerhouses buried in the heart which they helped to survive.” In the terrible conditions of Sillitoe's childhood, both seemed more real than fictions. But it was Dumas' novel he took with him when he was evacuated to Worksop in 1939, and which shapes the narrative of Life without Armour.

Sillitoe soon learned to escape from the unhappiness of his parents' fights into books; from the Nottingham slums to the surrounding fields; and from the capstan lathe to dreams of flying. Life without Armour is a marvellous escape story: Sillitoe's long flight from TB, England, “The Rats,” literary failure, until he burst through the doors of success at last. “A kick having been aimed at the door, the whole structure was found to be rotten.”

The idea of the door recurs throughout Sillitoe's work (“Key to the Door,” “The Open Door”) and is one of the ways in which Life without Armour recalls his apprehension, as a young man, of the future—sometimes also a map, a mountain, a road, and a concrete wall.

Throughout the book, Sillitoe is in a state of constant excitement and impatience for life to begin. The first half deals with his life to 1948, looking forward to the time when he would begin writing; the second, with his struggles to write in the 1950s. He ends in 1961, the Hawthornden Prize and the triumphant filming of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.

It's surprising place to stop, with the door swinging shut behind him, justified on the grounds that, thereafter, his life as a successful writer has been “too dull to write about.” But following Sillitoe's early manuscripts as they bounce back is interesting enough, especially those later used in the two filmed works (and now collected with his other stories). If life beyond that door has been so much less interesting—if the huge impatience for living to begin has been squandered on 35 years of writing—we are entitled to wonder why, and to ask if it has been worth it.

Because he does not address these questions, parts of the book read like messages from a distant, long-exploded star, a golden age of working-class-writing—although Sillitoe would be the first to refuse the term. And so for a while it seemed, as a generation of novelists gate-crashed through the narrow door which he had helped to “blow off its hinges.”

John Melmoth (review date 18 August 1995)

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SOURCE: “Crime as a Buzz,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4820, August 18, 1995, p. 22.

[In the following review, Melmoth underscores the realism and humanity of Sillitoe's autobiography and collected stories.]

Alan Sillitoe was never particularly taken with the “angry young man” label; more than thirty years later it still rankles. In fact Life without Armour reveals a bloody-minded aestheticism that has little to do with being famous for being fed up.

Many years ago, Sillitoe concludes, he faced up to the fact that it was not possible for him to work and live, and although his choice of work “was to be a mistake as far as my life was concerned, it was necessary because there was not enough energy in me to do both.” The consequent immersion in his writing has meant that in his literary career a little experience has been made to go a long way. If you are too busy writing to experience new things to write about, then you can either bring new and self-referential worlds into being, or you can return again and again to the time before you were a writer. This is what Sillitoe does in his short stories. He only worked in a factory for a short period before the war, yet many of his stories are set against the rigours of factory life; he hasn't lived in Nottingham since he was a young man, but his imagination has continued to return there. His home town (like Joyce's Dublin) has become mythologized, stuck in time.

The second sentence of his autobiography suggests that he is unlikely to spend much time romanticizing his childhood: “With regard to my father, I have never been able to decide on the mental age at which he was stalled during much of his life … he sometimes seemed to have the mind of a ten-year-old in the body of a brute.” His father was “short legged and megacephalic,” illiterate, fussy and violent. His mother is depicted as weepy and ineffectual, resorting to occasional prostitution in order to bring money into the house. He was even sent to a school for mentally handicapped children, because there, at least, he would be properly fed. The squalor of this upbringing is captured with a novelistic verve that later sections of the book fail to match. Deprivation makes good copy; hard work and dedication—as ever—write white.

That such a child should grow up to be a writer is nothing less than amazing, proof positive that writers are born rather than made, By his early teens, Sillitoe was already beginning to relish his sense of difference and dramatize his predicament as that of a “courtier in the cage of an orangutan.” And from this sense of difference came detachment and victory over the father who kept his family in brutish thrall. As Sillitoe's intellectual life takes off, his father simply ceases to figure much. Dismissed as “hopeless”—a key adjective—he dwindles to a kind of sullen impotence. The son has set out on a journey that the father is powerless to prevent.

The public library was the place of escape. Old maps, old Baedekers and Guides Bleus were voraciously consumed in an adolescent search for a “stable and desirable world beyond the one in which I was too firmly fixed.” Sillitoe left school at fourteen and went to work in a factory and might have remained there, had he not joined the RAF at the end of the Second World War as an air-traffic controller and spent several years in Malaya. In 1948, he returned to Britain to be demobbed only to discover that he had TB. Paradoxically, illness proved the making of him, because for many years afterwards he received a military pension which financed his efforts to turn himself into a writer. The enormous success of his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), was followed by the sale of the film rights to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. And here the story ends, presumably on the grounds that what followed was essentially more of the same. Whatever else, Life without Armour is evidence that the best person to go to find out what it takes to be a writer is not always a writer. Certainly, Sillitoe's coyness—“I have always believed that a writer should show an interest in people from any background”—scarcely takes the argument much further.

As he ranges over his early life, it is possible to identify the exact moment when possible destinies intersected, the moment he chose art rather than life. Early in 1948, he was on duty in Malaya monitoring the air traffic in the region when, “On the standby radio at midnight the haunting music of Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suite Number Two came shortwaving through static out of some place in the Pacific, as if it had followed me halfway round the world from a summer's evening in Nottingham when I had heard it in the house alone and thought that my soul would burst.” The moment was epiphanic and definitive; a revelation of the pleasures and values by which he would live.

The Collected Stories contains all his significant work in the genre, from 1959 until 1981. In the course of those twenty years, Sillitoe created a unique and uncompromising world of poverty and petty criminality, wrecked lives, young mothers worn down before their time, children with pinched faces and no underwear. It is a world in which politics and culture (beyond the television, which is always flickering in the background, and the pub) play scant part. It is a hire-purchase world that smells of wet raincoats, unwashed clothes, cigarettes, cups of tea and cheap buns, hot oil, factory smoke, beans on toast. It is a world in which a “full and tolerable life” is a profoundly unattainable goal.

It has been Sillitoe's fate to be associated with his earliest work, typecast by early success. The first of the stories is also the most famous. Much of what was shocking about The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, particularly the language, is frankly quaint. But it is still possible to see what the fuss was about. The unmediated voice of the boy who chooses to break the law, “It's a good life, I'm saying to myself, if you don't give in to coppers and Borstal-bosses and the rest of them bastard-faced In-laws”—depicts crime as a buzz, joyous and life-affirming respectability as creeping paralysis.

Other stories from the same period also celebrate outlawry. “The Firebug” is about the apprenticeship of an arsonist, who lights his first fire in the woods—“A stone of blood settled over my heart, but smoke and flame hypnotized me.” “The Ragman's Daughter” is an account of the exploits of Nottingham's answer to Bonnie and Clyde. For Tony, Doris is the incarnation of loveliness and naughtiness. For them, criminality is not just an escape from the appalling conditions of ordinary life, it is more fun.

Not that respectability and conformity are entirely absent. “The Fishing-Boat Picture” musters what must be one of the least promising first sentences in the history of literature: “I've been a postman for twenty-eight years.” His story is the usual one of an unlived life, of a woman who died. “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller,” one of the best stories, is about a big daft kid, who used to be leader of the local gang but who is now just another fearful man on the cusp of middle age.

By culture and circumstance, Sillitoe's characters are denied the possibilities of rational self-expression and are reduced to behavioural extremes out of sheer frustration. Domestic violence is an almost inevitable part of married life. In “The Road,” Ivan is taken on a day trip to Skegness by his parents, but the day turns bitter when his father beats his mother in public. In “Revenge,” the marriage does not get off to a particularly auspicious start, when the groom pulverizes the wedding presents with a poker. In “The Meeting,” the only way the husband and wife can suppress their anger is to pretend to be strangers. Not all the stories are set in the Midlands. However, even for a career exile, the lure of home is strong, and while “The Rope Trick” opens on a Greek island, it makes a rapid dash back to a Nottingham café on a wet afternoon.

Several pieces modishly sift through their own entrails. In “Enoch's Two Letters,” a young boy is left alone when his parents decide to leave one another on the same day. In “The End of Enoch,” the narrator is asked by the matron of the clinic where he has had an operation, if he will write a sequel. “Quite rightly,” she cannot bear not knowing what happened. This is not an easy question for him to answer, since “there is rarely an end to any story.”

Sillitoe maintains that the only gift he ever received from his father was a disrespect for all forms of authority, and he writes only on his own terms—extraordinarily self-sufficient, refusing to allow his work to be edited. The only acknowledged influence is Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose Yiddish stories taught him that “the poor lead vivid lives and suffer much … one has to write about their tribulations and follies as if one loves them.” Whole swaths of human experience, especially those things that make life good in parts, are seriously under-represented. Nevertheless, Sillitoe finds in the lives and struggles of the urban poor, in a small part of the Midlands, clues about what it means to be human. Chipper he isn't, but as a cartographer of what he describes in one of the stories as “the spoiled territory of the heart, and the soiled landscape of the soul,” he has a compelling claim to our attention.

James Urquhart (review date 30 January 1998)

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SOURCE: “Excess Cappuccino,” in New Statesman, Vol. 127, No. 489, January 30, 1998, pp. 47–8.

[In the following mixed review, Urquhart comments on strengths and weaknesses of the stories in Alligator Playground.]

Not much is left of Sillitoe's working Nottingham. The John Player tobacco factory has shut down, machine industries have relocated, pits have closed. But the social landscape holds some resonance of close-knit terraces and hard corner pubs fugged with beer fumes and noise; of large families with boorish, emotionally brutal men and their hard-bitten, enduring wives.

Sillitoe wrote of blue-collar Nottingham in his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958); and his first short story collection, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, had the same undertow of violence and illicit behaviour. The runner, a Borstal boy, provided a manifesto for the author: honesty isn't about lawfulness, but about being true to your origins. Publishers at first rejected Saturday Night but Sillitoe continued to write of “ordinary people as I knew them” and, if this made him unpublishable, “then so be it.”

In its perverse way, nothing could prove the rightness of his stubborn defence of honest writing better than “Alligator Playground,” the insubstantial novella that opens his latest collection. The plot involves thirtysomethings flopping limply at each other on the mudflats of London's literary crowd. A philandering publisher, Tom, works through wives and any bit of available skirt, before bedding a previously strident lesbian. Jo immediately renounces her Sapphic career, moves in with misogynistic Tom and bang! they have kids.

It's difficult to see Sillitoe's purpose with this cod bed-hopper. Any attempt at satire of promiscuous, self-important haste fails, since we care for neither the bland melodrama nor the glass-eyed caricatures trawled from London's fashionable waters. The author has, by pressing four marriages, three divorces and two deaths into less than 90 pages, sacrificed emotional gravity to action. The result has the circularity of a morality tale but lacks any sense of empathy or moral structure.

Happily the other eight tales restore faith. Sillitoe's great strength—teasing out the frail niceties of relationships—ensures that slender accounts of love and loss are washed with a poignancy that rarely encroaches on the sentimental. His capacity is wide—“Ron Delph and His Fight with King Arthur” touchingly recounts the anxieties of adolescence; “A Matter of Teeth” satisfyingly proclaims the justness of double infidelities. But there's also an economy with motifs: the events in both “A Respectable Woman” and “Battlefields” occur while driving through France, and we discover three coy couples “going the whole way in the darkest part of the wood” in this collection alone.

Sillitoe never quite achieves the intricate family relationships found in William Trevor's short stories, or the explicit dysfunctions of A L Kennedy or Helen Simpson. Here he tries different timbres of character and class, but the only true chord in “Beggarland” is Greta, the sassy au pair from “up north.” It's as though Sillitoe isn't sufficiently interested in the urbane proprieties of her sniffy employers to make them interesting. Inevitably, perhaps, the strongest work reverts to familiar Nottingham terraces in “Call Me Sailor” and the autobiographical “Ivy.”

Alligator Playground implies animal predation and a degree of lazy violence that is never fully realised in this collection. Three-quarters of Sillitoe's first novel was Saturday night, rolling passion with pints and punches until Seaton was lamped out on the pub floor. Forty years on, Sillitoe's Sunday morning is all newspapers and cappuccino, but his middle classes are thirsting for more galvanising spirits.

Neil Powell (review date 16 October 1998)

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SOURCE: “Nottingham Nights,” in Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 1998, p. 24.

[In the following negative review, Powell deems The Broken Chariot “a flawed novel.”]

In the opening pages of The Broken Chariot, Maud, a country vicar's daughter and the mother of the as yet unborn central character, is discovered reading The Old Wives' Tale. Since this is just before 1914, Arnold Bennett's novel would have been recently published, but the reference is not there merely to authenticate a historical moment; it reminds us that Alan Sillitoe—with his attentiveness to provincial life, his fidelity to traditional forms of fiction and his sometimes cumbersome prose—is a consciously Bennett-like writer, and it hints at the nature of the book which follows.

The early chapters are discouraging. While tending her father's stalled and steaming car, the first of the novel's broken chariots, practical Maud meets and, during the First World War, marries Hugh Thurgarton-Strang; after the war, they end up in India and from there dispatch their son Herbert to a batty prep school in Sussex, which subliminally metamorphoses into an equally odd West Country public school, from where at the age of seventeen he rather implausibly runs away. It is a helter-skelter progress, full of abrupt lurches and awkward syntax, and it all happens in under thirty pages. Almost penniless, Herbert fetches up in Nottingham where—his defining stroke of good fortune—he at once finds a benign, if impoverished, father-figure in Isaac Frost, the first rounded character in the book and, perhaps, in Herbert's life. The novel's preliminary business done, the frantic pace relents and the narrative settles into its proper terrain.

Under Isaac's tutelage, Herbert Thurgarton-Strang becomes plain Bert Gedling: factory-worker, womanizer, National Serviceman and, in the late 1950s, fashionably proletarian novelist. There are obvious intersections here both with the author's life and with his earlier fiction: occasionally, these are disadvantageous, as when a cursory visit to Nottingham Goose Fair suffers by comparison with Sillitoe's wonderfully evocative story “Noah's Ark,” though the factory scenes are as sharply realized as ever. The army takes Herbert/Bert to Cyprus, where his narrow escape from a crashed lorry (another Phaeton image) leaves him with a rough, romantic facial scar as emblem of his double self; once back in Nottingham, he encounters a popular novelist and one of his admiring readers, with whom he has a mutually uncomprehending affair; and their negative example shapes his own literary ambitions, which must somehow combine Herbert's fluency with Bert's experience. Sillitoe seems here to aim for a satirical lightness—the publisher is a sententious fool and his dim whiz-kid editor is, ludicrously, an old-fashioned school-friend of Herbert's—but he is convincing when writing seriously about characters he admires: Herbert's mentor, Isaac; his Nottingham landlady, Mrs Denman; Archie, his rough drinking-partner, and Maud, his mother, who brings the book to its touchingly full-circle conclusion.

All the same, The Broken Chariot is a flawed novel. Messily written and negligently edited, it fails to reconcile a sometimes unruly comic surface with more portentous mythical or literary substrata; and in this, of course, it exactly resembles its main character, whose recurrent self-interrogations about his wilfully self-inflicted loss of identity threaten to become wearisome. If, despite these difficulties, the novel is in the end readable and indeed admirable, this is largely thanks to Sillitoe's abundant generosity of spirit, his affectionate understanding of provincial urban society—“the glow of homeliness in the streets, the beer-smelling fagstink of friendly pubs, and the mateyness of the blokes at work”—and his eye for the telling descriptive detail: snowflakes “spinning down the panes in slow Catherine wheels,” “high cauliflower clouds,” “the Jaffa-orange” of the landlord's light bulb. Of these possibly unfashionable qualities, Arnold Bennett would surely have approved.

Stephen Daniels and Simon Rycroft (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: “Mapping the Modern City: Alan Sillitoe's Nottingham Novels,” in The Regional Novel in Britain and Ireland, edited by K. D. M. Snell, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 257–89.

[In the following essay, Daniels and Rycroft discuss the importance of mapping and geography in Sillitoe's Nottingham novels, and how these novels portray the modernization of working-class neighborhoods during the first half of the twentieth century.]

As a literary form, the novel is inherently geographical. The world of the novel is made up of locations and settings, arenas and boundaries, perspectives and horizons. Various places and spaces are occupied or envisaged by the novel's characters, by the narrator and by audiences as they read. Any one novel may present a field of different, sometimes competing, forms of geographical knowledge and experience, from a sensuous awareness of place to an educated idea of region and nation. These various geographies are coordinated by various kinds of temporal knowledge and experience, from circumscribed routines to linear notions of progress or transformation.1

From its formulation in the eighteenth century, the novel has been a speculative instrument for exploring and articulating those material, social and mental transformations we call modernisation. The novel was first associated with the transformation of London into a world metropolis, representing the capitalist city to its bourgeois citizens as ‘accessible, comprehensible and controllable.’2 Its scope was not confined to the city; early novelists charted transformations in the countryside and colonies too. The refinement of the novel as a genre was commensurate with the refinement of a number of geographical discourses, such as town planning, estate improvement, cartography and topographical painting, which surveyed and re-ordered the spaces of the modernising world.3 From the time of Defoe, the novel has been fashioned and refashioned as an instrument for representing various geographies in different phases, forms and sites of modernisation.4

In this chapter we examine the geographies of novels by Alan Sillitoe set in and around Nottingham. We consider how the novels explore conflicts in the modernisation of working-class areas of the city from the 1920s to the 1950s, in particular the clearance of slums, the building of new housing estates and the emergence of a consumer culture. It was a time when the city corporation, proud of its progressive social and economic planning, promoted Nottingham as ‘the modern city.’ We focus on the geographies of the novels' Nottingham born male protagonists, local rebel Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), RAF conscript Brian Seaton in Key to the Door (1961) and The Open Door (1989) and internationalist guerilla Frank Dawley in The Death of William Posters (1965). These novels take us beyond transformations of mid-century Nottingham to transformations overseas, to the violent ending of colonial rule in Malaya and Algeria.

We situate these novels in terms of a number of Sillitoe's other writings: autobiography, travel writing, literary criticism, poetry, political journalism.5 We also consider a range of other cultural discourses which bear upon the novels, including aerial photography, urban sociology, and classical mythology. Above all we wish to show the importance of maps, map reading and map-making to the geographies of the novels. This was the subject of an interview that we conducted with Alan Sillitoe in 1991 which provides a main source for this chapter.6

Firstly we will examine the issue of mapping in relation to Sillitoe's life and work, his literary influences and the modernisation of Nottingham. Secondly we will consider the connections between mapping, modernism and masculinity. The third and largest part of the chapter analyses the texts and contexts of the novels. Finally we compare the geographies of Nottingham in these novels with geographies of the city in official and academic publications of the time.

In this chapter we try to re-vision the relationship between ‘geography and literature’7 in a way which takes account of some recent developments in cultural geography and literary criticism.8 We consider geography and literature not as the conjunction of two essentially distinct, coherent disciplines, or orders of knowledge—objective and subjective, real and imaginative, and so—but as a field of textual genres—the novel, the poem, the travel guide, the map, the regional monograph—with complex overlaps and interconnections. We have brought out both the worldliness of literary texts and the imaginativeness of geographical texts. The imaginativeness of texts consists in the images they express, in the way they construct, through modes of writing or composition, and however empirically, particular and partial views of the world. The worldliness of texts consists in the various contexts—biographical, economic, institutional, geographical—which are entailed by texts and make them intelligible.


Home is like a fortress of an army which prides itself on its mobility … Departing from the base, feet define geography, the eyes observe and systematize it … As the base line in surveying is essential for the formation of a map and all points on it, so the connected points of birth, place, and upbringing are—for any person, and even more so for a writer—factors never to be relinquished.9

Alan Sillitoe was born and raised in the Radford area of Nottingham, a nineteenth-century working-class suburb to the west of the city centre. Sillitoe recalled the Radford of his childhood as a labyrinthine world:

Even when you knew every junction, twitchell and double entry (a concealed trackway which, connecting two streets, figured high in tactics of escape and manoeuvre) you never could tell when a gas lamp glowed that someone in the nearby dark was not using its light as an ambush pen. Neither did you know what waited behind the corner it stood on … You invented perils, exaggerated pitfalls, occasionally felt that you even called them up. Potholes became foxholes, and foxholes as often or not turned into underground caverns full of guns and ammunition, food, and later, more gold than Monte Cristo ever dreamed of. In such streets you could outdream everybody.10

As a child Sillitoe envisaged his neighbourhood in terms of the underground worlds of the novels which then dominated his reading: The Count of Monte Cristo and, more strongly still, Les Misérables.

Les Misérables took me through the prolonged crisis of childhood … I read the book again and again … till most of it was fixed firmly in … From an early age I was more familiar with the street names of Paris than those of London … Exotic though it was in many ways, Les Misérables seemed relevant to me and life roundabout … Gavroche, the street urchin who reminded me vividly of one of my cousins … the revolutionary fighting in the streets of Paris … when Jean Valjean rescues one of the wounded fighters from one of the about-to-be overrun barricades by carrying him through the sewers.11

The physiography of Nottingham, and its attendant folklore, gave credence to the Parisian connection. Under the city, carved out of a cave system, is a complicated network of chambers dating back to medieval times. These were used for storage, dwelling, gambling and, during the Second World War, as air raid shelters. Their occasional occupation throughout Nottingham's history by outlaws and rebels sustained a local mythology of a clandestine underworld, much like that of Paris as set out in Les Misérables.12

In Les Misérables the counterpoint of the underworld is the spacious, systematic new city planned by Baron Haussman for Napoleon III.13 Haussman's plan was a city-wide vision which directly opposed the Parisian underworld, clearing poor districts to make way for a system of broad boulevards, public buildings, parks, parades and classical perspectives. It was a spectacular vision, planned from a height, in a new survey of the city from especially constructed towers, and best seen in panoramic views.14 Haussman's Paris is in many ways the vantage point of Hugo's novel. The narrator looks back to events of 1815–32 from the perspective of the 1860s, reconstructing, with the help of old maps, the social geography which Haussman erased. Hugo's ‘aerial observer’ does not always have a clear view, peering down into the ‘silent, ominous labyrinth’ of the insurrectionary districts (as the reader ‘peered into the depths’ of another ‘labyrinth of illusion,’ the conscience of the fugitive Valjean).15 While sympathetic to the plight of les misérables, the novel tracks them with a consciously cartographic eye.

In Sillitoe's Nottingham novels, the urban underworld is similarly counterpointed by a newly planned, systematic, self-consciously modern city. From the 1920s, the City Corporation promoted Nottingham as ‘the modern city’ with ‘wide thoroughfares, well-proportioned buildings, and an entire absence of the smoke and grime usually associated with industry … creating a broad spaciousness that other cities envy and seek to emulate.’ In official guides and publications, the structure of this modern city was displayed in aerial photographs: the new city hall (the Council House) and civic square, bright new factories, broad boulevards and spacious suburban estates. The Corporation was particularly keen on the new aerodrome built outside the city, in 1928, the second in Britain to be licensed: ‘the city of Nottingham has always been in the forefront in the matter of aviation.’16

During Sillitoe's youth the country beyond Radford—estate land developed with a mixture of parkland, plantations, collieries, allotments and cottages—was comprehensively modernised. The Corporation purchased a large swathe of this land and built a spacious zone of boulevards, public parks and housing estates. The 2,800 houses of the Aspley estate (1930–2) were intended for newly married couples from Sillitoe's Radford or to rehouse families from cleared slum areas. There was a school at the centre of the estate, a showpiece of the city's enlightened educational policy, but few other social facilities or places of work. The new working-class suburb contrasted pointedly with the old; its elegant curves, crescents and concentric circles served to emphasise the town's intricate network of terraces, back-streets and alleys.17 Sillitoe's autobiographical story of childhood gang-fights is set on this modern frontier: ‘Our street was a straggling line of ancient back-to-backs on the city's edge, while the enemy district was a new housing estate of three long streets which had outflanked us and left us a mere pocket of country in which to run wild.’18

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that his family remained in Radford, Sillitoe sought a heightened consciousness of Nottingham in a passion for maps as well as books. He taught himself to read maps as he learnt to read novels, and made maps as he learned to write. Born into a poor family, suffering the insecurities of chronic unemployment, Sillitoe ‘latched onto maps in order to pull myself into the more rarefied and satisfying air of education and expansion of spirit.’ Maps helped make sense of Nottingham, clarified its character and development. And they connected the city to a wider world. ‘The first time I saw a map I wanted to leave home.’19 Sillitoe collected maps of all kinds. A large-scale estate map from his grandfather's cottage on the fringe countryside beyond Radford became a ‘dream landscape’ as this land began ‘to be covered by houses and new roads.’ An inch-to-the mile Ordnance Survey map of the Aldershot area marked with tactical exercises, a gift from a retired guardsman next door, ‘gave a picture I could relate to the land in my own district. Every cottage and copse was marked, every lane and footpath.’ At school he watched ‘with wonder and fascination’ as the teacher took a wheeled metal cylinder and rolled gleaming outlines of Europe or North America on the page, ‘it was the action of a magic wand.’20

The magic of maps was not just conceptual but technical, maps as artefacts not just images. As a child Sillitoe made maps of all kinds, of both real and imaginary places, drawn on wallpaper, in the flyleaves of books, drawn ‘with the same attention to detail as my lace-designer uncle put into his intricate patterns before they were set up on Nottingham machines.’ Sillitoe esteemed maps as agents of modern, material transformation, ‘a highway built where one had not existed before … a new town settled on the edge of sandy or forest wastes.’21 Wartime conditions heightened Sillitoe's map consciousness. With signposts removed, and street maps torn out of city guides, the war ‘turned everyone into a spy and me into my own surveyor.’ With the aid of a War Office manual Sillitoe taught himself triangulation and ‘with a simple compass and the expedient of pacing’ made a detailed map of his neighbourhood.22

Failing a scholarship exam, Sillitoe left school at fourteen, to take a variety of factory jobs, including a spell as a lathe operator in the Raleigh bicycle factory at the end of his street, then turned over to war production, making components for aircraft engines. Here, especially through his membership of the Transport and General Workers Union, he acquired a political education. ‘I found it impossible to work in a factory without believing that socialism was the ultimate solution for all life on this planet.’23 Sillitoe also enlarged his local geographical knowledge. With his first wages he purchased a bicycle and explored as far as the Peak District and the Lincolnshire coast. In the absence of signposts a map was a necessity. In a Foreword to a history of the Raleigh company Sillitoe spelled out the benefits of the cyclist's vantage point, ‘that it is often possible to see over the hedge at the horizon beyond. One can also stop and admire the view, or pause to consult a map with no trouble at all.’24 It is the revelatory vantage point of regional survey recommended to young urban excursionists of the time, one enshrined in Ellis Martin's illustration of the cyclist on the cover of the Popular Edition One Inch Ordnance Survey Maps.25

During the war, Sillitoe joined the Air Training Corps based at the local aerodrome. Here he acquired a military-geographical education, learning radio-telegraphy, flight theory, meteorology and photogrammetry. The vertical viewpoint offered on training flights over Nottingham from a de-Haviland bi-plane was a revelation. The oblique panorama of the topographical observer gave way to a broader, more penetrating vision:

This bird's eye snapshot appeared to be just as valuable as the dense intricacies that came with lesser visibility on the ground … It was easy to pick out factories and their smoking chimneys, churches and park spaces, the Castle and the Council House, as well as the hide-outs and well-trodden streets that had seemed so far apart but that now in one glance made as small and close a pattern as that on a piece of lace … From nearly two thousand feet the hills appeared flat, and lost their significance, but the secrets of the streets that covered them were shown in such a way that no map could have done the job better.26

During and immediately after the war, progressive experts, including professional geographers, hoped that increased flying experience and familiarity with aerial photography would re-order ordinary people's perceptions of the world and their place in it. In 1946 David Linton told the Geographical Association that

the air view of the ground … has become a familiar thing to us all … Direct flying experience … has been extended to a great body of service personnel, ATC cadets and others, and war films and war photographs have brought some appreciation of the airman's point of view to virtually the whole adult population.27

The advantages of the airman's point of view were cumulative:

As we leave the ground our visual and mental horizon expands, and we have direct perception of space-relations over an ever-widening field, so that we may see successively the village, the town, the region, in their respective settings. The mobility of the aircraft makes our range of vision universal … We may fly to the ends of the earth.28

This expanding field of vision was seen to be potentially one of international citizenship, connecting the local with the global in a new post-war world order.29

Sillitoe's internationalism maintained its leftward bearing. He saw his air-training as preparation for ‘the fight against fascism,’ but the war ended too soon for Sillitoe to participate and he was posted to Malaya by the RAF, to take part in the fight against communist insurgents in 1948. Here as a wireless operator he was required ‘against my political beliefs’ to give bearings to bombers trying to ‘hunt out the communist guerillas in the jungle’ and maintained his ‘accustomed accuracy’ with ‘lessening enthusiasm.’30

In Malaya Sillitoe took up writing in a desultory way, ‘odd poems and scraps of prose—generally concerned with the beauties of scenery—to pass away the fourteen-hour shifts in my radio hut at the end of the runway.’31 Upon demobilisation, back in England, Sillitoe was diagnosed as having tuberculosis and, in response, wrote voraciously. During eighteen months convalescence in an army camp Sillitoe began a ‘feverish bout of urgent writing,’ filling empty wireless logbooks with dozens of poems, sketches and bits of description, some of which were used in later published works. The most sustained of these pieces was a thirty-page narrative of a six-day jungle-rescue exercise he had navigated three months before in Malaya, based on a diary and maps of the area he had drawn up before embarking.32 Sillitoe also read the canon of western literature, modern works like the novels of D. H. Lawrence and Dostoevsky as well as Latin and Greek classics newly available in Penguin paperback translations. At the same time, through a correspondence course, Sillitoe ‘really got to grips with the proper science of surveying,’ with a view to a career in ‘the mundane occupation of making maps.’ But ‘as my writing took over my whole existence [so] I left off the studies in surveying’ and set about the task ‘of getting into the map of my own consciousness.’33

Returning to Nottingham in 1950, Sillitoe wrote a few short stories, some published in a local magazine, and a long novel, ‘a vainglorious mish-mash of Dostoevsky, D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley,’ promptly rejected by a London publisher.34 In a second-hand bookshop he met Ruth Fainlight, an American writer and poet and the woman he was to marry. Because of Sillitoe's illness, they decided to move to the sunnier climate of southern Europe, subsisting on Sillitoe's Air-Force pension. Expecting to be away for six months, they stayed six years, by which time Sillitoe had established his vocation as a writer.

In southern Europe Sillitoe and Fainlight ‘were culturally severed from England.’ ‘The magazines we read, the people we met, the books we got hold of, came from Paris, or New York or San Francisco.’35 Sillitoe was part of a great post-war migration to the Mediterranean of English writers and artists.36 Robert Graves, then working on The Greek Myths, lived nearby in Majorca and gave Sillitoe and Fainlight access to his library. Sillitoe wrote some poems on classical heroes and a fantasy novel but Graves suggested he ‘write a book set in Nottingham, which is something you know about.’ From a series of unpublished short stories and sketches centring on the character of Arthur Seaton, ‘a young anarchic roughneck,’ Sillitoe completed the first draft of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1956–7.37 ‘The factory and its surrounding area ascended with a clarity that might not have been so intense had I not looked out over olive groves, lemons and orange orchards … under a clear Mediterranean sky.’38 Writing the novel, Sillitoe was reminded of the clear view of his first training flight over Nottingham, but felt, at the dawn of the space-age, launched further into orbit: ‘I re-drew my maps and made my survey as if from a satellite stationed above that part of the earth in which I had been born.’39

Sillitoe's cultural exile, and the sense of homeplace it sharpened, invites comparison with the local collier's son who, writing in southern Europe, defined Nottingham and its region as a literary landscape, D. H. Lawrence. In an essay on Lawrence Sillitoe regards his forbear's exile as a condition of his realistic grasp of the people and places of his upbringing, but notes that the longer Lawrence sojourned in sunny, southern landscapes, the more he ‘began to lose his grip on local topography.’ In Lady Chatterley's Lover Nottinghamshire was reduced to ‘a sort of black-dream country that did not seem human or real.’ Sustained exile incorporated Lawrence in that pastoral literary tradition which bewails the ‘ruination of sweet and rural England’ and nourishes an ‘unreasonable hatred of the urban and industrial landscape.’ Sillitoe also suggests something Oedipal in this ‘unreasonable hatred,’ the rejection of the masculine world of the mining country: ‘he had to go to those places where the female spirit of the Virgin Mary was in the ascendant, where mother-worship of the Latins was the norm.’ In contrast, Sillitoe maintained his grip on local topography, not just by returning to England, and occasionally to Nottingham, but by sustaining a documentary vision, not sliding from a strictly cartographic to a softly scenic idea of landscape. Mapping offered Sillitoe both a pre-literary definition of Lawrence's country and a way of keeping his forbear in his sights. Reading Lawrence, Sillitoe reaches for the one-inch maps which remind him of the cycle trips to the country he made as a boy, years before he realised that Lawrence had portrayed it in his novels. And the essay on Lawrence ends with an imaginative journey, viewing key places in his novels from various hilltops in and around Nottingham: ‘such roaming is a constant wonder of triangulation, surveys that fix themselves in the heart and stay there.’40

Writing, Sillitoe is surrounded by maps, ‘a street plan of Nottingham, a large-scale trench-map of the Gommecourt salient in 1916, marked by the advancing death-lines of the Sherwood Foresters, a relief chart of Deception Island, and a topographical map of Israel flanked by the Mediterranean and the Jordan River—different regions I cannot shut my eyes to.’41 Sillitoe's study resembles an operations room. ‘Just as a general needs maps upon which to plan his campaign,’ Sillitoe declares, ‘so an author requires them for his novels and stories.’42

For Sillitoe maps are not just a framework for writing, but a medium of citizenship.43 On a visit to Leningrad in 1964 he admired the ‘colourful, complex’ map of the city hanging in Lenin's headquarters, ‘a campaign street plan of the October rising,’ a map that ‘is sure to be looked at and studied on many a South American or Asian wall.’ ‘I could have followed its intricacies for many an hour. Every self-respecting man should, with a plan of the city he lives in, practice schemes for an insurrection in times of war or trouble, or for its defence should an insurrection ever come about.’44

On the same trip to the Soviet Union, Stalingrad is envisaged as a New Jerusalem in a modernist mappa mundi:

I felt that Stalingrad was in the middle of the world, a place where the final battle between good and evil was fought out. It was also the last battle of the Bolshevik Revolution, and may be the final decisive contest of the world, the turning point of humanity in its struggle between science and magic, science and barbarity.45

In a poem of 1964, Stalingrad is transposed onto Nottingham:

A map of Stalingrad pinned on
A plan of Nottingham
For easy reference from crossbred stories:
Coloured elbows of the Don and Volga
Chase the tape worm artery of the Trent
To merge in Stalinham and Nottingrad,
Spartak and Calverton …
Trent, the Volga and the Don run quiet
Consistent river drawn to widening seas
While men and women talk in the
Canteens of Raleigh and the Red October,
At evening by the lights of Netherfield-Dubovka
Walk similar embankments and announce their love
To rivers snaking over peacetime faces.(46)


To emphasise the mapping impulse in Sillitoe's work and life and its pre-war roots is to revise the conventional interpretation of his writing. Sillitoe is concerned to accurately document local characters and their environment but he cannot simply be grouped with consciously English, realist contemporaries like Larkin, Amis and Osborne.47 In its continental allusions, cosmopolitan vantage point, and mythological register, Sillitoe's writing may be situated in an earlier modernist tradition, one which includes authors he esteems: Hugo, Lawrence, Conrad and Joyce.

The very conventions of mapping which help to fix Nottingham's geography also release the author and his subject from purely local, vernacular associations, and they co-ordinate Nottingham to other cities and their cultural traditions. Sillitoe exploits both the documentary aspect of mapping and its metaphorical aspect, the transposition of cultural meanings and associations from one place to another. Mapped onto the modernisation of Nottingham, the upheaval and reconstruction of its urban fabric, are epic geographies of insurgent Paris and Stalingrad.

In Sillitoe's Nottingham novels, as in Les Misérables, the process of surveying proceeds vertically as well as horizontally in excavations or transections of the urban underworld. Sillitoe quotes from Hugo's novel in characterising the authorial view as stratigraphic, both documenting, as if from a mountain top, the ‘external facts’ of culture and, as if in the depths of a cavern, its ‘hearts and souls.’48 This vertical axis has long been a central trope in European literature. In Ovid's Metamorphoses it is the separation of the world of the labyrinth occupied by the Minatour, the beast-man, and that of the air occupied by Dedalus, the bird-man. The development of ballooning, the building of skyscapers and the invention of the aeroplane activated this vertical axis as a defining trope of modernism. As authors upheld a civilised superstructure of spirit and vision, populated by figures like Joyce's Stephen Dedalus or Geddes' heroic aviator, so they also excavated a primitive substructure of unreason and bodiliness, populated by figures like Hugo's les misérables or D. H. Lawrence's coal miners.49

Sillitoe's main characters in his Nottingham novels are variously positioned on this vertical axis. While Brian Seaton transcends Nottingham to achieve a cerebral, cosmopolitan vision, one vested like Sillitoe's in maps and air-mindedness, his brother Arthur remains local and visceral, prowling the warren of streets. Dedalus and Minatour. The third character Frank Dawley never achieves a fully aerial view. After speculating on ‘what Nottingham looked like from the air, he fell like a stoned and frozen bird back near the middle of it.’50 But Dawley does escape the city on an internationalist underground quest, as a guerilla fighter in North Africa.

As Alison Light has pointed out, there is a distinctly masculine positioning and scope to this radical mode of literary modernism, in its heroic, worldly visions of free movement, political liberation, sexual autonomy and economic independence.51 Such visions were occasionally awarded to women, in the airmindedness of some of Virginia Woolf's free-spirited female characters52 and in the educated, panoramic visions of some of D. H. Lawrence's. The opening of Lawrence's The Rainbow (1915) finds men archaic and earthbound, women modern and outward looking:

The women looked out from the heated, blind intercourse of farm life, to the spoken world beyond … She (sic) stood to see the far-off world of cities and governments and the active scope of men, the magic land to her, where secrets were made known and desires fulfilled … to discover what was beyond, to enlarge their own scope and freedom.53

Sillitoe's Nottingham novels are, by contrast, comprehensively masculine, and are structured almost entirely on the expression or repression of male desire, whether in its more visceral or more educated forms. Indeed what aligns Sillitoe's novels with the gritty realism of his English contemporaries is the hardness of their male positioning and address, their aggressive, misogynistic heroes, individuated largely by running battles with women.

The very belligerence of Sillitoe's heroes, and the portrayal of Nottingham as a sexual battleground, does at least make his women characters a force to be reckoned with. There is a local context for this. The prevailing mythology of modern Nottingham is feminine. The industrialisation in the city of the lace, hosiery and clothing industries, with a conspicuous increase of female workers, was accompanied by a new urban folklore of formidable, independent women, economically, politically and sexually.54 This was famously mobilised by D. H. Lawrence in Sons and Lovers (1913) in the figure of the hero's lover, lace worker Clara Dawes, a ten-year veteran of the women's movement. Moreover the myth was incorporated in the regal figure which imaged the ‘City Beautiful’ modernism in official civic publicity, ‘Queen of the Midlands.’ Guidebooks used this feminine image to promote Nottingham as progressively pure and healthy, free from the grime and drabness usually associated with coalfield areas.55 All local manufacturing industries employed a large proportion of women, and promotional literature was keen to show them working in bright, spacious surroundings. In contrast, Sillitoe's novels evoke a harsher, grimier, more masculine world, the carboniferous industrialisation which shadows both Lawrence's novels and city guides. The factory floor, and work generally, is represented almost entirely as a male preserve, as are most public spaces in the novels. It is not just that Sillitoe's male characters rebel against the authority of women. The texts of his Nottingham novels rebel against authoritative texts of the city.


Saturday Night and Sunday Morning charts a year in the life of Arthur Seaton, machinist in a Nottingham bicycle factory, and young urban rebel. The longer part of the novel, ‘Saturday Night,’ describes Arthur's work and, more extensively, his escapes from work, his drinking bouts, sexual conquests, street fights, fishing trips and belligerent fantasies. The brief and more reflective ‘Sunday Morning’ finds Arthur recovering from one Saturday night's excess and contemplating, reluctantly, the ‘safe and rosy path’ to marriage, family and suburban life.

Saturday night was ‘one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year.’56 The Big Wheel is the driving structure of the novel. It figures as a carnivalesque Big Wheel which eventually appears in the episode at the huge Goose Fair in central Nottingham, at the giddy climax of the novel's and the city's recreational calendar. The novel is also geared to an industrial Big-Wheel, the imperative of factory work driving men and machines. The cycle of the seasons is subordinate to the urban Big-Wheel: ‘As spring merged into summer or autumn became winter Arthur glimpsed the transitional mechanisms of each season only at the weekend, on Saturday or Sunday, when he straddled his bike and rode along the canal bank into the country to fish.’57 Correspondingly, there is little organic development in the novel's narrative. Each chapter (and most were originally drafted as separate pieces) is a largely discrete component in the circular structure. In both its industrial and recreational expressions the Big-Wheel of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is fixed, offering little escape from the city and its culture, even in the form of the bicycles that Arthur Seaton's factory produces. Movement in the novel is circumscribed, largely vertical. Reading the novel is like riding the Big-Wheel. At some points readers and, on occasion, characters achieve a panoramic view of the city and its surroundings, before being plunged into its lower depths.

First published in 1958, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning helped to frame its cultural moment. It appeared at the time of a spate of accounts of urban working-class life by academics, playwrights, novelists and documentary film makers. Many were concerned with the effect of a burgeoning consumer culture on working-class life. The very idea of ‘community’ was counterpointed by the emergence of a new working-class affluence and individualism.58 The most notable ethnography of the time is Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, an account, largely a reminiscence, of working-class life in Hunslet first published in 1957 and issued by Penguin the following year. Like Sillitoe, Hoggart was an exile from his working-class upbringing, but a more academically educated scholarship boy, with a greater sense of Englishness and a frankly sentimental sense of the homeliness and neighbourliness of his upbringing. He charts the traditions of working-class culture and their corruption by the ‘admass’ world of ‘chain-store modernisimus,’ pin-ups, pop music and pulp fiction. Hoggart reserves particular scorn for the ‘juke-box boys,’ with ‘drape suits, picture ties and an American slouch.’59

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was aligned to a male-centred genre of plays and novels, including John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956) and John Braine's Room at the Top (1957), authored by and largely featuring so-called ‘Angry Young Men.’60 In contrast to politely accented literature set in the Oxbridge-London belt and its overseas outliers, the Angries' work was riveted in lower-class quarters of provincial towns and cities and largely articulated by aggressive, straight talking, often foul-mouthed, male heroes. The Angries' world seemed at the time shockingly visceral, short on wit and irony, and long on sex and violence and general bodiliness. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning opens with Arthur Seaton in a drinking match, knocking-back seven gins and ten pints of beer in quick succession, falling down the pub stairs and vomiting over a nicely dressed middle-aged man and his wife. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning made John Braine's Room at the Top ‘look like a vicarage tea-party’ announced the Daily Telegraph; it was, claimed the New Statesman, ‘very much the real thing.’61

The popular reputation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was established with the release in 1960 of a film of the novel.62 Scripted by Alan Sillitoe and directed by Karel Reisz, it starred Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton and featured the Nottingham streets, factories, pubs, canals and housing estates described in the novel. Switching between high-angled long-shots and darker, short-focused scenes, sometimes accompanied by Arthur's thoughts, the film opened up the gap between the panoramic and labyrinthine worlds of the text. This was, as Terry Lovell notes, ‘a point of enunciation’ in a number of British films and television programmes of working-class life of the time, one especially suited to the position of the adult working-class male looking back on the world he had left. ‘Within the familiar landscape, such a viewer is offered a potent figure of identification in the young, sexually active male worker, because he may identify in him a fantasy projection of the self he might have become had he remained.’63

Tied into the film's release was a million selling paperback edition of the novel. This was issued by Pan (regarded, in contrast to Penguin, as a distinctly low-brow publisher), marketed in the lurid ‘sex-and-violence’ style associated with American pulp fiction, and largely sold from the racks of newsagents. The front cover features an illustration of a tough looking Arthur Seaton against the mean streets of Nottingham. The back cover shows a still from the film of Arthur seducing a workmate's wife and, in the wake of the controversial publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover, the announcement of a new author ‘from Lawrence country … who might well have startled Lawrence himself.’ Readers were promised ‘a raw and uninhibited story of a working-class district of Nottingham and the people who live, love, laugh and fight there.’ In giving a trans-atlantic gloss to the novel, Pan made connections with American works with rebellious male heroes, like Jack Kerouac's On the Road which they issued in 1958—although there was no disguising that Arthur Seaton was a very English rebel, a rebel without a car.64

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning does not dwell on material deprivation, moral improvement or community spirit. In a world of accelerated industrial production, full employment and rising wages, the novel traces the pursuit of pleasure and a new consumer passion among the working-class. The bicycle factory is booming, with the introduction of piece-work and streamlined production. The thousands who work there take home good wages.

No more short-time like before the war, or getting the sack if you stood ten minutes in the lavatory reading your Football Post—if the gaffer got on to you now you could always tell him where to put the job and go somewhere else … With the wages you got you could save up for a motor-bike or even an old car, or you could go for a ten-day binge and get rid of all you'd saved.65

Television aerials are ‘hooked on to almost every chimney, like a string of radar stations, each installed on the never-never.’ Seaton's father has sufficient money to chain-smoke Woodbines in front of the television all evening, his mother to hold her head high in the Co-op and nonchalantly demand ‘a pound of this and a pound of that,’ now ‘she had access to week after week of solid wages that stopped worry at the source.’ The new affluence has not subdued the ‘empty-bellied pre-war battles’; it has aggravated and enlarged them: ‘feuds merged, suppressed ones became public.’66

Arthur Seaton spends much of his wage-packet on himself. For a weekend night out he chooses from ‘a row of suits, trousers, sports jackets, shirts, all suspended in colourful drapes and designs, good-quality tailor-mades, a couple of hundred quid's worth, a fabulous wardrobe.’67 Described as a Teddy boy, Arthur seems to fit the newly affluent image of working-class youth which alarmed commentators of both Right and Left.68 He comes close to Raymond Williams' contemporary definition of a ‘consumer,’ a word with imagery drawn from ‘the furnace or the stomach’ which ‘materializes as an individual figure (perhaps monstrous in size but individual in behaviour).’69 Yet in many ways Arthur is a traditional, even anti-modern urban delinquent, the bloody-minded freeborn-Englishman which left-wing writers recruited as makers of the English working-class.70 Arthur's leisure pivots on the pub: ‘I'm a six foot pit prop that wants a pint of ale.’ He is contemptuous of many modern commodities, notably television with its implications of passive, domesticated manhood,71 and cars, with their associations of suburban living. Indeed, he physically attacks the only car to appear in the novel. The consumer good that Arthur values most is the one he helps to produce, the bicycle.72

Arthur Seaton is confident, ‘cocksure.’73 He has a mind to take on all figures of authority, ‘fighting every day until I die … fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government,’74 and all monuments of authority, the factory in which he works, the city hall, the castle which broods over the city. Arthur is against all authority, except the authority of men over women.75 In this he has a local ancestry in D. H. Lawrence's working-class heroes, notably the men in Nottingham and the Mining Country (1930), figures whose roving ‘physical, instinctive’ masculinity, cultivated at work underground, is trapped and tamed by women no less than by schools, cinemas or machines.76 But Arthur also has a more contemporary connection in the comic-strip culture of the time, in the war comics of rugged individualists taking on the enemy single-handed and in the tough, street-wise boy-heroes of the Beano and Dandy, forever in scrapes with authority figures: teachers, policemen, and strong-armed mothers.77

Arthur Seaton's world is a labyrinthine zone, recurrently described as a ‘jungle’ or ‘maze.’ Arthur prowls the back-streets of the city, or the footpaths of the adjacent country, part guerilla, part predatory beast ‘caught in a game of fang-and-claw.’78 At the fairground, Arthur passes up the aerial thrill of the Big-Wheel for the subterranean thrill of the Ghost Train. ‘Assailed by black darkness and horrible screams from Hell,’ Arthur tangles with Death in the form of ‘the luminous bones of a hanging skeleton,’ ‘kicking and pummelling until his arms emerged from the heavy black cover, glistening skeleton bones looking like tiger-streaks over his back, head, and shoulders.’79 Each outing was ‘an expedition in which every corner had to be turned with care, every pub considered for the ease of tactical retreat in terms of ambush.’80 Known and successfully navigated, the streets offer warm security.

Walking the streets on winter nights kept him warm … stars hid like snipers, taking aim now and again when clouds gave them a loophole. Winter was an easy time for him to hide his secrets, for each dark street patted his shoulder and became a friend, and the gaseous eye of each lamp glowed unwinking as he passed. Houses lay in rows and ranks, a measure of safety in such numbers, and those within were snug and grateful fugitives from the broad track of bleak winds that brought rain from the Derbyshire mountains and snow from the Lincolnshire Wolds.81

On the way home from a night's skirmishing with his brother:

The maze of streets sleeping between tobacco factory and bicycle factory drew them into the enormous spread of its suburban bosom and embraced them in sympathetic darkness. Beyond the empires of new red-bricked houses lay fields and woods that rolled on to the Erewash valley and the hills of Derbyshire.82

In charting the moral order of the city, Sillitoe is careful to distinguish the warmth of the old industrial suburb where Arthur lives from both the bleakness of the new residential suburbs on the outer heights of the city and the dankness of a low-lying slum area called The Meadows by the river near the city centre. The Meadows is presented as a dark, decayed, chaotic district, inhabited by drunks and prostitutes and Arthur's Aunt Ada. After a life of ‘dole, boozing, bailiffs’ Aunt Ada had ‘the personality of a promiscuous barmaid.’ Her ‘horde of children’ are, in contrast to Arthur's rebellious posturing, ferocious, almost feral figures, ‘always escaping, on the run, in hiding, living with whores, thieving for food and money because they had neither ration books nor employment cards,’ fending for themselves ‘in such a wild free manner that Borstal had been their education and a congenial jungle their only hope.’83

If Arthur haunts the streets of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, it is because domestic interiors are a woman's realm, inhabited by his mother, aunt, mistresses and fiancé, in which men are either absent or marginalised. A formidable female challenge to Arthur's authority, and a main target of his abuse, is a more public figure who surveys the streets. Stationed at the end of his yard, en route to the factory, is the gossip Mrs Bull, ‘ready to level with foresight and backsight at those that crossed her path in the wrong direction’:

Deep-set beady eyes traversed the yard's length from streets to factory, were then swivelled back from the factory wall to where she was standing, ranging along upstairs and downstairs windows, no point of architecture or human movement escaping her. It was rumoured that the government had her name down for a reconnaissance unit in the next war.84

Mrs Bull controls networks of knowledge which Arthur can barely discern. Her ‘malicious gossip travelled like electricity through a circuit, from one power-point to another, and the surprising thing was that a fuse was so rarely blown.’85 Arthur attempts to sabotage the system. Playing the role of sniper, he shoots Mrs Bull with an air rifle, bruising her cheek, stinging her into wild gesticulation, confirming her as the slapstick figure of boy's comics.

‘Once a rebel, always a rebel,’ Arthur Seaton pleads at the end of the novel before he dons ‘suit, collar, and tie’ to meet his fiancé Doreen one cold spring Sunday morning ‘on the outskirts of the housing estate’ where they are destined to live.86 If Arthur's industrial neighbourhood offered him a measure of snug security, the new modern estates on the edge of the city are bleak, aerial landscapes. ‘[Up] Broxtowe, on the estate, I like living in them nice new houses,’ announces Doreen. ‘It's a long way from the shops, but there's plenty of fresh air.’ ‘My sister married a man in the air force … and they've got a house up Wollaton. She's expecting a baby next week.’87 Arthur and Doreen ‘take a long walk back to her house, by the boulevard that bordered the estate,’ the ‘safe and rosy path’ to domesticity.88 To a disinterested observer they ‘seemed like a loving and long-engaged couple only kept back from marriage by the housing shortage.’ But to Arthur the ‘new pink-walled houses gave an even gloomier appearance than the black dwellings of Radford.’ The very image of ‘the modern city’ in official publicity, the spacious new housing estate, is, for Arthur, a trap:

Arthur remembered seeing an aerial photo of it: a giant web of roads, avenues and crescents, with a school like a black spider lurking in the middle.89


In a 1965 sequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,The Death of William Posters, Frank Dawley, a political extension of Arthur Seaton, rebel turned revolutionary, strives to break out of Arthur's world and his view of it.90 Through twelve years of factory work and marriage Dawley ‘had brooded and built up the Bill Posters legend,’91 the legend of a local social bandit:

There's been a long line of William Posters, a family of mellow lineage always hoved up in some cellar of Nottingham Streets. His existence explains many puzzles. Who was General Ludd? None other than the shadowy William Posters, stockinger, leading on his gallant companies of Nottingham lads to smash all that machinery … Who set fire to Nottingham Castle during the Chartist riots? Later, who spat in Lord Roberts' face when he led the victory parade in Nottingham after the Boer War. Who looted those shops in the General Strike?92

Frank ‘wondered what Nottingham looked like from the air, but fell like a stoned and frozen bird back near the middle of it.’93 He eventually breaks out of the labyrinth of Nottingham, or rather, through its demolition during re-development, has it broken for him:

One street funnelled him into space, a view across rubble that a few months ago had been a populous ghetto of back-to-backs and narrow streets. He lit a fag, to absorb the sight of all these acres cleared of people, smashed down and dragged to bits. It wasn't unpleasant, this stalingrad of peace.94

As the labyrinth had been cleared, so William Posters had been unearthed, exposed and destroyed. ‘Bill Posters, thank God, had died at last in the ruins of Radford-Stalingrad … crushed to death under the slabs and bricks, beams and fireplaces.’95

[Dawley] walked into space, few paces taking him across a clearly marked street plan on which as a kid each moss-dewed corner and double entry had seemed miles from each other … Streets in all directions had been clawed and grabbed and hammered down, scooped up, bucketed, piled, sorted and carted off. Where had all the people gone? Moved onto new estates, all decisions made for them, whereas he also wanted to uproot himself but must make his own moves.96

‘Exploding out of life so far,’ Dawley leaves ‘wife, home, job, kids’ and the place ‘where he had been born, bred and spiritually nullified.’97 First he heads east for the Lincolnshire wolds. ‘His mind had changed with the landscape since leaving Nottingham; surprising him at times by its breadth.’98 Dawley's broadmindedness is framed by the copy of Dr. Zhivago he carries, its evocation of the ‘big country’ and ‘wide open spaces’ of Russia99 and enlarged by his affair with a middle-class woman and his introduction to her library.

Criss-crossing the country like a fugitive, Dawley heads south, for north London, and another conquest of another middle-class wife, Myra Bassingfield. As Dawley's horizons expand, those of the jilted husband, George, close in. George Bassingfield is a professional geographer, lecturer at the London School of Economics, author of New Aspects of Geography. ‘Few people knew the land of England as well as George, or had a deeper feeling for it … the subtleties of land and people were profoundly fascinating, and George was lord of all he surveyed when their composite reactions to land and air tied in with his knowledge and sympathy.’ But in middle-age ‘his visionary eyes did not seek harmony any more, but fixity into which people and the three elements slotted with neatness and safety.’100 Indeed, Frank and Myra

left him standing, looking into the tall drawn curtains that opened onto the back garden … Life had always seemed a straight road, and he hadn't even been foxed by a simple dead-end or caught in a false cul-de-sac. Instead he was now trapped in an unsurveyable maze of footpaths darkened by tall hedges. Such a labyrinth was extreme torment for a mind that could exist only on order and calm, which wanted everything measured and shaped, reduced to a beautiful design and set down on paper. The last few days had drawn him into the labyrinth, like a doomed fly fixed in helplessness until the spider-god came out for him.101

Frank and Myra leave the cramped world of England, heading south for France, Spain, Morocco, eventually Algeria. Here Dawley enlists as a guerrilla fighter with the FLN during the War of Independence.

This novel and its sequel, A Tree on Fire (1967), appear to be shaped by Sillitoe's reading of the theory and practice of guerrilla warfare, some in preparation for his script for a projected film on Che Guevara.102 The spatiality of guerrilla warfare, ‘drifting and subtle … arabesques,’ ‘the spider's web of revolution’103 characterise Frank Dawley's tactics throughout his journeying. His quest evokes Che Guevara's notion of the socialist ‘new man,’ evolving from the ‘wolfman’ of capitalist competition,104 and also the high-tech ideology of Khruschev's Soviet Union. Dawley envisages a modernist, machine-tooled utopia:

All I believe in is houses and factories, food and power stations, bridges and coalmines and death, turning millions of things out on a machine that people can use. It's no use harping back to poaching rights and cottage industries. We've got to forget all that and come to terms with cities and machines and moon landings. We're going to become new men, whether we like it or not, and I know I am going to like it.105


It is Brian Seaton, Arthur's eldest brother, who acquires an airborne cartographic view of the world in Key to the Door (1961) and its sequel The Open Door (1989). The course of Brian Seaton's life parallels Alan Sillitoe's own, from factory work in Nottingham, to National Service in Malaya to embarking, as a writer, for the south of France. It is these novels which challenge the prevailing stereotype of Sillitoe's Nottingham as a ‘northern’ province of a London-centred nationalist culture. For Brian Seaton ‘London didn't exist,’106 it was a place you passed over in a more global vision. South of the river Trent is not southern England but southern Europe, the Trent is a ‘magic band of water’ separating ‘oak from olive, mildew from hot pines and baking rock.’107

Key to the Door begins in 1930s Nottingham with the destitute Seaton family on the run from the bailiffs and the slum clearance programme of ‘a demolishing council.’ While some slum dwellers take ‘the benefit of new housing estates,’ father Harold Seaton ‘clung to the town centre because its burrow was familiar.’108 Eventually they are forced out by the bulldozers, and bombardment from the air. One area of ‘broken and derelict maze’ is set aside ‘to be the target of bombs from buzzing two-winged aeroplanes, the sideshow of a military tattoo whose full glory lay on the city's outskirts.’109 The Seaton family take refuge in a cottage in a still-rough, semi-rural, warren-like area at the edge of the city. It is a frontier zone about to feel the turbulent force of modernisation, to be turned into a ‘tipscape,’ filled with rubble from the old slums, levelled and developed. ‘Then they'll make an aerodrome,’ Brian speculates, ‘to bomb old houses like ourn was on Albion Yard.’110

What they actually make is a bright new estate, lit by electricity, ‘magically blessed’ with a mains water-supply, marked out with broad boulevards, and the first new houses:

Pink houses of new estates were spilling into the countryside. Men with black and white poles and notebooks came across the new boulevards into lanes and fields; they set theodolites and dumpy levels pointing in sly angles at distant woods … invading Brian's hideouts, obliterating his short-cuts and concealed tracks.111

Brian is enthralled with the men and machines.

Instead of woods and fields, houses would appear along new roads, would transform the map in his mind. The idea of it caught at him like fire.112

Brian Seaton grows up with Alan Sillitoe's passion for books and maps. ‘Moulded by an addiction to Les Misérables’ he envisages war in the streets of Nottingham with barricades and sandbag parapets. On a huge war-map of Europe he follows the progress of the Red Army on the eastern front. Brian Seaton works in a claustrophobic factory world, in the ‘underground burrow’ of the boiler room, having to dig out soot from flues.

Having to work in the dark set him thinking of coalmines and pit ponies, and the fact that he would go crackers if he didn't get out and prove he wasn't buried a thousand feet underground. Jean Valjean traipsing through the sewers was better than this, though I expect Edmond Dantes in his tunnels didn't feel too good either … This is how you get TB he thought, by breathing black dust like this for hour after hour.113

Brian pulls himself out of this subterranean world, to join the airforce as a wireless operator in Malaya, and a life of ‘morse and mapmaking,’ doing guard duty in a ‘worn out part of the British empire.’114

The Open Door (1989) finds Brian Seaton negotiating the labyrinth of the Malayan jungle. It was ‘a place where you could be as much at home as in any maze of streets’ but for Seaton, the imperial outsider, it remains intractable, a heart of darkness. ‘The jungle had inflicted a deadly bite by drawing him through the valley of the shadow.’115 With map and compass, he struggles unsuccessfully through this predatory world towards the summit of a 4,000 foot peak, Gunong Barat. And writing it up, from his diary notes, he remains gripped by the experience. ‘Unable to sleep, he dreamed of creepers and decomposing trees, and blades of water waving down cliff-faces enlarged my memory's infallible magnifying glass.’116

Returning to Nottingham, Seaton deploys his cartographic intelligence on a more pliant subject, the woman he seduces by tracing ‘a map upon her back.’ He also embarks on an exotic travelogue, ‘looking at the Beautiful Horizon, plodding through Bangkok, eating the Sandwich Islands, swimming off Madagascar, trekking the five-fingered forests of Gunong Barat ….’117 He tries it on his younger brother Arthur too, in offering the lad the kind of educated, reflective prospect of Nottinghamshire that Arthur will, as the rebellious youth in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, never achieve. Brian takes Arthur on a bus-ride beyond the city for a spot of fraternal bonding on Misk Hill.

‘Who showed yer where it was?’

‘I found it on a map. The top's over five hundred feet above sea level.’

‘Will I be able to breathe? He ran on to the plateau of a large field, arms in front like pistons …

Suburbs started three miles away, houses and factories under mountainous cloud. Faint haze emphasised the rich squalor of memorable dreams, his past in a semicircle from north to south …

‘It's smashin' up 'ere.’ Arthur hurled a stick …

A shunting train was pinpointed by feathers of smoke. Brian held him tight. ‘Don't ever leave it. It's your hill.’

‘Eh, fuck off!’ Arthur broke away. ‘Are yo' trying to fuck me, or summat?’

Brian laughed. ‘Come on loony, let's get down.’118


In this chapter we have presented Sillitoe's novels as a field of different, sometimes conflicting forms of geographical knowledge and experience. To do this we have shown how the narratives of the novels are interleaved with a variety of discourses on Nottingham and its region, on other modernising cities, on an internationalist politics of citizenship, and, pre-eminently, on geography, specifically maps and map-reading. In this exercise we hope to further the recent broadening of the history of geography beyond the usual internal, linear, professional histories, to take account of ‘lateral associations and social relations of geographical knowledge.’119

Sillitoe's novels chart the modernisation of Nottingham in a way which combines and competes with official, commercial and academic geographies of the city and its region.

In the period covered by the novels, the city corporation's publications represent Nottingham as a model ‘modern city.’ Through careful planning, economic and social development was orderly and integrated, creating the framework for a prosperous, enlightened city and citizenry. From 1954 this progressive view was endorsed, and extended to the city's hinterland by the regional journal, The East Midland Geographer. Under the founding editorship of K. C. Edwards, himself active in local regional planning and policy making, the journal charted infrastructural developments in the city and its region: the modernisation of the mining industry, the rationalisation of the railways, the building of municipal estates, the construction of motorways.120 The region's representativeness in landscape and human activity made it ‘an epitome of the English scene.’ ‘Its importance in the economic development of the country moreover is continually growing and is likely to increase vastly in the future.’121 This was not just a forward-looking view; developments in the past were narrated as part of the same progressive story. In a series of public lectures on the development of Nottingham, from the mid-1930s to mid-1960s, Edwards charted the expansion and consolidation of the city into ‘a coherent, closely-knit economic and social entity.’122

1958, the year that K. C. Edwards told this story of Nottingham in his address at Nottingham University to the conference of the Institute of British Geographers, the first instalment of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published. Like professional planners and geographers, Sillitoe framed land and life in terms of maps, but he charted a different, darker story. Sillitoe's image of the city and its citizenry is not one of coherence and continuity, of community building, but of conflict and upheaval, explosive physical and social change. As on a military map, the city is envisaged as a field of battle. There are, as we have shown, many mediations in this vision, including representations of insurgent Stalingrad, Petrograd, Paris and Nottingham itself during the Luddite and Reform riots. If official and academic versions of Nottingham's geography were written in that progressive, optimistic, enlightened discourse of modernism, Sillitoe's version was written in modernism's counter-discourse of violence, oppression and exclusion.123

It is not surprising that City officials responded cooly to the international success of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and accused Sillitoe moreover of stirring up the sort of trouble that the novel described.124 Now both parties stand condemned. The City Corporation is accused of pulling down ‘Victorian and Edwardian treasures’ to make way for ‘modern monstrosities,’ and Sillitoe is condemned for tarnishing the world that remained standing. The renovation of Nottingham's derelict textile district, the Lace Market, as a heritage spectacle promised a more stylish future. ‘Ten years ago the Queen of the Midlands had a slightly dowdy look [now] it is no longer the dirty city of Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.125 It is too soon to say if post-industrial planning will erase the memory of Arthur Seaton, or the mythology which sustained him. As recently as the summer of 1993, Albert Finney's scowling portrait of Arthur Seaton was spotted, printed on the t-shirts of protesters against the closure of local collieries.


  1. J. A. Kestner, The Spatiality of the Novel (Detroit, 1978); Yi Fu Tuan, ‘Literature and Geography’ in David Ley and Marwyn Samuels (eds.), Humanistic Geography: Prospects and Problems (1978), pp. 194–206; John Barrell, ‘Geographies of Hardy's Wessex,’ Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 8 (1982), pp. 347–61 (reprinted in the present volume); Edward Said, ‘Jane Austen and Empire,’ in Terry Eagleton (ed.), Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives (Cambridge), pp. 150–64.

  2. J. Bender, Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and Architecture of Mind in Eighteenth Century England (Chicago, 1987), p. 65.

  3. Simon Varey, Space and the Eighteenth-century English Novel (Cambridge, 1990); Nicholas Alfrey and Stephen Daniels (eds.), Mapping the Landscape: Essays on Art and Cartography (Nottingham, 1990); Stephen Daniels, ‘Re-visioning Britain: Mapping and Landscape Painting, 1750–1830,’ in Katherine Baetjer, Glorious Nature: British Landscape Painting, 1750–1850 (New York, 1993), pp. 61–72.

  4. Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (Harmondsworth, 1957); Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (London, 1973); Malcolm Bradbury, ‘The Cities of Modernism,’ in Malcolm Bradbury and James Mcfarlane (eds.), Modernism (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 96–104; Michael Seidel, Epic Geography: James Joyce's Ulysses (Princeton, 1976); Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (London, 1983); Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York, 1993).

  5. Sillitoe's many works are catalogued in David E. Gerard, Alan Sillitoe: A Bibliography (London, 1988) along with many works of criticism and commentary. This has proved a valuable resource for this chapter. Also valuable is the Sillitoe collection at the Central Library, Nottingham, especially the file of newspaper cuttings on his early career. The most comprehensive work of criticism on Sillitoe is Stanley S. Atherton, Alan Sillitoe: A Critical Assessment (London, 1979). A study of Sillitoe with points of connection with this article is H. M. Daleski, ‘The Novelist as Map Maker’ in Hedwig Bock and Albert Werthein (eds.), Essays on the Contemporary British Novel (Frankfurt, 1986).

  6. An edited transcript of this interview is provided in Simon Rycroft, Ordinance and Order in Alan Sillitoe's Fictional Topography, Working Paper, no. 13, Department of Geography, University of Nottingham, 1991.

  7. Douglas C. D. Pocock (ed.), Humanistic Geography and Literature (London, 1981); William E. Mallory and Paul Simpron-Housely (eds.), Geography and Literature: A Meeting of the Disciplines (Syracuse, 1987).

  8. Trevor J. Barnes and James S. Duncan (eds.), Writing Worlds: Discourse, Text and Metaphor in the Representation of Landscape (London, 1992); Felix Driver, ‘Geography's Empire: Histories of Geographical Knowledge,’ Society and Space, vol. 10 (1992), pp. 23–40; Stephen Daniels, Fields of Vision: Landscape Imagery and National Identity in England and the United States (Cambridge and Princeton, 1993); Edward Said, The World, the Text and the Critic (London, 1983); John Barrell (ed.), Painting and the Politics of Culture: New Essays on British Art (Oxford, 1992).

  9. Alan Sillitoe, ‘We all start from home,’ Bulletin de la Société des Anglicistes de l'Enseignment Supérieur, September 1987, pp. 6–16.

  10. Alan Sillitoe, Alan Sillitoe's Nottinghamshire (London, 1987), p. 3.

  11. Alan Sillitoe, ‘Mountains and Caverns,’ in Mountains and Caverns, pp. 152–60 (p. 156); Sillitoe, ‘We All Start from Home,’ p. 12; Alan Sillitoe, ‘The Long Piece’ in Mountains and Caverns, p. 12.

  12. David Kempe, Living Underground: A History of Cave and Cliff Dwelling (London, 1988).

  13. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (Harmondsworth, 1982), esp. pp. 399–410.

  14. David Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris (Princeton, 1958); T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (London, 1984).

  15. Hugo, Les Misérables, pp. 945–7, 208.

  16. Nottingham Corporation, Nottingham: Queen City of the Midlands. The Official Guide (Cheltenham, 1927), pp. 25, 35–7, 62–5; British Association for the Advancement of Science, A Scientific Survey of Nottingham (London, 1937), pp. 9–18; J. D. Chambers, Modern Nottingham in the Making (Nottingham, 1945).

  17. Robert Mellors, Old Nottingham Suburbs: Then and Now (Nottingham, 1914), pp. 25–60; Chambers, Modern Nottingham, pp. 47–8; C. J. Thomas, ‘Some Geographical Aspects of Council Housing in Nottingham,’ East Midland Geographer, vol. 4 (1966), pp. 88–98; C. J. Thomas, ‘The Growth of Nottingham Since 1919,’ East Midland Geographer, vol. 5 (1971), pp. 119–132; R. Silburn, ‘People in their Places’ in One Hundred Years of Nottingham (Nottingham, 1981), pp. 16–35.

  18. Alan Sillitoe, ‘The Death of Frankie Butler’ in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (London, 1985), pp. 154–74 (p. 156).

  19. Alan Sillitoe, Raw Material (London, 1972), p. 98.

  20. Rycroft, Ordinance and Order, pp. 11–12; Alan Sillitoe, ‘Maps’ in Sillitoe, Mountains and Caverns, pp. 62–3.

  21. Sillitoe, Raw Material, pp. 98–9.

  22. Rycroft, Ordinance and Order, pp. 11–12; Sillitoe, ‘Maps,’ p. 68; Sillitoe, ‘We All Start from Home,’ p. 9.

  23. Alan Sillitoe, ‘The Long Piece’ in Mountains and Caverns, pp. 9–49 (p. 17).

  24. Alan Sillitoe, Foreward to G. H. Bowden, The Story of the Raleigh Cycle (London, 1975), p. 9.

  25. David Matless, ‘The English Outlook’ in Alfrey and Daniels, Mapping the Landscape, pp. 28–30; David Matless, ‘Regional Surveys and Local Knowledges: The Geographical Imagination in Britain, 1918–39,’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 17 (1992), pp. 464–80 (p. 469).

  26. Sillitoe, ‘Maps,’ p. 70; Sillitoe, ‘We All Start from Home,’ p. 10. For more details of his air training, Alan Sillitoe, ‘A Cadet Remembers,’ Air Cadet News, March 1981, p. 5.

  27. D. L. Linton, The Interpretation of Air Photographs (London, 1947), p. 3.

  28. Ibid., p. 5.

  29. E. G. R. Taylor, Geography of an Air Age (London, 1945).

  30. Alan Sillitoe, ‘National service’ in Mountains and Caverns, pp. 50–8 (p. 56).

  31. Sillitoe, ‘The Long Piece,’ p. 24.

  32. Ibid., pp. 21, 24.

  33. Sillitoe, ‘Maps,’ pp. 71–2.

  34. Sillitoe, ‘The Long Piece,’ p. 26.

  35. Sillitoe, ‘The Long Piece,’ p. 10.

  36. David Mellor, A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain, 1935–55 (London, 1987), pp. 69–70.

  37. Sillitoe, ‘The Long Piece,’ pp. 19–33.

  38. Alan Sillitoe, ‘Alan Sillitoe,’ Author (Autumn 1983), pp. 28–30 (p. 30).

  39. Rycroft, Ordinance and Order, pp. 16–17; Sillitoe, ‘Maps,’ p. 70; Sillitoe, ‘We All Start from Home,’ p. 13.

  40. Alan Sillitoe, ‘Lawrence and District,’ in Mountains and Caverns, pp. 128–144 (quotations on pp. 133, 131, 141).

  41. Sillitoe, Raw Material, pp. 174–5.

  42. Sillitoe, ‘Maps,’ p. 68; Rycroft, Ordinance and Order, pp. 13–15.

  43. Sillitoe's political sympathies shifted in the 1970s from the Soviet Union to Israel, although his sense of citizenship remained fairly constant. See Alan Sillitoe, ‘Iron in the sand,’ Geographical Magazine, November 1978, pp. 137–42; Alan Sillitoe, ‘My Israel,’ New Statesman, 20 December 1974, pp. 890–2.

  44. Alan Sillitoe, Road to Volgograd (London, 1964), p. 81.

  45. Ibid., p. 41.

  46. Alan Sillitoe, A Falling Out of Love and Other Poems (London, 1964).

  47. David Lodge, The Modes of Modern Writing: Metaphor, Metonymy and the Typology of Modern Literature (Ithaca, New York, 1977), p. 213.

  48. Sillitoe, ‘Mountains and Caverns,’ p. 152.

  49. Michael Grant, Myths of the Greeks and Romans (London, 1989), pp. 385–6; Merrill Schleier, The Skyscraper in American Art, 1890–1930 (New York, 1986), pp. 5–68; Stephen Kern, The Culture of Space and Time, 1880–1914 (Cambridge Mass., 1983), pp. 242–7; Valentine Cunningham, British Writers of the Thirties (Oxford, 1988), pp. 168–73, 241–65; David Matless, ‘Preservation, Modernism and the Nature of the Nation,’ Built Environment, vol. 16 (1990), pp. 179–91; Wendy B. Faris, ‘The Labyrinth as Sign’ in Mary Ann Caws, City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy and Film (New York, 1991), pp. 33–41; Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society and the Imagination (Cambridge MA, 1990), pp. 51–81.

  50. Alan Sillitoe, The Death of William Posters (London, 1965), p. 73.

  51. Alison Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars (London, 1991), p. 24.

  52. Gillian Beer, ‘The Island and the Aeroplane’ in Homi Bhaba (ed.), Nation and Narration (London, 1990).

  53. D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (Harmondsworth, 1989), pp. 42–3.

  54. Emrys Bryson, Portrait of Nottingham (London, 1983), pp. 150–61.

  55. Nottingham Corporation, Nottingham ‘The Queen City of the Midlands.’

  56. Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (London, 1976), p. 9.

  57. Ibid., p. 133.

  58. Robert Hewison, In Anger: Culture in the Cold War (London, 1981), pp. 163–80; Tim Price, ‘The Politics of Culture: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,’ unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Nottingham, 1987.

  59. Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (Harmondsworth, 1958), pp. 24, 40–1, 46–7, 50.

  60. Atherton, Alan Sillitoe, pp. 15–21; Peter Hitchcock, Working-Class Fiction in Theory and Practice: A Reading of Alan Sillitoe (London, 1989), pp. 22–49.

  61. Arthur Marwick, ‘Room at the Top, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the “Cultural Revolution” in Britain,’ Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 19 (1984), pp. 127–52; Lynne Segal, ‘Look Back in Anger: Men in the Fifties,’ in Rowena Chapman and Jonathan Rutherford (eds.), Male Order: Unwrapping Masculinity (London, 1988), pp. 68–96.

  62. Alan Sillitoe, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ screenplay, in Masterworks of the British Cinema (London, 1974), pp. 267–328.

  63. Terry Lovell, ‘Landscapes and Stories in 1960s British Realism,’ Screen, vol. 31 (1990), pp. 357–76.

  64. Price, “The Politics of Culture,’ pp. 162–5; Hitchcock, Working-Class Fiction, pp. 75–8.

  65. Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, p. 27.

  66. Ibid., pp. 26–8, 48, 130.

  67. Ibid., p. 174.

  68. Geoffrey Pearson, Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (London, 1983), pp. 12–24.

  69. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Harmondsworth, 1965), p. 322.

  70. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963), pp. 77–101.

  71. Cf. Lynn Spigel, ‘The Suburban Home Companion: Television and Neighbourhood in Postwar America,’ in Beatriz Colomina (ed.), Sexuality and Space (Princeton, 1992), pp. 185–217.

  72. Sillitoe has said that because he was out of the country for most of the Fifties, ‘what I was doing, I think, was really bringing my experience from the Forties up into the Fifties.’ ‘An Interview with Alan Sillitoe,’ Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 21 (1975–6), p. 176. Sillitoe's Nottingham seems in some respects more like 1960 ‘Worktown’ (Bolton), about which Mass Observation commented:

    Despite the telly, despite increased working class car ownership, despite the whole complex of commodity fetishism which looks as if it is changing the way ordinary people in England live … the pub still persists as a social institution. Qualitatively and quantitatively. Never having had it so good doesn't mean only washing machines and holidays abroad; it is also more beer. (Tom Harrisson, Britain Revisited. (London, 1961), p. 194).

  73. Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, p. 45.

  74. Ibid., p. 224.

  75. Nigel Gray, The Silent Majority: A Study of the Working-class in Post-war British Fiction (London, 1973), pp. 123–7; Jonathan Dollimore, ‘The Challenge of Sexuality,’ in Alan Sinfield (ed.), Society and Literature, 1945–70 (London, 1983), pp. 51–85; Segal, ‘Look Back in Anger,’ pp. 80–1.

  76. D. H. Lawrence, ‘Nottingham and the Mining Country,’ in Selected Essays (Harmondsworth, 1981), p. 117.

  77. Segal, ‘Look Back in Anger,’ p. 87; George Perry and Alan Aldridge, The Penguin Book of Comics: A Slight History (Harmondsworth, 1975), p. 5.

  78. Rycroft, Ordinance and Order, pp. 21–2; J. R. Ogersby, ‘Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,’ in G. R. Hibbard (ed.), Renaissance and Modern Essays (London, 1966), p. 217.

  79. Sillitoe, Saturday Night, pp. 167–8.

  80. Ibid., p. 209.

  81. Ibid., p. 171.

  82. Ibid., p. 120.

  83. Ibid., pp. 78, 134, 78. Arthur's cousins are the prototype for the hero of Sillitoe's 1961 short story ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,’ in Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, pp. 9–54.

  84. Sillitoe, Saturday Night, p. 121.

  85. Ibid., p. 121.

  86. Ibid., pp. 207, 209.

  87. Ibid., p. 154.

  88. Ibid., p. 160.

  89. Ibid., p. 161.

  90. Rycroft, Ordinance and Order, pp. 20–1.

  91. Sillitoe, The Death of William Posters, p. 16.

  92. Ibid., p. 18.

  93. Ibid., p. 73.

  94. Ibid., pp. 73–4.

  95. Ibid., p. 309.

  96. Ibid., p. 74.

  97. Ibid., p. 16.

  98. Ibid., p. 11.

  99. Ibid., pp. 38, 55.

  100. Ibid., pp. 199–200.

  101. Ibid., pp. 243–4.

  102. Alan Sillitoe, ‘“Che” Guevara,’ in Mountains and Caverns, pp. 121–7.

  103. Sillitoe, The Death of William Posters, p. 308; Alan Sillitoe, A Tree on Fire (London, 1967), p. 427.

  104. Michael Lowy, The Marxism of Che Guevara: Philosophy, Economics and Revolutionary Warfare (London, 1973), pp. 25–8.

  105. Sillitoe, The Death of William Posters, p. 259.

  106. Rycroft, Ordinance and Order, p. 9.

  107. Alan Sillitoe, The Open Door (London, 1989), p. 335.

  108. Alan Sillitoe, Key to the Door (London, 1989), p. 17.

  109. Ibid., p. 17.

  110. Ibid., p. 78.

  111. Ibid., p. 191.

  112. Ibid., p. 192.

  113. Ibid., p. 243.

  114. Ibid., pp. 301, 433.

  115. Sillitoe, The Open Door, p. 75.

  116. Ibid., p. 74.

  117. Ibid., pp. 167, 174.

  118. Ibid., p. 291.

  119. Driver, ‘Geography's Empire,’ p. 35.

  120. T. W. Freeman, ‘Twenty-Five Years of “The East Midland Geographer,”’ East Midland Geographer, vol. 7 (1979), pp. 95–9.

  121. K. C. Edwards, editorial introduction, East Midland Geographer, vol. 1 (1954), p. 2.

  122. K. C. Edwards, ‘Nottingham and its Region,’ in British Association for the Advancement of Science, A Scientific Survey of Nottingham (London, 1937), pp. 25–38; K. C. Edwards, ‘The Geographical Development of Nottingham,’ in K. C. Edwards (ed.), Nottingham and Its Region (London, 1966), pp. 363–404; K. C. Edwards (ed.), ‘Nottingham: Queen of the Midlands,’ Geographical Magazine, September 1965, p. 347.

  123. Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben, Formations of Modernity (Cambridge, 1993), p. 14. A collection of writings on Nottingham written in terms of this counter-discourse, to which Sillitoe contributed an article on ‘Poor People,’ is the theme issue of Anarchy 38: A Journal of Anarchist Ideas, April 1964.

  124. Young, ‘The Politics of Culture,’ pp. 195–6; Rycroft, Ordinance and Order, p. 18.

  125. Nottingham Evening Post, Supplement, 1988.

We wish to thank Alan Sillitoe for his co-operation. Robert Bartram, Zena Forster, John Giggs, John Lucas and David Matless offered helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.


Sillitoe, Alan (Vol. 10)


Sillitoe, Alan (Vol. 19)