Boyd Tonkin: How Nottingham rebels broke the kitchen sink

The week in books

Farewell, then, Alan Sillitoe: maverick and mischief-maker, he would have chuckled over the reheated platitudes that greeted his passing after a half-century of stubbornly idiosyncratic authorship. A fixed idea in British cultural life insists that the honest proletarian artist can only flourish in the gritty soil of his or her roots. When success comes, bearings will be lost in the big sophisticated world.

Pure bull. Its best ever demolition came in that classic Monty Python sketch about a DH Lawrence-like literary lion: "He's had a hard day, dear... his new play opens at the National Theatre tomorrow". Up at 5am for a flight to Paris, back for drinks at the Old Vic and a heavy shift of gala luncheons and TV interviews, this working-class hero scolds a precious namby-pamby son about his passion for the pits: "Aye, 'ampstead wasn't good enough for you, was it? You had to go poncing off to Barnsley, you and yer coal-mining friends..." Curiously, Sillitoe himself had fun of just this role-reversal sort in his late novel The Broken Chariot. A public-school toff snaps his class shackles to go to work (and play) in a Nottingham factory, and "Hubert" downsizes to "Bert".

It always takes distance (psychological as much as physical) for the memory of hard times to take an aesthetic shape. After all, Sillitoe did not plan or write Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his breakthrough debut in 1958, during tea-breaks at the Raleigh bicycle works. He was living in the south of France and Majorca on an RAF pension after a spell in hospital in the wake of a TB diagnosis.

From the start, the ambitious newcomer dealt in creative prose, not naïve reportage. He had gulped down the classics, and in apprentice pieces turned his hand to a variety of styles. His first hero, Arthur Seaton, rejects all the pigeonholes of class and culture ordained in advance for him.

Equally, Sillitoe shied away quickly and decisively from the narrow stalls marked "working-class writer" or "angry young man". Behind those tags lay the delusion that the novelist from a non-privileged background does not so much craft a piece of work, as any artist must, as let some essential identity leak out onto the page.

His readers often proved cannier than his critics. When The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner sold by the truck-load in the Soviet Union, the commissars no doubt imagined that its admirers had warmed to a cry of pain about alienation in capitalist society. Of course, his delinquent rebel spoke for outsiders in any system of social discipline. In early Sillitoe, popular existentialism meets the barrack-room awkward squad of National Service-era Britain, with displays of what that epoch's officer class would have called dumb insolence or gross insubordination. Part of that insurgency involved the shedding of stalwart-worker myths. If pre-war novelists from outside the elite had hymned the holy prole, their post-war successors put two fingers up to him. When it came to ideas and inclinations, they belonged to an era as much as to a class.

Go to Richard Bradford's perceptive biography of Sillitoe, The Life of a Long-Distance Writer, for a full account of how critics of the 1950s and 1960s strained to hear the voice of the "authentic" working-class but stopped their ears when the books spoke in unexpected tones. Above all, they sought a reductive kind of realism that left little room for innovation or introspection with character and form. In the US at that time, where many of the nation's fault-lines had already converged on race, the same strictures applied to black novelists who flouted an approved party line. When a James Baldwin or a Ralph Ellison proved that they cared as much about states of consciousness as social critique, they alienated some allies.

Such experiments had nothing to do with "betrayal" of a writer's humble origins. Rather, the quest for new forms of expression - one that Sillitoe shared – aimed to give the literature of people on the margins as much nuance and subtlety as that of the elite. Four-square documentary witness does have its place, and an honoured one, when fiction turns to the lives of the poor - but as a choice, not a fate. Strange how hard it seems to make this fairly simple proposition stick. James Kelman, a serious and original prose-writer steeped in (among others) Beckett and Joyce, still sometimes finds his work treated as the tribal utterances of a Glaswegian savage.

Strange, too, how Sillitoe's Nottingham and its environs has hosted such a feast of fictional approaches to the rendering of "ordinary" lives. First, of course, Bert Lawrence of Eastwood evolved into "DH" and built his unique literary bridge between home and away, domestic and symbolic, realism and modernism. After Sillitoe, John Harvey – avant-garde poet and jazz aficionado – has lent literary colour and depth to the mean streets that his Nottingham cop Charlie Resnick patrols. The prolific Nottingham teacher Stanley Middleton (44 novels prior to his death last year, and a joint Booker win in 1974 for Holiday) dug deeply and delicately into the same small patch with all the tender insight of an East Midlands Eric Rohmer.

Then, over the past few years, a young Nottingham writer has made his readers think again about the intersection of low life and lofty art. Born in (of all places) Bermuda, Jon McGregor settled in the city in 1999, and later helped set up the thriving Nottingham Writers' Studio. In the Man Booker-longlisted If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, he braided a Virginia Woolf-like tapestry of impressions and sensations out of the people of a humdrum street on a single normal day. His third novel, Even the Dogs, takes this quotidian poetry down into a darker place with the death of a homeless, addicted Falklands veteran and the ragged rites of his dispossessed pals: almost a Skid Row version of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.

Elsewhere, Nicola Monaghan certainly drew on her upringing on a tough drug-ridden Nottingham estate for her debut novel The Killing Jar – but she had by then worked as a City financial analyst and completed a postgrad writing degree. Distance lends, not enchantment, but an artful perspective to the urban view. Sillitoe went his own sweet and singular way. But his shaded, angled versions of class, home and youth shared with other writers of his city – and beyond – a refusal of all imprisoning labels. In Nottingham, and everywhere, it's time to disconnect that kitchen sink.

P.S.

The invaluable publishing news and comment site Book Brunch (www.bookbrunch.co.uk) has a well-meaning piece from shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey (below) about Tory plans, or rather general principles, for books and reading. Light on concrete detail, it shows at least that he (or someone on his team) cares about e-publishing, digital-age copyright, the challenge of Google and the future of our libraries. Vaizey even admits that we need "global cooperation on intellectual property... at a European level": a tough call when your party has just dumped the centre-right heavy brigade of Merkel and Sarkozy in Europe to shack up with "nutters" (© Nick Clegg). Still, the Conservatives did bother to set out their stall. Book Brunch repeatedly asked Labour and Lib Dems for a similar statement. Answer came there none.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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