Kant in a council house bedroom

Life Without Armour: An Autobiography by Alan Sillitoe HarperCollins, pounds 18.99
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Most literary autobiographies have their talismanic episode, that prefigurative moment when some bored schoolmaster detects promise, some grand panjandrum stares down from Parnassus at the hopeful traffic of the foothills. Here, it comes at the point where Robert Graves is pressed by the 27-year-old Alan Sillitoe to examine a 60,000-word manuscript called Mr Allen's Island about a quarrel over a non-existent landmass whose supposed discovery sparks off a Third World War. "Why don't you write something about Nottingham?" Graves responds, "That's the place you know best." Reading Sillitoe's autobiography, it is tempting to locate (or at least to feel that the author wants us to locate) the roots of his first and most successful book in this advice.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, eventually published in 1959, still seems one of the defining novels of the immediate post-war era, a genuine cry from the factory floor to set against the accounts of lower-middle- class self-advancement with which it tended, and still tends, to be linked. The distance between Sillitoe's Arthur Seaton and other fictional heroes of the period, such as Joe Lampton in John Braine's Room at the Top (1957), is considerable. Unlike most of the Fifties meritocrats, scurrying eagerly up the social ladder to higher wages and a date with the boss's daughter, surly, anarchistic Arthur doesn't want to better himself. His distinguishing mark, in fact, is only a tremendous, purposeless vitality, together with a disabling uncertainty over his identity and status.

But if the gap between Arthur Seaton and some of his fictional contemporaries now looks uncomfortably wide, so too does the gap between Sillitoe and his creation. One searches for a chronicle of confusion and insecurity, and finds instead an object lesson in perseverance. Few writers have come quite so far on such unpromising fuel. The son of an illiterate, out-of-work labourer and his much-battered wife, Sillitoe grew up in conditions of grinding poverty. One of his earliest memories is of his mother, head split open by her husband's fist, craning over a bucket to stop blood falling on the carpet. Based in Nottingham, the family led a wandering, hand-to-mouth existence of moonlit flits from one set of flyblown "rooms" to another. An inspired ruse of Mrs Sillitoe's was to send the six-year- old Alan to a school for the mentally handicapped, on the entirely forgivable grounds that the food was good. Later, when her husband walked out of his job in a tanning factory, she retaliated by going on the streets.

The obvious reference point for Sillitoe's close, chaotic upbringing is The Uses of Literacy (1957), Richard Hoggart's study of the break-up of working-class communities in the face of mid-century consumerism. But little of Hoggart's emphasis on "decency" and the promise of a "comely life" comes across in these accounts of Sillitoe's sister enjoining him to pray for their mother's deliverance, or the children stopping off before school at a "dinner centre" for charity breakfasts. Somehow Sillitoe survived, turning himself along the way into one of Hoggart's most finely observed types, the working-class solitary, a self-absorbed autodidact whose studiousness is invaribly detached from the tedium of formal education. The early knowledge he picked up was more or less random: an interest in geography and map-reading encouraged by old estate plans, The Cloister and the Hearth heard episode by episode on the radio (the picture of several neighbouring families clustered round their receivers is intensely Hoggartian). He left school at 15, unregretfully, for the engineering shop and an eventual career as an RAF wireless operator.

By this stage two themes are beginning to predominate: sex, and the idea of a literary career. An early devotee of "hearthrug pie", the young Sillitoe was also a past master of the "Nottingham goodnight" (girl, conscious of eavesdropping parents on upper floor, makes grand pretence of dismissing boy from house with loud slammings of door, the two subsequently spending a passionate night on the sofa). Returned to Blighty after a stint in the Far East, the 20-year-old discovered he had TB and was invalided out. An RAF pension funded a 10-year sojourn in the South of France, Majorca and elsewhere (hence the Graves connection), mostly in the company of the poet Ruth Fainlight, whom he later married. Success, when it came, was spectacular; over a million paperbacks of Saturday Night sold by the early Sixties, not to mention a gritty film by Karel Reisz.

As a piece of literary art, as opposed to a ledger account of personal and professional development, Life Without Armour is rather an odd book. As the Collected Stories (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99) show, no one ever wrote less for effect than Sillitoe, and yet his autobiography is a prosy piece of work, full of quaint pedantry, recondite words used for no other reason than to show the author's familiarity with them, and with a Powell-like fondness for contorted syntax. There is occasionally, too, a faint touchiness at being defined as a "working-class writer".

And yet this is an absorbing book, not only for its portrait of a pre- Welfare State slum childhood, but for its angle on the position of working- class writers. One of the paradoxes of post-war literary life is the capacity of novelists such as Sillitoe to defy predominantly middle-class expectations. By rights, you feel, Sillitoe ought to be a fire-breathing Marxist, hot for redistribution of wealth and better opportunities, and yet while sympathetic to left-wing causes, he is too frightened of compromising his independence to get seriously involved (as a 15-year-old apprentice, his first decisive act was to try to refuse to join a union). It is the same with education. Sillitoe isn't particularly interested in the idea of better schools; his argument would be that, if a factory hand wishes to educate himself, he has only to walk into a public library. The stereotype Sillitoe represents - the earnest young man poring over Kant in the council house back bedroom - is nearly dead. One gets the feeling that Sillitoe, while happy to say goodbye to the poverty and deprivation, regrets the disappearance of the ambitions that grew out of them. Life Without Armour, consequently, is an elegiac work, but its subject is as much a state of mind as the four-in-a-bed indignities of the pre-war Nottingham backstreets.