The Sillitoe code: novelist 'uses Morse' to beat his block

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There must be many ways for a novelist to unlock the mind when inspiration fails. Alcohol is a common method. Admiring spectacular views is another.

There must be many ways for a novelist to unlock the mind when inspiration fails. Alcohol is a common method. Admiring spectacular views is another.

But Alan Sillitoe sends messages of encouragement to himself in Morse code, and that works, he revealed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival yesterday.

Surprising the audience by producing his Morse code tapper ("a very nice bit of British workmanship") the 76-year-old author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner offered a free book to anyone able to decipher a brief burst of dots and dashes.

They turned out to mean "Long life and good luck to you all," though no one guessed. "Maybe that sound hasn't been heard in this tent before," Mr Sillitoe said. But this unusual introduction served as a reminder of the extraordinary life of a man who twice failed scholarships, started work in factories at 14, then eventually became one of Britain's most celebrated writers, his work a staple of school and university syllabuses.

He was born in Nottingham in 1928, the youngest of five children, and would tell stories to keep his siblings quiet at night to avoid violence from their farther, an illiterate labourer. He enlisted in the RAF at 17 and trained as a wireless operator, ending up in Malaya, sending messages in Morse to aircraft flying from Australia to England.

"I've always kept up expertise in Morse," he said. "It's a kind of therapy." Whenever he gets fed up, he tunes in the world's communications traffic, picking up all sorts of signals. "It soothes me," he explained. "I usually send a few messages, usually of encouragement to myself when I'm stalled and I can't write another damn word.Every morning I get out of bed ... and I say, 'Please God, send me writer's block'. And he puts on a very stern visage and he says, 'Work, you bastard'. So I do."

He has produced more than 50 books and more than 400 essays in a career that now spans half a century. It began at 21 when he was recovering from tuberculosis he contracted in Malaya. Pensioned out of the RAF, he spent than a year in hospital during which he read the classics to stop himself going crazy. He began with Homer and moved to other Greek and Latin classics, read all of Shakespeare then the great novels of France, Germany, Russia and America. "By then, for some reason I'll never understand, I decided to become a writer." His first book, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, with a working-class hero, was published in 1958 and filmed a year later.

Although he lived abroad for many years, he now lives in London. Two years ago, he produced a sequel to Saturday Night, called Birthday. His most recent book, A Man of His Time, was inspired by one of his grandfathers, a blacksmith.

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