The Life of a Long-Distance Writer, By Richard Bradford

A literary run that began in Nottingham
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The Independent Culture

Last year, as he turned 80, Alan Sillitoe was made an Honorary Freeman of the City of Nottingham. At the ceremony John Harvey, creator of the Nottingham detective Resnick, gave homage to Sillitoe's influence as a self-made writer and close observer of life in and beyond the city's factories and terraces. Richard Bradford's authorised biography offsets this with a detailed inspection of Sillitoe's friendships and the iconoclasm of his political interests. As Sillitoe grew up in the 1930s Nottingham slums, poverty was compounded by his feckless father's violence. Books and maps at his uncle's home offered a nudge towards education but, by 10, Sillitoe was already practising his craft while helping to keep the family together.

Bradford's detailed trawl through correspondence and interviews establishes Sillitoe's early independence. Aged 14, he began work in the Raleigh factory, which would distil into the anarchic energy of his most famous character, Arthur Seaton. Within six months, Sillitoe had enrolled with the Air Training Corps. Post-war signals work in Malaya ended with a bout of tuberculosis that allowed him, after discharge, to live frugally in southern France and the Balearics on an RAF pension.

Between vigorous affairs and settled life with his partner, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Sillitoe cohered Saturday Night and Sunday Morning from a collection of vignettes. A refusal to bow to publishers' notions of working-class stereotype delayed the book's acceptance but preserved its integrity. Bradford draws together many accounts of Sillitoe's fierce rejection of the patronising prescription of "proletarian writer". He never thought of himself "as being of the 'so-called' working class".

How this played during his Russian trips makes entertaining reading, but the nearest Sillitoe came to political activism was after his interest in socialism had morphed, by the late 1960s, into fascination with Israel. Bradford can be pompous in defending Sillitoe's socialist principles, but there is zest to his appraisal of a uniquely self-confident voice.