Notebook: Sillitoe was the genuine article

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Unlike our Prime Minister, I don't know much about the Arctic Monkeys, but I do know that the title of their first album is a quote from a novel by Alan Sillitoe. The album was Whatever You Say I Am That's What I'm Not, and the novel was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Whatever other gifts they may or may not possess, the Arctic Monkeys clearly recognise class when they see it. Class in every sense, because Alan Sillitoe, who died of cancer on Sunday, was a rare example of that much-envied and impersonated phenomenon, the working-class hero.

For 50 years, he struggled to shake off the label of Angry Young Man, which was foisted on pretty much any post-war male writer who didn't come from Hampstead. But when I met him, usually at readings given by his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, he didn't seem angry at all. He seemed calm, quiet and unkeen on fuss.

Sillitoe grew up in poverty in Nottingham, the son of an illiterate labourer who rarely kept a job for more than a month. He left school at 14 and worked in factories before joining the air training corps in the hope of becoming a pilot. It was while recovering from tuberculosis that he started reading voraciously – philosophy and classics in translation as well as contemporary fiction – and it was while living, on a tiny army pension, in Majorca that he started writing. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, his first novel, was hailed as a landmark of contemporary British fiction. He went on to write The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and almost 50 more.

Sillitoe also campaigned for political prisoners in the Eastern Bloc, spoke out about human rights abuses in the Soviet Union in the presence of Brezhnev, wrote the books he wanted, refused to be pigeon-holed, and had a happy 51-year marriage. And he refused to let his publishers submit his books for awards. Yes, he really, really did.

At a time when two of our prospective prime ministers come from schools that cost more than the average wage per pupil per year, and when both publishing and journalism are becoming not less but more middle class, and when, according to a report released yesterday, the link between social background and school achievement is stronger in England than in similar countries, it is, alas, perfectly possible that we really won't see his like again.

Undone by loyalty

"There is," said the poet U A Fanthorpe in her poem "Atlas", "a kind of love called maintenance / Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it / Which checks the insurance, and doesn't forget / The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs; / Which answers letters; which knows the way / The money goes; which deals with dentists / And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains, / And postcards to the lonely". It is, in other words, called having a wife (or in Fanthorpe's case, a long-term female partner) and it sounds absolutely marvellous.

Wives, according to a quick flick through the papers, wake up every day thinking about what they can wear to bolster their husband's image. They design handbags or campaign for charities and still find time (with photographers in tow) to visit maimed soldiers and breed baby Tories, or tweet about their husband's sex appeal or their home-grown veg.

But first prize for wifely loyalty this week surely has to go to the wife not of a politician but a historian. When Robert Service spotted that an anonymous reviewer on Amazon had rubbished the recent works of nearly every historian except Orlando Figes, his suspicions were aroused. He contacted Figes, who denied all knowledge of the reviews, and got a lawyer to send out threatening letters. The lawyer later issued a statement saying that Figes had "just found out" that the reviews had been posted by Figes's wife, the academic and human rights lawyer, Stephanie Palmer.

They weren't. The reviews, it now transpires, were indeed posted by Figes. His wife had decided to sacrifice her entire professional reputation in order to protect him. And he let her.

That FO memo really wasn't so bad

Hats off to the "junior staff" at the Foreign Office (FO) who have succeeded where even a Coulson or a Campbell might have failed. In handing the moral high ground to the Catholic Church at the time of one of the biggest scandals in its 2000-year history, it has achieved a PR coup that the old codgers busy suppressing child abuse at the Vatican could never, with a million Hail Maries, have dreamed of.

The FO note about the Pope's forthcoming visit to Britain, which suggests that he should launch a brand of "Benedict" condoms and attend a civil partnership ceremony, has provoked an orgy of apologies to the Catholic Church and enabled Vatican officials to adopt a stance of lofty gravitas.

The memo was certainly puerile, employing a level of wit on a par, one imagines, with that of Gordon Brown's squabbling bath- time boys (or that of their father, during a television debate). But it was an internal memo, not a papal bull or the secular equivalent. It may have been a silly way to point out that there's a bit of a clash between the values of the head of a church which specialises in child sodomy, but thinks that a legal relationship between two gay adults is a sin, and the Government hosting the visit, but that's hardly a hanging offence.

When did we become such a bunch of lily-livered scaredy cats and super-sensitive flowers? When did we decide that if someone said something we didn't like, we had the instant right to a public apology? One usually involving the use of the words "unacceptable" and "inappropriate"? Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words are things you're free to disagree with. Memo to Pope: actions speak much louder.