Alan Sillitoe: ‘I’ve always strongly believed in a meritocracy’

In his final interview, with James Walker of arts magazine LeftLion, Alan Sillitoe told of his lifelong rage at 'the system' – and why he supported the war in Iraq

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:41

Alan, let's talk about your childhood – what was it like growing up in Nottingham?

I lived in Radford, mostly. And it was very good really. It was a jungle. I don't mean a terrible jungle, but a benign jungle where we knew every twist and turn and double alley.

A happy place?

We all felt perfectly safe as kids and it was a good place to grow up actually. We lived about a hundred yards from the Raleigh Factory where we were on munitions during the war. I went to work there in 1942 when I was 14, and stayed for three months, then went somewhere else [where] they were making plywood parts for invasion barges and Mosquito bombers. All I wanted to do was get in the Air Force and bomb Germany. That's all you wanted to do in those days.

You attracted a lot of attention a few years ago by being one of the few authors to support the Iraq War. Given what's happened since, is it a view you stand by?

Not entirely. But to a certain extent, I do, because I believe that giving the people there a say in their own destiny is a good idea. But they don't seem to think so. And now it's very difficult for us to come out of it and leave them on their own. It's a shame they're not more educated, and that religion has such a high place in their life. If it didn't, they'd be alright. But they've buggered it up, really. You can't help some people.

Your fame has had, some might say, a double-edged effect on the city, as every new local writer is instantly compared to you. How does this make you feel?

It doesn't make me feel very good, really. Every new writer has their own blueprint, or purpose. Fingerprint, if you like. I suppose it's a matter of art – if you can stomach that word. I don't use it lightly. If you've got something to say, you've got to say it in the most direct way. There's this [Nicola] Monaghan woman who wrote The Killing Jar, she's really very good. She's got her own private, personal, stamp on writing. If you don't find that, it's no good.

Where did you find your voice?

I found mine, well ... it took about 10 years, but I did find it eventually. But to go back to your original question, I don't feel good when they compare me to them or them to me. I don't feel terrible either. But let them. This is what the media do. You have to fight free of all types of prejudices in life.

A lot of your characters escape the humdrum of their lives through petty crime or heavy drinking. Presently, Nottingham has a bad reputation for both, not to mention gun crime. Do you think your stories have contributed to this myth?

I don't know really. I mean this type of crime you get now is nothing like the kind of crime the people I knew when growing up would ever perpetrate. We wouldn't dare. I wrote before the druggy era and what they then called the "black crime" – which sounds terrible to hear of now as the drug pushers are both black and white, of course.

Do you sense this change when you visit the city?

I came up about two years ago, and instead of going to stay with my brothers I stayed in a hotel right at the top of Hockley, behind the Council House. It was Friday night, and I went out after having a bite to eat and I saw all these lovely girls, queuing up at cashpoints to get money and go to the clubs and get stinking!

Did they try to shoot you?

(laughs) They were all very nice. I didn't stay out till 2am to see what the scene was like then, but I enjoyed seeing the beginning and stayed out till midnight. Then I went and got some kip. The girls, the boys, the young men, they were all really polite.

So should we be afraid of the new generation?

I don't believe that they're all wicked kids, these young people, and that they should be stopped from drinking, smoking, hunting ... whatever they want to do. The administrators would like everyone to be tame and not do anything that they wouldn't approve of. I don't know.

When I grew up, up to the age of 18, I, we, were lucky. I had plenty of work and I didn't have to do anything that I didn't want to do. All I did was work, which was alright – because after all, that's what you're on the Earth for, you know. So I consider myself lucky. I don't know what young people are meant to do these days when they can't work but then they don't start, that's a fact.

We don't have the same level of want. We can get anything on credit. Nobody seems to go without.

I was brought up not to do that. You didn't get anything on tick. You either paid or went without. Having seen my father taken off to prison because he got something on tick that he couldn't finally afford to pay, I thought, sod that, that's no good. And I never did it. I never owed any money. But I emphasise that I was lucky because I could earn it. Not a lot, mind you, but enough to keep me in the clear.

The fact that people can't earn enough to pay their mortgage or even put petrol in the car seems to have culminated in a fatalism about Saturday night that you've got to get drunker than ever, more so than Arthur Seaton needed to.

There's a part of me that thinks good; get drunk, get pissed up, why not, what the hell. Then there's another part of me that thinks no, don't do it, learn, be careful, hoard your money, work as hard as you can. I'm sort of two people in that respect. But I can't help admiring people who say, "fuck 'em all, let's get pissed".

I suppose this is Arthur Seaton's dilemma?

True enough. That's why I was taken to draw him in a realistic way, with sympathy. Because people that you write about, you've got to love in a way, otherwise you won't get the truth.

At the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Arthur gets engaged and reflects that "we're all caught one way or another".

There's a rite of passage that you go through. I didn't really need to do it because of various circumstances, but a lot fight their way through then settle down. It's better to do it and settle down than not do it and settle down in my view.

The need for escapism is as relevant now as 50 years ago. The only difference is that Arthur's lathe has been replaced with a computer terminal.

I honestly don't know. I suppose he'd have a job driving a van somewhere, but I can't say.

In this sense Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a more prophetic vision of society than say 1984, which hasn't, in most respects, come true. Is the need to escape therefore an ageless thing, part of the human condition?

A book like is 1984 is pretty good, but it's a work of the imagination. It's right in some ways and not in others, like everything else. But I don't know whether Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was prophetic. To me I sat under an orange tree in Majorca writing it, thinking this is all right because I'm writing about something I know, and so on. I wasn't sitting there thinking, "Ah, this is prophetic, mate," not at all. You write and do the best you can and you wait, if you're daft enough, for the critics to tell you what you've done and what was in your mind, although you don't think anything of them either. You just do what you want to do. Do what you have to do, and do what you can do.

Don't you think it's ironic that you're the literary voice of your home town when you left here before you were even published?

I don't think I've left it altogether – I certainly never left it in my spirit. I physically left it not because I disliked it, but because I wanted to see other places in the world.

What do you miss about it?

The thing I notice about Nottingham or have done over the years is that when I come back and call on my two brothers and we all put on our flat caps and go to the pub, I find that however much people seem to change, they retain the accent and slang. There's a certain core, and even other people like Muslims pick it up, which is good because it helps them integrate. I think this is what I really like about the place; the accent is still there and so people are quite eternal to me. People are very nice. Charming. You know where you stand with them, at least.

We'll be able to use a Speakers' Corner soon ...

Speakers' Corner is a good idea, but it's a way of keeping the people down. As long as they've got a place to spout what they think they won't go out and blow any buildings up, which is fair enough. We don't want that anyway.

What do you think Arthur Seaton would say?

Fucking hell, and God, he might say that as well! (Laughter) It would definitely be off the cuff that's for sure. I wrote a novel called Birthday which I think probably gives a good indication of what Arthur Seaton would say today because it's about his present life and how he went on from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

And what would you talk about?

Oh, I don't know, I'd have to think about that a little more. I couldn't just say it off the cuff. I would waffle on I suppose about non-smoking, non-drinking, non-fucking, non-hunting, non-this and that and the way the puritanical system was trying to beat one down.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is such a cult novel because it's about fighting against the system. What can people do to stop the bastards grinding them down?

You can't do anything. You walk around and you've got cameras looking at you. Take a piss in the corner and they take a picture.

In the book Arthur is bedridden for three days, which is difficult for him to deal with as he is always active. Was this based on the 18 months you spent in hospital with TB?

No, it wasn't. It just came out of imagination. Arthur is bedridden out of self-indulgence. He just couldn't get over the idea that he'd been pissed about with and beaten up, and wanted to reflect on his life without too much disturbance from the outside world.

Freedom for Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner comes from deliberately losing the race. Was this always your intention, or did it become clearer as the book progressed?

Yes, it was my intention from the start to make Colin Smith lose the race. If he had won, he wouldn't have been half the man he was. He had to lose.

Fifty years on we have the iPod generation. It would seem everybody wants distracting, rather than freedom to think.

Well, you don't need these toys. I just have a pen and a typewriter. Mind you, I have the radio as well. But you can live without all these toys.

Ernest Burton, whose grave the Seaton brothers visit towards the end of A Man of His Time, was too busy grafting to put food on the table to think. What can we learn from him?

I think he's someone to emulate – not in his worst moments, but in his attitude. He lived through a terrible time. People could learn from his stoicism, hard work and so on.

And one lesson, perhaps, readers can learn from Burton, Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith is that status, authority even, is something earned rather than inherited.

I've always strongly believed in a meritocracy, where people make their mark through their talent alone. There was a stage in my life where I thought the class system was dying out, and I still hope it does. Some of the greatest people England has ever produced – engineers, scientists, even writers – never went to university.

Is there anything else you'd like to say?

Keep on keeping on. Believe in yourself, and be kind to other people. Something like that.

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