Alan Sillitoe, chronicler of working-class life, dies

Author influenced generations with his acclaimed Fifties novels

Jonathan Brown
Monday 26 April 2010 00:00

Alan Sillitoe, the author of the kitchen-sink classics Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, has died at the age of 82, it was announced yesterday. His two most famous novels, which eclipsed his prolific later work, celebrated the quiet heroism and unsung adventures of provincial working-class existence in the humdrum surroundings of post-war Britain.

His death at Charing Cross Hospital in London was announced by his son David, who said he hoped his father would be remembered for his contribution to 20th century literature. As well as novels he wrote poetry, children's stories and an autobiography.

Among those to pay tribute to the author was the poet Ian McMillan, who said his work "captured the majesty and drama of ordinary life". He said: "He wrote this great line which said, 'The art of writing is to explain the complications of the human soul with the simplicity that can be universally understood,' and I think that's what he achieved."

Sillitoe's early life closely mirrored that of his Saturday Night and Sunday Morning anti-hero Arthur Seaton, a womanising, hard-drinking lathe operator from the East Midlands, who lived from pay packet to pay packet guided by the simple philosophy that "it's a good life if you don't weaken". Born in Nottingham, the author grew up poor. His father was often out of work and in debt. The family moved often and lived in shabby accommodation. He described a childhood home starkly: "We lived in a room in Talbot Street whose four walls smelled of leaking gas, stale fat and layers of mouldering wallpaper."

Sillitoe left school at 14 having failed his 11-plus and went to work, like Seaton, in a factory in the city's then-thriving bicycle industry. Like many others of his generation military service lifted his horizons, and although the end of the Second World War denied him his ambition to become a pilot, he served as a radio operator in Malaya before he was invalided out of the service with TB.

He travelled extensively after recovering, living off a meagre RAF pension, and was persuaded to set down his experiences by the poet Robert Graves, who he met while touring Majorca with his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight. Sillitoe was to become closely associated with the so-called Angry Young Men of British fiction of that period, chief among whom was John Osborne.

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning was written in 1958 and its transfer to the cinema helped made a star of Albert Finney. Sillitoe's next adapted novel The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, directed by Tony Richardson, featured Tom Courtenay as a borstal boy who rejected his chance of early release by defying the governor during a cross-country against a private school to prove he was his own man. But the era of the anti-establishment kitchen sink drama was rapidly over as Britain signed up to the social liberation of the 1960s and lapped up the escapist glamour of larger-than-life heroes such as James Bond.

Sillitoe continued to influence future generations of diffident working-class provincial artists. Although it was written nearly half a century previously, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning gave the quote which delivered the title to the Arctic Monkey's widely acclaimed debut album Whatever You Say I Am That's What I'm Not. Despite a prolific output of 50 books and 400 essays, his later work never won the acclaim of his first two books.

This did not deter him and kept writing and travelled extensively, including to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, remaining profoundly interested in social justice and the honest depiction of the working class. In 2008 he was awarded the freedom of his home city. One of his final public appearances was on Desert Island Discs, for which he selected Edith Piaf's song "Le ça Ira" as his favourite.

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