Fifty years ago, Alan Sillitoe’s first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, changed the history of English fiction. Richard Bradford explains how.
Alan Sillitoe is 80 this year and his debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published in October 1958, almost exactly half a century ago. The novel evolved from a set of stories written between 1952 and 1958 when he lived in France, Majorca and mainland Spain, but it draws its energy and raw material from his previous experiences in Nottingham: a childhood that would have appalled Orwell and been improved upon by Dickens, followed by semi-skilled work in local factories. It was like nothing written before and it changed the history of the English novel.
Before reaching Jeffrey Simmons, chief commissioning editor of W. H. Allen, the typescript had been rejected by five mainstream publishing houses and some explanation for their displeasure can be found in Sillitoe’s dealings with Tom Maschler of MacGibbon & Kee. Maschler was intrigued but at the same time insisted that large parts of the novel be rewritten to provide a more authentic portrait of working-class life. For Sillitoe, this was comparable to being advised by a clairvoyant on the true nature of his existence, and he refused to change the book. Maschler and others were puzzled, unsettled, because the hero Arthur Seaton accorded with no known precedent. Even such recent reprobates as Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon, John Wain’s Charles Lumley, John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter and John Braine’s Joe Lampton seemed dependable by comparison. Simmons was enthralled; he knew he had found something exceptional and sent the manuscript to his friend Otto Strawson who, in 1955, had ‘discovered’ Doris Lessing and recommended her to Gollancz. ‘Jeffrey’ Strawson wrote back the next day, ‘this is astonishing: who is he? It is the best first novel I’ve ever come across’.
Arthur Seaton has received little resembling a formal education and he shows no inclination to acquaint himself with culture or improve his social or professional status. He is a lathe operator, who treats politics, trades unionism and class solidarity with a mixture of indifference and contempt; he is more interested in drink and sex. Yet he is possessed of an acute, incisive intellect that is unlike anything indulged by literary patrons from Wordsworth onwards. Seaton arrived at the literary jamboree uninvited.
Like all magnetic literary figures Arthur Seaton prompts the question of how much of his creator informs him. Few of the episodes of the novel are directly autobiographical but there is something of Seaton’s trenchant absolutism that is most certainly a reflection of Sillitoe’s temperament. Alan is deeply committed to the ideals of freedom and equitability but at the same time he detests the infringement of systems — however benign and altruistic they might claim to be — upon individualism. As a 14-year-old factory apprentice during the war he was informed by the shop steward that union membership was compulsory, that it was for his own good and that fees would be deducted from his wages. Alan returned to his bench after urging the official to ‘f*** off and get dive-bombed’. The seeds of Arthur Seaton had been sown long before his author even considered writing stories.
I recall an episode less than a year ago in Belfast International Airport. Alan was returning to London after giving lectures in Northern Ireland and in his hand-luggage was a token of the province’s appreciation, a bottle of rare Russian vodka. After being reminded that fluids of any kind were forbidden in the boarding area he politely replied to the official that his only option now was to consume the valuable liquid before departure, with the assistance of any fellow passengers who cared to join him. Quite a number were sufficiently charmed and amused to take up his offer, and it was joyful indeed to witness the expressions on the faces of the security staff, who had clearly not been primed to deal with anything like this: not a tirade or a rant or indeed a breach of regulations, more like something from an Ealing comedy. This companionable mood proved infectious and the official joined in to the extent that he summoned an airline employee from the check-in desk and persuaded her to have this large bottle of ‘special medicine’ placed in Alan’s hold baggage.
Had this been engineered by anyone else one might have commended their performance, but, entertaining as it was, Alan was not performing. There is only one Alan Sillitoe, yet he is neither a predictable nor an intractable figure. Most writers, by the age of 60, become either caricatures, exaggerations or antitheses of their former selves. The anarchic and vituperative aspect of Kingsley Amis that he had balanced against his more charitable, generous side in his early years roamed free during the last decade of his life. Similarly, John Osborne’s raddled nihilism was at first an inspiration for his writing but later it took control of his temperament, and the flickers of optimism that Philip Larkin cautiously allowed into his world during the 1940s and 1950s had by the 1980s been extinguished by a ceremony of self-loathing. Not Alan. Certainly his political affiliations changed during the 1970s, but this was not symptomatic of a more fundamental modification in his character. He had not altered; he had simply had time to think and observe. He encountered events and places at first hand while many others indulged themselves with speculation or blind idealism.
During the 1960s the Soviet Union feted him as the only genuine spokesman for the oppressed working classes of the West. He visited the country frequently but the Communist authorities were in for a surprise. When asked to address a Congress of the Soviet Writers’ Union, with Brezhnev present, he denounced the abhorrent abuses of human rights that they had carelessly allowed him to observe and record. Thereafter he campaigned tirelessly, and secretly, on behalf of political prisoners in the Eastern bloc and turned his public scorn against what he discerned as the hypocrisies and complacencies of the British left-wing intelligentsia. He was convinced that pro-Palestinianism was anti-semitism by the back door and by the 1970s he had been shunned by many of those who had once, usually with a hint of condescension, regarded him as D. H. Lawrence reborn with Marxist credentials.
As a man who has witnessed the dehumanising consequences of totalitarianism, both in its shambolic Spanish manifestation — he was once arrested by Franco’s secret police in Barcelona during the 1950s — and as Communism in action, he perceives the present Labour regime with a mixture of horror and disbelief. ‘They are’, he tells me, ‘leading an apathetic population into a state of torpid subservience.’ He refers, of course, to the suffocation of individuality via greater powers of intrusion and surveillance and, worst of all, through the introduction of ID cards.
They [the government] offer risible justifications for what will if enforced be an obligatory licence to exist and breathe. Stalin’s tomb must be quaking from his laughter.
Alan Sillitoe is still routinely perceived and presented as a member of the kitchen-sink branch of the Angry Generation. Such characterisations are lazy and inaccurate, obscuring the breadth and originality of his writing. Among his 52 volumes — including novels, short stories, children’s fiction, poetry, travel books, drama, memoirs and criticism — there are works that defy classification. Travels in Nihilon (1971), inspired by his experiences in the USSR, invokes the tradition of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World, but supersedes both in its manner. It is as though Finnegans Wake has been unselfishly rewritten, with coherent sentences and a story, and it offers a magnificent evocation of totalitarianism, inhumanity and farce. The Storyteller (1979) is one of the best ever novels about the pitiless, unforgiving nature of writing, and The General (1960) is the fictional precursor to Wladyslaw Szpilman’s The Pianist, later filmed by Roman Polanski. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959), the volume which followed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, introduced Alan as the most accomplished short-story writer in English since Joyce. Read his work, marvel and enjoy.
Richard Bradford’s The Life of A Long Distance Writer: The Biography of Alan Sillitoe will be published later this month. He is currently working on the authorised biography of Martin Amis.