Alan Sillitoe died last week and when I heard the news, my first reaction was sorrow. Not for Mr Sillitoe himself, but for us, left to negotiate without him a system that is still trying to beat us down, as much as it did when Arthur Seaton roamed Nottingham.
Seaton, the anti-hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and Albert Finney’s electric portrayal of him in the film of the book, got a lot of coverage in the news reports of his creator’s death. Some went as far as to mention that this novel and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner had dwarfed the rest of his output. That may true to a certain extent in terms of publicity and notoriety, and while there is no denying the brilliant white heat that radiates from either book, to ignore the rest of Sillitoe’s work is to do him an injustice as well as to cheat yourself out of reading some gems.
It was the Never Trust a Hippy blog which pushed me to seek out Raw Materials, quoting from the book in a post written for Remembrance Day. Raw Materials is far from a straightforward telling of the author’s life, it is the story of where all the lads and lasses in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning have come from. It features tales of his parents’ and grandparents’ days that move between guns trained on troops by their own officers on the Somme and the rural backgrounds dimly remembered by the inhabitants of the industrial cities. Raw Materials takes the motives for Sillitoe’s anti-authoritarian stance away from sheer bloody-mindedness and marks them as an essential fight for survival: they don’t give a shit about you and your miserable life, the bosses, so why would you care for them?
Signs proclaiming ‘bill posters will be prosecuted’ regularly used to be grafitti-ed with ‘Bill Posters is Innocent’ in the old days (or so my Dad tells me). Sillitoe took it a degree further in The Death of William Posters as he imagines Bill leaving behind a wife and two kids to follow what could seem to be the pull of some kind of early variant of mid-life crisis. Instead, William’s wanderings allow for a cynical eye to be cast over scenes as diverse as the London art world and the hippy trail to Morocco, as he tries to fight his way out from the control of forces he can’t see:
If that’s the only way to find yourself, then you’ll sooner or later run into what you’re running away from, even if you don’t know what it is. You’ll recognise it when you hit it – or it hits you.
– Alan Sillitoe, The Death of William Posters
So the death of Alan Sillitoe is another that hits hard. For the loss of his words and for the loss of the chance, as mentioned here in his final interview, of catching a glimpse of him across the snug of a bar somewhere and maybe, if I got up the courage, of sending a pint over via the barman, as a pitifully token way of saying thank you.
Photo by Walsyman at English Wikipedia