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A Nottingham Legend in Profile: Alan Sillitoe

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by John Burns (subscribe)
I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published December 28th 2014
A look at the life and work of a Notts literary hero
Few writers – indeed, few people at all – are as intrinsic to Nottingham's soul and identity as Alan Sillitoe. Associated with the "Angry Young Men" group of writers at an early stage in his career, Sillitoe spent the rest of his life railing against such restrictive and glib pigeonholing of his work.

alan sillitoe, books, nottingham, literature, culture
Alan Sillitoe, pictured in 2009

Sillitoe was born in Nottingham in 1928, and both the city and his upbringing would be major influences on his later creative works. The young Sillitoe spent his early years drifting from one disenfranchised area of Nottingham to another as his father struggled to support Sillitoe's mother and younger sister, an unstable beginning which led to Sillitoe dropping out of school aged 14 to find work.

Too young for service in World War II (Sillitoe qualified as a pilot only a month before the surrender of Japan) Sillitoe did his national service in post war Malaya, and it was on returning to England that his future as a writer began to map itself out before him.

alan sillitoe, books, nottingham, literature, culture
Nottingham's train station in the 1950s, photo by Ben Brookbank

It was while recuperating from a bout of TB at an RAF hospital that Sillitoe – by now in his early 20s – began to devour up fiction and philosophy. He read everything – from classics to modern fiction, from Hobbes to contemporary thinkers such as Wittgenstein – and it's tempting to see this phase of his life as catalytical to his development as a writer.

Leaving Nottingham

While Sillitoe developed a love of books, the books returned the favour and brought him a love of his own. It was while browsing in a Nottingham bookshop in 1952 that Sillitoe met 19-year-old Ruth Fainlight, who would later become Sillitoe's wife and the mother of his son and adopted daughter.

alan sillitoe, books, nottingham, literature, culture
First edition copy of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

Born in New York City in 1931, Fainlight was already writing poetry by time she met Alan Sillitoe in the English Midlands. The pair – now at a loose end thanks to Sillitoe's discharge from the armed forces – decided to leave the UK for the Mediterranean, in order to pursue writing with more gusto.

The couple flitted from Southern France and into Spain, where they met the poet Robert Graves – a writer who would mentor the young up-and-comers.

Sillitoe may have left Nottingham behind in a physical sense, but his background always remained close to his heart. Despite working in the Mediterranean sun and being no doubt a little star-struck by the reputation of the poet Graves, Sillitoe began to hone the character of Arthur Seaton, a young man in Nottingham whose experiences and outlook mirrored those of the young writer and of those he had grown up with.

Literary Career

It was on returning to England in the late fifties that the character of Arthur Seaton truly began to take on a life of its own. By now, Sillitoe had written the early drafts of his breakthrough novel, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, a book charting the experiences of a young working class male in post-war Nottingham, and with Seaton as its primary character.

alan sillitoe, books, nottingham, literature, culture

The novel's title reflects the cycle of hedonistic escapism followed by the crushing hangover of daily-life that would be familiar to thousands of young men in Nottingham at that time. However, the book goes deeper than this, exploring the place of the individual worker in the twin systems of capitalism and socialism. These themes would be manifested in Sillitoe's later left-leaning politics, which saw him denounce western capitalist structures and Soviet human rights abuses in equal measure.

Sillitoe followed his debut with the story-collection, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 1959. Both of these works were made into successful films and cemented Sillitoe's position at the heart of Nottingham's literary soul.

And thus began a long, prolific and wide-ranging literary career. Sillitoe produced over 40 works in his time as a writer, publishing his final book A Man of his Time in 2004. His marriage to Ruth Fainlight was rather more successful than the relationships between Seaton and the female characters of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, lasting right up until Sillitoe's death in 2010.

Legacy

Now, almost five years after his death, Nottingham's literature scene still resonates with the singular voice of Alan Sillitoe. His two most famous works – mentioned in the paragraphs above – have helped to promote the cultural identity of a city which has traditionally had its voice drowned out by its louder neighbours Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, and are products of a unique place, time and author.

alan sillitoe, books, nottingham, literature, culture
Poster for the cinema release of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

But don't stop here; in order to truly experience Sillitoe's work it must be delved into. After reading The Loneliness… pick up The Storyteller, Sillitoe's novelistic examination of the craft of writing and the identity of the writer. From here, go to Road to Volgograd, which explores the author's difficult but fascinating relationship with Soviet Russia, and Life Without Armour, Sillitoe's stunning autobiography.

It's a truly incredible back catalogue, and getting to grips with it can only help you to better understand the wonders of this great city on the River Trent.
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Why? Because few men are as important to Nottingham today as Alan Sillitoe
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