English working men had been heard from before. Piers Plowman, chancing one summer day upon a field of folk; John Clare's shepherd, observing cabbage fields and nesting birds; D.H. Lawrence's taciturn miners, washing off their grime before the fire. But the toiler on the assembly line had never spoken up so loudly until Alan Sillitoe, in “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (1958), produced Arthur Seaton.
Twenty-one-year-old Arthur, between chamfering and drilling to produce 1,400 parts a day at the Raleigh bicycle factory in Nottingham (“Forty-five bob don't grow on trees”), led a life of rampant cuckoldry with Brenda (“so lush and loving”) in Strelley Woods. “Time flies and no mistake,” sighed Arthur,
and it's about time it did because I've done another two hundred and I'm ready to go home and get some snap and read the Daily Mirror or look at what's left of the bathing tarts in the Weekend Mail. But Brenda, I can't wait to get at her…And now this chamfer-blade wants sharpening.
This cocky bastard, soon personified in film by Albert Finney, gave English society a shock, besides its first full description of a backstreet abortion with hot gin and boiling bath-water. But Mr Sillitoe spoke too, in the voice of Smith in “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” (1959), for the petty-criminal underclass, Borstal boys:
I didn't think about anything at all, because I never do when I'm busy, when I'm draining pipes, looting sacks, yaling locks, lifting latches, forcing my bony hands and lanky legs into making something move, hardly feeling my lungs going in-whiff and out-whaff…When I'm wondering what's the best way to get a window open or how to force a door, how can I be thinking?
Mr Sillitoe gave voices and identities to the street-crowds of post-war Britain, working in industries that were already dying, living for football and televisions on the never-never and Saturday-night binges in which pints of ale led rapidly to a fist in the face and the cold, hard pavement. Standing at the lathe as Mr Sillitoe had stood, they dreamed of “marvellous things”.
And they would not kowtow to anyone, whether rate-checker, foreman, boss or government. They dreamed—if they could get the whip hand, which they never would—of blowing all these boggers sky-high with dynamite, or sticking them up against a wall. It was not a communist thing. Mr Sillitoe was feted in the Soviet Union, but carried back an image of heartless chaos. Capitalism and communism both robbed a man of freedom. Mr Sillitoe's heroes defied all systems and were part of no class, except “us” versus “them”. They kept their own pride, like Seaton's sharp suits for a big night out, or the exhilaration Smith felt, “like the first and last man on the world”, when he ran through the fields alone, and wouldn't pander to the Borstal governor by winning a race for him. “It's a fine life, if you don't weaken,” was one Sillitoe motto. Another was “Don't let the bastards grind you down.”
Mapping out the world
Writers about the poor tended to be middle-class patronisers. But Mr Sillitoe was a product of those sooty red-brick terraces, where he remembered his mother, beaten yet again by his father, holding her head over a bucket so the blood didn't run on the carpet; where he would forage in tips for bottles to claim the deposit, or pick flowers from the park to sell. At 14 he became a labourer and lathe-operator, as well as a serial lover of the local girls.
His father was illiterate, unable to make sense of the “mystifying jungle” of the world. Hence his violence. Young Alan mapped out his own paths, first in out-of-town fields through nettles as tall as himself, and then by slowly building up exotic worlds of words. He won a Bible as a prize, which stayed on his desk for good; more books, and maps, were bought with precious pence, or came home under his coat. Confinement with TB in his 20s introduced him to Dickens and Dostoevsky, Balzac and Plato, and spurred him to write. Both writing and exploring kept him one cool, cunning step ahead of his oppressors. If he could not do either, he felt his head would burst from sheer misery.
He wrote, then, prodigiously, for half a century: novels, short stories, poetry, autobiography. The poems were feeble, and the stories that followed his two groundbreaking works tended to tell, less well, the same tale of Everyman against the system. Though he had started “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” under an olive tree in Majorca, and lived many years in the Mediterranean sun, he needed Nottingham, and the pounding roar of the Raleigh factory. Occasionally he wandered back, but settling was difficult. He came to sympathise, over the years, as much with the world's displaced and hounded Jews as with his drunken proletarian heroes.
Alongside the “Angry Young Men” of post-war literary Britain—Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and the rest—he cut a different figure. It was not the constant pipe, or the Nottingham vowels, or the friendly but disconcerting stare. It was his refusal to be labelled as angry, or as anything else, and his indifference to literary acclaim. His books could sink or swim. He had his own worth, and his own pride. As Arthur Seaton put it, “He was nothing at all when people tried to tell him what he was.”