Alan Sillitoe (1928 - 2010)

British novelists of the 1960s

By Ian Mackean and Stephen Colbourn

There’s bound to be trouble in store for me every day of my life, because trouble it’s always been and always will be.
[Saturday Night and Sunday Morning]


Alan Sillitoe was one of the most prominent British novelists of the 1960s, and is remembered as one of the group known as the Angry Young Men, although his best-known novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) was published a little too late for him to have been at the forefront of the movement - Hurry On Down by John Wain having been published in 1953, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis in 1954, and Look Back in Anger by John Osborne having been performed in 1956.  

In Britain of the 1950s and ‘60s harsh realism such as Sillitoe’s was the predominant style in literature, being used by prominent writers of the era such as Arnold Wesker, John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, Stan Barstow, Shelagh Delaney and Nell Dunn.  These writers may not have reached a working-class readership - people like Arthur Seaton of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning would not have spent their Saturday nights or Sunday mornings reading novels - but many of their works were filmed, and thus reached a wide audience.

The son of an illiterate factory worker who became unemployed in the Depression of the 1930s, Sillitoe spent his early life in poverty, and was largely self-educated, after leaving school at the age of fourteen.  After working in factories for six years he joined the RAF and served in Malaya, but was invalided out at the age of 21 with tuberculosis, and began to write during his subsequent months in hospital.  He also read widely, being particularly impressed by such classics as Plutarch's Lives, Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Carlyle's French Revolution. [1]

He then spent seven years abroad, in France and Spain, living with Ruth Fainlight an American poet, scraping a living and recovering his health in warmer climates.  He read American writers, such as Norman Mailer, William Styron, Carson McCullers, and J. D. Salinger, as well as the first novels of John Braine, Kingsley Amis, and John Wain [2].  He visited Robert Graves on the island of Mallorca in 1956, and Graves encouraged him to write realistically about his experience of life in Nottingham, a suggestion which bore fruit in the highly successful Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  He married Ruth Fainlight in 1959 when she obtained a divorce from her first husband, and he had the prospect of some money coming in from books and film rights.

Like D. H. Lawrence before him, and the later Liverpool Poets, Sillitoe wrote from a provincial standpoint which was distant from, and a challenge to, London, the middle-classes, and the literary establishment.  His early novels were more firmly rooted in the working-class milieu than were most of the other works of Angry Young Men, and had an underlying political intent, highlighting the situation of the working-classes in a modern industrial society. 

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Sillitoe presents Arthur Seaton as a victim of a society which promotes escapism and consumerism through the propaganda of advertising, while at the same time demanding conformity to the class roles of workers and administrators. An anti-hero, Seaton is dissatisfied with his lot as a factory worker, and like Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger, is brimming with resentment and defiance, feeling himself to be subject to the established order in which power is wielded by the upper and middle classes.  On Saturday nights he indulges in excessive drinking and riotous behaviour, then experiences a period of calm and reflection on Sunday mornings, before returning to the factory and a working week of mindless boredom.  Seaton expresses his rebellious spirit by antagonising the established order in any way he can, and the story ends at a point where he has some prospect of improving his life, through promotion and marriage.  The novel earned respect on its publication, admired for its dialogue and social realism, and became a best-seller when the film, which Sillitoe adapted for the screen himself, was released in 1960.

Sillitoe’s other well-known work is The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, a short story published in a volume of the same name in 1959, and filmed in 1962.  The anti=heroic protagonist, Smith, is a thief detained in borstal.  The governor of the institution hopes that Smith will win a cross-country race and that the achievement will motivate his rehabilitation into society.  Smith enjoys long-distance running because while running he is alone, with no one to tell him what to do, free to think for himself and reflect upon his life.  His thoughts are dominated by his view of society as divided into the ‘In-laws’, those who own property and wield power, such as the borstal governor, and those, such as himself, who do not, the ‘Out-laws’. 

While running the race he reflects on the fact that if he wins it will not only give the governor a chance to claim credit for having ‘rehabilitated’ him, but also entrap him (Smith) in the system of competition and reward imposed by the establishment.  In an act of anarchic defiance, he stops running, sacrificing his chance to win, affirming that he will not join or support the class that represents authority and ownership.  In society’s terms he has spoiled his chance for ‘success’, but in his own terms he has triumphed by being true to his beliefs and acting upon his own values.  Smith’s attitude foreshadows the ‘drop-out’ trend of the later ‘60s.

The protagonist of Sillitoe’s novel Key to the Door (1961) is Brian Seaton, the brother of Arthur of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.  The novel deals with Brian’s experience of the Depression, and army service in Malaya, and, like Sillitoe’s other novels, shows the character’s rejection of the attitudes and goals imposed upon him by the establishment. 

In 1963 Sillitoe visited the Soviet Union for a month to see how a classless society operated, and gave an account of it in Road to Volgograd  the following year.  The rigours of his early life were depicted in the autobiographical Life Without Armour (1995).  In Birthday (2001) the characters from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning meet again in old age. Sillitoe has also published poetry, and a series of children’s stories about a cat named Marmalade Jim.

1. Sillitoe, Alan. On Books and Reading, from Reading the Decades. Open University. 2002.
2. Ibid

Selected works: Without Beer or Bread (1957); Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958); The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959); The Rats, and Other Poems (1960); The General (1960); Key To The Door (1961); The Ragman's Daughter (1963); A Falling Out of Love, and Other Poems (1964); Road To Volgograd (1965); The Death of William Poster (1965); A Tree On Fire (1967); The City Adventures of Marmalade Jim (1967); Love In The Environs of Voronezh (1968); Guzman, Go Home (1968); Shaman and Other Poems (1968); A Start In Life (1970); This Foreign Field (1970); Travels In Nihilon (1971); Poems (1971); Shaman and Other Poems (1973); Men, Women, and Children (1973); Barbarians (1974); Storm (1974); The Flame of Life (1974); Raw Material (1974); The Widower's Son (1976); Pit Strike (1977); Big John and The Stars (1977); Three Plays (1978); The Incredible Fencing Fleas (1978); The Storyteller (1979); Snow On The North Side of Lucifer (1979); Marmalade Jim At The Farm (1980); The Second Chance and Other Stories (1981); Her Victory (1982); Sun Before Departure (1982); The Lost Flying Boat (1983); Down From The Hill (1984); Marmalade Jim and The Fox (1984); Life Goes On (1985) Tides and Stone Walls (1986); Every Day of The Week (1987); Three Poems (1988); Out of The Whirlpool (1988); The Open Door (1989); Lost Loves (1990); Leonard's War (1991); Collected Poems (1993); Snowstop (1993); Collected Stories (1995); Life Without Armour (1995); Alligator Playground (1997); The Broken Chariot (1998): Leading The Blind: A Century of Guide Book Travel 1815-1914 (1999); Birthday (2001).

Further reading:
Hanson, Gillian Mary. Understanding Alan Sillitoe. (Understanding Contemporary British Literature).
University of South Carolina Press. 1998.

© Ian Mackean and Stephen Colbourn 2005

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