Long distance running: Alan Sillitoe (1928-2010)

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The novels of Alan Sillitoe rejoice in working class defiance. John Newsinger writes about a brilliant writer with a sad political trajectory.

(Photo: Monire Childs)

Author Alan Sillitoe died on 25 April 2010. He will be best remembered for his powerful novels and stories of working class life, such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Key to the Door, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and a ferocious work of family biography, Raw Material.

The fiction that is most regularly celebrated is Sillitoe's exploration of the "class in itself": novels and stories that are rooted in a strong "them and us" ethos that celebrate a working class refusal to knuckle down, but remain sceptical of the possibility of change. Arthur Seaton, the protagonist of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, is the classic example of this working class defiance, someone who refuses to acknowledge that his betters are better. Even this caused outrage when the novel was first published in 1958.

Class classic

Less celebrated is Key to the Door, Sillitoe's novel about Arthur's older brother, Brian, which for my money is Sillitoe's greatest book. Here we see the potential for the working class becoming a "class for itself" when Brian, a young conscript in Malaya, takes the decision not to shoot a Communist guerrilla he has in his sights. Sillitoe draws on his experience of childhood and youth in working class Nottingham before and during the Second World War to produce a neglected classic of tremendous power.

In 1972 he published Raw Material, an excursion into family history and much else that was often raw with anger at the injuries of class. For Sillitoe, the First World War was a deliberate sacrifice of the working class at a time when revolution seemed the only alternative. Here Field Marshal Douglas Haig figures as "Britain's number one war criminal".

Sillitoe writes with mounting fury of one particular episode on 14 April 1914, when a British officer, Colonel Graham Seton Hutchinson, ordered his machine guns to fire on British troops fleeing the front. He quotes Hutchinson on how he saw "one of my gunners destroy a platoon of one regiment which in its panic had taken flight". As Sillitoe notes, "For this confession of atrocity no one was ever brought to trial." Some 40 men were "murdered" by "the Gestapo machine gunning officers". What became of Hutchinson? In the 1930s he became an open fascist and admirer of Nazi Germany.

Sillitoe's politics in the early 1960s placed him firmly on the left. He was critical of CND and of the Committee of 100 for not being radical enough. He wrote that "to get rid of atomic arms and foreign bases means no less than a complete revolution, and that can't be done unless the whole of the working class get into action. Such a move against the bases has somehow got to be linked with industrial unrest - a wave of strikes or even a general strike." On another occasion he wrote to his brother that he regretted not being in London to help break up a fascist rally in Trafalgar Square: "I believe in freedom of speech, but not that sort."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s he published his Frank Dawley trilogy: The Death of William Posters, A Tree on Fire, and The Flame of Life. Dawley is a Nottingham factory worker who goes off to fight the French in Algeria, lives in a commune, encounters feminism and plots revolution. The trilogy chronicles the beginning of Sillitoe's political disillusion. Before the rot set in, however, he published a tremendous short story, Pit Strike, in response to the 1972 miners' strike.

By the end of the 1970s Sillitoe had turned against the left. He became a strong supporter of Israel, enthusiastically endorsing both invasions of Lebanon. In 1981 he wrote that "I am beginning to regret the disappearance of the British Empire" and wondered, "God, what am I coming to?" He had a great admiration for Margaret Thatcher and was a strong supporter of the Falklands War and of her stand against the IRA. And, predictably, he supported the invasion of Iraq.

Long distance

The best demonstration of Sillitoe's sad political trajectory is provided by the fate of Colin Smith, the hero of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. Colin famously takes a stand against a world run by "them" when he is in borstal, defiantly refusing to complete the marathon for the governor. Sillitoe actually began work on a sequel, a novel chronicling Colin's later life. In the unpublished draft Colin takes on the fascist British Party, bricking one of their meetings. This was written when Oswald Mosley was trying to revive British fascism. As Sillitoe wrote to his brother, "I know what I'd do to him."

In 1996, 30-odd years later, Sillitoe was the guest speaker at a police function in Nottingham. He told his audience that today Colin Smith would join the police! He received a letter of thanks from the chief constable. Alan Sillitoe sadly completed his marathon.