Brown Bread: Alan Sillitoe

“Do you know Alan Sillitoe?” aksed Robert [Graves], and added half-seriously, “I invented him. He used to live in Soller in the Fifties, writing I don’t know what you’d call them, fantasies about imaginary countries set in no particular period. I told him, ‘Alan, nobody wants that sort of stuff. Write about the life you know in Nottingham and so on.’ So he wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and made his name.”

(Kingsley Amis, Memoirs)

Arthur took off his coat and sat with his legs stretched out over the mat, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He watched Brenda’s face disintegrating, her features mixing beneath the fire of hot gin and a sea of water. Never again, he kept saying to himself, never again. No more bubble-baths for Brenda. Never again. I’d rather cut my throat.

(Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning)

We’ve lost an inspirational novelist with the death of Alan Sillitoe, one of the Angry Young Men who captured the gritty reality of life for working people in post-war 1950s Britain.

In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the former bicycle factory worker portrayed the struggle of millions without patronising men and women dealt a poor hand. These “kitchen sink” dramas – turned into successful films starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay – have stood the test of time and are considered classics.

Sillitoe succeeded despite a squalid childhood. His death, aged 82, is sad if not unexpected, but he will live on through his fine books. Poet Ian McMillan said: “He put somehow forgotten places at centre stage. He made the ordinary life into a kind of poetry.”

Sillitoe, who died at Charing Cross Hospital in West London after falling ill earlier this month, was born into poverty in Nottingham in 1928. His dad was an illiterate labourer who was often jobless. The writer said their home “smelled of leaking gas, stale fat and layers of mouldering wallpaper.”

He left school at 14 and worked in a bicycle factory before serving as a wireless operator in the RAF. After returning from Malaya he contracted tuberculosis and spent 16 months in hospital. It was following this illness that he first put pen to paper.

Sillitoe wrote more than 50 books, including children’s stories, poetry and plays. He was married to American poet Ruth Fainlight, in 1959, and they had a son and daughter. He lived with his family in London but spent time in France, Spain and Tangier.

R.I.P. Alan Sillitoe 1928-2010

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