I've been sporadically posting up stuff
about the way writer's write — always
fascinating. This 1971 piece by Ramsay Wood
gives a great insight into Alan Sillitoe's
method. Ramsay is the author of •Kalila and
Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal•
(Kindle download @ 86p/99¢) and its sequel
(Vol 2) •Fables of Conflict and Intrigue•
(50 page free extract from
paperback to be published in November 2011.
Ramsay Wood meets and talks with Alan Silitoe
Several years ago Alan Sillitoe said, “One has to transcend class.” He was growing tired of being labelled “a working-class novelist.” But it seems few people listened. The picturesque story of a boy from the slums of Nottingham who started work in a bicycle factory at 14 and rose to become a best-selling novelist at 30 was too striking an image to ignore. All the ingredients for an instant literary legend were ready for easy public consumption: how, after contracting tuberculosis in Malaya as an R.A.F. wireless operator, he spent 18 months in hospital reading a selection of books that would normally take ten years to finish: how he met his wife, the American poet Ruth Fainlight, and left England to spend six years around the Mediterranean living on a tiny disability pension while they struggled through what they now call their “apprenticeships”; how Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was rejected three times and almost never published. But now, a dozen years since that first success, and after five more novels, three collections of short stories, two very successful film adaptations (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner), three volumes of poetry and a travel book, maybe it’s possible to consider that Alan Sillitoe wasn’t joking as a creative writer when he said that “one has to transcend class.”
The events in Sillitoe’s later novels – The Death of William Posters (1965) and A Tree on Fire (1967), the first two instalments of a trilogy – spread themselves far beyond themes that can be interpreted as the mere considerations of class-consciousness. The two main characters of A Tree on Fire are Frank Dowley – a dropout working man from a Nottingham factory who seeks his life’s meaning and purpose as a volunteer guerrilla for the F.L.N. in the Algerian War – and Albert Handley, a zany and rip-roaring painter from Lancashire who is suddenly “discovered” by the artistic market of London and becomes rich. Although Sillitoe has also said, “I will always carry around a bit of Nottingham in my boots.” At 42 he has been writing for 22 years of his life, and feels that the record should speak for itself. Whereas his earlier books usually deal with characters who pursued lusty lives under conditions of English poverty, the later novels follow the progress of working class characters who leave their backgrounds to search for a meaning to life in a bigger world. In his latest book, A Start in Life, Sillitoe deals with what he calls “a wider field of characters.” Because the scope of his talent is obviously much greater, perhaps we can now anticipate that the “working class novelist” label will peel completely off him.
After many years of mobility through several countries, Alan Sillitoe and Ruth Fainlight settled down in 1969 when they fixed up and moved into a converted rectory in the village of Wittersham, Kent. If quiet surroundings are any prerequisite for creative writers, then the Silllitoes have realized an ideal. The front of the house is screened from the public road by a line of trees; the back garden is expansive and comfortable. There is an overgrown fishpond which they speculate on converting into a small swimming pool for their son David and his adopted sister Susan.
When I met the Sillitoes they had just returned from giving a poetry reading at Hereford Teachers’ Training College, and our conversation began by discussing this break in their normal routine. “It took four days to do a one-hour poetry reading,” remarked Sillitoe. “One day preparing for it, one day travelling there, one day travelling back, and now day recovering.” But it was apparent that they had enjoyed the trip. Ruth Fainlight had written a poem on the return train ride, and they both joked about the phenomenon of a training college where the population was nine women for every man. Although I had been warned that Alan Sillitoe was noted for his personal reticence, I found him quite willing to talk about his writing.
“To be a writer,” he said, “is to have a sort of lingering disease of spiritual consumption that you hope will take all your life to kill you. You go on spending yourself – spend, spend, spend – and you’re getting spiritually more fine all the time. I think writers are some of the toughest people on earth. It’s not the effort, but a backbone thing of being gnawed at, each blow coming out of your spirit. I’m in a state of semi-exhilaration when writing, but meanwhile it’s wearing me to the bone. People would laugh at the actual amount of work – maybe six hours in one day.”
“Production is a word that describes what is happening, but it doesn’t tell you what is making it happen,” says Sillitoe. His wife adds: “You sit down and hope you can get into a state of grace. One has a compulsion to bear witness, as if one didn’t, life wouldn’t be worth anything.” One of her poems is entitled “A Desperate Measure,” and goes:
Tell me what you think, and I
Shall tell you who you are.
But how articulate my thoughts
Until I can be sure just who
Speaks through me when I’m questioned?
Then tell me who you think you are.
Be silent, do not speak, I shall
Identify myself in action.
There is identifiable action in the Sillitoe home. He finished A Start in Life before the end of 1969 and it ran to over 350 pages. (“I didn’t plan it that long; it just happened that way.”) Early last year he gave away a play – the first one he’d written – to the Contemporary Theatre, a young and almost unknown group of actors specializing in community and experimental drama. The play, entitled This Foreign Field, had its world premiere at the Roundhouse in London in March 1970, but did not enjoy favourable reviews. He has finished the script for an American-backed film on his story “The Ragman’s Daughter” which will go into production in late 1971. Meanwhile he is 200 pages into the final book of his trilogy, the sequel to Tree on Fire. Ruth Fainlight has been writing poems and completing the final draft of her first volume of short stories.
Two resident writers pose scheduling problems for the day-to-day affairs of the household, but the Sillitoes manage an efficient sharing of duties in order that they both end up with equal creative time. They each have individual rooms for their writing. On the first floor the door of another room is soundproofed on the inside with a triple thickness of old blankets sewn together. In it the family typist pounds her keyboard six to eight hours a day, five days a week, busily churning out various drafts of Sillitoe and Fainlight manuscripts. “There’s an invisible flag flying over this house that says ‘Art’ or ‘Writing,’ on it,” says Alan Sillitoe. But writing itself is not really considered to be work.
“To talk pompously of ‘my work’,” he says, “when you know very well there are some 25 million people crawling out of their beds every morning and doing an eight or nine hour shift, often in conditions of semi-misery – well, one can’t be too pompous. One takes oneself seriously, but I think one can’t call writing work. If you have talent, then you don’t work. That’s really what it boils down to.
“A writer, if he manages to earn a living at what he’s doing – even if it’s a very poor living, acquires some of the attributes of the old-fashioned gentleman (if I can be so silly). Or a man with a private income, which is what it feels like. It used to feel like it to me when I was earning nothing; I wasn’t working in a factory and I was living in Majorca on a very small amount of money, but it seemed as if I had a private income. And it still seems like that, and that I don’t work. I churn out a novel now an again, and I’m lucky enough for it to bring in enough money so that I still don’t have to work. I’ve been at it for more than twenty years now, without what I would call working. My life has completely changed and time has rubbed out that initial dream-like experience of misery in childhood and then the youth working in a factory. It’s vivid to me as well, but it’s rubbed out as far as assessing what I’m doing at the moment is concerned.”
If any eventual shattering of the pre-digested “working class novelist” image does occur, it will in fact be no sudden revelation. More than ten years ago Sillitoe’s second novel, The General, was published and considerably puzzled some literary critics. It was a tale of the future, an allegorical fantasy which Sillitoe described as “an image of a man in society, of the writer.” The Oxford Times of June 3rd, 1960, concluded its review of The General with an honest admission of confusion between the writer and his popular image:
"It is not so much that it is a bad book – Mr. Sillitoe probably cannot easily write a bad book – but it is not really the sort of book one expects of him."
In retrospect it might well be said that Alan Sillitoe’s progress as a writer is dependent upon his capacity to create books that are not the sort “one expects of him”.
Sillitoe shrinks from labels. He feels that facile cataloguing of people strips the individual of his uniqueness and encourages people to think of each other in a superficial manner. “I can’t classify any two people – that’s my trouble sometimes,” he says. “Everyone’s different.” Thus he has consistently rejected the convenient literary pigeonholes into which some critics have attempted to slot him. “I do not consider myself a Kitchen Sink school of writer,” he said in an interview once. “I don’t think anyone can speak of a ‘school of writing’ until thirty years after it’s written.”
Sillitoe’s novels and stories frequently explore forms of rebellion; his characters often pursue a relentless struggle against the stultifying forces in society that would render life narrow, predictable, banal, and a living death. The often quoted thoughts of Albert Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning:
"Once a rebel, always a rebel. You can’t help being one. You can’t deny that. And it’s best to be a rebel so as to show ‘em it don’t try to get you down."
were first published during the heyday of the so-called Angry Young Men (another literary label that seems as facilely inaccurate as it was speedily applied to a varied group of writers). Although these writers were Sillitoe’s contemporaries, somehow he survived the glare and ballyhoo of success and nurtured a private integrity that would not be compromised. When the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning opened in London in 1961, Sillitoe fled to live in Morocco for four months. “I wanted to write a book,” he said in an interview with Kenneth Allsop in Tangiers. “In London one is too accessible. Here there isn’t even a telephone. I am not a telly personality, a lecturer or a partygoer. I’m a writer.”
While middle age brings a shift in the orientation of some successful writers, the fierce opinions of youth mellowing into a more tolerant season of veteranhood, Sillitoe claims he has hardly changed. He still experiences an intense love-hate for England, feeling that’s its writers have neglected the habit of travel and thus risk a terrible stagnation: “England can become so deadly insular. There’s atrocious inequality on the right little, tight little island. It’s a horrible place to come back to. I’ve always had this feeling that English writers are too parochial. They never leave England practically. You get Kingsly Amis’s book called I Like it Here. Well, to me this is the sort of blackest dead end that any writing fraternity can ever enter into. I think that one has to get out of this country, you see, in order to gain some bigger perspective regarding the world. I just can’t see how these people can go on writing and just stick on this little island. I think it’s about time the Channel was filled in. Take all the rubble in France and England, and you do it easily. I think it’s grim, you know. I’d like to have a bridge out there; you could drive across it in twenty minutes or so. I think it’s dreadful, this sort of I-like-it-here complex which has stricken English writers since the end of the last war, I suppose. Before that they seemed to go about quite a bit. I don’t go far afield, but at least I’ve been plenty of times around various places.”
Sillitoe loves maps. He regards them the way some people regard beautiful paintings. A huge map of Russia dominates one wall of his writing room; on a table lies a foot-high stack of opened maps from other parts of the world, and packed on a shelf above are innumerable road and street maps from Spain, France, England, Morocco, Russia, Algeria, to name but a few. Between stints of writing he will pore over these personal icons to recharge his creative batteries or to check specific points of topology he may be writing about. “Maps give ideas; that’s why I like them,” he says.
He and his eight-year-old son David spend months drawing what they call “map poems,” and intricate entertainment of visualizing imaginary countries or towns. Their cartographic habit appears unbelievably detailed, an exercise in total urban or rural planning. In David’s bedroom there hangs a framed early map poem entitled “Astronautic Research Centre” at the top and captioned “Special Syldavian Survey Sheet Seven: Sillitoes” at the bottom. Cities, towns, villages, airports, swamps, roads and train lines are accounted for in this bird’s-eye view around an imaginary launch pad.
Sillitoe’s emphasis on geographical accuracy comes through clearly in his books; scenery is always vividly described, and one has the sense that his characters act within a living ecology, not a dead landscape of the intellect. An extension of his love of maps is a keen interest in the martial arts. Strategy, tactics, and military history – these are subjects Sillitoe has studied since long before he was published. Frank Dawley in Tree on Fire fights in the Algerian War on the side of the F.L.N. The desperate struggles for survival of Dawley and his band of guerrilla comrades take place in the harsh climate of the Sahara and under battle conditions that are portrayed with a blend of brutal realism and poetic imagery:
They ambled like dead men, seeking refuge from the stony midday sun, no longer knowing that they walked. Land was like alcohol; he walked and walking was like drinking. He drank it on walking and went all day from sundown to blackout wallowing in it until he dropped from exhaustion and total inebriation, happy and not caring if he ever woke again. Trudging all day over the flat stale beer of the stony plain, brandy of hills, mouth shut tight because it seeped in continually through eyes, ears, nose and anus, the drink of land and the never-ending gutter bout of topography, a blinding weekend of land booze that went on for months. Such drink killed one with thirst, that was the only trouble, but it gave you the required lift, the lighting-up time of the brain in the flaring magnetic day flash of the desert.
“I think every so-called man – self-made and otherwise – has to know military history and something of the military art,” says Sillitoe. “A writer is always the potential victim of any state; it’s as well to know something about the basic organization necessary to initiate or take part in any guerrilla warfare. And in order to study guerrilla warfare you have to go right back through every campaign as far as Alexander the Great. You’ve got to start right at the bottom of the ocean and come up to the surface. You can’t just study guerrilla warfare; I mean you can but on its own it won’t fit so easily into the overall pattern. If one is sort of a Renaissance man; you’ve got to know about military art, or science – as some would have it.
"It’s very necessary to know how to fire a gun. I don’t mean one just sits reading about tactics and studying maps. One has to go for a fifteen-mile bicycle ride or an eight-mile walk. Already, of course, from years ago I can fire a machine gun, throw a grenade, and all the rest of it. I’ve got no practice, but at least you know what a rifle can do. You know where to set up machine guns to control five miles of country. I never walk around any countryside without thinking how it can be defended or what dispositions I’d made to attack it. This is just natural to me. First of all I think how beautiful the country is and how I would describe it, and then – as a natural corollary – how I would destroy it.”
He is sitting at his desk as he says the above, speaking gently despite the overt pugnacity of his talk. He puffs on a pipe and doodles away on a writing pad in front of him as we talk. David bursts into the room just back from school, and after greetings climbs into his lap.
“What’s this, Alan,” he asks pointing to the doodle which had been developing from way before we began speaking of the martial arts.
“It’s a machine gun position: how to place machine guns on this hill when people are trying to cross a river. You point one that way and one that way – that’s called enfilading. In that case nobody can pass that river within half a mile. It’s impossible. If you enfilade – one that way and one that way; you have to get a compass to sight the angles.” They proceed to a discussion and drawing test of the conventional signs for depicting tanks, artillery infantry and the other elements of a battle plan. An informal but extended map-poem begins to blossom.
A clue to Sillitoe’s themes may be found in one of the ways he has described visualizing his characters: “My stories, if they are any success, are the misty and occasionally musty vision of a face whose features are involved in some form of emotion, suffering in particular circumstances.” He says this is a literal and not a poetic account of how he works. The face may be half-remembered from his past, someone he once knew but hasn’t thought of for years, or it may be a totally new face, someone he never knew but somehow can identify. It is a psychological facility he has always had, as far as he can tell. But the key words in this description are “emotion” and “suffering.” The face is always vague and hazy, its features indistinct; what matters to Sillitoe and the ingredients that distinguish the main quality of his stories, is the force of emotion and suffering that propels the face into his consciousness. It is the accuracy with which he matches the face and its motivation that makes his characters so vibrant. The events of his stories are usually invention, but there is no doubt that his characters are alive, struggling, suffering, and fighting to achieve some kind of meaning and understanding in their lives. It is not insignificant that he mentions Dostoevski and Camus as being big personal influences on his writing.
Another valuable suggestion Alan Sillitoe has made concerns his attitude towards reading: “It is very important that a man should read, especially modern works in which he recognizes himself, and understands himself. This is a way of killing loneliness.”
If reading can kill loneliness, its gains its victory through communication. It is communication which enables the individual to recognize and understand himself and thus thwarts a sense of social isolation. This sounds like a cliché, but Sillitoe makes a fundamental distinction between communication and persuasion, feeling that they are often vitally confused in our society.
Persuasion is any use of language which vitiates the individual by manipulating his free will and choice. All forms of persuasion are factors of “them,” a power-group working to force the individual into the mass mould and make us think like one dull, collective group. The word communication has been pre-empted and contaminated by usage among groups whose basic function is to persuade. Chiefly these groups are involved in one form or another of the so-called "communications industry" – journalism, public relations, television and advertising. Advertising is the most blatant use of word and image to create a specific effect in people; information may be exchanged for the benefit of the overall economic system (mass needs or predispositions are set in motion), but the individual is persuaded or unpersuaded; he is not communicated with. He reacts, but he does not necessarily understand. Communication works on a deeper level than simple information exchange or dominance over the individual or dominance over the individual by one group or another; communication is a different kind of nutrition.
Sillitoe insists that communication touches in a mysterious manner something in the human being (call it the spirit or the soul) “killing loneliness” and helping the individual to recognize and perhaps understand himself. Understanding is an experience of the individual within himself, and not a persuasion situation of one individual or group putting its message over on another. A conversion syndrome, however righteously inspired, is not an example of communication. “I don’t write to persuade people to come to me and ask me what to do or what my opinions are,” says Sillitoe. “I write so people can read and maybe understand. But I’m not a teacher.”
Thus Sillitoe has said that he does not write with the intention of communicating with anyone except himself: “….my only desire is to communicate the language and idea of a story on to paper, to fix the muddled cloudiness of the incident by pen and ink so that it becomes clear, set down in plain English for me to read and re-read, and with luck, for others to read later on when it gets put into print and bound into a magazine or book.”
If there is one working class trait that Sillitoe has not lost, it is a spirited stubbornness in refusing to compromise his aims as a writer. In an age when some publishers employ market researchers to plot the subject and treatment of their next potential best sellers Sillitoe resists having his integrity qualified by any vision except his own. If his books are lucky enough to sell well, he feels it is a function of his honesty. “One keeps honest by staying strictly within one’s intentions. As a writer, you write. Success does not change you; you are still a writer.”
This piece originally titled: "Alan Sillitoe: The Image Shedding the Author" by Ramsay Wood
(first published in Four Quarters, La Salle College, Philadelphia, 1971)