Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Sillitoe project

I was born and bred in Nottingham. I still live there. I live on an estate that repetitively and hyperbolically gets mentioned in the press whenever the focus is on gun crime or knife crime. Nottingham, in recent years, has been foisted with a reputation as the gun capital of the UK. “Shottingham”, as the tabloids like to bleat. Like I say, I’ve lived here all my life. Only twice have I ever seen someone carrying a gun: a security guy at the airport in Rome, and a border guard at the Canadian/Alaskan border. Yup, I live in fucking Nottingham and I needed to go abroad to see someone packing heat.

It’s a shame that my home town gets such a bad rap. And yes, we have our share of slum neighbourhoods, financially disenfranchised residents (I’m not judging; God knows, if I found myself out of work for more than a month, I probably be out on the streets myself), alcohol and drug users, and certain areas where, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “when you hit a red light you don’t stop” (streets and back alleys, in other words, where the fault is yours and yours alone if you stray after dark).

And yet Nottingham has an established literary heritage – Lord Byron, D.H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, John Harvey, Nicola Monaghan – and a nascent cinematic one. Karel Reisz’s classic film adaptation of Sillitoe’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ was largely filmed in the areas described by Sillitoe in his belligerently brilliant novel; more recently, filmmakers Shane Meadows, Chris Cooke (‘One for the Road’) and Steven Shiel (‘Mum & Dad’) have come to the fore.

When Alan Sillitoe died in April last year, I felt it like a kick in the guts. When someone I admire dies, there’s always a sense of sadness. But sometimes someone dies who defines your life in some way and you feel their loss as if a loved one had passed away. I remember growing up to the erudite and witty observations of Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ on the radio on a Sunday morning. I used to get up before nine o’clock on a Sunday just to listen to it. The day I heard of his death, I drove to work with tears in my eyes. I’d never met the man, but he’d been a part of my life.

The death of Alan Sillitoe was worse. He was one of the most famous sons of my home town. His debut novel ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ could have been written about my family. Swap Arthur Seaton’s lathe for a miner’s lamp and retain his “us and them” attitude and you could have my grandfather. Take his “don’t let the bastards grind you down” belligerence and stick it behind the steering wheel of a 16-tonne truck and you’re part way towards my father. Take Seaton’s philosophy that “whatever people think I am or say I am that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me” and that’s why I refused to take a Myers Briggs personality test at work last week.

Maybe the “us and them” thing is a peculiarly British characteristic. Maybe it comes of centuries of the landed gentry – the upper classes – grinding the noses of the likes of my family line into the mud that makes me respond to the rebellious cadences of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. Generations ago, two Fulwood brothers undertook some work as casual labourers for a Nottinghamshire lord of the manor. He fucked them over re: payment. They laid in wait for him one evening as he returned from a day’s riding, fetched him off his horse, and kicked the shit out of the toffee-nosed bastard. (I take more pride in being descended from these guys than anything else in my family history.) Quickly, though, they came round to the fact that they’d just twatted an aristocrat. They laid tracks for Southampton, stowed away on a steamer and there is now a branch of the family in Canada. I trust they’re prosperous, rebellious and have no use for the aristocracy.

But I digress. When Alan Sillitoe passed, it was as if the only novelist in Britain who’d accurately captured the flavours and experiences of my city and my personal history had suddenly been taken away from us. Even more depressing, as the obituaries began to appear, was how repetitively the commentators fixated on his first two books, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, as if these two works – and their respective film adaptations – were the be all and end all of Sillitoe’s output.

It was only later, having posted a review of Reisz’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ by way of a tribute, that I realized I’d adhered to exactly the same narrow-minded response. I also realized that, as much as reading Sillitoe’s early work in my mid-teens had solidified my ambition to be a writer, I’d only read about a third of his output. Cruising bookshops during the last week or two to plug the gaps in my Alan Sillitoe collection, it’s depressed me the most to discover that many of his novels and non-fiction works are out of print.

It got my mad up. I hit Amazon and eBay. I placed bids. I placed orders. I gave the PayPal account a bit of a workout. This week, I have received copies of ‘The General’, ‘Key to the Door’ and ‘The Death of William Posters’. I have located nine other works that won’t set me back more than £2 per copy. I reckon I should be able to amass the entire collection (excepting his poetry and children’s books) within the next two months.

I’ve very seldom posted book reviews on The Agitation of the Mind, and even then only film-related titles. This is changing. From next week, on a fortnightly or monthly basis depending on availability of titles and how long it takes me to read them (‘The General’ is 160 pages, ‘Her Victory’ almost 600), I’ll be working my way sequentially through Alan Sillitoe’s bibliography and posting reviews, as well as looking at the handful of his works that were adapted for cinema: most famously ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ which made a star out of Albert Finney, and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, starring Tom Courtney; in addition, I’ll be trying to track down ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ (filmed, like ‘SN&SM’ on the cobbled streets of Nottingham) and ‘Counterpoint’ (based on ‘The General’) which, thus far, is the only Sillitoe novel to get the Hollywood treatment, with Charlton Heston and Maximillan Schell knocking heads in a war drama.

Next week’s post will be a prelude to the reviews proper, and present a brief biographical overview of Alan Sillitoe.

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