Published in 1963, this collection of short fiction contains seven stories: ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’, ‘The Other John Peel’, ‘The Firebug’, ‘The Magic Box’, ‘The Bike’, ‘To Be Collected’ and ‘The Good Women’. There is a common theme to the collection, as described in a review in The Financial Times: “these stories are variations on the theme superbly expressed in Sillitoe’s masterpiece ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’; namely, the excitement, the poetry and the integrity underlying an anti-social act.”
The title story explores the psychology of theft. The narrator recalls his first instance of stealing: at primary school, he and the other kids are given cardboard cut-out coins to use in reckoning-up exercises. Although valueless, he is compelled to pocket some. He keeps shtum when the teacher puts him on the spot (a nifty and unforced analogy to the professional criminal saying nothing during police questioning). Is our boy a kleptomaniac? Or is there a core of individualism at the heart of his pilfering? This passage goes some way towards an answer:
In spite of the fact that I nicked whatever I could lay my hands on without too much chance of getting caught, I didn’t like possessing things. Suits, a car, watches – as soon as I’d nicked something and got clear away, I lost interest in it. I broke into an office and came out with two typewriters, and after having them at home for a day I borrowed a car and dropped them over Trent bridge one dark night. If the cops cared to dredge the river about there, they’d get a few surprises. What I like most is the splash stuff makes when I drop it in: that plunge into the water of something heavy …
A romantic subplot manages not to detract from the underlying concept but feed into it: our boy’s relationship with a girl from a nouveau riche family spurs him on to new heights of daring. What follows is an almost arbitrarily truncated Nottingham version of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ with a misjudged shoe-shop heist in place of a slo-mo blaze-of-glory denouement. As in much of his fiction, Sillitoe dissects the aftermath and finds the compromised humanity in his characters. He writes as a witness, not a moralist.
‘The Other John Peel’ feels like a palimpsest, or a try-out for a possible longer work. Two buddies head off at the crack of dawn for a spot of poaching. A .303 service rifle kept over from the war leads to thoughts of armed revolution. The act of poaching loses its traditional meaning – the placing of meat on the table for those who couldn’t afford it other than by filching it from a rich man – and a more expansive sense of social disaffection becomes apparent. There is very little narrative on offer but the last line – “silent headstocks to the left towered above the fenced-off coppices of Sherwood Forest” – establishes an aesthetic through-line to Nottingham’s most famous outlaw.
If Trash-Can Man in Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ had spent his childhood years in pre-war Nottingham, the result might have been something like ‘The Firebug’. A companion piece to ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ inasmuch as it’s narrated by a character who is compelled to commit anti-social acts (here small acts of arson as opposed to half-arsed break-ins) without fully knowing why except that he gets a kick out of it. “I smile as much as feel ashamed at some of the things I did,” he begins, before going on to recount the bitter, tear-stinging frustration of carrying off an effective bit of arson only for the glorious carnage of the fire itself to be utterly ignored. The story ends, somewhat abruptly, with a German bomber attack doing more damage than our anti-social narrator ever could; he’s fourteen by this time and is soon packed off to work in a factory. His pyromania, pardon the pun, fizzles out. It’s like seeing Arthur Seaton in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ have the rebellion leeched out of him before he’s even old enough to start boozing and get into real trouble. But an unvoiced hook remains in the reader’s mind: how long till the latent tendency erupts from him again?
Fred, the henpecked protagonist of ‘The Magic Box’, comes across as a less ebullient version of Arthur’s brother Brian Seaton in ‘Key to the Door’. Like Brian, his formative years were spent as a wireless operator in the forces. A pools win gives him the wherewithal to buy a morse set. He tunes into a private world that drives a wedge into his marriage. Morse code and radio operators recur through Sillitoe’s fiction, from the cruise ship radio operator who plays an important part towards the end of ‘The Storyteller’ to the blind yet heroic protagonist of ‘The German Numbers Woman’. Reality and the destructive power of the mind/imagination are also common themes. ‘The Magic Box’ explores ideas that would later find fuller expression in the short stories ‘Mimic’ and ‘The Second Chance’ as well as the two aforementioned novels. Some of Fred’s characteristics inform the quixotic John Handley, one of the key players in the William Posters trilogy. ‘The Magic Box’ is a thorny and unflinching story, and key to a whole sub-section of Sillitoe’s work.
For all that many of his characters don’t particularly like their jobs, it’s a constant of his writing that his protagonists demonstrate a keenly defined work ethic. The unnamed narrator of ‘The Bike’ reacts with hostility to the prospect of a lifetime of hard graft, but soon prefers to earn his way, albeit on piss-poor wages, rather than thieve or freeload. His supposed mate Bernard, who cons him into a buying a bike that Bernard has in fact stolen, is emblematic of a purportedly more intelligent but morally disenfranchised stratum of society. Meanwhile, our hero – personifying the honest but exploited working class, bides his time till he can get even. “If ever there’s a revolution and everybody’s lined-up with their hands out, Bernard’s will still be lily-white because he’s a bone-idle thieving bastard – and then we’ll see how he goes on; because mine won’t be lily-white, I can tell you that now. And you never know, I might be one of the blokes picking ’em out.”
‘To Be Collected’, about a family of scrap metal dealers, stumbling on a cache of weapons, reads like ‘Only Fools and Horses’ meets ‘Billy Liar’ without any of the laughs and played out against a grim and rain-swept background. It’s blunt and compelling.
Little has been made about Sillitoe’s feminist characters (perhaps because many of his first-person male narrators are as laddish and politically incorrect as their working class backgrounds would suggest). ‘The Good Women’, concerning the feminist voice in political activism – from union action to CND protests – is the first step in an increasing empathy with his female characters that would eventually find expression in his longest and arguably most ambitious novel ‘Her Victory’.
If ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ defined Sillitoe for a generation of readers, ‘The General’ proved that he couldn’t be taken for granted in terms of his range and penchant for experimentalism, and ‘Key to the Door’ demonstrated the breadth of canvas he was capable of working on, then ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ can easily be defined as a setting out of the stall for his later career. But it’s more than that. It’s a box containing seven literary hand grenades. It’s a call for revolutionary thinking and action. It’s the fuck-you to authority that only Alan Sillitoe could have written.