I was always an avid reader from a very young age and my mum got me into reading Alan Sillitoe’s books when I was still quite young (I had to get special permission to borrow them from the school library because they were deemed to be “too adult” for me). I used to be able to talk to my mum about Alan Sillitoe’s characters – we talked about them as if they were real people, because they seemed to be real to us – and what was most special for me was that Sillitoe came from Nottingham, which is my home town. I felt a kind of connection with him and his “people”.
It’s funny the things you remember. In the 1980s, I got myself a part-time job working at the Nottingham Playhouse and I remember that Alan Sillitoe’s brother was in the band which was playing during one of the runs there – one day I saw Mr Sillitoe in the orchestra pit when I was checking the theatre and I was very worried that he might be dead as he was lying down and his eyes were closed. Turned out he was just having a kip between shows, but he didn’t half give me a fright!
Something else I remember was seeing Alan Sillitoe doing a Q&A session at the Broadway Cinema in the early 1990s, I think, and afterwards there was a chance to meet him – I tried but I was just too terrified, because he was my literary hero and I was scared that I would embarrass myself by busting out crying – roaring, as we called it in Nottingham – so I just let him walk past without telling him how much his writing meant to me.
Years later, a friend who knew this story and worked for the press, asked me if I would like to go and interview Alan Sillitoe at the Phoenix Artist’s Club in London. I figured I should do it whilst I had the opportunity, even though there was always the chance I would start roaring. The date was 3 April 2008 and, yes, I did start roaring and he was very nice about it. How embarrassing, eh? He was a gentleman though – very occasionally your heroes live up to your expectations after all.
My mum always wanted me to be a writer and I remember thinking that if I ever wrote anything, the two people I would want to like my work would be my mum and Alan Sillitoe. But when I showed my mum this interview, all she could say to me was that there were two typos in it so I never showed her any of my writing. Funnily enough, Alan Sillitoe gave me his address and said that if I ever wanted to send him any of my work to look over I was welcome to do so. Sadly, I never got around to doing that before he died nearly 7 years ago. I’ve been working on a book (non-fiction) on a very part-time basis for the past 3 years, it’s hard work but I am dedicated to it; hopefully this year I will be able to finish it, but I know that I won’t be able to show it to my mum or Alan Sillitoe, as they’re no longer with us. Maybe someone else will like it?!
Anyway, for whatever reason, I don’t think this interview was ever used – I was never told so if it was. So I thought that as it’s very nearly 9 years ago that I met my hero and he was so very encouraging, I should share my interview here now. If you spot those two typos my mum mentioned, you know what to do!
PICTURE “BORROWED” FROM THE WONDERFUL ALAN SILLITOE WEBSITE (Go and visit it after reading this interview, please!)
This is the article exactly I wrote it back in April 2008:
Alan Sillitoe was born in Nottingham in the East Midlands in 1928. He began writing at the age of twenty when he was struck down with tuberculosis and had to spend eighteen months in hospital. His first novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published in 1958. His second book The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a volume of short stories, was published in 1959. Both Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner were made into influential British New Wave films in the early 1960’s. Nearly fifty years on Sillitoe has had more than fifty books published. This year to coincide with his 80th birthday, A Start in Life, a novel originally published in 1970, is being re-issued by London Books.
Are you pleased to see A Start in Life re-issued?
I’m very pleased actually because I’ve always rather liked it. I mean, you write a lot of books, some you like, some you don’t particularly like – although none of them you hate, obviously – but I was very happy when London Books said they would re-issue it because… well, I mean the reason I have so much affection for it really is because I wrote it at a time when I needed to sort of cheer myself up. In a way I wrote it for myself, entertaining myself and making myself laugh, and thinking that if I could make myself laugh then so would everybody else because I’m just a normal person like everybody else I meet. So I do like it for that reason. I was playing music all the time when I was writing it – Handel’s Messiah and also another great piece of music by Handel Israel in Egypt from the Bible. Wonderful! Over and over again.
A Start in Life, to use your words, ‘tells the ordinary and no so ordinary experiences of a bastard and a proletarian to boot.’ The tale starts in Michael Cullen’s home town of Nottingham and follows his journey to London in the 1960’s. There was a follow up in the 1980’s and there’s going to be a third volume shortly, isn’t there?
First of all you had A Start in Life in 1970, then in 1985 you had Life Goes On and now there’s Moggerhanger, but so far I haven’t really got a publisher for it. Maybe one day London Books will do it but I don’t know yet. [Moggerhanger] is the final volume – that’s the lot – and it takes place in the present day.
A Start in Life seems to be essentially about sex and gangsters, so it’s rather cheeky that the protagonist Michael Cullen says ‘there’s more to books than reading about sex and gangsters.’ Of course, the book proves him right…
There’s been so many good books about sex and crime throughout history anyway, of a certain sort, think of Alexandre Dumas and all of those wonderful writers. But [A Start in Life] is not explicit though – you’ve got to put two and two together and then it’s about sex and crime and all the rest of it.
You’ve written so many books about the Seaton brothers, Arthur and Brian; several books about William Posters; and now you’ve written your third volume on Michael Cullen. Do you get attached to your characters?
I do actually, I mean the thing is whenever I’m at the end of a book, I just don’t know what is going to happen to them. Then two years later I think, ‘Whatever happened to William Posters?’ or ‘Whatever happened to Arthur Seaton?’, as if they lived and I knew them. I always think of them as people because in that way they’re very vivid to me. It’s then up to me to make them very vivid to others.
How much of your characters is in you personally and how much is incidental? For example, you have the same initials as Arthur Seaton, who, like you, has a brother called Brian…
That’s true, but I never thought of that when I was writing Saturday Night [and Sunday Morning] – it’s funny that! Somebody pointed it out to me – but it is very interesting.
And Michael Cullen wears waistcoats, which you always wear…
Yes, this comes out in details sometimes but I’m not basically [like my characters], although I must be a little bit, somewhere, otherwise I wouldn’t have had this sympathy [for them]. You know, you have to love your people whether or not you love them as a brother or love them as a sister or whatever. And if you do that you get into them and if they become real to you on the paper, as I said already, they’re real to others who read the book.
A lot of your books are set in your hometown of Nottingham. Nottingham has changed a lot over the years and, sadly, for many people, perhaps those who have not visited, it always seems to be linked with news reports of violence and crime these days. Has this perception affected the way you write about Nottingham characters at all?
It’s not the old Nottingham types who are involved in crime, we all know that – it’s the drug dealers killing each other and I would never write about them because I have no sympathy for them; anyone who can murder with such ease, you just can’t get to them… I’m always up and down to Nottingham and always have been all of my life, even though I haven’t lived there since I was 20 or 21, I want to know what’s going off and the rest of it. When I’m with my two brothers, Michael and Brian – Brian just died – we’d just put on our cloth caps and go to a pub and we’d just laugh, talk, reminisce and all the rest of it. And it was just like it ever was, and if there’s one thing that doesn’t die, first of all is the accent, secondly the argot, the slang – new things come in but if they’re not suitable for the Nottingham slang they go out again very quickly. I love Nottingham really; I always have.
Your characters quite often seem to be working class anti-heroes. Would you agree with that?
Yes and no. They’re all individuals really. I don’t believe in the working class at all. The Nottingham character is an idiosyncratic bastard, awkward, opinionated and so on. But they’re human, very, very human; I couldn’t deal with anyone else.
Characters like Michael Cullen, Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith all seem to be rebellious and opposed to authority and the establishment. At the end of the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning even though Arthur Seaton is settling down in one last act of defiance he throws a stone at the new build houses – in effect, at his own future life – and Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner throws the race…
Well, [Arthur throwing the stone] was more futile than Colin Smith throwing the race. That story, [The Loneliness of] the Long Distance Runner, is really my guide through life actually. You’ve got Colin Smith in Borstal, he’s trying to keep his integrity whilst they’re all bombarding him with what he should and shouldn’t think. When he lost the race, he put them in their place and told them what he was. So that was a good action, even though, as my mother used to say, he cut off his nose to spite his face. But, still, everything costs something and he knew it; he wasn’t a fool. So that’s what he did… if he’d won the race there wouldn’t have been a story.
Albert Finney played Arthur Seaton in the screen version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning in 1960 (directed by Karel Reisz); Ian McKellen played the stage version in 1964 at the Nottingham Playhouse; Tom Courtenay played Colin Smith in Tony Richardson’s screen version of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner in 1962. Who would play Michael Cullen if A Start in Life were ever adapted for the screen?
It’s a good question – who would I pick? Somebody a bit Irish really, a blabbermouth, a seducer, a confidence trickster… I’ve actually had offers to make it into a film but they’ve all fallen through. I’ve written a treatment of it, so if we do it I would have to meet the Casting Director and they would show me who was possible. With Saturday Night I was not absolutely keen [on casting Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton] but I realised that he was a good actor and that was all that mattered really; that’s a lesson I learnt. Of course he was perfect for it but that surprised me because when I was writing it I’d got it into my head that Arthur Seaton was tall, a little bit thin, hard, muscley, and so not physically exactly like Albert. But in the long run you need a good actor.
I read in an interview somewhere that you said for someone with your background to be a doctor or a lawyer would have been a real difficulty, ‘but if you want to be a writer – there’s the pen and paper, and you just write.’ You are a very prolific writer, having written more than fifty books in all (including novels, volumes of short stories, poetry, children’s books, plays, an autobiography and essays). But is it really that simple – ‘you just write’? Do you have any advice for budding writers?
Well, I mean yes, you read everything you can possibly get your hands on. All the Latin and Greek classics in translation, all the great novels from everywhere; Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens – everyone really that’s gripped life in their writing – Shakespeare and the Bible. They were all such a pleasure to read. Yes, [they influenced my writing] but then I threw the influences off and found my own voice. You’ve got to be influenced, but you’ve got to find your own voice. Reading, reading, reading, and then writing. When you write, you use your pen and ink or what you do and over and over again you re-write so that it becomes clearer, in clear English. Mix it with the demotic, you’ve got a style; you’ve got a style, people remember. Anyway, that’s what I would say. It took me ten years from beginning, from starting to getting something published, which is not long. It seemed like forever at the time but if I look back on it, it’s not long.
A writer should be like a fish in water; nobody knows you, you walk around the streets, nobody knows you, it’s wonderful. You see faces; a face can suggest a story or a character or something, or part of a character. So you just are an observer of life and then you try to, what shall I say?, mash it up inside you until it comes out like ‘art’ if you can used such a pathetic word; you try to make some kind of art out of what comes into your brain.
What does the future hold for Alan Sillitoe? Will you carry on writing?
That’s not for me to say. I’ll either be pushed into continuing or I shall not. If I am, so much the better; if I am not, I’ve got nothing to lose. [Moggerhanger] was finished a couple of years ago. I’m writing a book now, a novel, which I haven’t finished but I’m polishing off. It’s about a carpenter who lives in Arnold [a district of Nottingham]. Well, I don’t know who he is but he just popped into my mind. I just like to keep my head down and work and hope it keeps coming and if it didn’t, so what? I’ve done a lot of work.
A Start in Life is now available in hardback, published by London Books. An authorised biography of Alan Sillitoe, The Life of a Long-Distance Writer, by Richard Bradford is also available, published by Peter Owen Publishers.