LONDON (Reuters) – Alan Sillitoe, one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ of British fiction whose gritty realism vividly portrayed working-class life after World War Two, died yesterday aged 82.
Nottingham-born Sillitoe dealt with factories, backstreet housing and everyday conflicts in works including Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, both of which were made into major films.
Sillitoe, whose provincial realism was associated with the ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the 1950s, left school at 14 and worked in factories in Nottingham, central England, before joining the air force as a wireless operator in what was then Malaya.
But he became ill with tuberculosis and was confined to hospital for 18 months, during which time he began to write. When he recovered he travelled to France and Spain.
“He famously showed his work to a great poet, Robert Graves, who said ‘Write about what you know,‘ and in the end he started writing about Nottingham and that’s where he achieved his fame,” poet Ian McMillan told the BBC.
“He lived a writer’s life, he lived the life of somebody who always wanted to write,” he said. “He was a man who attempted to capture the majesty and drama of ordinary life.”
Sillitoe, who shunned the celebrity life, also wrote poetry, children’s books, and stage and television plays.
One of his most memorable observations about his trade was: “The art of writing is to explain complications of the human soul with a simplicity that can be universally understood.”
Of his childhood, Sillitoe wrote: “We lived in a room on Talbot Street whose four walls smelled of leaking gas, stale fat and layers of mouldering wall-paper.”
His first literary effort, based on the wild lives of his cousins, was burned by his mother because she believed it brought the family into disrepute. He left school to join the Raleigh bicycle factory.
By the time he was 16, Sillitoe was a lathe-operator in a factory and a socialist. “I found it impossible to work in a factory without believing that socialism was the ultimate solution for all life on this planet…” he said.
Sillitoe travelled around Europe with Ruth Fainlight, an American poet whom he married in 1959. His first volume of poetry, Without Beer or Bread, was published in 1957.
This was followed in 1958 by Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which was about youthful rebellion and won the Author’s Club First Novel Award. It was made into a film starring Albert Finney and was translated into 19 languages.
His next book was The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959) and the title story of the collection was narrated by an angry boy in a juvenile prison. It won the Hawthornden Prize and was filmed in 1961 starring Tom Courtenay.
Other works included the trilogy The Death of William Posters (1965), A Tree on Fire (1967), and The Flame of Life (1974). He published poetry with his wife and Ted Hughes.
In his autobiography Life without Armour, Sillitoe wrote: “The occupation of a novelist is a lonely one: labouring like the coalminer far underground… he has only the light from his helmet to illuminate the unique ore he has discovered, at which he must work undisturbed.”