The death of the English novelist, Alan Sillitoe, aged 82, has robbed all professional authors of a superb role model. Although famous in his thirties for the novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and the short story, The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner, Sillitoe didn’t step off his own chosen path and pursue that fame; he stayed at his workbench, kept his head down and wrote novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays, memoirs and English/Spanish translations in the worlds of Shakespeare and Chopin – an enormous output and exemplary energy.
I had the pleasure of interviewing him more than once for the BBC. Warnings preceded him, from the broadcasting and publishing worlds: “He’s difficult,” they said; he’ll bite your face off if you ask him about having been an Angry Young Man; you won’t get a word out of him – he’s so taciturn; he’s a class warrior; don’t even mention Albert Finney (who starred in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) – and so forth.
None of this came to pass. He arrived prepared and co-operative. I didn’t find him prickly or abrupt – in fact, he remains one of the most generous interviewees of the 3,500 or so writers that I’ve interviewed. Quiet, thoughtful, neatly and mutedly dressed, he put his head to one side when listening to a question, and then settled himself with an air of eagerness, almost rubbing his hands, when the time came to answer it.
I shall remember him principally as among of those writers who falls into the mode of “teacher.” For one of the interviews, my colleagues and I had asked him to choose and muse upon a book that had proven especially important to him, and he chose The Ragged-Trousered Philantropists, by Robert Tressell, a work of thinly disguised fiction set in the poverty-stricken lower working classes of Britain in the nineteen-teens. In this choice, of course, Sillitoe was sewing his own politics on his sleeve like a chevron.
Yet his passion for Tressell’s emphatic socialism waned like the moon before the dawn when he began to talk about writing, and what it can do, and how it must be done. I recall him saying, “The effort must never waver. It’s all about being truthful, and you must experiment, and you must change and duck and dive into every kind of written form to find ways of making truthful content.” Or words to that effect.
And he told me a story that I still repeat when speaking in public about the power of the creative process. He was writing a novel called The Death of William Posters, published in 1965, and taking its title from that well-known warning, “Bill Posters Shall be Prosecuted."
“Things,” he said, ”got out of hand.” His protagonist falls in love with a local nurse, and moves in with her. One weekend, they have an argument, the character storms out, slams the door, and goes down the pub, where he meets two other characters - whom Sillitoe had to fight all the way to stop them taking over the novel!
Alan Sillitoe is a loss, but he left a lot behind, the fruits of his quietly-conducted, powerful, insistent and completely professional career.