Alan Sillitoe: His Final Interview

Interview: James Walker
Monday 26 April 2010
reading time: min, words

In the Summer of 2008 our Literature Editor James Walker met up with legendary writer Alan Sillitoe for a cuppa and a chat at Broadway. It was fifty years since his breakthrough novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had been published, so we decided to devote a whole issue to this seminal work. At the time we didn’t realise this was the last interview he would ever give. It’s an honour to have had that privilege and to know that he read our magazine...


Mr Sillitoe…
It’s Alan. Please call me Alan.

Alan. Firstly, thanks a lot for agreeing to do the interview, we really appreciate it. You’ve been a big influence on LeftLion and one of the reasons we started up – so much so that we nicked the “All The Rest Is Propaganda” line off you…
I noticed. That was wonderful of you, thank you very much.

No, thank you.
I’ve got the last two copies of the paper. It’s wonderful. Spot on.

Okay, let’s talk about your childhood and see where it goes from there. What was it like growing up in Nottingham, and whereabouts did you live?
I lived in Radford, mostly. And it was very good really. It was a jungle. I don’t mean a terrible jungle, but a benign jungle where we knew every twist and turn and double alley.

A happy place?
We all felt perfectly safe as kids and it was a good place to grow up actually. I had a good education at Radford Boulevard. They taught me to read, taught me to write, they gave me an interest in history and geography, and that’s all I needed. In those days, you had to spell properly – nowadays it’s doesn’t matter, apparently, but I think that’s a load o’ bollocks. If you can spell, you can do everything with the English language that you need to.

Radford’s slowly becoming a student area now…
I’ve been around, yeah, sure. I think the Radford Arms is still there though. At least it was when I was last there. It was a big pub, standing in a vast open space and they decided to leave it.

Well I’m sure the developers will be eyeing it up sooner or later.
Oh yes, they do things like that. Some of the houses they knock down are alright, actually. The house we lived in wasn’t particularly okay, although it wasn’t bad. People used to say to me 'what was it like growing up in the slums?', and I’d say 'fuck you. I didn’t grow up in the slums'. Radford was alright, it wasn’t slummy. We all knew where everything was and we had a good time.

So whereabouts in Radford?
We lived about a hundred yards from the Raleigh Factory where we were on munitions during the war. When I say munitions, I mean shell taps and fuses, things like that. I went to work there in 1942 when I was fourteen, and stayed there for three months and then went somewhere else to a place on Dulwich Road, which I don’t think exists any longer. They were making plywood parts for invasion barges and Mosquito bombers. All I wanted to do was get in the Air Force and bomb Germany. That’s all you wanted to do in those days of course.

You attracted a lot of attention a few years ago by being one of the few authors to support the Iraq War. Given what’s happened since, is it a view you still stand by?
Not entirely. But to a certain extent, I do, because I believe that giving the people there a say in their own destiny is a good idea. But obviously they don’t seem to think so. And now it’s very difficult for us to come out of it and leave them on their own. It’s a shame they they’re not more educated, and that religion has such a high place in their life. If it didn’t, they’d be alright. But they’ve buggered it up, really. You can’t help some people.

I think the problem with modern warfare, and I’m thinking in particular of Afghanistan and Iraq, is that the motives are dubious to say the least. There isn’t the same moral conviction or sense of purpose that your generation, rightly, felt. You knew who the enemy was. I’m worried that we don’t.
It’s more complicated now, that’s a fact. But there’s another major difference. These days soldiers are volunteers.

You can’t volunteer for the army today and not expect that you won’t be bloody killed. It’s terrible. I (long pause) grieve for the parents, I really do. You’re a young man of twenty or sixteen, and the minute you volunteer your life is at risk from that point onwards. That’s your lot, really. You can’t volunteer and not expect to be put at risk. It’s terrible, but fact.

"People used to say to me 'what was it like growing up in the slums?', and I’d say 'fuck you. I didn’t grow up in the slums'. Radford was alright, it wasn’t slummy. We all knew where everything was and we had a good time."

I apologise if the next few questions cause offence, because they’re certainly not intended to. They’re about the double-edged effect your fame has had on Nottingham. Firstly, you have become synonymous with the city and as a result, every new local writer who breaks through is instantly compared to you. How does this make you feel? 
Well it doesn’t make me feel very good, really. Every new writer has their own blueprint, or purpose. Fingerprint, if you like. I suppose it’s a matter of art – if you can stomach that word. I don’t use it lightly. If you’ve got something to say, you’ve got to say it in the most direct way possible. There’s this [Nicola] Monaghan woman who wrote The Killing Jar, she’s really very good. She’s got her own private, personal, stamp on writing. If you don’t find that, then it’s no good.

Where did you find your voice?   
I found mine, well… it took about ten years, but I did find it eventually. But to go back to your original question, I don’t feel good when they compare me to them or them to me. I don’t feel terrible either. But let them. This is what the media do. You have to fight free of all types of prejudices in life.

A lot of your characters, particularly in the short stories, escape the humdrum of their lives through petty crime or heavy drinking. Presently, Nottingham has a bad reputation for both, not to mention gun crime. Do you think your stories have somehow contributed to this myth, or that the media have perhaps used it for their own agenda?
I don’t know really. I mean this type of crime you get in Nottingham now is nothing like the kind of crime the people I knew when growing up would ever perpetrate. We wouldn’t dare. I wrote before the druggy era and what they then called the ‘black crime’- which sounds terrible to hear of now as the drug pushers are both black and white, of course.  

Do you sense this change in the city when you visit?
I came up to Nottingham about two years ago, and instead of going to stay with my brothers I stayed in a hotel right at the top of Hockley, behind the Council House. It was Friday night, and I went out after having a bite to eat and I saw all these lovely girls, queuing up at cashpoints to get money and go to the clubs and get stinking!

Did they try to shoot you?
(laughs) They were all very nice.  I didn’t stay out till 2am in the morning to see what the scene was like then, but I enjoyed seeing the beginning and stayed out till midnight. Then I went and got some kip. The girls, the boys, the young men, they were all really polite.

So should we be afraid of the new generation?
I don’t believe that they’re all wicked kids, these young people, and that they should be stopped from drinking, smoking, fucking, hunting… whatever they want to do. The administrators would like everyone to be tame and not do anything that they wouldn’t approve of. I don’t know.

To go back to your earlier point, I wonder if there is a generational difference in attitude towards crime, perhaps even in need. People don’t seem to be committing crime out of necessity but rather for the sheer hell of it, which is more or less what the media seem to be indicating.  
Well if it’s there, nick it. That’s what we used to say.

So things haven’t changed at all?
When I grew up in Nottingham, up to the age of eighteen, I, we, were lucky. I had plenty of work and I didn’t have to do anything that I didn’t want to do. All I did was work, which was alright - because after all, that’s what you’re on the Earth for, you know. So I consider myself lucky. I don’t know what young people are meant to do these days when they can’t work but then they don’t start, that’s a fact.

I don’t think we have the same level of ‘want’ though. We can get anything on credit. Nobody seems to go without.
I was brought up not to do that. You didn’t get anything on tick. You either paid or went without.

A lesson learnt from personal experience?
Having seen my father taken off to prison because he got something on tick that he couldn’t finally afford to pay, I thought, fuck that, that’s no good. And I never did it. I never owed any money. But I emphasise that I was lucky because I could earn it. Not a lot, mind you, but enough to keep me in the clear.

The fact that people can’t earn enough to pay their mortgage or even put petrol in the car seems to have culminated in a real fatalism about Saturday night that you’ve got to get drunker than ever, more so perhaps than Arthur Seaton ever needed to.
There’s a part of me that thinks fucking good; get drunk, get pissed up, why not, what the hell. Then there’s another part of me that thinks no, don’t do it, learn, be careful, hoard your money, work as hard as you can. I’m sort of two people in that respect. But I can’t help admiring people who say, 'fuck ‘em all, let’s get pissed'.

I suppose this is Arthur Seaton’s dilemma?
True enough. That’s why I was taken to draw him in a realistic way, with sympathy. Because people that you write about, you’ve got to love in a way, otherwise you won’t get the truth.

"There’s a part of me that thinks fucking good; get drunk, get pissed up. I can’t help admiring people who say, 'fuck ‘em all, let’s get pissed."

I guess conformity is inevitable in the end. At the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning Arthur gets engaged and reflects that ‘we’re all caught one way or another’.
There’s a rite of passage that you go through. I didn’t really need to do it because of various circumstances, but a lot fight their way through then settle down. It’s better to do it and settle down than not do it and settle down in my view.

The need for escapism is as relevant now as it was fifty years ago. The only difference being that Arthur’s lathe has been replaced with a computer terminal.
I honestly don’t know. I suppose he’d have a job driving a van somewhere, but I can’t say.

In this sense Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a more prophetic vision of society than say 1984, which hasn’t, in most respects, come true. Is the need to escape therefore an ageless thing, part of the human condition?
A book like 1984 is pretty good, but it’s a work of the imagination. It’s right in some ways and not in others, like everything else. But I don’t know whether Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was prophetic. To me I sat under an orange tree in Majorca writing it, thinking this is all right because I’m writing about something I know, and so on. I wasn’t sitting there thinking, 'ah, this is fucking prophetic, mate,' not at all. You write and do the best you can and you wait, if you’re daft enough, for the critics to tell you what you’ve done and what was in your mind, although you don’t think anything of them either. You just do what you want to do. Do what you have to do, and do what you can do.

Do you think you would have still been able to write the novel if you had remained in Nottingham?
I’m not sure. I think I still would have been able to produce it but it would have been twice as long and therefore not as good. A thousand miles south meant I was perhaps able to produce it a lot clearer than if I had stayed in Nottingham. You just don’t know. If. If. If. What can you say?

Don’t you think it’s ironic that you’re the literary voice of Nottingham when you left here before you were even published?
I don’t think I’ve left Nottingham altogether – I certainly never left it in my spirit. I physically left it not because I disliked it, but because I wanted to see other places in the world.

Well, you can return anytime you like, now that you’ve been given the keys to the city. How does that feel?     
I thought it was very good. I’ve always had a very soft spot for Nottingham. I was born there, brought up there, been in contact with the place through family in all the time I’ve lived in other places. I really do have a soft spot for it, like it, and I’m always up and down anyway. Apart from that, it’s a wonderful place. It really is one of the great cities of England. There’s no doubt about that at all.

We interviewed local grocers The Thompson brothers recently, and they said that Nottingham is a friendly place due to it having such a mix of industries. Is this something you would agree with, having grown up when there actually was industry?
Yes, I think that could possibly be true. You had Boots, Raleigh, Players, lots of other little cottage industries, but I think the most important thing was the housing. If you lived in Radford, Basford or West Bridgford you were living in each other’s pockets in a way, or houses. You couldn’t really do anything bad, because everyone had their noses out of the windows and would say, 'hey you, what are you fucking around with? Our Fred will set onto you'. It was quite rich.

So what do you miss about Nottingham?
The thing I notice about Nottingham or have done over the years is that when I come back and call on my two brothers and we all put on our flat caps and go to the pub, I find that however much people seem to change, they still retain the same accent and slang. There’s a certain core, and of course even other people like Muslims pick it up, which is good because it helps them integrate. I think this is what I really like about the place; the accent is still there and so people of Nottingham are quite eternal to me. People are very nice. Charming. You know where you stand with them, at least.

Now the factories are gone, Nottingham seems to be casting round for a new identity. What do you think about that?
If you leave it to the people, they’ll give you the identity. The people of Nottingham are so positive in a sense, that when the factories go, a new identity will be brewed out of the people, who sooner or later will see what is exactly needed. You can try to give a place an identity, but it’s the people who live there that make it happen.

We’ll be able to use a Speaker’s Corner soon. What do you think about things like that?
Speakers’ Corner is a good idea, but it’s a way of keeping the people down. As long as they’ve got a place to spout what they think they won’t go out and blow any buildings up, which is fair enough. We don’t want that anyway.

"I don’t know whether Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was prophetic. To me I sat under an orange tree in Majorca writing it, thinking this is all right because I’m writing about something I know."

What do you think Arthur Seaton would say? 
Fucking hell, and God, he might say that as well! (Laughter) It would definitely be off the cuff that’s for sure. I wrote a novel called Birthday which I think probably gives a good indication of what Arthur Seaton would say today because it’s about his present life and how he went on from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

And what would you talk about?
Oh, I don’t know, I’d have to think about that a little more. I couldn’t just say it off the cuff. I would waffle on I suppose about non-smoking, non- drinking, non-fucking, non-hunting, non-this and that and the way the puritanical system was trying to beat one down.   

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is such a cult novel because it’s about fighting against the system, which seems increasingly difficult to do today. What can people do to stop the bastards grinding them down?
You can’t do anything. You walk around and you’ve got cameras looking at you. Take a piss in the corner and they take a picture.

In the book Arthur is bedridden for three days, which is difficult for him to deal with as he is always active. Was this based on the eighteen months you spent in hospital with tuberculosis?
No, it wasn’t. It just came out of imagination. Arthur is bedridden out of self-indulgence. He just couldn’t get over the idea that he’d been pissed about with and beaten up, and wanted to reflect on his life without too much disturbance from the outside world.

Arthur finds escapism at the lathe or fishing. Are these moments of introspection the only place we can find true freedom?
You find your own ways of doing things, that’s all, and I just imagined that these were the kind of things these people would find.

Freedom for Colin Smith in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner comes from deliberately losing the race. Was this always your intention, or did it become clearer as the book progressed?
Yes, it was my intention from the start to make Colin Smith lose the race. If he had won the race, he wouldn’t have been half the man he was. He had to lose.

Fifty years on we have the iPod generation. It would seem everybody wants distracting, rather than freedom to think.
Well, you don’t need these cheap toys. I just have a pen and a typewriter. Mind you, I have the radio as well of course. But you can live without all these toys. 

Ernest Burton, whose grave the Seaton brothers visit towards the end of A Man of His Time, was too busy grafting to put food on the table to think. What can we learn from him?
I think he’s someone to emulate - not in his worst moments, but in his attitude. He lived through a terrible time. People could learn from his stoicism, hard work and so on.

And it also seems to me that one lesson readers can learn from Burton, Arthur Seaton and Colin Smith is that status, authority even, is something earned rather than inherited.
I’ve always strongly believed in a meritocracy, where people make their mark through their talent alone. There was a stage in my life where I truly thought the class system was dying out, and I still hope it does. Some of the greatest English people England has ever produced – engineers, scientists, even writers – never even went to university.

Is there anything else you’d like to say to LeftLion readers?
Keep on keeping on. Believe in yourself, and be kind to other people. Something nonsensical like that.

At the time of this interview, Alan Sillitoe was working on his next book, which was to be set in Nottingham. When we asked him what it was about, he said 'Give me six months, and I'll be able to tell you then.' To our knowledge that work was never published. He died of cancer on 25 April 2010 at Charing Cross Hospital in London at the age of 82.

This interview was later republished by The Independent newspaper

Read our Alan Sillitoe obituary

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