Few of the many hundreds of thousands that purchased The Arctic Monkeys’ album Whatever They Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (to make it the fastest selling album of all time) will have known that the title is a line from the pen of Alan Sillitoe and the words of his hero, Arthur Seaton, in the book and film Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.
‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down,’ says Arthur, played by Albert Finney, at the start of the film as he performs robotic tasks in a Nottingham factory, and I wouldn’t mind betting if Sillitoe did not coin that phrase, he was the first to air it publicly to the masses. While the critics and the establishment had Seaton down as an ‘anti-hero’ – the public knew better. Arthur Seaton was the first of what would become many anti-establishment working-class heroes of the 1960s. Alan Sillitoe’s impact and ongoing influence on popular culture should not be underrated.
He has been labelled as one of the ‘angry young men’ of the 1950s and 1960s whose books (and films of their books) popularised so-called ‘kitchen sink drama’ and dared write about the provincial working classes. Sillitoe has always rejected this categorisation but he, probably more than any of the group classed as such, had reason to be angry.
Born in 1928 in working-class Nottingham the main problem was that not many people were actually working. Sillitoe’s father certainly wasn’t and young Alan grew up in the 1930s depression years surrounded by poverty and the grinding despair it can often bring. The boy found his refuge in reading and later in writing.
After leaving school at 14, Alan stepped on to the treadmill of factory work including four years at the Raleigh bicycle factory; an experience he drew upon in the creation of Arthur Seaton. Whilst serving in the RAF he was stricken with TB and spent 16 months in hospital where he began to write in earnest.
Encouraged by renowned writer, Robert Graves, who he met on the island of Mallorca, Sillitoe embarked on the novel Saturday Night, Sunday Morning in 1956. Following a round of rejections the book was taken by WH Allen and published in 1958 and filmed in 1960. Despite, or because of, its then highly controversial themes of abortion, sex, violence, masculinity, frustration and class, the book was a thumping commercial success.
The next book, The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, was a collection of short stories with the title novella telling of a borstal boy who bucks the system in a novel way. In a society that had just seen the first ascent of confrontational youth culture in the shape of Teddy Boys, and was about to experience Mods and Rockers, the book chimed loudly with the reading public. This was also filmed, this time with a youthfully rebellious Tom Courtenay in the title role. Sillitoe’s literary reputation was secured.
Alan Sillitoe has scarcely had time to concern himself with reputation though, being religiously devoted to writing and producing more than 50 books since 1958 and saddling a range of genres. Now, in his 80th year, he remains as active, prolific and relevant as he ever was. A Man Of His Time, published in 2004 and being the dramatised story of Sillitoe’s blacksmith grandfather, was generally agreed to be on a par with anything he had produced as a young man in his 30s and 40s. His body of work, which includes poetry, autobiography, history, children’s books and travel, as well as his trademark, powerful and authentic fiction, demands that he be considered as England’s greatest living author.
Today Alan lives with his wife of nearly fifty years, Ruth Fainlight the poet, in West London where they continue to write, read and live life voraciously.