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28 October 2014
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Alan Sillitoe - 50 years of Nottingham life

'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' shook the literary world in 1958 with its groundbreaking portrayal of working class life in Nottingham. Fifty years later we celebrate the life and work of its author, Alan Sillitoe.

"It was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad time of the week. Piled up passions were exploded on Saturday night and the effect of a week's monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill.

"You followed the motto of be drunk and be happy! Kept your craft arms around female waists and felt the beer going beneficially down the elastic capacity of your guts."

'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning', Alan Sillitoe

Alan Sillitoe is a living legend and his books about working class life in Nottingham still strike a chord.

Alan Sillitoe in the 1960s

Alan Sillitoe in the 1960s

'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' is his most famous work, but back in the 1950s the book that shot him to fame didn't find favour with publishers.

"It was turned down four or five times... One or two of them might have published it if I had re-written certain things and discussed it with them, but I was never ever going to do that," says Sillitoe.

"I knew that at last this book had come along which was clear and concise... and it really was worth publishing."

Eventually Sillitoe did find someone willing to publish it - and the rest, as they say, is history.

Spanish Nights and Sunny Mornings

Alan Sillitoe started writing 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' far from the streets of his native East Midlands.

Alan Sillitoe

Born in Nottingham in 1928 into a working class family.

Worked in the Raleigh bicycle factory in Nottingham.

Sillitoe joined the RAF in 1946, but contracted TB. He moved to Mallorca on a military pension where he started writing encouraged by the poet Robert Graves.

'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' was published in 1958. Adapted for the big screen by Karel Reisz in 1960, with Albert Finney starring as Arthur Seaton.

Sillitoe's book 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' was also adapted as a film, starring Tom Courtenay (1962).

He has written 50 books, including poetry, plays and stories for children plus 25 novels.

Other novels include 'The Flame of Life', 'The Storyteller', 'Leonard's War; and 'A Man of His Time'.

Collections of Poems include 'The Rats and Other Poems' and 'Snow on the North Side of Lucifer'.

Struck down by TB he was pensioned out of the Air Force and left home for sunnier climes in Spain where he had time to write and indulge his passion for literature.

"I started writing this novel sitting under an olive tree in Majorca and ploughing into it a lot of stories set in Nottingham I'd sent out, but which had been rejected over the years," says Sillitoe.

The foreign sojourn also helped him to focus on the essence of working class life in 1950s Nottingham - the stories of real people and their everyday lives.

"Being away from Nottingham enabled me to be briefer in my descriptions and not be overwhelmed by things I was seeing every day."

Nottingham life

The book was set in the Nottingham Sillitoe knew well - the terraced houses of Radford and the Raleigh Factory where he'd once worked.

Its social realism was new and radical in the late 1950s when it was published.

Alan says, "I was simply being as descriptive of the city as I possibly could. Now if that came out as being hard I understand it, but it wasn't anything I consciously strove to do."

Sillitoe and his friends had lived within about 100 feet of the Raleigh factory. It gave him a unique insight into the lives of the workers and life on the factory floor:

"Just over the wall the Raleigh was going with a steam hammer. Morning, noon and night men and women going down Salisbury Street packing the factory. It was going 24 hours a day.

"There was a canteen there. They ate there. It livened the area up no end. It was fantastic".

Literary sensation

The book caused a sensation in 1958. It was revolutionary - the stories of everyday people and their lives had never been told before with such gritty realism.

Dr Sean Matthews from Nottingham University explains its impact:

"This wasn't somebody commentating on what it is like to be in this grotty area. It is all assumed that this way of living, the way the houses are laid out, the way people speak to each other. There's no judgement implied on that.

"This is how people live from the inside."

From book to screen...

In 1960, director Karel Reisz turned 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' into a film.

Albert Finney

Working class hero - Albert Finney.

Albert Finney played Arthur Seaton, the book's central character. His abrasive performance captured the defiance Alan Sillitoe had written about.

Arthur Seaton was very different from previous literary heroes but he had a vibrancy that was missing was much of British fiction up to that point.

Seaton was truly an angry young man, a reflection of the times.

Dr Sean Matthews says: "He throws stones at things. He fights, he drinks. There's discomfort with his place. He's got access to money. He's got access to women.

"There's a discontent there - that smouldering discontent you get in the film that I think was new in the portrayal and representation of anger."

Alan Sillitoe agrees: "The discontent could sort of be the human condition which I think most of the time is discontent. This discontent often manifests in sort of social ways."

The film was a hit at the box office but the censors toned the story down.

When Arthur Seaton's married lover Brenda gets pregnant she has a successful abortion. It's graphically described in the book but film audiences in the 60s saw a different outcome.

The film censor wanted  the gin-and-hot-bath abortion to be shown as unsuccessful on screen.

Alan was shocked by the level of censorship, "I couldn't believe it - it seemed like living in Soviet Russia because the British Board of Film Censors were adamant about all sorts of things you could and could not say!

"You have to realise that integrity is something precious."

Modern times

Half a century later the book Alan Sillitoe has just turned 80 and he's about the publish another novel set in Nottingham.

Alan Sillitoe

Alan Sillitoe: to become a Freeman of Nottingham.

Alan never gets tired of writing: "I am a writer and my role in life is to sit in my room and let my imagination run riot!"

Since the breakthrough 50 years ago more than 20 critically acclaimed novels have followed.

The setting for many of them is Nottingham, the place he says still gives him the viewpoint that distinguishes his work:

"I think Nottingham is a place that one always has to take note of."

You can still spot the places Alan Sillitoe wrote about all those years ago.

In May 2008 the city which inspired so much of his work will thank him.

He'll become a Freeman of Nottingham.

"It means a great deal actually, funnily enough, why shouldn't it?," he says proudly.

"Without Nottingham, without its scenery, without all the work I have done in Nottingham, where would I have been with 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'?

"I would never have written it so I feel very good about it. I think it's something which I must say thank you for."

last updated: 11/08/2008 at 11:49
created: 11/04/2008

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