Not all writers are synonymous with the city of their birth; that Douglas Reeman was born in Thames Ditton or Patrick O’Brien in Chalfont St Peter is irrelevant. Theirs are novels of the sea, and many weren’t born in the city they wrote about. Charles Dickens – literature’s greatest chronicler of London – was born in Landport, a district of Portsmouth. Georges Simenon, who mapped the underbelly of Paris like a native, wasn’t even born in France.
Ironically, Alan Sillitoe wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the definitive post-war Nottingham novel, while living abroad. Towards the end of the Second World War, he’d lied about his age to enlist with the RAF. He wanted to fly. New pilots were not being trained at that point, and he found himself in Malaya doing a stint as a wireless operator. The romance of flight never loosened its grip – his novel The Lost Flying Boat is a rueful threnody to the pilot he could have been – while telegraphy and map-reading helped form his personality and his writing.
A diagnosis of TB just before he was due to leave the air force saw him laid up in a sanatorium. Here he began to learn his craft: first as a reader, devouring fiction, non-fiction, poetry and technical manuals; then as a writer. Pensioned out of the air force and advised to relocate to warmer climes, he lived a frugal life in Mallorca and maintained a rigorous writing discipline. For a decade, he produced manuscript after manuscript, seldom achieving publication, but all the time improving and honing his style, mastering his craft, until he finally burst onto the literary scene with the one-two punch of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.
His output was eclectic. He was a poet, novelist, travel writer, essayist, memoirist, playwright, scriptwriter and one of the twentieth century’s acknowledged masters of the short story. His fiction ranges from gritty drama to broad comedy (A Start in Life and its sequels) by way of out-and-out thrillers (Snowstop, The German Numbers Woman) and even a work of speculative fiction (Travels in Nihilon).
But his fame and reputation rest principally on the cycle of ten novels set in Nottingham. Indeed, his forays away from the city were often met with critical befuddlement; reviewing his existential anti-war novel The General, one critic famously opined, “Go back to Nottingham, Mr Sillitoe”.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning appeared in 1958. The timing was perfect. The austerity of the fifties was about to be swept aside by the social change and youthful dynamism of the sixties. Anti-hero Arthur Seaton was a fully realised avatar for a new generation that had disposable income, sharp-suited fashion sense and a taste for the intoxicating pleasures of pub, dance hall and anything else on offer. But Arthur isn’t just a product of these times, he’s also pure Nottingham: “All I’m out for is a good time,” he declares in the novel’s key line; “all the rest is propaganda.”
The Seaton saga spans a further four volumes: Arthur’s more cerebral older brother Brian is introduced in Key to the Door, which begins in Nottingham and expands to cover Brian’s military service in Malaya; while his reintegration into post-war society, and eventual rejection of it, are examined in The Open Door. Two of Sillitoe’s late period novels bookend the narrative: Birthday reunites Arthur and Brian in later life and finds both drastically changed, while A Man of His Time reaches into the past to chronicle the long shadow thrown by Ernest Burton, the Seaton brothers’ grandfather. Burton’s story covers plenty of ground: from 1887 to the 1940s, it’s an epic that doesn’t feel the need to be a door-stopper.
Leonard’s War embraces another genre: the “home front” novel. The eponymous Leonard, a veteran of the 1914-18 conflict, does his bit as an air-raid warden in the Second World War while juggling his commitments to a step-family he gradually comes to loathe. Blacked out during bombing raids, and reduced to a geography of claustrophobic streets and Anderson shelters in backyards, Nottingham is nonetheless immediately recognisable, the city as much a character in its own right as it was in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
While Leonard’s War spans 1939-1945, the central narrative of Down from the Hill takes place across just six days in the summer of 1945, its protagonist making a life-changing bicycle trip from the Midlands to the east coast. In an extended coda, he retraces the route as an older man, this time by car. The stylistic shift from first to third person emphasises the changing times and explores how perception and memory colour each other. Although Down from the Hill is a gentler work than the other Nottingham novels, Sillitoe keeps a firm hand on the nostalgic elements, never letting the story tip over into whimsy.
The Storyteller and The Broken Chariot, published twenty years apart, seem in retrospect two halves of a cynical meta-narrative. The former is a treatise on the dangers of fiction and what happens when a teller of tales reinvents himself so obsessively that, in the end, his sanity is in question. It’s a terrifying and challenging work, demanding much of its reader. The Broken Chariot, while superficially more audience-friendly, is arguably Sillitoe’s most subversive outing. The story of an upper-middle-class type who restyles himself as a proletarian novelist, it can only be read as an act of deconstruction: a major writer entering the twilight of his career with a work of unflinching self-examination.
Although the city is backgrounded in these two novels in favour of psychological probing and internal landscapes, there remains one volume of the Nottingham cycle that is stranger still. Raw Material is a hybrid of novel and autobiography, yoked together by authorial self-examination. Writer and narrative engage in dialogue with each other against the backdrop of half a century of social upheaval. A curious and sometimes difficult book, it’s nonetheless an essential entry in the Sillitoe bibliography. When, in 2015, Lucifer Press published a tribute volume which I co-edited with the photographer David Sillitoe – Alan’s son – we called it More Raw Material. It was the only title that seemed right.
In an article written for this anthology, we revisited Alan Sillitoe’s Nottinghamshire, an illustrated non-fiction title originally published in 1987, for which David took the photographs. We found that while some things remained the same, much had changed, but that most of the changes were cosmetic. Ultimately, a city is a melting pot that contains the sum total of its history, equal measures of its glamour and notoriety, and the mindset – the attitude – of its residents. Nottingham is a multi-faceted city; a city of education and the arts; a city of poverty and crime; a city steeped in working class history that continues to fold its arms suspiciously against the idea of gentrification; a city that can still claim as its poster boy the belligerent, hedonistic Arthur Seaton. A city that Alan Sillitoe captured with cartographical precision.