Uncover another chapter of Alan Sillitoe’s work.
We recently asked Neil Adam Fulwood, an active member of the Alan Sillitoe Commitee to shed a little more light on the lesser known works of this local literary legend.
Mention Alan Sillitoe’s name and the two books that immediately spring to mind are ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’. Published within a year of each other in the late ’50s, they were critically and commercially successful. Film adaptations – classics in their own right – followed quickly.
Alan Sillitoe published over 50 books in a literary career that lasted as many years. Some are utterly unexpected. Take his 1971 political satire ‘Travels in Nihilon’, about the attempts of a group of travelers to compile a guidebook to a surreal, anarchist state whose social customs downright bizarre. How weird is it? Well, imagine if Terry Gilliam had directed ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ based on a script by Hunter S. Thompson and you’re halfway there!
Comedy was a surprising mainstay of Sillitoe’s work, from the gallows humour of ‘Guzman, Go Home’, a short story about the life of an ex-Nazi garage owner and art forger, to the picaresque ‘A Start in Life’ and its equally rambunctious sequel ‘Life Goes On’. The anti-hero of these two novels is Michael Cullen, an entertainingly amoral character whose drive for social betterment leads to all manner of dubious activities. His association with a larger-than-life gangster ramps up the first novel into thriller territory and sets the ball rolling on the sequel.
Traditional thriller plots inform ‘The Lost Flying Boat’ (ex-RAF flyers thumb their noses at post-war austerity and set off in search of hidden Nazi gold), and ‘The German Numbers Woman’, about a blind radio operator accidentally stumbling on a drug smuggling ring. These might sound like Biggles for grown-ups, but Sillitoe imbues both novels with serious and thoughtful undertones while never letting up on the tension.
The novels and short story collections add up to twenty-nine books. In addition, he published eight volumes of poetry; five children’s books (including the ‘Marmalade Jim’ series, featuring the adventures of a pragmatic farm cat); two autobiographical works; two collections of essays; a handful of plays; and five volumes of travel writing.
The travelogues yield up some fascinating material. Published in 1995, ‘Leading the Blind’ presupposes Michael Portillo’s retracing of the Bradshaw’s guide in the BBC ‘Great British Railway Journeys’ series by a decade and a half. The difference is twofold: one, ‘Leading the Blind’ follows the Baedeker and Murray guides halfway round the globe; two, Sillitoe is infinitely better company.
In 1963, he was invited to visit Russia by the Writers’ Union. The most popular western writer in translation in the USSR, he spent a month there immersing himself in the history and the culture of Russia. The book he wrote about it, ‘Road to Volgograd’, was perhaps more fascinating to read on first publication, when glimpses behind the Iron Curtain were rare. Sillitoe emerges as cautiously impressed with the country and its industrious work ethic. Later, however, he publically denounced Russia’s human rights record.
A re-evaluation of ‘Road to Volgograd’ came at the end of his career. ‘Gadfly in Russia’ (2007) was Sillitoe’s last published book and charts his on-off relationship with the country, politically and geographically, over forty years. Witty, incisive and poignant – and written in the no-nonsense style that characterizes his work – ‘Gadfly in Russia’ proves that Alan Sillitoe never lost his edge or his integrity.
Fancy yourself as the next Sillitoe? The Sillitoe Society are currently running a poetry competition including a top prize of £200 and a special adjudicator, with all proceeds going to the memorial fund. Submission deadline is 22 January.
*Photo: Alan Sillitoe. Credit to David Sillitoe.