Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #21: Alan Sillitoe (1981)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

Tom Fulton of On the Arts.
For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (e.g. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

During the eighties, England was going through the trauma of finding itself no longer able to maintain the power and the glory it once possessed when it was an Empire. So, as in the United States, England elected a leader, Margaret Thatcher, who (like Ronald Reagan in the U.S.) promised to restore those "glory days" at any cost. Of course, Reagan and Thatcher, both larger than life figures, ultimately didn't come close to restoring anything glorious. But they did both change the political landscape dramatically.

In this section of Talking Out of Turn, which looked at the political turmoil in England, I wanted to include individuals who predated Thatcher as well as those who were her contemporaries. At CJRT-FM, I was lucky enough to have spoken to a few artists who spanned those generations: film directors Lindsay Anderson (If....), Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette); authors Margaret Drabble (The Radiant Way) and Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner)  They helped flesh out the past and the present of Britain's years of political turmoil.

Alan Sillitoe

When Alan Sillitoe died of cancer last year at the age of 82, The Guardian wrote that Sillitoe “was part of a generation of working-class writers who shifted the boundaries of taste. Not that Sillitoe, born into the deprived family of a tannery labourer, liked to be defined purely by class. He once said of his 1958 work Saturday Night and Sunday Morning that ‘the greatest inaccuracy was ever to call the book a working-class novel for it is really nothing of the sort. It is simply a novel'.” Part of that modesty towards his work, as well as his thoughts on mortality, made its way into our conversation in 1981. (This obituary provides ample background to the interview.)

kc: Considering the acclaim you've received over the years for your novels and their depiction of British working-class life, it's taken you some time to receive recognition for them.

as: That's right. It did take a long time! I started writing when I was about 21, and I didn't get anything published until I was about 30. During that time, I wrote about seven novels and they weren't connected to my early years growing up in Nottingham at all. But all through that period, there was a vein that I was tapping that came through in a number of short stories that were later incorporated into the novel, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. For nine years, I was sending those stories to every English-speaking magazine in the world with the hope of getting them published. But I never succeeded. And yet finally when they were published I felt that they received more praise than they probably deserved. Maybe it was a question of waiting for the time to be right. 

kc: That praise though might be based on the authenticity of capturing your own working-class experience. What inspired you to get all this down in writing?

as: When I had to go into the hospital with tuberculosis, it was a catastrophe for a working-class boy. The only thing you really have of marketable value is your strength and your ability to labour. And this was taken from me. When you got told you had tuberculosis in those days it was like being told you had cancer. I mean, 25,000 people a day were dying from it. With those odds, I figured that I was probably going to die anyhow. Then the inactivity - which I couldn't stand - got me reading books and writing. I did that in order to take refuge from the nagging idea that I was finished. One of the first things I wrote about was my experience in Malaya when I was in the Air Force. I was there during the emergency when a communist insurrection failed. But before this time, I had read very little of what could be called mature or adult fiction. So for the next five years, I read every classic in the world and I started writing at the same time.   

kc: When you started all this reading, where did you begin?

as: The first things I started reading were the translations from all the Latin and Greek classics. I became familiar with Latin and Greek mythology. I read the Bible inside and out. And then I moved on to the modern stuff. When I was living in Majorca, I had no connection or contact whatsoever with England. So all of my literary and intellectual contacts came from North America or Paris. They would bring the latest magazines and books with them. During the fifties, I was nurtured on the modern works of Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and William Styron. Their work showed me that prose could be vigorous and full of good style. In other words, I realized that one had certain standards to meet. I was also reading a lot of Yiddish writers who wrote about living in a schtetel in Eastern Europe during the 19th and early 20th Century. That writing had a quality of tenacity and richness. If you were to amalgamate all of these influences, they'd connect very much to the first eighteen years of my life. So I was inspired by that amalgamation to keep on writing those stories which subsequently published and which I still write today.  

Allan Sillitoe reading from The Widowers 
kc: It seems that the imminent thoughts of possible death forced you to come to certain insights.

as: Well, it's like Dr. Johnson who said, "There's nothing that collects a man's mind more than the thought that he's going to be hanged in the morning." The poet Robert Graves, in Majorca, told me that it's useful for every poet if once in his life he dies. Graves had died on the battlefield and was brought back to life by pure chance. I considered that I had died when I was told I had tuberculosis. But then I was reborn in a sense. And being alone - spiritually, that is - in a hospital room was very good, as you surmised. When I got out of the hospital, it was continued by an exile. Every since I was young, I wanted to get out of England. Something about it made me feel that I loved it too much, or I couldn't stand it. So after having been in Malaya for two years, I had the pension from the TB. With that, I went to Spain and France so I could write about England. I had to be away from it - like looking through the wrong end of the binoculars - in order to understand it. Out of this, while sitting under an orange tree, I wrote Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. That was the best thing I could have done to get it right.

kc: How much perspective did having that distance give you on England?

as: You see, before the age of eighteen, I knew nothing about the English class system. There was nobody to tell me about it. If someone had told me that I was working-class, I would have told them to get lost. I didn't want to know about such things because I believed that everyone was an individual, or at least, an independent person. Simply, I wanted to distance myself from the idea of class. As a writer, if you get entangled with the class system and wonder where you fit in, it can ruin you. I just wanted to get out of it. And by going to Spain and France, I never had anything to do with this question. Living abroad on a pension, you became an exile and a traveler. You are pulled into your own psyche. So I came back to England when I was thirty. And I was completely formed. I still had nothing to do with the class system and that's what was really important to me.

kc: Wouldn't you say that view is shared by Colin Smith in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner? He doesn't fit into any class system, or want to be part of the working-class. He exists in the underground and is against all values, very much like the Dostoevsky protagonist in Notes From the Underground. Did you identify strongly with Colin?  

as: I think The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner came from a very deep part of myself. Even though it is set in Borstal, you could say it's about a writer. But, of course, I put it into a different context since you shouldn't write a story about another writer. That's banal. A writer is an individual and shouldn't align himself with any class to the extent that his commitment to that class becomes political. I know it's difficult to avoid this altogether, but you must maintain an objectivity and an independence. You have to stand on the outside and then, as I discovered writing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning from Majorca, maybe you can depict it with more reality, more truth, and if you're lucky, more profundity.

kc: Recently at a party, someone suggested to me that when England lost its colonies, it ceased to be.

as: Well, in those days when England had an empire, the working-classes didn't benefit very much. In fact, they were in a desperate plight. But it had a purpose in those days because if the working people became restless at home, they could always have their energies channeled by going out to the colonies. All the excess energy could be tapped off, where today it's getting all bottled up at home. Therefore, we're getting more trouble now. It's a serious situation and the most important thing in the long term is to inculcate a way of showing people how to use their leisure time. Technology has now grown to the point where there are going to be less and less jobs in the future. More jobs will be done by automation. And I don't know, but perhaps it will be a good thing when people have less work because they will have more time to do things that are intellectually stimulating. But I also believe we have more tribulation to come before we reach that kind of enlightened period.

 Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. His four-part lecture series,Forbidden Desires: The Films of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma concludes at the Revue Cinema on Monday, August 22nd with a discussion of Vertigo and Casualties of War. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins September 12th (6:30pm until 9pm) until November 21st. Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)  

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