A Start In Life - Alan Sillitoe
An introduction, by DJ Taylor
For an all-purpose introduction to Alan Sillitoe’s half century or so as a professional writer, it would be difficult to touch The Match, a short story written in the mid-1950s which first saw the light in The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner (1959). Set on a grim winter Saturday in Eden-era Nottingham, and taking as its catalyst a soccer match between Notts County and Bristol City, its seven or eight pages are a brisk little exercise in determinism, built upon a failing and abusive marriage. Nervy, middle-aged Lennox is watching the game with his much younger neighbour. To the newly-married Fred, County’s defeat is a matter for mild disappointment: he can take football or leave it. To Lennox, on the other hand, the result seems to symbolise all the miseries of his life. Speeding ill-temperedly home, he upends his tea on the carpet, picks a quarrel with his wife and viciously assaults her. Eventually Fred and Ruby, listening all the while through the party wall, note that the noise in the next house has died down. After a slamming of doors and much walking to and fro outside, Mrs Lennox takes the children and leaves him ‘for the last time’.
As Harry Ritchie points out in his excellent Success Stories: Literature And The Media In England 1950-1959, contemporary critics responded to The Match and the other stories in Sillitoe’s first collection as they would have done to a piece of cinema verite: a series of snap-shots from a world they knew nothing of – in this case the bloodied hearths of the Nottingham council terraces – whose interest was as much anthropological as literary. Fifty years later, in a world where the working-class novel is only one among the myriad glass jars on display in the fictional sweetshop, what distinguishes the piece is not so much its ‘realistic’ treatment of working-class life as its artistry. Some of this is to do with the psychology – Lennox’s wife, for example, reproaching her husband in a way that she knows will drive him to fury. Quite as much, though, hangs on the lurking sense of prefiguration. Not only does the reader anticipate Lennox’s destiny from the moment he opens his mouth: at the same time he is encouraged to connect it to an endless cycle of working-class lives ruined by bad temper and failure to communicate. The brief description of Fred’s nineteen-year-old wife hammers this inference home. ‘Plump like a pear, not round like a pudding, already pregnant though they’d only been married a month,’ Ruby is clearly Mrs Lennox in embryo, needing only a couple of decades worth of child-bearing and drudgery to turn her sour.
However much the reviewers might have lamented The Match’s casual brutalities and its worm’s eye view of the married state, the real controversy of Alan Sillitoe’s arrival on the ’50s literary scene lay elsewhere. More than anything else, it had to do with Arthur Seaton, the hero of Sillitoe’s first novel, Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, published a year before in the autumn of 1958. By unleashing flash-fisted, womanising Arthur on the book-buying public, propelling him onto the wide screen (through Karel Reisz’s notably gritty 1960 film) and ultimately into the best-seller charts (sales of the Pan paperback ran into seven figures), Sillitoe was almost single-handedly responsible for a shift in the way that working-class characters found themselves represented in books. This transformation had two important consequences. Not only did it place Arthur Seaton squarely in the vanguard of a new kind of fictional hero – later examples would include David Storey’s Arthur Machin and Sid Chaplin’s Arthur Haggerston; at the same time it struck a decisive blow at the sentimentalised versions of working-class life peddled by middle-class observers of the inter-war era.
George Orwell, writing in 1940, had maintained that if you looked for the working classes in fiction, ‘and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole in the air’. In fact, this is a typical Orwell exaggeration, which ignores everything from Gissing’s late-Victorian slum novels to James Hanley and the mass of short stories published in left-wing papers of the 1930s. On the other hand, the few working men and women who did make it onto the shelves of the circulating libraries were marked by their passivity, their pressing need to symbolise things over and above their individual selves. A representative example might be Gilbert Grail, the ‘educated’ working man in Gissing’s Thyrza (1887), who takes a job in a free library subsidised by a wealthy do-gooder but eventually loses his girlfriend to the man who employs him, or the decently downtrodden house painters of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1913). Even the unemployed factory workers of Walter Greenwood’s Love On The Dole, set in the less deferential 1930s, have been cowed into submission by their plight, oppressed not only by the policeman and the rent collector but by a petite bourgeoisie composed of bookies and small shopkeepers whose contempt for their customers is barbed by their own closeness to the abyss.
Set against these ‘good’ working-class characters, whether actively virtuous, patiently resigned or indifferently ground-down, Arthur Seaton is a horribly ambiguous figure: generous (when in funds), considerate towards women and harbouring warm feelings towards the married friend he is quietly cuckolding, but quite happy to separate a drunk from his wallet or plug an air-rifle pellet into the face of an interfering neighbourhood gossip. Simultaneously, the world in which Sillitoe places him – close, tightly-knit but also violent and anarchic – is light-years away from the roseate vistas of back-street life offered up by some of the anthropological tourists of a decade or so before. ‘I have often been struck by the peculiar easy completeness, the perfect symmetry as it were, of a working-class interior at its best,’ Orwell had written in The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), conjuring up a vision of ‘winter evenings after tea, when the fire glows in the open range and dances mirrored in the steel fender, when Father, in shirt sleeves, sits in the rocking chair at one side of the fire reading the racing finals, and Mother sits on the other side with her sewing.’ Self-centred, unpatriotic Arthur, alternatively, can look back on a war spent listening to Churchill speaking on the radio ‘as if it mattered’, dissolute cousins cheerfully deserting from the forces, a father proud of his ability to evade military service by feigning poor eyesight. There is a solidarity about the Seatons, but it is the solidarity of a rebel army, born not of any generosity of spirit but by hatred and fear.
The fiery, inbred separateness of the Seatons as a communal unit gestures at another of Sillitoe’s aims as a writer: to concentrate on the individuality of his creations rather than making them simply representative. ‘We all need to remember, every day more and more, that in the last resort there is no such person as “the common man”,’ Richard Hoggart had written in The Uses Of Literacy, published only a year before Arthur Seaton crashed into the weekend books pages. In Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, and the novels that followed in its wake, Sillitoe was determined to prove him right. The ’50s and early ’60s – the era of the Movement and the Angry Young Men – was an age of literary declarations and anguished symposia convened to address the writer’s ‘dilemma’ or test the depths of his ideological commitment. Always reluctant to theorise about his art (questioned by the New Review some years later about ‘the state of fiction’ he professed to be ‘totally uninterested. One either judges, or one writes, and I only care to do the latter’), Sillitoe did, however, make one significant contribution to these collections of writerly opinion. Working men and women who read did not have the privilege of seeing themselves honestly and realistically portrayed in novels, he told readers of Stephen Spender’s assemblage The Writer’s Dilemma in 1961. ‘They are familiar with wish-fulfilment images flashed at them in cliché form on television or in the press, and the novels they read in which they do figure are written by novelists of the Right who are quite prepared to pass on the old values and who, unable to have any feeling for the individual, delineate only stock characters.’
As for the consequences of this honesty and individuation, one is reminded of Anthony Powell’s complaint about the critical reaction to Bright Young People novels of the early 1930s, with their casts of light-minded sexual adventurers. According to the reviewers, people like this ought not to exist, and if they did exist then novels ought not to be written about them. It was a mark of Seaton’s talismanic significance to the fictional climate of the 1960s that protests about his behaviour should spill over from literary criticism into the novel itself. In John Fowles’s The Collector (1964), for instance, a pointed little fable from the contemporary class war, in which a pools-winning municipal clerk kidnaps a female art student and keeps her prisoner in his cellar, he features as a symbol of the middle-class victim’s inability to connect. Left-wing and CND-following, a supporter of all the good brave progressive causes, Miranda ought theoretically to sympathise with this paladin of the new proletariat. On the contrary, she loathes him: ‘I think Saturday Night And Sunday Morning is disgusting. I think Arthur Seaton is disgusting, and I think the most disgusting thing of all is that Alan Sillitoe doesn't show that he is disgusted by his young man.’ To Miranda, Arthur’s principal defect is that he ‘doesn’t care about anything outside his own little life’ and is, additionally, ‘mean, narrow, selfish, brutal’. Moreover, ‘because he’s cheeky and hates his work and is successful with women, he is supposed to be vital.’
Many of the same complaints could be levelled at Michael Cullen, the hero of A Start In Life. On the surface, Sillitoe’s sixth novel, published a dozen years into his career, looks a very different animal to these early despatches from the Nottinghamshire council house front-line. For one thing there is its form, which is picaresque. For another there is its milieu, which very soon relocates from the Midlands to a wide-boy life in Central London. Then there is the almost self-conscious colonisation of what, for all its racketiness, is essentially a middle-class world. Finally, there is the equally self-conscious awareness of literary models, which exchanges the clipped precision of the early books for a succession of characters whose first act on arriving in the text is to embark on an immense and oddly formal recitation of their lives to date. All this gives the novel a rather curious flavour, and the thought that a more or less realistic premise – the young man making his way in the world – is doing battle with a series of fantasy-projections is compounded by the almost surreal tone of the final chapters, full of gangsters double crossing each other and the whiff of cordite.
All the same, Cullen has enough of the old Nottingham self-preservation to stand revealed as Arthur Seaton’s slightly savvier younger cousin. Raised by a no-nonsense single parent, keen on reading but contemptuous of formal education, Michael is, among other things, a kind of skit on the idea of the existential hero, forever hedging his emotional bets, playing off one girl against another, falling in and out of love at a moment’s notice, saying the first thing that comes in to his head to sidestep tricky situations, constructing private and professional life alike on an edifice of lies. Bored by the old Nottingham world of his upbringing (‘To put it bluntly, I was fed up with work, with home and with living the way I did’), he gets the sack from his job at an estate agent’s for swindling his employers, and heads off south in a car bought from the proceeds of the swindle, leaving a pregnant girlfriend to her fate. At large in Swinging London, he works, successively, as doorman in a Soho strip club, chauffeur to a racketeer and international bullion smuggler, while falling calamitously in love with the racketeer’s daughter. Meanwhile, a cast of larger-than-life attendants rolls clamorously in and out of view, including the novelist Blaskin, who turns out to be his father, a sagacious, almanac-peddling down-and-out, and adoring Brigitte, with whom he finally and idyllically settles in the Cambridgeshire fens. Where A Start In Life most obviously outstrips its predecessors is in its sense of sheer scale. Unlike Saturday Night And Sunday Morning, it is an expansive, almost garrulous and above all literary novel, simultaneously showing the distance Sillitoe had travelled in his dozen years as a writer, but also the lasting importance to him of the world he had left behind.