Alan Sillitoe, 1928-2010

The novelist who changed the way the working class was represented.

The novelist and poet Alan Sillitoe died today at the age of 82. In 2007, Sillitoe wrote a short piece for the New Statesman in which he described receiving a diagnosis of cancer:

Whenever I began a book in the 1960s I wondered whether I'd finish it before the bomb dropped. Now, at nearly 80, a small lump in my neck turned out to be cancer. Having survived tuberculosis in my twenties, I assumed there'd be no more illness from then on. How wrong can one be?

Sillitoe's reputation was made by his first novel, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, published in 1958 (and subsequently adapted for the cinema by Karel Reisz, with Albert Finney in the lead role). The novel is memorable most of all for its hard-drinking, womanising working-class protagonist, Arthur Seaton. As the critic D J Taylor has argued, Sillitoe was "almost single-handedly responsible for a shift in the way working-class characters found themselves represented in literature."

For the political historian David Marquand, Arthur's significance lies in what he told readers about the newly affluent British working class. In his magnum opus, Britain Since 1918, Marquand argues that Arthur embodies a new kind of bloody-minded working-class self-assertion that was one of the fruits of Macmillan-era growth and prosperity:

Trade-union militancy reflected deeper shifts of attitude, born of full employment and rising living standards. Arthur Seaton, the boozy, promiscuous and nihilistic hero of Alan Sillitoe's novel of late-1950s engineering workers, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, epitomised one element in it. . . . There were plenty of Seatons in early-1960s Britain. Macmillan's whiggish generosity of spirit had turned traitor. A society that had it good was determined to have it better. . . . Affluent workers did not embrace middle-class lifestyles or middle-class attitudes to politics or the workplace. They still thought in terms of collective action, not of individual self-improvement, and remained more likely to vote Labour than Conservative. But their approach to collective action -- political or industrial -- had become instrumental rather than solidaristic. They joined trade unions to improve their living standards, not out of class loyalty . . .

A piece Sillitoe wrote for New Left Review in the summer of 1960, about the experience of seeing his novel adapted for the big screen, corroborates Marquand's reading of the meaning of Arthur. Sillitoe wrote in defiantly unsentimental terms about his creation:

When I heard that Saturday Night And Sunday Morning was to be made into a film, and that I was going to be asked to write the script, I felt I was in for a tough exercise in resurrection. Nevertheless I agreed to it, mainly because I wanted a hand in the kind of film it was going to be. I didn't want Arthur Seaton -- the main character -- getting transmogrified into a young workman who turns out to be an honest-to-goodness British individualist -- that is, one who triumphs in the end against and at the expense of a communist agitator or the trade unions. I didn't want him to become a tough stereotype with, after all, a heart of moral gold which has in it a love of the monarchy and all that oldfashioned muck.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit