In a class of his own

Alan Sillitoe rose from abject poverty to become one of our best novelists. At the age of 80, he is

The Life of a Long-Distance Writer: the Authorised Biography of Alan Sillitoe

Richard Bradford

Peter Owen, 412pp, £25

"I am me and nobody else; and whatever they say I am, that's what I am not, because they don't know a bloody thing about me."

So says Arthur Seaton, the hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving hero of Alan Sillitoe's classic novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Richard Bradford's lucid, unsentimental official biography of the author reveals that Seaton's statement is more than the rallying cry of a fictional rebel; it is the epithet of Sillitoe himself, who for half a century has dodged the labels hurled at him by literary agents and critics, and emerged, in Bradford's wonderful phrase, as a unique British writer with "a magnificent lack of allegiance".

Sillitoe cannot be boxed. He's the "working-class Nottingham writer" who, at 80, is comfortably ensconced in a cushy flat in west London. Best known for his first two works, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the short-story collection, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, he is also famed for being the angriest of the "Angry Young Men": those writers who in the late 1950s lit a fire under the Noël Coward-dominated literary scene and replaced dull drawing-room dramas with kitchen-sink realism. Yet as Bradford reminds us, Sillitoe never considered himself part of that scene. And when Saturday Night was being published, with its tales of puking, extramarital fornicating and backstreet abortions, it was denounced even by middle-class fans of the Angry Young Men as vulgar and unrealistic. Bradford tells us that one "sympathetic left-leaning reader" who was sent Sillitoe's manuscript considered it "fraudulent, clearly an attempt by a writer with no experience of proletarian existence to make money by inciting contempt for decent working men".

Most strikingly, and seemingly contradictory, of all, Sillitoe is the writer who was dragged up in abject poverty - perhaps the only great living British writer to have endured unspeakable living conditions - yet whose work is entirely free from miserable fatalism. Indeed, in Life Without Armour, his unfussy memoir of his early years published in 1995, Sillitoe wrote that his aim is to "create works which leave the reader, and therefore the author, in favour of life by the end of the book rather than in a state of despair at all the vile things that go on in the world". The great service of Bradford's biography is to explain why Sillitoe belongs to no fad, no set, no trend, and to show us what he truly is: one of our great writers.

Sillitoe began writing in an unusual way: not through the education system (he left school at 14 to work in a factory) or the intervention of a middle-class outsider who spotted his talent, but through sheer volition. He is perhaps the only major British writer to have developed outside of "the system", for want of a better phrase; "the energetic autodidact from nowhere", as Bradford puts it.

Born in 1928, he grew up in shocking poverty in Nottingham. Throughout the 1930s, the Sillitoes frequently moved, dragging their worldly possessions in a handcart behind them, between the kind of dwellings which, Bradford says, "Dickens had improved upon and would have tested the credulity of Orwell's readers". Often all six of the Sillitoes occupied the same room, in a building with as many as four similar-sized families crammed into similar-sized rooms. In one such dwelling, Sillitoe remembers a boy slightly younger than himself who spent most of his time on the shared landing or stairs where he "defecated relentlessly". The stench was unbearable for the families crowbarred into the dilapidated building, all of whom hoped that the boy might "shit himself to death".

Sillitoe's early dwellings were so dire that, as he tells Bradford, the "mangonels of slum clearance rumbled not far behind" whenever the family moved. His mother prostituted herself in a "pub in the middle of town" in order to feed the family. His father, frequently unemployed, beat his wife and the children, too. The desperate plea issued by Sillitoe's mother whenever his father rained blows upon him - "No, no, not on his head!" - still sticks in Sillitoe's mind. In Bradford's biography, Sillitoe's brother Michael has a defiant and descriptive line to describe the family's early squalor: "We were in a class of our own. It was impossible to fall any lower."

Sillitoe took refuge from all this, not in God (he looked unfavourably on his sister when he caught her praying, out of sheer desperation, for divine intervention in their squalid lives), but in the cottage of his maternal grandfather, Ernest Burton (1866-1946). Burton was a curious and, naturally, brutal character: he was a horseshoe-maker who was passionately unpatriotic. He considered the army an "abomination". If his children ever brought home a miniaturised version of the Union Jack he told them to "hurl the bloody thing away". He had no time for God, believing, in Bradford's words, that "beyond mortal existence there was nothing: no afterlife, significance or ultimate meaning". And he was illiterate, but as much from rebellious choice as from lack of educational opportunities.

In the autobiographical Raw Material (1972), Sillitoe wrote of Burton: "[To] live one's life without being able to read or write in a world that shouted how damned you were for not having those gifts must have given one an untouchable sensation of great value." However, Burton did have in his cottage books and maps, loads of them, won by his children at Sunday school (where he had sent them every week so that he could fornicate in peace with his wife). As a boy, Sillitoe immersed himself in this mini-library and became "less concerned with their stories and subjects than with their ability to shift the mind if not the body to somewhere else". He discovered both the transformative and universal nature of good writing in stories, such as The Count of Monte Cristo, which revealed to the young Sillitoe that "social injustice antedated the 1930s and affected places other than the East Midlands".

Despite being bright, curious and well-read, at 11 Sillitoe failed the entrance exam to the local grammar school - "for various reasons", says Bradford, notably because, being in a class of his own, he didn't have the "educated and doting relatives, Sunday school and extracurricular assistance of charitable societies" that helped other working-class kids to get on the first rung towards a decent education. He went instead to the Radford Boulevard Senior Boys' School, and like every other boy, "departed without qualifications aged 14".

He worked in a factory; learned how to fight (in a violent encounter "your fate was in your own hands, and even if you stood no chance of defeating your opponent, just doing them some harm would bring satisfaction", he joyously tells Bradford); served in the Royal Air Force after the war, and was pensioned off at 21 after spending 16 months in an RAF hospital when he contracted tuberculosis. In the 1950s, he went to live in France and Spain with his long-time partner, the poet Ruth Fainlight, where he started work on various short stories and the novel that would bring him fame: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

Sillitoe's refusal to play the part of an Angry Young Man means he avoided the fate suffered by some of his contemporaries, who felt obliged to continue churning out plucky novels about swaggering men into the 1960s. And his ejection from the education system at 14 meant he avoided "the D H Lawrence fate". Lawrence, also a working-class boy from Nottinghamshire, got a scholarship to University College Nottingham; there, says Bradford, he got his "introduction to middle-class culture" and went on to become the "kind of radical who was exciting enough to appeal to the fashionable iconoclasts within the literary Establishment without being too garish or uncouth to cause them embarrassment".

For me, the most remarkable thing about Sillitoe's work, from Saturday Night to A Man of His Time, his compelling novel about his grandfather published in 2004, is its unflagging human spirit, the self-determination of its characters, its refusal to sacrifice grit and drive at the altar of pity for "the exploited". Without ever being schmaltzy, Sillitoe has created a world in which, as Arthur Seaton puts it, "it's a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don't weaken". This stands in stark contrast to many of the literary depictions of working-class life today, from the new wave of gritty Scottish fiction in the 1990s to the current tide of misery memoirs, where the working classes frequently appear as junkies, drunks, abusers or victims whose fates are written in stone. Sillitoe's motto is: "All the future is foretold, but freedom of choice is given to everyone." That this writer emerged from the slums of Nottingham speaks to far more than a story of "working-class boy done good"; it reveals the nobility of literature, and how universal stories of truth and transcendence can emerge from the most unlikely quarters.

Brendan O'Neill's satire on environmentalism, written under the name Ethan Greenhart, "Can I Recycle My Granny?: and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas", is published by Hodder and Stoughton (£7.99)