Monday, April 26, 2010

"Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not."

The writer Alan Sillitoe, who died yesterday, wrote some 53 volumes of work, including novels, poetry and children's fiction. And yet every remembrance of Sillitoe focuses on two of his earliest and greatest works - the short story "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" and the novel "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning."

Sillitoe was one of the so-called angry young men - coming out of a moment in British history when working class writers were being widely published and read for the first time. He left school at 14 to work at the Raleigh bicycle factory, then joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Malaya as a radio operator. He contracted tuberculosis, which led to several months convalescing in Spain where he befriended the poet and novelist Robert Graves who encouraged Sillitoe to write about the life he knew in Nottingham. The result was "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning."

The "angry young men" were primarily a non-movement operating under a label imposed for others' convenience - there's not a whole lot in common between Sillitoe and Harold Pinter for example - but there's no denying that the men at the center of "Runner" and "Saturday" are angry and young. The runner expresses himself through physical acts of defiance, the machinist in "Saturday" through verbal ones. The stories have aged far better than most of the like-minded books of the same era, and Sillitoe himself adapted both works for the screen. He was simply a much better writer than those around him, and his tales remain worth reading as art, not just as social documents.

Alan Sillitoe died in London at the age of 82.

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