“Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” That’s what my dad you used to say to me when I got annoyed at the teacher or at the injustice of the world in general.
It wasn’t an original line. At some point he made me sit down and watch Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the film of the novel by the Alan Sillitoe, who died this week. And then I knew what he meant.
I loved it. Partially because it is good, but mostly because my dad had been, as he was keen to let me know, like Arthur Smeaten, the lead character, an angry young man.
“Angry young men” was a phrase that the critics came up with to describe a wave of working class stories and writers in the late 1950s. It was clever and a little patronising because it ignored one simple thing. There was a generation of angry young working class men and they never wrote plays. Sillitoe put them in the public domain.
Sillitoe left school at the age of 14 and worked at the Raleigh bike factory in Nottingham. After four years he joined the Royal Air Force and spent 16 months in an RAF hospital with tuberculosis. He echoed the frustrating life of many a working class man in the 1950s – what was different was that Sillitoe wrote it down.
He had seen his illiterate father dragged off to jail for the “crime” of being unable to pay for food. He was a voice for the underdog and he portrayed their struggles with dignity, compassion and, most importantly, truth.
Sillitoe put the working class into print – not as salt of the earth stereotypes, but as real people. Some were right-wing and some were selfish. They talked about community but they were quick to bully and turn on each other. They were real.
In 1958 Sillitoe’s first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was published with a fanfare of publicity. His depiction of the drudgery of everyday life for workers swept aside the dining rooms and servants of what had passed for English popular novels.
The novel was a product of the post war boom. In it, Arthur Seaton buries the stench of the light engineering factory beneath drinking, fighting and a partiality for other men’s wives – the possessive being deliberate.
Payday on Friday makes the grind worthwhile, but there is a rage underneath. So Arthur says, “If they said, ‘look, Arthur, here’s a hundredweight of dynamite and a brand new plunger, now blow up the factory’, then I’d do it, because that would be something worth doing.”
The benefits of piecework and good clothes seduce Arthur. He votes Communist to be awkward. But with every “good night”, there is a hangover. And the novel is brave in dealing harshly with illegal abortion and the consequences of limited choices.
In the short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, 17-year-old Colin Smith recounts his hatred of authority, his father’s death and his life of crime from his prison cell.
As he runs across the country in his brief permitted moments of freedom, he sketches out a plan for holding his dignity together. The governor hopes Smith will win a race to show the Borstal in a good light. Smith throws the race in a magnificent act of defiance. It is not just a rebellion. It is a rebellion against attempts to incorporate rebellion.
Sillitoe’s characters are rebels in spirit. They sense the need for sharp social change but lack commitment. This is deliberate. In the later and underrated Nottingham stories, there is revolutionary rhetoric but ambiguity.
For instance in A Tree On Fire, the lead character treks across the Algerian desert and talks about the FLN and its fight for Algerian independence. While not a perfect book, it becomes a tale not of one man’s journey but of national liberation struggles.
On the First World War Sillitoe wrote of the lives squandered to pre-empt the “danger” of revolution, saying, “If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the British class war was fought on the Western Front with real shells and bullets.”
One character, Edgar Burton, tastes the reality: “Lying asleep in clumps and rows, some without legs and arms, all sinews ashen and shattered. Another man is wounded by a shrapnel bullet entering his stomach. He tries to spit out his shoulder-blades but they won’t come loose, so he falls.”
Sillitoe did not resolve the conflict between individuality and collective struggle. He was consistently a pessimist both personally and politically.
The trite caricatures of working class people that pass for drama in Coronation Street or Eastenders could not exist without Sillitoe. That is a compliment but it also points to a weakness.
At times he railed against Marxism for treating the masses as a concept rather than the individuals that he wanted to promote. He was wrong on this as he was on a number of things.
But his rage against capitalism’s crushing of working class individuality was a pleasure to behold. And it stopped the bastards grinding me and my dad down.