Writing and Publishing

Alan Sillitoe

Most of my first literary influences – if they can be called such – came from the cinema. I remember some time during the early Forties seeing a film, one of those ‘B’ pictures from Hollywood, which had for its subject the life of the great British prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli. The scene that comes back is during a debate in the House of Commons on some great issue, when Disraeli sat with eyes closed, seemingly asleep, while the Leader of the Opposition, probably Mr Gladstone, went through his speech. Disraeli appeared to sleep, and not to hear what his chief adversary had to say. His own speech was already prepared, and he did not care to be influenced by whatever argument might be brought against the ideas he intended to put forward. Perhaps, not so much a mark of self-assurance, it was merely a mannerism to confound his enemies, but it made an impression on me because my consciousness found such a tactic congenial. Otherwise, why remember an incident from a film of so long ago, when scores more are totally forgotten? This, I thought, as Disraeli rested with hand on chin, or lay back nonchalantly on the hard seat, is the way to deal with those who might be against me. The incident struck me because it depicted the action of an individual who had faith in himself in an age which seemed to have considered it a virtue. Not to be particularly interested in what his opponent was saying exhibited the profound conviction of his own beliefs. Did not the poet King David say: ‘Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward and put to confusion, that desire my hurt’?

Individualism, bordering on eccentricity, even to the extent of ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’, has never been approved of. Occasionally held as a virtue today, everything is also put in the way to save you from its excesses – though you are expected to put any advantage accruing from such a course to the benefit of society, and behave yourself thereafter. The era of the phone-in, the 24-hour chat show, and the ongoing television interview, makes it difficult for a politician to behave in such a way as Disraeli, but it has never struck me as incongruous for a writer to do so.

Perhaps all this has little to do with my novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, except that the book happened to be my first published novel. There was some uncertainty as to whether or not the book would be published at all, and though I don’t suppose there would have been any great loss, for I feel that some novel of mine would have appeared sooner or later, the matter did seem important to me at the time. To imply that a writer’s first novel began to be worked on more or less from the time he was born may seem a very ordinary idea indeed. However that may be, I can’t go back so far, and only feel inclined to because the exercise might illuminate what I have to say later.

The cinema was not the only influence in those early days. Books certainly came in somewhere. One of the first was given to me by a teacher who was disposing of a few before moving to another school. The title was History Day by Day, a volume of exactly 732 pages, because two were devoted to each day of the year. Apart from events dealing with English history, other dates considered important concerned writers and artists. Under 4 July 1802 was recorded the birth of Alexandre Dumas. On one page was an account of his life, with a list of his best known works, while opposite was a section from The Count of Monte Cristo. By browsing through such a mishmash of fact, fiction and brief biographies I became familiar, after a fashion, with both literature and history. Extracts were taken from the most exciting part of the novel, so that I went to the public library to bring the book home and read the rest. If I had already read, by the age of ten or eleven, such classics as Les Misérables and The Count of Monte Cristo, it was also because I had heard them serialised on the BBC – another beneficial influence of those days.

When I was 11 my grandmother persuaded me to take a scholarship examination – the equivalent of the 11-plus – for a grammar school. I suppose she had noticed my preoccupation with the books in her parlour, brought home over the years as Sunday-school prizes by her eight children. I wanted to pass ‘the scholarship’ because I knew that at grammar schools one was taught French. To know that language meant that the roads of the world would automatically open. A friend in the next street had a brother who taught him to count up to ten in French, and he passed this knowledge on to me. I bought a dictionary for sixpence, and attempted to translate sentences from the newspaper into French simply by substituting one word for another. I soon realised that something was wrong, because I could never find the French for ‘was’ and ‘should’ and ‘gone’. Not knowing that such things as verbs existed was a serious obstacle to getting very far in my studies. I failed the 11-plus twice, which proved to me once and for all that I was not cut out for education.

After the last war began, my cousins, one by one, were called up into the Army. A few months later, they came out again, one by one, and went home, and burned their uniforms in the bedroom grate. They then lived, without identity-card or ration-book or gas-mask, and went on what was known in our family as ‘night work’ – sleeping and enjoying themselves by day, and burgling by night. As a boy of 12, I was aware of what was going on, and it wasn’t long before I saw a half-column about them in the local paper when they were caught. They got 18 months apiece, and were then marched back into the Army. But after a spell in the military prison they appeared at our breakfast table one morning, wolfing bread and jam and swallowing tea. Before long, they were back on night work. By this time I was 13, and the idea came to me that perhaps one day I would write stories which concerned the adventures of my marauding cousins.

The importance of this writing task so impressed me that I bought a large bound notebook in which to put down a few vital statistics, noting my cousins’ age, weight, height, colour of hair, where they had been born, and what they wore, and their address – when they had one. I then inscribed sketches of their past lives and brief Army careers, and entered accounts of their robberies, which included the date, time and address of particular shops and offices broken into. They would visit us at knocking-off time, generally at breakfast, and regale us with stories from their black-out labours, such crucial details appearing sooner in my notebook than in the local newspaper. On being captured a second time, they gave up the game, deciding that it wasn’t worth it. I intended storing this raw material so as to write a long novel. But one day while I was at school my mother went through my things and read all that was in the book. When I came in that afternoon she clouted me over the head and said I should have more sense. She demanded to know what I thought I was doing, writing things like that. Did I want to get us all chucked in jail? I told her it was for my novel, but she took no notice of this lunatic excuse, and threw my first literary effort into the flames. Undaunted, I went to the public library, and took out a book on how to make a career as a writer. The first sentence went something like: ‘If you are reading these words without moving your lips, you too can become a writer.’

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