Sunday, 6 April 2008
Alan Sillitoe,Sara Paretsky and the Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer
So having read successfully with colleagues at the Cambridge Wordfest to a packed house of well over 200 and been asked back for an encore I was in my happy place for the rest of the festival and could attend events with a clear mind, divested of worries about getting my small piece of the Festival right.
The crime writer Sara Paretsky gave not only a good reading but a very interesting Q and A session. Strangely in the early days she said publishers initially turned her down, not because she had a female detective but that it was set in Chicago. There was some prevailing sense that people in the all important literary city of New York did not want to read about anything outside their geographical area let alone buy it. I wondered whether that applied to Great Britain. The settings of novels in Great Britain has always been less problematic being such a small country in comparison to the USA, we cannot afford to be so narrow. British writers have always set novels in diverse locations. Austen, Elliot, Dickens, Hardy, Gaskell, Scott, the Brontes, Kingsley, Trollope , Defoe never placed their literary offerings firmly in the London basket. Of course in the 19th and early 20th Century there was a yen for the pastoral to counteract the terrible stench of the cities. Readers liked a little fresh air in their novels or at least the prospect that happiness and resolution usually lay in some residence with a good view of moor, rolling hills, sheep, wood or ploughed field. The gritty urban sections of novels tended to lean heavily on the view of them as just a cut above Dante’s Inferno. Cities did feature but good things tended only to happen in places like Bath, or the genteel side of London where you could leave your carriage or horse parked outside without risk of it being stolen or keyed by some jealous n’er do well.
Of course the working classes were also used as a sort of social setting to either display the idyllic dignity of the labourer worthy of his hire or the terrible fate that awaited you should you end up in poverty. Besides being used to fuel social propaganda for better conditions the workhouse and the grim industrial streets was used as the bogy man to scare children. They were locations to ensure people counted their blessings and were pointed to the benefits of a nice safe job in an insurance company and the necessity of a marriage to someone who knew the price of eggs and could run up her own curtains if needs be, or who could direct the housemaid to do it
My final ticket of the Festival was to go and see Alan Sillitoe, who at eighty is still a force to be reckoned with. He treated us to a display of his morse code skills to underline that he had lost none of his ability to translate the word into sound and back again. This display was not a random act of an elderly man trying to show what he was still capable of but to underline his theme that the writer’s duty was to ensuring the words were given weight.In the way he wrote, drafting and redrafting, nothing happened by accident each word had to challenge others for its right to be there. This ability to be sure of each word lay at the heart of his being a successful radio operator. He waved the flag for good, clear concise language as the bedrock of all literature. This of course does not mean, he pointed out, that it cannot be fresh, new, untrammelled by cliché and beautiful; in fact he indicated that clear and concise ensured that at least you started writing from a point of strength.
Whilst suffering from TB as a young man he had lain in a hospital bed and thanks to a redoubtable lady with a well stocked library trolley he had consumed books from the Greek and Roman Greats to Sartre and Camus. He talked about how important words became to him. I think perhaps the impact of his early novels Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner have perhaps been lost over the past fifty years. Sitting in Majorca in the early fifties in a basic stone cottage he and his wife, the poet and writer Ruth Fainlight, read endlessly to each other. The sounds of the words were as important to him as their presence on the page. I tend to think this may be why his dialogue in his early novels is so good and rings true because he listened to the words that he placed on the page and may show why he also chose to write poetry.His importance in that era was that he found an authentic 'voice' and it is not called voice without reason, its connection to the spoken word underpins it
By the fifties an anti hero like Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night Sunday Morning was possible but it took a Czech Director to perhaps look at the location of the film made from the book and give it something different a real sense of alienation.The story was at the time so different from anything the reading public were used to that is was almost like giving the outsider his voice, the accent alone made it almost like a foreign language on the screen to some.
I attended other events at the festival about the writing business and publication. The usual message was given that writers and poets must believe in themselves, their work and just keep going and not be ground down by what they may perceive to be a publishing industry that denies them access. Strive to write better, listen to people who you think worth listening to about your work and never fall out of love with the sheer joy and privilege of trying to commit something to paper for others to read.
Having just re-watched the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner that was adapted from one of Sillitoe’s short stories, I thought the ‘toffs’ versus’ the lower classes might be outdated but I still found it uplifting at the end when Courtney chooses not to win and just stands there smiling as he lets others run past him. The small man versus the system is ever present in literature, theatre and film, the story of the person choosing something other than the easy way out. Raising two finger up to ‘the man’, ‘the world’, ‘the gods’, ‘the status quo’ still works as a theme, it has always worked whatever the setting, whatever the era, whatever the genre or medium of expression. Perhaps the writer is forever the lonely long distance runner; in the end only I know why I am even running the race and what, for me, amounts to winning.