Ben Zabulis is the author of Chartered Territory: An Engineer Abroad. He is easily Nottingham’s best travelled author and has recently moved (back) to Hong Kong. In this guest blog he ponders on the popularity of Alan Sillitoe novels in Asia’s secondhand bookshops…
It’s funny how second-hand books can yield a certain reaction, absolute abhorrence from some to the musty, even grubby, well-thumbed pages while others, myself particularly, ooze untrammelled glee at the potential locked within. After all, not only is one gaining a good book (hopefully) to read but a little bit of history, even mystery, having undergone numerously-handed exchanges within its life to drop suddenly into yours – admittedly it’s a history and mystery that for the most part will remain totally imaginary. But not always.
Years ago, when I’d returned back to the UK after another stint abroad, I was drawn to a book in a charity shop called The Hong Kong Club. No surprise really given I have lived here before. It was a cop-type thriller and not my thing at all but I decided to read the author note anyway, and that’s where interest gathered pace. Andrew Whittle (1942- ) it said, ex-Royal Hong Kong Police Officer and Commander of the Special Task Force, Hong Island until 1976. Not so unusual I thought, someone writing about their own thing, fair enough, but then I read he was Nottinghamshire born and bred. Well, that was it, coincidence or not, I had to buy it – the book’s history being far more enticing than its words! The mystery element lay in the whys and wherefores of the author’s life: Nottinghamshire? Hong Kong? Why? How? I yearned to know but, alas, despite the wonders of the net and having a few pals in the Hong Kong police, enquiries drew a blank and the conundrum remains.
Although ‘my’ patch in Asia is a bit sparse re charity shops it does nonetheless excel in a fine line of second-hand book stores – travellers and expats their main contributors and customers. I refer here to the lovely Merman Books in Bangkok and the restful Leisure Books in Hong Kong where Milky the cat should be meeting and greeting but spends most of her time curled up and snoozing atop ‘children’. Never mind. Although much of their English-language stock comprises the usual assortment of dated travel guides and ‘literature’ of the yawningly-awful airport tat variety, gems can sometimes surface. In this instance two old editions of Alan Sillitoe books.
However did a 1962 and 1967 printing of The General and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner respectively, both Pan Books Ltd priced at 2/6, turn up so far from home? They certainly don’t strike me as the sort of books packed by long-haul backpackers heading for a lengthy Asian sojourn, neither in 1962 nor in 2013 when we stumbled upon them, not the sort of books a booky-type would easily give up either. Although not keen on defaced books, I have to admit the modern habit of successive owners noting some identification to the inner front cover would certainly have added value, curiosity-wise, here. No, I suspect these were probably offered up by a long-term resident, maybe from a deceased person’s house clearance, maybe from a retiree, may be from an ex-Royal Hong Kong Police Officer and Commander of the Special Task Force, Hong Island until 1976, just maybe. As an ardent map- and travel-buff, Alan Sillitoe would doubtless be elated at their having swopped hands so distantly.
Having spent the last ten years in Nottingham and being frequent library visitors we were constantly dismayed by the lack of Sillitoe books available, is there no demand or were they simply always out? Time after time, still no Sillitoe. Local hero? Didn’t seem it. (Editor’s note: As of today spread out across Nottingham City Libraries there are 34 copies of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and 17 of Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, suggesting they must be regularly loaned out if Ben was unable to find them. But it does raise the issue of making greater prominence of local fiction in libraries)
So we thought, having just returned to Hong Kong and expecting even less, let’s see what they can do here. We were pleasantly surprised to discover a total of 52 works – novels and biographies – in English within the Hong Kong library system. A good start, now for the acid test and a visit to our local branch in Shatin to see what’s available. They had three Sillitoe books (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Death of William Posters and Understanding Alan Sillitoe by Gillian Mary Hanson). A reasonable result, putting some Notts libraries to shame…
The return stamps suggested a healthy lending rate since the mid-90s though modern computerised systems of course wouldn’t show up as such. I asked the delightful Miss Wong (librarian) if it was possible to determine more accurate circulation statistics, but unfortunately no. Incidentally, the cover of the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning edition depicted a smashed bottle of Shippo’s and a pack of 20 Gold Leaf, a nice touch and a strange feeling to see two home-grown icons so far around the globe, could almost have been planted by the Nottingham tourist people themselves! Anyway, no Chinese versions but I did note several translated Graham Greenes on the library website. So with moderate success we decided to check a bookshop too, one of the largest chains in Hong Kong: Swindon Books Co. Ltd; they also scored okayish with current editions of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Guzman Go Home. Not bad, but it could be better! So why isn’t our man more popular, or at least as popular as some of the more accepted imports, Conrad, Maugham, Greene?
Well, Sillitoe certainly had direct Far East experience having spent a couple of years in Malaya with the RAF during the Emergency as a Morse code and wireless specialist; during which time he developed a love for the landscape, people and culture, even attempting to learn the local language, Bahasa Malay. Worthy snatches of this period appear in a few stories particularly, Key to the Door (1961), The Lost Flying Boat (1983) and Lost Loves (1991) introducing such exotic destinations as Penang, Butterworth, Kedah Peak (all in Malaya, now Malaysia) and Seletar (now in Singapore). The Asian milieu is pleasingly described. Oddly enough some Asian lives, those too often mired in desperation and pity, nicely parody a number of Sillitoe’s stories drawn from 50s Nottingham. Those unfortunate souls finding themselves entrapped in a humdrum existence which they generally put up with until a minor physical escape, could be via a day trip, hobby, boozing or flirting, aids their sudden realisation that a solution lies within. Consequently they rediscover themselves and, in doing so, return rejuvenated and more accommodating to the life they led before.
Hong Kong publishing and modern culture abounds with such imagery, the local music industry churns out myriad Cantopop videos in which a forlorn singer stares melancholically into nothingness whilst crooning-on about some personal injustice, you get similar in China (Mandopop), Japan (J-Pop) and Korea (K-Pop) and it drives you bloody nuts because they’re all the bloody same !
Sillitoe’s stories should really have no problem in capturing local imagination, time for a run of translated works perhaps? Deffo, ‘Gerrit bleddy sorted,’ I can almost hear Arthur Seaton yell. After all China is a huge market and a receptive one too, so is Japan, they’re madly in love (just like in the J-Pop videos) with anything quaintly British, time to introduce Nottinghamu as they call us; Nottinghamu and the Seatons seen through manga? An enticing prospect and although admittedly a respectable number of Sillitoe novels do exist in proper Japanese I could only find one Chinese (Mandarin) version: Xingqi Liu Wanshang he Xingqi Ri Zaochen or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – a very sad result!
It’s sad because they love reading here, in tiny Hong Kong alone there are 68 public libraries, 163 community libraries and 12 mobile libraries to fill in the gaps, and they’re all well used. Library closures? – not here comrade, they’ve even more planned. Could Hong Kong’s educational top-of-world-league status have anything to do with this reading frenzy? You decide.
- Hong Kong Library Introduction (youtube.com)
- Sillitoe Trail (sillitoetrail.com)
- For it Was Saturday Night (dawnoftheunread.com)
- Hong Kong Diaries (leftlion.co.uk)
- Hong Kong’s secondhand bookshops (toothpicnations.co.uk)
- Bounty for Bookworms (yp.scmp.com)
- Used Bookstroes of Hong Kong (foreignerthoughts.wordpress.com)
- Page One’s 21st Century Asian Bookstore Strategy (publishingperspectives.com)
- Slap and Sickle: Jason Williamson as Arthur Seaton (youtube.com)
- Last interview with Alan Sillitoe (independent.co.uk)
- Interview with Ben Zabulis (leftlion.co.uk)