Rebel Writers: Alan Sillitoe

Design James Walker.

Notts Rebels, the new weekly series made in conjunction with the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, celebrates stories of fighting injustice and acts of rebellion from Nottingham’s history. Originally published on LeftLion, our contribution explored the rebellious and anti-establishment themes in the work of Alan Sillitoe, who died ten years ago on 25 April.

“For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, but Arthur was following government advice and social isolating.”

If Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had been written today instead of 1958, it would not have started like this. Arthur Seaton, Sillitoe’s most famous creation, would be the kind of knobhead who’d be getting lathered in the park, racing his mates through the empty streets, and absolutely hammering Tinder, probably claiming you can’t catch Covid-19 from a blowjob. The fact that I can vividly imagine Seaton’s reaction to events 70 years since he came clattering onto the page is testament to Alan Sillitoe’s skills as a writer.

Sillitoe didn’t go to university or enrol on a creative writing course. He left school at 14 to work at the Raleigh factory. Like many people of his generation he was self-educated. This meant reading a lot of books and figuring things out for himself. This is why his characters are so authentic; they are chiselled out of experience and imagination rather than following literary blueprints. It’s for this reason that he refused corrections from editors, retaining, like his characters, uncompromising independence.

Growing up in abject poverty, the act of buying a book was itself a rebellious act. The Sillitoe’s were moved on from place to place during his childhood and his father was imprisoned at one point for being unable to pay for what he had bought on tick. This is why Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is so authentic, it captures the rawness of place, warts and all.

“Generators whined all night, and during the day giant milling-machines working away on cranks and pedals in the turnery gave to the terrace a sensation of living within breathing distance of some monstrous being that suffered from a disease of the stomach.”

1950s Radford is a brutal, violent world where “women with battleship faces and hearts as tough as nails” have to be won over, but “you could try all you liked to be kind to them, but they wouldn’t have any of it”. It’s no wonder a local councillor wanted the book banned at the time, fearing it would damage Nottingham’s reputation forever. This is why Sillitoe is a rebel writer. Instead of serving up a sanitised version of working class life that were palatable to middle class sensibilities, he dolloped up something offensive: truth.

Alan Sillitoe, author of that novel. Design James Walker.

Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator in the Raleigh factory who grafts hard in order to quench payday thirst down his local, the White Horse. When he’s not puking up over people or having drinking contests with a sailor, he likes to craftily latch his arms around the waist of any woman daft enough to fall for his patter.

Sillitoe argued that Seaton had no spiritual values because he was a product of his environment, and therefore his own survival was all that mattered. This is best exemplified when he gets a married woman pregnant and persuades her to have a ‘gin bath’. While she is doing this, he gets it on with her sister, reflecting, “Never had an evening begun so sadly and ended so well.” I can’t imagine any writer daring to pen such selfish (and honest) sentiments today, particularly given the speed by which we are held accountable by the Twitterati.

Colin Smith is another classic Sillitoe anti-hero, appearing in the short story collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1960) Like Seaton, Smith comes from a tough background. His father is dying, and the family are poor. He escapes his dire circumstances by getting involved in petty crime which invariably goes horribly wrong. While incarcerated in Borstal, he takes up running which acts as a form of therapy, an opportunity to escape his problems and be temporarily free. But the governor recognises his talent and has other plans, putting him forward for a cup race. Winning the race would give the governor prestige and make Smith’s life comfortable. But he’s not interested in an easy life, there’s more pleasure letting the governor know he’s not for sale. His individuality is the only thing they can’t take from him and so he deliberately loses the race, stopping at the finishing line.

“I’m a human being and I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there, and he’ll never know what’s there because he’s stupid. I suppose you’ll laugh at this, me saying the governor’s a stupid bastard when I know hardly how to write and he can read and write and add-up like a professor. But what I say is true right enough. He’s stupid, and I’m not, because I can see further into the likes of him than he can see into the likes of me.”

Alan Sillitoe didn’t choose to be a rebel writer. He would have hated this label as much as he hated being called an Angry Young Man or a Nottingham writer. Like Colin Smith, he was nobody’s puppet. He happened to write 50 odd novels because he was pensioned off from the air force at 21 after contacting TB. This afforded the time and opportunity to write. His novels, however, are rebellious and anti-establishment by nature. Sillitoe was born into unimaginable poverty which meant he had to fight every day to survive. He was writing what he knew. Or as Seaton puts it:

“Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, and income tax offices rob you to death. And if you’re still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death.”

This article was originally published on 22 April 2020 on LeftLion as part of their Rebel Writers series.

Central Library wish list

Artist impression of new building. Source Nottingham City Council: Get drooling…

Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature and the City Council are forming an innovative partnership to ensure the construction of the new Central Library has the potential to raise literacy levels, position the library as a focal point of the community, and build upon Nottingham’s rich literary history. These are issues very close to my heart. When I created Dawn of the Unread, a literary graphic novel exploring Nottingham’s literary history, it was very much a love letter to libraries and the potential of books to transform lives. Therefore, I was ridiculously excited to join in a consultation event hosted by Sandy Mahal and Nigel Hawkings at NTU. Here’s my top 5 wish list…

You and Mee (or Mee time or Mee, Myself and I or You get mee, etc)

Arthur Mee (21 July 1875 – 27 May 1943) is best known as the author of the Children’s Encyclopædia and The Children’s Newspaper, the first newspaper published for children. Born in Stapleford, he earned money as a teenager reading the reports of Parliament to a local blind man. All of which makes him perfect to be featured in some capacity at the library. In terms of literacy, teenagers could be encouraged to produce their own newspaper (digital or physical) to build on his legacy, possibly to be overseen by the Young Ambassadors. Or he could simply be recognised within the library in the children’s reading area ‘You and Mee’ as a means of cementing Nottingham’s rich history of encouraging young people to read.

The Human LibraryThe Human Library® is a brilliant concept whereby readers loan out humans and have conversations they would not normally have access to. The organisation was created in 2000 to create dialogue around difficult subjects. A variation on this (or partnership) could see skill-sharing sessions to help improve literacy levels. For example, specialists could lend their skills (I’m James and I specialise in producing digital heritage projects, loan me for 30 minutes for support on your ideas) or library users could request specialist ‘books’ (people) which could be sourced. Imagine young people actively seeking information on knife crime, difficulties at home and how to deal with them, help with homework, finding friends. The potential is massive. Given this organisation exists they would need to be consulted and partnered with.

Digital screens/Tik TokI recently visited Krakow, a fellow UNESCO City of Literature, and in one museum was a 360 degree screen telling the history of the city. A similar screen at the library could have multiple purposes in commissioning new work (which could address particular themes) as an information space, or to project new creative work self-generated by locals. One medium which would work well here is Tik Tok which is basically a 15 second platform that acts as a stage and positions the audience as performer. Content is quick and easy to create on your phone, feeds off of meme culture, and enables creative expression that is relevant to younger people. There is potential to curate ‘best of’ sessions, again possibly run by the Young Ambassadors. A good starting point for ideas would be Nick Robertson, the BBC’s social media content producer who was discovered making snapchat videos about his life working in Starbucks. The fact that all people above 30 will probably hate this medium is the exact reason it should be embraced.

Library AppNow is the time to bring the library card into the 21st century with an app that enables users to visualise their reading history. Whether we like it or not apps provide simple ways of monitoring and motivating behaviour. A FitBit tells you how far you’ve walked, Netflix algorithms tell you what to watch next, etc. A library app could perform similar functions and act as a digital guide. I’ve been teaching a module at an international college for 10 years where I get students to design a mobile app. Overwhelmingly 85% of them come up with an app that shows them how to do things… There is also opportunities or partnerships here with Vue cinema in the neighbouring Broadmarsh Centre. When you get out your first six books, you get a free cinema ticket…

Confessional boothI’ve used booths before in various projects such as the East Midlands Heritage Awards and they always work because people love talking one to one. A digital booth in the library would allow readers to share their favourite books or characters. These could be projected onto digital screens, linked to an app, or simply viewed in the booth. This idea builds on the readers recommendations you see in places like Waterstones. But more importantly it shows young people that their opinions and ideas are valued. It is one of numerous ways to build an inclusive community.

This blog was originally published on the Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature website on 9 March 2020. You can subscribe to their newsletter here. James and Paul are currently working on Dawn of the Unread II: Whatever People Say I Am, a graphic novel serial challenging stereotypes.

Central Library Nottingham site sold off to Property Developer

Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

In the opening issue of Dawn of the Unread we made some subtle observations about the state of British Libraries. Our intention was to ask whether libraries could still be a focal point of the local community. We suggested that on a political level, libraries weren’t valued. This was represented by a hideous hybrid called the Cleggeron (representing the then coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg) whose favourite game was smashing up libraries.

bobins
Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

On an educational level we see a young teenager being dragged to the library, complaining ‘they’re boring and full of oldies.’ Our intention here was to think about how young people perceive libraries. When the teenager is given a copy of Dawn of the Unread and discovers that quite a bit has gone on in Nottingham he complains ‘My school is bobbins. They don’t teach us owt good like this.’ The implication here is that our cultural partnerships need to be better joined up and support each other. A thirst for knowledge at school leads to a thirst to learn more through books and engagement with extra curricular activities. According to an essay in Standing up for Education (2016),  50,000 teachers quit last year due to stress and the pressures of micro management. Teachers are vital in raising the aspirations of teenagers, so give them the time to do it!

es-tesco
Issue 1 of Dawn of the Unread.

We included future predictions for libraries when our heroine Edith Slitwell has to check out her book using a Tesco style self-service machine which bleeps ‘unexpected genre in the bagging area.’ The slow erosion of humans from all areas of work is gaining momentum and libraries will be no different. Money is being saved through reduced opening hours. With this in mind we had our heroine informed that she would have to leave the building as it was shutting soon. Originally I’d wanted a sign on the library wall saying ‘opening hours 2pm -2.30pm’ but it was lost in the edit.

I mention this as it has just been announced that the Central Library site has been sold off to a property developer for 4 million. The council have put out an ambiguous statement of intent and consequently it is leading to a lot of concern. The Nottingham Writers’ Studio have quickly reacted and created a small group of interested parties who will be meeting with Councillor David Trimble to express their concerns. We have been invited to join in this conversation and will report back once we have some solid facts on exactly where the library will live.

ctax.jpg
Issue 4 of Dawn of the Unread.

I have long been highly critical of Central Library. It is an ugly and depressing building in much need of a makeover and may very well benefit from being embedded inside a new fancy pants building. But it is called Central Library for a reason, so I do hope that the Council remember this so that it doesn’t have to be renamed ‘tucked away in one of those Sneinton Market huts that nobody uses on the outskirts of town library.’

In our Gotham Fool issue I stipulated to writer Adrian Reynolds that his narrative must mention that Central Library is a one stop centre where you can also pay your council tax. Originally, I was disgusted by this. I felt it devalued knowledge. But three years on I’ve changed my mind. Proximity may very well be the best way to encourage access to books and computers, films and music.     .

Dawn of the Unread was always meant to be a dialogue about the role of libraries. The reason that we are donating one copy of our book to every library in Nottingham is to support them. To help create conversations. To celebrate the very many positive things that have come out of Nottingham. The book is published by Spokesman Press, part of the Bertrand Russell Foundation. It was important our publisher reflected values we believe in as well as having a local connection. We sincerely hope that issues raised in our 16 part serial are taken into consideration by the Council in these very difficult times. We’re already witnessing a high rate of homeless people back on the streets, will we start to see books made homeless as well? And what will follow after that?

There are currently talks to hold a peaceful demonstration some time in December. Hopefully a silent sit in, like our reading flashmob a few years ago. We’ll post more information as and when this is confirmed through our Twitter account. @Dawnoftheunread.

Further reading

NEW version of The 5th Duke of Portland comic

At long last we can finally share our new version of issue 8: Duke and Disorderly which tells the story of a posh duke with a very long name: William John Cavendish Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland (17 September 1800 – 6 December 1879). I wanted this story changed for two reasons: Firstly, the original narrative was over crammed with information which made it difficult for our target audience to follow. This is my fault because I wanted certain things including (the parallel lives of Sarah Winchester and the Duke represented by their respective building projects and influential father figures; the Archduke Ferdinand shooting incident).

sarah
Artwork from issue 8 Duke and Disorderly.

Secondly, the focus was too much on the two young characters in the story and not enough about the Duke of Portland. When you’re producing a monthly digital comic you get caught up in the flow of deadlines and it’s only as a project develops and more content comes in that you realise exactly what it is you want to achieve. I wanted the stories to have more literary facts, such as David Belbin and Ella Joyce’s Shelves (Stanley Middleton) and Kevin Jackson and Hunt Emerson’s D.H Lawrence Zombie Hunter. The below panels are examples of how we added text and images to build up a more comprehensive biography of the Duke.

duke stuff
Bottom left panel: We were able to add additional biographical facts about the roller skate rink, ballroom and observatory by linking to the books. The drawing on the right is new too.
duke with text
Originally this panel had no text. Now it gives info about the Duke as well as explaining why Ben (the character being run over) is on the Duke’s land.

There were too many characters in the original story and so the first thing we had to do was sharpen the reader’s focus. We did this on page 8 by removing the two characters in the top left panel and introducing Suzy and her new meathead boyfriend. This meant they appeared throughout the page and became more significant to the narrative. The additional text helped us introduce bullying to the story.

dinner time montage
Artwork from issue 8 Duke and Disorderly.

We introduced a new character towards the end, a young black girl who Ben hooks up with. She is the opposite of Suzy and likes reading, which fits better with the overriding theme of Dawn of the Unread. Again, this meant erasing peripheral characters so that the reader could focus on key characters.

Point 1: Is the original page and has no text and too many characters.

Point 2: Originally had a random girl taking a photo. This was changed to the black girl taking the photograph (3) as it enabled us to introduce her into the bottom panels.

Blk girl montage
Narrative edits.

We had to redraw the last two panels to sharpen up the narrative. In the previous pages we had seen how money has had a damaging effect on the Duke of Portland and Sarah Winchester. Now we could demonstrate that Ben had learned something and therefore isn’t tempted to sell his signed book on eBay.

sarah
Artwork from issue 8 Duke and Disorderly.

All of our comics include a small animation (again, this was something that was decided latterly). In this issue I wanted the inside of a trench from WWI to turn red to represent blood. This was vital in the rewriting of the story as it helped better link Sarah Winchester and the Duke of Portland as additional text added later on discusses the Duke’s love of the colour pink.

red trench
The red blood slowly fills the trench on this page.
pink duke
This is the linking panel on the following page. I’d like the pictures on the wall to disappear too as later on in the narrative we discuss how the Duke got rid of pictures.

The writer for our Duke of Portland issue is Andrew Graves who has been shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards for his spoken word show God Save the Teen. I’ve seen it three times, and I hope he wins because he’s a brilliant writer who is able to blend compassion, wit and politics so that you leave feeling a host of emotions.

There’s also good news regarding playwright Nick Wood, who wrote an embedded essay for us about his hopes of one day staging an adaptation of Mick Jackson’s Duke-inspired book The Underground Man.  It’s coming to the Nottingham Playhouse later this year.

You can read the new Duke of Portland issue here

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Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

The Nottingham Essay – Slavomir Rawicz

From issue 2: My Long Walk with Slav.

In Dublin, representatives of the 20 UNESCO Cities of Literature are gathering to have a good old natter about what the status means to them and how they are defined through their literary heritage. Nottingham’s representative is David Belbin, Chair of the City of Literature team. In exactly one month today (23 June) there will be a national custody battle to decide who gets ownership of the UK. Both of these issues can be understood in terms of literature, in particular Slavomir Rawicz, but I’ll come back to this in a minute.

Dawn of the Unread was at the heart of Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature bid in so many ways. We highlighted Nottingham’s incredible literary legacy; we positioned illiteracy as a form of child abuse; we demonstrated digital innovation through storytelling across multiple platforms; and we consistently promoted other organisations at every opportunity.

I mention this as plans for a part II have been in progress for the past year and I am now finally ready to put forward an arts council bid after securing various match funding and partner organisations. Collaboration is at the heart of everything I do and this underpins the ethos driving the UNESCO Creative Cities network. This is in stark contrast to the linear views of Michael Gove, who is spearheading the ‘leave’ campaign for the Brexit debate. To quote D.H Lawrence, I don’t want to “stuff newspaper in your ears.” You can make your own mind up about Europe. Instead I’d like to turn to Slavomir Rawicz, the author of The Long Walk who featured back in Issue 2 of Dawn of the Unread.

coco
Chinese student Weng Wa Si Tou. Photo James Walker.

Rawicz features in our ‘Nottingham Essay’ series which are now available on our Youtube channel. The essays were originally published in LeftLion magazine when I ran articles for one year about why we deserved UNESCO accreditation.  Since then, I’ve been working with Nottingham Trent University students who have been creating photoessays as part of a Humanities at Work placement. The Rawicz essay has been visualised by a 2nd year media studies student called Weng Wa, Si Tou (Coco). Coco (above) is a Chinese student and so it’s been really interesting working with her as she has no cultural frame of reference for European history and so adding images to the audio has been very difficult. But hasn’t she done a good job, mixing humour with facts to guide the viewer through the talk.

Rawicz famously escaped from a Russian gulag camp in 1941 and eventually found freedom. His story was recently turned into a film called The Way Back (2010) and starred Colin Farrell. Rawicz is one of many Polish people who eventually settled down in Nottingham, something that would not be possible if Britain votes to come out of the E.U. Rawicz recorded his incredible story in the ghost written memoir The Long Walk, a book which caused much debate as some people argued that it was inaccurate and was perhaps a composite of other stories. Whatever the truth, it’s a story of hope and endurance which has universal appeal, hence why it has shifted millions of copies.

When Michael Gove was the education secretary he had a parochial view of literature, removing John Steinbeck and Harper Lee from G.C.SE reading lists. Books which got millions of kids reading, including myself. This infuriated Graham Joyce (whose daughter Ella collaborated with David Belbin for issue 14 of Dawn of the Unread) and he started a petition for Gove’s removal which attracted over 110,000 signatures. Now Gove wants us out of Europe altogether.

I will reiterate once more in the simplest language possible. Dawn of the Unread featured the story of a Polish immigrant called Slavomir Rawicz. His story has been turned into a photoessay by a Chinese student embracing British history as part of her studies. Dawn of the Unread takes Nottingham’s literary history as a means of encouraging people to read and feel proud of their history. Nottingham is one of 20 cities around the world using literature as a means of finding commonality rather than difference with each other.

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Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

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