The constellations were aligned on the day Rudyard Kipling was born. Not so on the birthday of Alan Sillitoe. “I suppose it could be said that I had risen from the ranks. I had become a writer of sorts, having for some indescribable reason, after the evacuation and during the later bombs, taken to reading books,” he explains. Sillitoe came out of the Nottinghamshire slums and factories, made his name with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and followed it up with The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). By that time he’d long escaped Nottingham and was living on an army pension in Deia, Majorca, where he came to know Robert Graves. It’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar writers – the erudite, patrician Graves, steeped in the classics, with an aristocratic heritage, and the upstart Alan Sillitoe with his stories of working class rebellion and alienation. Yet the two were friends. At the start of The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller, a writer named Alan tells us: ‘Yesterday we visited the house of a friend who lives farther along the valley… sitting on the terrace with my eyes half closed and my head leaning back in a deckchair… I heard the sound of a cuckoo coming from the pine woods on the mountain slopes.’ Was the house Robert Graves’s? In my imagination, it is.
The cuckoo accomplished what a surgeon’s knife could not. I was plunged back deep through the years into my natural state, without books and the knowledge that I am supposed to have gained from them… I was set down once more within the kingdom of Frankie Buller.Whereupon follows a story that begins with kids playing war games and ends, in adulthood, with the sort of forced electroshock therapy that Janet Frame must have undergone. Unlike Frame, Frankie Buller hasn’t survived the treatment well. The light in his eyes has died; silently the narrator rages against ‘the conscientious-scientific-methodical probers’ who did the never-to-be-reversed damage.
I, meanwhile, wonder what happened to Alan Sillitoe. To his writing, I mean – to his talent. It’s easy to forget what a big name he was back then, in the 1960s. (Before my time, but I know). “Over 275,000 copies sold in Pan Books alone” announces my copy of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, printed in 1972 and now as brown as a used teabag. That’s a lot. But Sillitoe had gone off the boil by then – I haven’t read anything of his that’s much good after the first run of success. My understanding is that is he moved to London and, for a time at least, lived the life of a successful author. Coming from where he came from, who can blame him? And no doubt I’m ignorant of his later life. Yet I can’t help speculating about what later works of excellence he might have been produced if he’d stayed quietly on Deia.
From The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, W.H. Allen & Co., 1959