Nicola Monaghan's news, events and general thoughts about life and writing.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

RIP Alan Sillitoe, a writer who reached across the generations

It won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who knows me at all that the death of Alan Sillitoe last week came as a real blow to me. I didn't know Alan well, but we had met a few times and he'd been an enduring support to my career all the way. More than that, his books and writing were part of what inspired me to write in the first place. I can't express what his letters, quotes and general support meant to me.

The first time I met Alan Sillitoe was when I was revising for my 'O' level English. Not in person, but on the page, that most famous passage of Arthur's journey down the stairs used as an extract in one of the past papers we were looking at. I was immediately taken with his writing, with the fact it was Nottingham, proper Nottingham, the place I knew, and with the vivid scenes he painted. I had read a lot of Lawrence before this but had never come across Sillitoe. And so something began, something deep inside me about writing (which was something I'd always wanted to do) and about Nottingham too. It would take twenty years to develop into my first novel The Killing Jar but I believe that this moment is where the book began.

I finally met the man himself those twenty years on. It was at a production of the theatre adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning at Lakeside Arts Centre. We walked out so that Chad could smoke and, of course, Alan was also smoking. I didn't say much to him - just hello - but the timing felt significant. Just the day before, I'd received my first proof copy of The Killing Jar from Chatto. I wished I had it with me. It was the only copy of the book I had but I would have handed it to Alan there and then without a quiver of indecision. As it was, I stood with my husband and tried not to stare. Then a journalist walked over and began talking to Alan about the Arctic Monkeys and their use of his words in the title of their debut album Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not. 

It strikes me that this is something Alan Sillitoe did really well, reaching across the generations. Nottingham had become a very different place since he wrote SNSM but there was something essential about the book, about being young, about kicking out against the system. Something important. Not only had it spoken to me but to the even younger Arctic Monkeys and, when I did a search on MySpace, it seemed to a whole raft of other young men and women. Brilliant Nottingham Culture mag Left Lion quoted him too, choosing his words for their own motto: All the rest is propaganda. 

Since then I've met Alan a number of times. The day I got my Betty Trask, when I finally did get chance to give him a copy of my book, which I was thrilled that he asked me sign, and put my address in so he could write to me afterwards. Write to me he did. In fact, we sparked up quite a bit of a correspondence for the next three and a bit years. His kind words about my writing will stay with me for a long time and his letters will be something I cherish until the day I die. I feel an immense sense of privilege to be able to pull them out from the safe place I keep them and see Alan's own handwriting telling me to 'keep on keeping on'.

I had a dream a couple of days after he died. I was living in a really run down house, a right hovel, with peeling wallpaper and bare pipes that leaked, nasty carpet with ground in dirt and Alan Sillitoe was coming to visit me there. I felt embarrassed. He was this great writer, and used to a bit of luxury, and here was I offering him a cup of tea in my dingy place. Of course, he didn't seem to mind. Then we went outside. The garden was massive, acres and acres of green stretching for miles and miles. I pointed it out to him. I told him about my plans for the wonderful things I was going to build on that land.

Sometimes I think the subconscious is the most beautiful thing in the world.


Fiona Joseph said...

This is a lovely piece Nicola. These tributes can be so hard to write but you've got it bang on - straight from the heart. I will miss him too as will many people across the generations. Paul Weller was/is a big fan which is how I first discovered Alan Sillitoe's work - as an anti-authoritarian teen. Fiona x

Niki M said...

Thank you Fiona. xx

BarbaraS said...

What a lovely tribute, Niki, and the dream at the end to cap it all off - that's a gift! SHould write it up as a wee story for somewhere - bet you use it in another book in the future :)

Niki M said...

Thank you Barbara. Yes, that dream does feel like a gift. Certainly something that will stay with me for a while. xx

boxofficegirl said...

Beautifully written Nicola, made me sorry I hadn't had the same chance of meeting him too.

Niki M said...

Thank you Box Office Girl. He was a lovely man. xx