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Alan Sillitoe, 82, dies; chronicled restless British youth

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 27, 2010; B05

Alan Sillitoe, 82, a British author whose fictional works "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" powerfully depicted revolt against authority by the young and the working class, died April 25 in a London hospital. The cause of death was not reported.

His novel "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1958) and short story "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1959) were regarded as groundbreaking in their portrayals of the British working class.

They gave Mr. Sillitoe prominence among the so-called "Angry Young Men" of British fiction, a group of authors that included John Osborne and Kingsley Amis. They created characters who seemed to represent the postwar decay of the British empire in their embittered view of their prospects.

Writing in the Saturday Review, critic James Yaffe praised Mr. Sillitoe's "fluent, often brilliant command of language, an acute ear for dialect, [and] a virtuoso ability to describe the sight, sound and smell of things."

Mr. Sillitoe, who wrote poems and essays in addition to fiction, saw himself as more a writer than social prophet, more an artist than polemicist. What he had produced with "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," he said, was not a "working class novel," but simply a novel informed by his squalid childhood in the gray industrial city of Nottingham.

The book featured an amoral protagonist, Arthur Seaton, a sexually reckless Nottingham factory worker who makes little effort to rise through playing by the rules or showing class solidarity.

"That's what all those looney laws are for, yer know," Seaton says in the book, "to be broken by blokes like me." As for joining with his fellows, he was scornful in rejecting the labor leader who "asks me to go to union meetings or sign a paper against what's happening in Kenya. As if I cared."

Mr. Sillitoe wrote the screenplay for the riveting 1960 film version of "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," which provided Albert Finney with a star-making role as Seaton.

Mr. Sillitoe also wrote the script for "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" (1962), starring Michael Redgrave as the supervisor of a brutal boys' reformatory who molds an inmate (played by Tom Courtenay) into a runner.

When the big race comes, the young man purposely loses, thwarting the supervisor's effort to show his ability to correct the wayward. In doing this, he flouts authority but retains his self-respect.

Mr. Sillitoe said he took the screenwriting assignments to ensure that the meaning of his work was preserved onscreen. He said he didn't want Seaton, for example, to become a stereotypical movie tough guy "with after all, a heart of moral gold which has in it a love of the monarchy and all that old-fashioned muck."

Alan Sillitoe was born March 4, 1928, in Nottingham, into a working-class family dominated by a violent father. Mr. Sillitoe got only a rudimentary formal education. But he said he was taught to read and write, and gained an interest in history and geography, "and that's all I needed."

After factory work as a teenager, he joined the Royal Air Force and was sent to Malaya as a radio operator. He contracted tuberculosis, which led to several months in a hospital in England. For the next several years, he lived on a small disability pension in France and Spain while convalescing.

While in Majorca, he befriended poet and novelist Robert Graves ("I, Claudius"), who encouraged his fellow expatriate to write about the life he knew in Nottingham. The result, a few years later, was "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning."

His later books included "Key to the Door" (1961), which is partially set in Malaya and features Seaton's brother Brian, as well as volumes of children's fiction, travel writing, poetry, criticism and memoirs.

In 1959, he married poet Ruth Fainlight. Besides his wife, survivors include their two children.

In today's society, Mr. Sillitoe recently told LeftLion, the Web site of Nottingham culture, rebellion is far more difficult than it once was.

"You can't do anything," he said. "You walk around and they've got cameras looking at you." Urinate on a street corner, he said, and "they take a picture."

By the end of his life, Mr. Sillitoe said, he had become two people: One, he said, thinks "good, get drunk . . . why not." The other he said, thinks, "no, don't do it, learn, be careful, hoard your money, work as hard as you can." But, he said, it was person No. 1 whom "I can't help admiring."

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