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Alan Sillitoe, 1928–2010

The British novelist who chronicled the working class

Novelist Alan Sillitoe, considered one of the “Angry Young Men” of 1950s British fiction, discovered his vocation when he was stricken by tuberculosis at 20, while serving in the Royal Air Force in what is now Malaysia. Recuperating in a military sanatorium, he read everything from philosophy to pulp fiction and determined to become a writer—though the opportunities to do so were slim.

Born in Nottingham to an illiterate tannery worker and his wife, Sillitoe endured grinding poverty as a child, said the London Independent. “His father was often out of work and in debt.” He left school at age 14 to work in a bicycle plant, and when World War II broke out, he lied about his age and enlisted. Once the war ended and he had recovered from TB, he traveled Europe with his wife, the American poet Ruth Fainlight, living off a meager RAF pension.

His literary breakthrough came in 1958 with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, about a “frequently drunk, amorally libidinous” factory worker with a bottomless contempt for authority, said The New York Times. His most famous work, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner—about a reform-school boy who throws a race to spite his headmaster—also sounded an anti-authoritarian note. Both works were made into movies now considered classics of postwar British realism. His later works, which included children’s stories, poems, and plays, did not win the acclaim accorded his earlier creations, but his influence was enduring. The Arctic Monkeys rock band plundered Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for the title of their 2006 album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.

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