Neither Nottingham nor Algeria

Simon Matthews celebrates a neglected classic by an Angry Young Man.

Alan Sillitoe
The Death of William Posters
WH Allen, 1965

What is the UK’s most politically radical novel? Do we know? Have we ever checked? The Guardian assemble rankings of the ‘best of’ political books, almost entirely non-fiction, but no comparable collection of political novels seems to have been contemplated. Which is a bit odd. After all, there are plenty of lists of recommended feminist or gay fiction, children’s books, science fiction and so on, but not of anything political.

A case might be made for the likes of 1984, but surely that is more of a dystopia? It occurs that we haven’t really seen the contemporary political novel being championed since the days of Galsworthy, Bennett and Wells. In the absence, then, of a list of notable works of that type, one candidate that comes to mind is Alan Sillitoe’s The Death of William Posters.

It appeared in 1965, when Sillitoe was 37 and enjoying an unimpeachable reputation as one of the ‘angry young men’. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958, filmed 1960 with Albert Finney) had topped the best-sellers and swept the board at the BAFTAs. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959, filmed 1962 with Tom Courtenay) was much liked and The General (1960) was optioned by Universal, later appearing as the block-buster war film Counterpoint, starring Charlton Heston.

Then came Key to the Door, a 1961 prequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, with the central character – Brian Seaton, Arthur’s older brother – conscripted and sent to fight Communism in Malaya. Unwillingly as it happens. He sympathises with the rebels, has a relationship with a local Chinese woman, and transmits poetry, via morse code, into the jungle rather than obey orders. Ah….

Key to the Door failed to repeat the success of his opening trio. There were few in the UK who actually wanted communists to win, even in Malaya. Audiences in general indicated their preference a few years later for trouble-free reads like The Virgin Soldiers, with its mixture of action, sex and not much ideology at all.

Sillitoe’s rejection of conventional western politics with all its pro-establishment compromises, his contempt for consumerism as a sop to stupefy the working class and his anti-colonial slant had admirers elsewhere, though. The Soviet Union, on behalf of the extended eastern bloc, embraced him as the authentic voice of the disillusioned western proletariat and reprinted his works, with typical runs of over a million, for use as set texts in schools and colleges. In 1962 he was allowed an access-all-areas unsupervised personal visit to the USSR, the result of which, his 1964 travelogue Road to Volgograd, provided an interesting, and accurate, portrait of late period communism in practice.

After which came The Death of William Posters.

In many ways a reprise of the attitudes displayed in Key to the Door, this replaces Brian Seaton with Frank Dawley, a factory worker who walks away from his job, wife and children to roam the UK after coming to terms with his own views about society and his place within it. Dawley, in a neat narrative device, identifies himself with ‘Bill Posters’, a composite proletarian character with antecedents back to Robin Hood, Jack Cade, the Luddites and many others.

He ends up in a Lincolnshire village where he moves in with a very well-educated District Nurse. Eventually, her estranged husband turns up, fisticuffs ensue and Dawley moves on to arrive in London where he rents a bed-sit in a crumbling house in Camden Road, painting his room completely white (very, very 1960’s, the all-white interior) and spends his days visiting galleries and pubs and holding down a series of short-term manual jobs.

Here he starts an affair with a frustrated middle-class Jewish house-wife. They quit the UK and travel via France to Tangiers. They meet a wealthy US tourist – the dialogue and descriptions clearly semaphore that he is most-likely in the CIA – who enquiries if Frank would be interested, on behalf of an unspecified group who support the liberationist struggle, in delivering a lorry full of military hardware to the FLN in Algeria. He agrees, leaves the woman behind and heads out into the desert, to an unknown destiny.

It reads well, even today. Yes, in 2021 we would question the male-centric narrative, and whether moving on, repeatedly, from women (particularly when they have had your children) is quite as noble or liberating as indicated here. One conclusion might be that Dawley is too wrapped up in himself and basically quite selfish. But whatever he is, he doesn’t buckle, like Arthur Seaton, under societal pressures.

Sillitoe’s prose is poetic and stylistically, this is quite avant-garde. Large chunky, descriptive paragraphs flash by in pure John Cooper Clarke rhythms, denunciatory and declamatory in tone and illuminated by brilliant gallows humour. Reading some of these aloud is so like the Salford bard rattling through ‘Beasley Street’, that one wonders how much of an influence Sillitoe may have been on him.

In fact, Sillitoe saw himself as a poet, rather than a novelist per se. He married Ruth Fainlight, a friend of Sylvia Plath, and at one point lived on Majorca with Robert Graves. It was Graves who advised him to write novels rather than concentrate on poetry. The tough, matter-of-fact texture of the writing works. The intrusion of the independent working-class man from ‘the north’ into the lives of the middle-class women that he strikes up relationships with is effectively portrayed, rather in the style used by Edna O’Brien, Iris Murdoch or Margaret Drabble in their observations of contemporary marriages.

Some of the detail jars: clearly set in 1961, though not published until 1965, Sillitoe’s District Nurse drives a mini (in rural Lincolnshire?) and has a copy of William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch, which didn’t actually reach the UK until 1964. The reader today may also note that Dawley’s ability to roam around the UK supporting himself with social security payments and readily available casual work was not an issue, the under-pinning political arrangements of the time clearly making such a lifestyle possible.

For all that, The Death of William Posters remains a curiously forgotten work. Its rejection of ‘normal’ values is so marked that its equivalent now would have a disillusioned young man quitting the streets of Blackburn to become a jihadist. Unsurprisingly, in 1965 the film makers stayed away. It was too extreme. How could they have done anything else? Funded a feature adaptation, circa 1967, with the action switched to Aden? Would any UK (or US) producer have backed something in which a factory worker from Nottingham takes on ‘our boys’ in a fight against imperialism? Vanessa Redgrave and Tariq Ali would have loved it. But would people have queued outside the Gaumont Nuneaton to watch such stuff?

Sillitoe continued to sell, even if Hollywood (or Dean Street) were no longer calling. A Start in Life (1970), another picaresque free-wheeling blokey novel with a ‘northern’ hero, making good in London before returning home, sold 100,000 copies. Nor did his attitudes change: he was up in court in 1971 for refusing to fill out his census form.

And he remained required reading in the Soviet Union. His late non-fiction Gadfly in Russia (2007) has a passage where he attends, as a rare UK guest of honour, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War. The absence of PM Tony Blair is noted. Even now, it’s hard to imagine anything as thorough in its anti-establishment stance as The Death of William Posters.

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