Nicolas Walter's thoughts on Alan Sillitoe's novel "Key to the Door".
I BEGAN READING ALAN SILLITOE'S NEW NOVEL,* a few hours after hearing he had joined us in the big sit-down, while I was lying on a police-cell floor during the long night of September 17th. I can think of no more suitable time and place, for Sillitoe has a voice of pure human dissent, like Sean O'Casey or John Osborne; there are no concessions attached to his total commitment. He offers no comforting message like Forster or Wesker, no prophetic cure like Shaw or Lawrence, no escape into art like Wilde or Behan, no indulgent affection like Orwell or MacInnes. He is just for the ordinary people and against their bosses and rulers, without question or quarter.
As everyone knows, Sillitoe made his name with his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), a début quite as remarkable as Lucky Jim or Room at the Top; the original edition has sold over 10,000 copies, the paperback edition has sold nearly a million, and the excellent film must have reached several million more people who had never heard of the book. Who read this book? "Ordinary working-class people", its author replies. It was followed by a collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), some of which – especially the outstanding title story – are even better than the novel. Then came a political fantasy, The General (1960), and a book of verse, The Rats (1960), neither of which I liked very much, despite their admirable sentiments. I remember even having the impertinence to tell the author to go back and write what he knew; this he has now done, and here we have a long novel by present standards (which is also cheap by present standards) which makes me feel I was right, for it is an important and impressive achievement. Sillitoe has proved that his talent was not just a flash in the pan, like that of so many of the other new writers since the war; his last book stands firmly on the same high level as the first two.
Key to the Door has the function in its author's work that Of Human Bondage, Eyeless in Gaza and Dr. Zhivago had in theirs – to make a major statement about the meaning of his life and his ideas in the framework of a large semi-autobiographical novel. Because of Sillitoe's background and his reaction to it this statement takes the form of a powerful protest against his society – the sort of protest made in Death of a Hero, The Grapes of Wrath and From Here to Eternity. I use these names deliberately; this is a big book. As a much-publicised Book Society choice, it will be enjoyed by many thousands of readers – but I wonder how many of them will understand what it is trying to say. Alan Sillitoe didn't come and sit down in Trafalgar Square for the sake of his health or his reputation, and the reasons he came are clear enough in Key to the Door. If the Establishment had any sense it would be worried about this book and its author. If we have any sense we will read the one and listen to the other.
Here is the story of the first twenty-one years in the life of Brian Seaton, who was born when Lady Chatterley found her lover, in the same part of England – industrial Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire – and shares with his author the same working-class origins that Oliver Mellors and Paul Morel shared with theirs (indeed, though there is no sign of imitation, the first part of Key to the Door reminded me strongly of Sons and Lovers). Readers of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning will remember its tough hero Arthur Seaton, his brother Fred and sister Margaret, his aunt Ada and cousin Bert; well they are all here, though Brian – the eldest Seaton brother – didn't appear in the earlier book. Arthur's story is set in the fifties, the age of full employment and television; Brian's is set in the thirties and forties, the age of unemployment and war. Here is the background not only of Brian Seaton and his brother, but of Alan Sillitoe and the best of his work, described in satisfying and convincing detail.
As in the earlier book, there is no conventional plot, no real sense of the passage of time, no contrived development or revelation – just a series of vivid episodes piling on top of each other, the last one fitting naturally into its place. The characters don't change much; they grow up, and struggle or give in, and fade away – birth and copulation and death, sometimes with good luck, usually with bad. But in the end Arthur came to some sort of terms with the world he defied; and in the same way Brian, a gentler person, finds the key to his door, though it is cut by everything that has happened to him from the material he was born with. There is no slick dénouement to round off the book; the story is real and its conclusion is real, for there is nothing phoney about Sillitoe.
There is richness here, more than he has shown before. The child growing up with his brothers and sisters in the shadow of a hot-tempered, foul-mouthed father (very like Walter Morel) and a rather helpless nagging mother (not like Gertrude Morel), with interesting aunts and grandparents, all in the deeper shadow of the Depression; his struggle to find knowledge in dictionaries and maps, excitement in The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables, identity and meaning in the harsh world of the industrial Midlands in the terrible thirties – all this is done with deep feeling and skill.
But Key to the Door is no portrait of the artist as an angry young man, or even as a hungry young man. It is far more than autobiographical self-pity. Brian Seaton grows up in a grim age, but he is no more a grim person than his creator. When the hungry years are over he puts them behind him, though – like his creator – he never forgets his early loathing of the people who kept the rotten system going and prolonged the hopeless helpless hunger of his childhood. "I don't know why they have coppers," says young Brian, "they're worse than school-teachers." "No difference," says his cousin, "it's all part of the gov'ment." Nonsense on the surface, but good sense underneath. Sillitoe does not preach resignation, as Arnold Bennett did, nor does he, godlike, rescue his hero from his predicament, as H. G. Wells did and as John Braine has done.
There is no consolation in religion. "There ain't no bastard God!" his father shouts; and little Brian reflects that "his teacher said that God loved everybody: Italians gassing blackies and mowing 'em down with machine-guns: dole, thunderstorms, school". Nor is there consolation in the nihilism expressed by Arthur Seaton in the earlier book. The only true consolation is in hatred of the top-dogs and solidarity with all other underdogs. When Brian looked at a picture of Shylock in a school edition of Shakespeare, "he knew whose side he was on and who would be on his side if he could suddenly come to life and step out of the printed book"; he admired the caricatured Jew for defying his persecutors.
When Brian buys a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, his father is furious. "Yer've wasted 'alf a crown on a book?" he exclaims – furious not because he is illiterate (although he is) but because he is unemployed and can't afford food, let alone books. But the investment pays off; in his book Brian "heard the patient scraping and scratching of freedom, was shown that even dungeons and giant prisons were unable to keep men in forever". Even bitter poverty is unable to quench his thirst for knowledge and truth. Later he buys Les Misérables too, and reads about "the battle between a common man and the police who would not let him be free because he had once stolen a loaf of bread for the children of his starving sister". His own father goes to prison when he steals to feed his family. The problem of literary commitment is no problem for Brian Seaton; Dumas and Hugo are on his side and describe his predicament in imaginative terms – that is enough.
Perhaps it is difficult now to imagine a child who has to say: "My dad's allus on dole … Nearly all the kids at school 'ave got dads on dole." But Love on the Dole was published in 1933; the last great Hunger March took place just twenty-five years ago; Wal Hannington's National Unemployed Workers' Movement was pursuing its brilliant campaign well into 1939, when there were still over two million unemployed. We should remember the context of the first part of of Key to the Door. It would be strange if Brian Seaton (and Alan Sillitoe) were not on the far left in politics.
Even after the betrayal of 1931, hatred of top-dogs and solidarity with underdogs meant support of the Labour Party for most people. "Labour was the best thing – and if Brian ever felt distrust for that sympathetic organisation it was only because all big names seemed like devil's threats to hold his soul in thrall." How right he was; and in fact he grows up to become a common sort of war-time fellow-traveller who scrawls LONG LIVE RUSSIA AND STALIN up by his 137 books and hopes that the 1945 election means the coming of his ideas of socialism – "he knew that all men were brothers and that the wealth of the world should be pooled and divided fairly among those who worked."
Back in the thirties war is welcomed because it means the end of want – what is rationing to starvelings in their hunger or conscription to men without work? But there are no illusions about it. When he asks his grandmother who won the first world war, her answer is simply "Nobody". And when Munich comes, the sadistic schoolmaster reminds the boys that "war is nothing but pain". Nor is there any illusion about Munich. "They'll be no peace in our time," says Brian's mother. "No," agrees his father, "nor in any other bloody time either." Nor later is there any illusion about Churchill – "Owd Fatguts", they call him. "He didn't give a bogger about us. It was all his bleeding factory owners he saved … It was him and his gang as turned hosepipes on the hunger-marchers before the war." Cynicism without illusions is necessary for survival. "It's no worse in a war than it is now," Brian is told. "You get boggered from pillar to post and get nowt to eat, just the same." For most people in the world this is the simple truth.
Brian is too young to fight in the War, but he is called up soon after it and volunteers for service overseas, although he has just married the girl he gets into trouble (who is rather like Doreen in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), because he wants to see something of the world before he settles down. The second part of the book alternates between his youth in wartime Nottingham and his experience in Malaya. He discovers the truth of "Orwell's Law" (that the oppressed proletariat of Britain has its own oppressed proletariat in the coloured parts of the British Empire – a version of the law that there's always someone worse off than you), he has an affair with a Chinese girl (who is uncomfortably like Suzie Wong), and he meets an example of the familiar species of the anarchic NCO (who reads The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and is very like Jack Malloy in From Here to Eternity). Meanwhile we learn about his first jobs at home, and his courtship of Pauline.
Corporal Knotman, the anarchist, is important, since he helps to give shape to Brian's spontaneous political ideas. He is a regular who fought through the war and is almost due for release. "I've learnt to know what freedom means in these last eight years … and the bloke who doesn't learn that, sooner or later, isn't fit to be on the face of the earth, because they're the types that end up as the enemies and persecutors of those who know what freedom means." Like all real soldiers he has no hatred for his official enemies. "It's them who shout 'Charge' and 'Up and at 'em lads' who are your biggest enemies." He has evolved his own form of individualism, and he sees a kindred spirit in Brian. "You're not a communist … You might be a socialist when you've read more and know a bit about it … If you're anything you're a socialist-anarchist." One is reminded of the "anarchist socialism" described in the editorial of the first number of FREEDOM (reprinted in the 75th anniversary issue on October 21st); Brian Seaton, like Alan Sillitoe, is an old-fashioned – a pre-1917 – socialist, as interested in liberty and fraternity as in equality.
Knotman adds mysteriously: "History is on our side, so just bide your time: you won't even know when to act; the first thing you'll know you'll be acting – and in the right way." This recalls the end of The Rats, and we are led to anticipate a semi-existentialist act of defiance like that in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. But what happens is more than an act of defiance: Brian is more mature than the Borstal boy, and manages to combine defiance of the top-dogs with an expression of solidarity with the underdogs.
The war against the Communist guerrillas begins just before he leaves Malaya, and he is involved in a skirmish with them. Sure enough, he finds himself acting – by deliberately shooting at trees instead of Communists, and even releasing a Communist he has captured by mistake. The only casualty in his unit is a typical middle-class dissenter, who speaks big but shoots straight enough when it comes to the point, and his death might have been Brian's fault. But he knows he was right. He imagines himself telling his father about it. "I caught a Communist and let him go," he says. I let him go because he was a comrade! I didn't kill him because he was a man."
This is the key to the book. Brian's moment of decision comes when he is face to face with a fellow-countryman of his mistress, a fellow-opponent of the top-dogs, a fellow human being. His "duty" is to kill him or take him prisoner; but he knows that his real duty is to let him go. Similarly his real duty is to marry Pauline when she becomes pregnant and to go back to her when he gets out of the army, despite his feelings for Mimi, to stay with his own people – his family, his mates, his class – and to be a "socialist-anarchist".
The book closes with Brian on the way home to the England that is struggling out of austerity into affluence, to the busy Nottingham in which the Cherry Orchard (significant name!) where he used to play as a child and where he later used to make love with Pauline, has been built over. He is 21 and he has become a man. "He somehow felt he had the key to the door … And with the key to the door all you need to do now," he decides, "was flex your muscles to open it … At least my eyes have been opened. All I've got to do now is to see with them, and when one person sees, maybe the next one will as well." As with Arthur in the earlier book, the time has come to settle down and hand life and liberty on to the next generation. "I'll spend a night or two helping the union, you can bet, because somebody's got to do it, and I feel I'm just the bloke for a thing like that. I'll get to know what's what as well, pull a few more books into the house to see what makes the world tick, maybe read some of those I nicked years ago."
But he hasn't been tamed by any means. It is worth remembering what Sillitoe said about his work on the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: "I didn't want Arthur Seaton … getting transmogrified into a young workman who turns out to be an honest-to-goodness British individualist – that is, one who triumphs in the end against and at the expense of a communist agitator or the trade unions. I didn't want him to become a tough stereotype with, after all, a heart of moral gold which has in it a love of the monarchy and all that old-fashioned muck."
In the same way, Alan Sillitoe himself hasn't been tamed. He has refused to be turned aside by the people who would like him to be either responsible or sensational (i.e. conformist or melodramatic). In a way this harms Key to the Door. He is so anxious to make himself clear, that he has made his book far too long, and parts of it tend to drag badly without the pressure that drove Saturday Night and Sunday Morning along – constructive anarchism is far more difficult to get across than destructive nihilism. Other defects are that Brian is a slightly colourless character and that the sex in his story seems to come to him rather too easily: surely there would have been some obstacles of the kind that Paul Morel encountered fifty years ago? Perhaps a more serious defect is that the symbolism that recurs in the book tends to get lost – the storms, the animals' deaths, the mountain-climb and so on all have important functions in the story, but what these functions are is not always clear.
Nevertheless, the statement made in Key to the Door is clear enough, and the book is certainly a vital part of Sillitoe's work. It would be absurd merely to label him as an "anarchist writer" but it would be equally absurd for anarchists to ignore what he has to say – and not only in his novels, stories and poems. Like John Osborne or like Sean O'Casey, he sometimes seems naive and confused, but like them he is in touch with things that matter. Consider his comment on the big sit-down: "The anti-bomb campaign is, obviously a political movement. It is also disenfranchised and, as such, is revolutionary, more dangerous than if it had a couple of hundred M.P.s in Parliament – which would make it useless. The longer it remains unrepresented the more certain will be its complete victory … Everyone who sat down in Trafalgar Square did so for political reasons, and in so doing they threaten (or would do if there were enough of them) the basis on which the present political life of this country stands."
Sillitoe is a revolutionary writer and a writing revolutionary. Brian Seaton is a worthy successor to Frank Owen, and Alan Sillitoe is a worthy successor to Robert Noonan, the unhappy pseudonymous author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Seaton is luckier than Owen, because his comrades have won a better share of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; Sillitoe is luckier than Noonan, because of his comrades, the people who read his books, and certainly we should be among them, because he too is a comrade, because he is a man.
*Key to the Door (W. H. Allen, 18s.).