Books | Alan Sillitoe, channeling the angry young football man

Taylor says that the trajectory and language of “The Match” herald a new literary perspective on working-class life. “Sillitoe,” he writes, “was almost single-handedly responsible for a shift in the way working-class characters found themselves represented in literature.” George Orwell in such works as The Road to Wigan Pier, in which he, too, muses in passing on football’s adjunct status (principally through the pools) to a working man’s days, had celebrated his subjects’ authenticity and stolidness. Orwell refers to “the curious cult of Northernness” as represented by Yorkshiremen who claim that the North offers the only “real” life, “the industrial work done in the North is the only ‘real’ work, that the North is inhabited by ‘real’ people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites.”

Sillitoe relocated to London from Nottingham some time ago; he augments his writing space with a Nottinghamshire memento, a shoe for a lame horse as crafted by his farrier grandfather.

We do not know how often football supporters occupy principal roles in Sillitoe’s novels and travel writing. It would be hard to find a more appropriate character foil, though, than Notts County, who have experienced the most relegations in English football history (14).

Perhaps Sillitoe’s unsentimental view of the football-viewing experience and the attendant domestic misery pushed him beyond the city limits. In the 1960s, he set off on a one-man car trip, intending to drive from England to the Soviet Union. The account, Gadfly in Russia, would not be published until 2007 (see his essay “Red Wine and a New Beginning,” New Statesman, 15 Nov 07):

I set off, driving on the left to Harwich, and next day on the right, across Denmark. Sweden’s traffic in those days took me back to the left, while in Finland 24 hours later I was again driving on the right. The drill sergeant’s command of “left, right, left, right” took me down the middle of the road to Leningrad. The plan was to motor via Moscow and Kiev to Romania, over the Carpathians, the Alps, across the Channel, and then home.

Along this road Sillitoe would encounter another itinerant writer who had incorporated football into his creation: Anatoly Kuznetsov, author of Babi Yar. Kuznetsov, the native of Kyiv, fought Soviet censors over publication of the documentary novel chronicling Nazi executions in the infamous Ukraine ravine. The book also demystifies the so-called Death Match (6 Aug 1942) between a reconstituted Dynamo Kyiv and a German Luftwaffe elite (see our Dnipro Dnipropetrovs’k–Dynamo Kyiv “liveblog,” Mar 2). Sillitoe’s companion on the Soviet leg of the car journey later escorts Kuznetsov to London, where Kuznetsov claimed asylum and to which, in 1969, he smuggled the uncensored Babi Yar text.

Sillitoe along the writer’s rambling way has encountered some critics, but like Notts County—the only English club to have played in every FA Cup, beginning in 1877—he demonstrates staying power.


The Times Literary Supplement in its review of Richard Bradford‘s biography of Sillitoe, The Life of a Long-Distance Writer (Peter Owen, 2008), sketches the provenance of “The Match” (D. J. Taylor, “The Start of Alan Sillitoe,” 1 Oct 08). Sillitoe based the story on a visit to a Notts County match in 1949; the story itself was first published in 1954. Its French editors, “who exclaimed over this story of domestic violence spilling out of an afternoon on the football terraces,” drew comparisons with Albert Camus, the football-savvy existentialist.

“The Match,” according to Bradford, shows how Sillitoe blends both reporting skill and artistry. The story “is a great deal more than reportage—devious, full of sly juxtapositions, odd symbolic sheens and ambiguous human traffic.”

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  1. The Global Game | Don’t smoke ’em if you got ’em | Coming ban in England stadia another blow to terrace nostalgia:

    [...] in a Saturday afternoon, a respite from miserable routine. A standard evocation might be that of Alan Sillitoe—author of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the “English 101″ staple—in [...]

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