Sunday, 25 April 2010

Bringing the war to the drawing room

I've read far too little of Alan Sillitoe's work - only really extracts from his two best-known books, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning - but in an odd way the fact that I haven't read a lot of Sillitoe and yet remained aware of him, and of his impact, testifies to his success.

'Social realism' was a concept I battled with for a long time as a writer. I saw it as grubby and lacking in aspiration. I wanted to create work that was fantastic and unusual and not like the boring surroundings I grew up in. For me, escape was revolution, and I devoted my time to imagining a better, more fabulous and glamourous life that the one I was living. It's only as I've grown older, and came up against the mundane obstacles that try to stop us creating worlds fab enough to live in, that I've came to appreciate the importance of social realism as a genre, and the multiplicity intrinsic to it.

Social realism emerged as a challenge to an orthodoxy in literature which said working class lives were unimportant. Playwrights like Joe Orton were writing against the tradition of drawing-room farce, novelists like Sillitoe were competing with the work of people like Waugh and Powell, to make the point that working class lives and experience counted for more than just comic relief in stories where the main characters were always drawn from the wealthy elites. Social realism wasn't restrictive: it was about creating more space for voices which weren't heard. It's little wonder that the first such expressions were howls of rage and pain.

Drawing the attention of the privileged to the lives they overlook or mock, and writing stories which reaffirm the experiences of those lives for those who live them, is the kind of thing all writers should be doing, whether the privilege they write against is straight, cis, male, abled, rich or white. Especially given that for the first time in years here in the UK, the Tories, a party which, more than anything else, stands for keeping the plebs/queers/cripples/darkies in their place, is actually looking like a serious electoral threat. Sillitoe would hate to see David Cameron smarm his way into government, because allowing the country to once again be ruled by a bunch of braying arseholes from Eton would represent the betrayal of his writing, and the triumph of all he'd been writing against.

Except that the Tories, just like every other privileged group, can never really triumph as long as people who don't belong to their insular little circle-jerk keep writing, and fighting, and going on, whether we get our stories onto a national stage and bring the war into the drawing room, or huddle round the fire and tell our stories to our own. There will always be voices raised in opposition to the dominant narrative, and we should honour those people who stick their heads above the parapet to draw attention to the lives that it leaves out. Alan Sillitoe was one such person and, whoever wins on May 6th, there will be many, many other British writers walking down the trail he blazed.

No comments:

Post a Comment