LOST AGAIN – A LETTER TO MISTER SILLITOE by Michael Eaton
I’m in good company today. But do I have a right to be here?
I’m not in any way suggesting it’s presumptuous of me to button-hole you; to give you, whether you want it or not, when you can’t shut me up, when you can’t answer back, a piece of my, for what it’s worth, mind. That’s not my nature.
I’d like to think I might be related (however distantly) to them Nottingham lambs, ‘the city’s traditional roughs’ you called them, revolting anti-authoritarian plebs who slugged it out in the Old Market Square for whichever side would fill them with sufficient gin and who burnt down the Castle when the toff who lorded it over them voted against Reform.
I might be related: mentally, I mean, not physically; aspirationally perhaps, not actually; mouthily certainly, not muscley obviously.
Yet I will admit to being somewhat over-awed. On this… your day.
Because you mean so much to us. You know you do.
How can I forget when I was a young lad reading one of your tales (naturally I can’t remember which one) when your first-person cyclist looks over the Trent valley spread out before him from the summit of… Carlton Hill!
You weren’t just telling a story set in our home town. You were giving international endorsement to my own suburb!
Between covers! Of a book! From a library!
You must know what that did for us. Because something similar happened to you when you were a young lad coming up against Lawrence writing about Ilkeston.
You’d been there before us, paving the way.
Not much to succour us in them days. Not even a regional TV franchise.
The Queen of the Midlands was but a remote eastern antennal adjunctive outpost of
Associated Television. We had to suffer the ignominy of: Midlands Parade!
No-budget adverts for: corner shops; carpet warehouses; late-night chemists in:
West Bromwich; Sutton Coldfield and Walsall.
Places remote from us as: West Germany; South Korea and…Warsaw.
No wonder we were so fixated on our local legend who put us on the map.
When, in the wonderful Errol Flynn movie, revolting anti-authoritarian peasants whisper: ‘Meet Robin at the Major Oak in Sherwood. Pass it on!’
I considered that ordinance as the very burden of my responsibility.
Now and forever.
And later, much later, when the penny finally dropped that the series which had been my founding fiction as a child, was pseudonymously penned by blacklisted reds,
I finally got the picture. No wonder Robin Hood was my first political role model.
Now and forever.
But into that miasma of marginal geographical neglect: There was a writer from our city; a writer who’d created a character to give a face to what you call ‘the brash self-confidence’ of Nottingham, our ‘idiosyncratic and independent’ spirit.
Alan, your work validated us. Your success granted us existence.
It’s not like that round here now, of course. These days if you play tin-can-lurgy in the streets of Forest Fields or Carrington chances are you’ll bruise the shins of some passing short-listed, prize-winning author. NG is getting like LA where every waiter has a screenplay that will never get out of development.
And do I have a right to be here?
We did bump into each other on the odd occasion. I was sometimes in the audience
when you came back to do a talk. But I’m embarrassed to say that at first I didn’t recognise you when last we met.
You’d grown a louche grey beard. You looked like a real bohemian.
How I always wanted you to look.
You were wearing a black trench-coat. You looked really sinister.
How I always wanted you to look.
The next week I went out and bought a mac just like yours, I’m wearing it today.
But I stopped short at the facial hair.
That was the night in the Council House when you were given the keys to our kingdom, conferring upon you the ancient right to drive sheep across Trent Bridge.
Must have been wonderful for a prophet to be honoured on his own patch at last, eh?
So do I have a right to be here?
Whenever I open one of your books I’m faced with an intimidating bibliographical catalogue of works that I’ve haven’t read – not read yet.
But there is one volume that’s always on my bedside table and into which I continually dip, probably a work you might have thought ephemeral, occasional.
It’s a travel book. I’d like to get round to catching up on your Russian trips one of these good old days. But this is closer to home.
This is a book I like for the photographs taken by your son David.
(perfectly capturing the heavy skies and monochrome of those surroundings we affect and strain and pretend to love so much) as well as for your deceptive prose:
an apparently simplicity masking a complexity of thought, an ambiguity of feeling
about who you are and where you come from.
You’re talking to me directly in ‘Alan Sillitoe’s Nottinghamshire’.
What an achievement to be so topographically associated.
Like Dickens’s London
Catherine Cookson country.
Now do I have a right to be here?
We have so little in common. You were west and we were east
Me dad were Plessey and me mother were Players.
(Remember what they used to say:
‘All the world’s an ashtray and men and women merely players.’)
Your lot were Raleigh and Sturmey Archer.
Our side moved out from Sneinton and Saint Ann’s to Bakersfield and Carlton.
Your side would’ve moved out from Radford to Bilborough and Strelley.
Your angry young man’s Arthur Seaton. My peaceful old man’s Arthur Eaton.
A universe of characterological difference in that one missing consonant.
The west side called each other ‘yoth’ and ‘blue’ and ‘serry’
In the east it was ‘duck’ and ‘chicken and sometimes even, I regret to admit, ‘sausage’.
Well, everyone says ‘duck’.
I spent years at university explaining to lovely chums educated at the likes of Cheltenham Ladies College that this is an ungendered non-sexist term
applied indiscriminately to one and all, young and old, male and female.
And besides, I can’t help it. It’s the defining addication of where I come from.
But that, of course, was before I learned that our favourite appellation was derived, not from the farmyard, but from the Old Norse ‘dokke’ which means, I’m sorry to say, ‘doll’. Perhaps it is misogynist after all, my duck.
So little in common.
I’ve never known what it’s like to do a moonlight flit: ‘Always’ as you put it ‘one turn of the handcart wheels ahead of the rent man’s flat feet.’
I never lived through a world war; never saw service against insurgents in Malaya, never entered the inside of a TB ward.
But we both name characters after Notts villages. You have a fictional town and me a fictional university of Ashfield: too resonant a monochromatic place name not to purloin.
But perhaps the greatest difference between us is that I came back to live here and,
for my terrible transgressions, whatever they might be, I stayed. Twenty five years on Dog End Alley, within the sound of Little John’s bells.
You wrote: ‘I haven’t lived in Nottingham since I was eighteen, and only left it to find to find out what was beyond, not because I disliked it.’
How could I ever blame you for going?
I keep trying to leave for that great beyond. I keep getting dragged back somehow.
Living in Nottingham is like living in a castle… you’re constantly in a state of siege.
The first time you get broken into the insurance people insist you install:
a burglar alarm; next internal door locks; then bars on all the downstairs windows;
after that electronic gates whose pin number you struggle to summon into consciousness when you weave your way home off the tram with one or two too many inside. Or they won’t pay up the next time (because there’s always going to be a next time.)
Your pockets jangle with a fat bunch of keys. You’ve become your own jailer.
We’ve had the lot in the last quarter of a century.
That Peeping Tom who stalked our daughter. Nearly caught in the act once.
I chased him down the street waving a stick but he had a bike and eluded me.
The copper who turned up… eventually, asked:
‘What would you have done if you’d caught him?’
I didn’t have a clue.
‘I’ll give you a tip. If it does happen again and you do catch the bastard, make sure you drag him back across your property line before you have a go… sir.’
That pretty little arsonist, always wide-eyed at the front of the crowd when the fire brigade’s siren screamed down Forest Road to douse her conflagrations in yet another abandoned garage.
Then, after reading Rupert stories to my grandson I’d be out checking for empty syringes and filled toggies (found one yesterday as it happens, for the first time in some while, somebody’s trip down memory lane, certainly not mine) before I’d feel safe to let him and his chums out to play in the yard. Where we live might locally be known as ‘The Green’ but, believe me, it’s nowt like Nutwood. Did Mister Bear in his plus-fours have to avoid the solicitations of whores as he walked back from delivering his young cub to nursery?
I can’t remember reading ‘Rupert and the Call Girls’.
The last break-in but one was really quite memorable.
Coming back from town in the early afternoon I saw a police car parked outside and found my wife at home, unexpectedly called away from her work as a community midwife in the Meadows. This time the cack-handed burglar had smashed through the double-glazing, instantly setting off the insurance-demanded alarm.
One of my lovely neighbours had called it in (strong bonds are forged in adversity by those of us who persist in occupying Dog End Alley for more than a season.)
So the gonif had only had time to nick the video and DVD before legging it.
I came in to hear my dear wife shout with some urgency, amazement even in her usually unflappable Australian voice: ‘Come and look at this!’
What fresh horror could this unwelcome guest have violated upon our happy home?
The telly he’d not had time to steal was on and together we watched a replay of the second hi-jacked plane smashing into the World Trade Centre, putting our trivial loss into some kind of global perspective.
(How could I know on that day that I would be asked to tell the story of 9/11 for the tenth anniversary of that outrage which has changed our world forever?)
Heroin, I’m told, is no longer a drug of choice. So it’s been pretty quiet since September the 11th 2001. Well, apart from the killing next door last August.
But that’s another story… One I don’t want to tell.
Folk who think they know the likes of us have the nerve to say:
‘You’re a writer; it’s all material; experiences to be carved out of this bitter inner-city ground, as your grandfather once mined coal from Gedling pit.’
But these are not the kind of tales I want to tell!
Next month we go to the polls to elect, don’t laugh, a Commissioner of Police, like they have in Gotham City.
Washington Irving, who visited our county, came up with that name for New York from stories he’d heard of a Nottinghamshire village because he considered his fellow Manhattanites to be, like the Wise Men of Gotham, a parcel of fools.
Last time there was a poll the turnout was: Thirteen percent!
From which the conclusion must be drawn that the other eighty-seven percent of the populace of the Arboretum Ward don’t give a toss as to their governance.
Ward? How strange the same word is used for a voting area and for the room we’re taken into at the City Hospital perhaps to recover, perhaps to die.
When I was living in Gotham City… I’d be walking along 14th Street, the wind-chill factor off the Hudson River freezing snot to my cheeks, colder than Nanook of the North’s mother-in-law, when suddenly…
In my frozen imagination I’d find myself walking across Slab Square, echoes of the string trio drifting from Yates’s, scraping an out-of-tune semblance of Kettelby’s ‘In A Persian Market.’
Back again. Home sick.
These days, I’ll be on those yellow sands of Mooloolaba, screwing my weak northern eyes up against the chiselling sunlight of the southern hemisphere, watching container ships out beyond the crashing surf of the Pacific, exporting mineral wealth to the new world power in China, (dug from the Australian earth today as my ancestors mined the black wealth that once lay beneath our feet) hotter than a dead dingo’s donger,
drier than a pommy’s shower curtain.
My sweating imagination is drawn back to Alfreton Road.
Incapable of escape. Lost again in Nottingham.
Was that how it was for you in Majorca, Alan?
Channeling factories and twitchell’s from the world of your childhood where you could, as you so memorably put it: ‘outdream everybody’;
Streets all lost now, together with what you also called their ‘irreplaceable spirit’.
In your words:
‘I may be harping too much on the past but in my view the greatest mistake a writer can make is to look more to the future than to the past. A writer who poses as a prophet ends by confusing his soul, and confounding the souls of those who are tempted to listen. Art is confirmation, not affirmation.’
I’m definitely with you on the prophets. Spare us, please, from bare-faced messiahs who have the gall to use their stage to preach what they don’t know, what we don’t need to know. But I’m not so convinced by your ‘confirmation’ angle.
I guess I’ve got used to gaining comfort from a lack of security; footfalls disappearing, as on those elusive paths you attempted to negotiate on your walk along the banks of the Trent in your Nottinghamshire. I’m anxious lest it might feel even more destabilising were I to find my feet treading upon solid ground.
Again you say:
‘I feel that the more memories you have the deeper you can dive down into yourself. The danger is that you’ll get stuck in the mud or weeds, unable to come up, strike air, and go on living to create more memories.’
And I say:
Every crossword solver knows ‘lost again’ is an anagram of ‘nostalgia’:
a word that means ‘home sickness’.
As for myself, I’m nostalgic always and already
Sick for a city always disappearing from view, before my eye can get it into focus.
Sick for a home already slipping away, before my fingers can grasp hold.
A home you left to become yourself. A city you wrote into becoming.
I’ll finish with a story that I do want to tell, set not here, but down in your deracinated metropolis. Last Sunday I was at the Odeon Leicester Square for a film premiere
(all right, it weren’t me being papped on the red carpet). The after-gala do was in the sublime surrounds of the Battersea Power Station (you could probably have seen the chimneys from your West London home – with a ladder and some glarses.)
A muddle in the middle of nowhere, way after midnight, dress code black tie, vodka (which you love) flowing freely.
So I had to get a taxi back to my cheap B and B.
I took to the driver from the moment I got into his cab. I won’t say his name because I don’t know whether he’d want me to rattle away his family skeletons – though he knew I’m a writer so let the teller beware. I was his last fare and after he’d dropped me off in WC1 he was going back to Cheam: a comedy address known to the likes of us as the quondam residence of Anthony Aloysius St.John Hancock.
As we drove along the embankment he asked me what film I’d seen that night.
It was a new version of ‘Great Expectations’
(A book, I think, that was one of your favourites, Alan?)
‘Charles Dickens. I love that film – the old black and white one. David Lean. What’s your favourite scene? There’s one that means so much to me. The young lad…’
‘Yeah. He’s come into money, hasn’t he? Living the idle life in London. Then he gets a visit from the poor chap who’d brought him up in the country…’
‘Joe Gargery, the blacksmith…’
‘Yeah, yeah. And he’s ashamed and embarrassed to see this man who loves him so much and who cared for him so well but Pip’s become a snob treats him really badly… later he realises what he’s done and he feels terrible.’
‘It’s one of the best moments in the book.’
‘I’ve never read the book. Perhaps I should. That scene means so much to me.’
I wanted to know why. By now we’d reached my temporary gaff in Bloomsbury. The driver turned off the meter and the two of us carried on jabbering together for the next three-quarters of an hour, exchanging secrets only strangers who know they’re never going to see each other again can confide to one another.
He told me:
‘My old man was an alcoholic and me mother threw him out. One day I was coming out of school and I saw him… across the street… waiting for me in a long muddy coat, worn-out shoes, leaning on the railings, can in hand, swaying… swaying. You know what I did? I put me head down and walked off the other way. Never forgot it. Never forgiven myself…’
A long pause. Then he said: ‘But it all comes around, don’t it?’
‘What do you mean, my friend?’
‘I’m in this cab all hours, seven days a week so my son could get a place at the grammar school. He’s a clever lad and had to pass the exam but we still have to pay. His friends have dads who are doctors, lawyers, stock-brokers… That’s how it is in Surrey. I asked him why he never brought any of them home. You know what he said? ‘I can’t bring them here. Why don’t you get a bigger house?’ Why don’t I get a bigger house!’
This bastard country. Will some things never change?
We still have work to do. We must not get lost again.
If I don’t have a right to be here for you on Alan Sillitoe day then I don’t know where I ought to be. Dosvedanya, duck.
Yours Sincerely, M. Eaton.
(This is the full text of the tribute given by Michael Eaton on Sillitoe Day 2012, 27th October, at the Nottingham Contemporary. It is reproduced here with his kind permission.)