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Raw material, p.1
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       Raw Material, p.1

           Alan Sillitoe
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Raw Material





  Raw Material

  A Family Biography

  Alan Sillitoe

  Raw Material

  This is a book about two families—a blacksmith’s and an upholsterer’s. It tells by the wayside a little of what made the author—who has a certain standing in his own volume of so-called Raw Material. It is also a trip to Jerusalem (as the Nottingham pub is called), a personal statement, a voyage to the battlefields of France, a dip-book, a family-album, a hundred-year time-span, a mirror through which the author not only brings his people into the open but comes out with them as well—holding their hands, as it were, while they speak.

  Raw Material is anything but raw like the meat in a butcher’s shop, though there are characters in it who bleed in various places. It is neither quite fiction nor non-fiction, but a mish-mash of fact, and an artefact of fiction, a conscious romp in a half-disciplined style, a self-portrait of a non-man, a non-portrait of a self-made man, a first-rate port of call for the affections and afflictions that come to mind—which are offered on a bookplate for all to read and, if possible, relish.

  ‘All the future is foretold, but freedom of choice is given to everyone.’

  Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph



  In the beginning was the word, and Adam was the Printer’s Devil.

  As a boy I walked into the middle of Nottingham, passing St Barnabas’ Cathedral on my way down Derby Road. In a deep niche of its grey-black wall sat a man with no legs, selling matches. The niche had a heavy wooden door to it, and he could lock the place securely every night before going home.

  At the time of packing up I saw him put the money into his pocket without counting it—as if he had already noted every penny that dropped there during his long day. Then he folded the mat and set it at the back of the niche with his stock of matches. After a look to see that everything was tidy he came on to the pavement and locked the door. He propelled himself down the road by his two hands, the trousers of his brown suit pinned under his trunk. He wore a collar and tie, which somehow saddened his look of respectability.

  His brown eyes watched people walking by all day long, and his single great indisputable truth was that the rest of the world had legs. He was privileged in having such an enormous and satisfying fact all to himself, but what a price he had had to pay for it. His features were a prison wall that held in his thoughts and everything he suffered. He smiled, but never talked.

  His fate did not seem so terrible to me as I now think it was. He had a way of earning a living, shelter from the rain while doing it, and a fact about himself with which he could gainsay every other truth. I did not envy him, but in my simplicity as a child I realized that his truth would have been absolute if only he had given into it entirely by staying in his wall-cave during the night as well.

  When I asked my parents how he had lost his legs my mother said he’d been run over by a tram as a boy. My father told me they had been blown from under him twenty years before at the Battle of the Somme. My grandmother heard he’d been born like that. Grandfather Burton thought it as good a way as any to dodge his share of proper work.

  It was difficult to know which of these tales to believe, but they ceased to matter after a while. The man still had no legs, after all.


  The man with no legs is the first thing that comes to me as I start to write. There is much more, because this book is called Raw Material, part novel, part autobiography, but all in all a book, a reading book, and non-committal in these aspects till I get to the end. It is an attempt at self-portrait in which I will leave out the expected run-throughs of the confessional because I assume that most have been used, suitably disguised or not, in novels and stories already finished.

  In any case, my plain unblemished life-story would in no way guarantee an accurate design, because the ordinary occurrences since birth may be weighed down by the heavy blight of lost happenings that took up my parents or grandparents. The important particulars that moved them, if one can sort it out from this point on in time, may be more vital than the petty issues I have been involved in.

  Those events which were overwhelming and decisive may account for my inability to wear a simple necktie, indicating that some criminal antecedent was hanged for stealing a sheep, when a Celtic judge from my father’s side did for some Jutish marauder on my mother’s—or vice versa, since both strands are inextricably ravelled. Or perhaps I don’t flash a tie because I am a rationalist and see no reason for it, or that it does not keep me warm and is therefore useless in the long run. If one sticks to the truth, all minor reasons need considering.

  No matter what I call this book, everything written is fiction, even non-fiction—which may be the most fictional non-fiction of all. Under that heading are economic reports, international treaties, news items, Hansard accounts, biographies of ‘great people’, historical blow-by-blows of crises and military campaigns. Anything which is not scientific or mathematical fact is coloured by the human imagination and feeble opinion.

  Fiction is a pattern of realities brought to life by suitably applied lies, and one has to be careful, in handling the laws of fiction, not to get so close to the truth that what is written loses its air of reality.

  It is a hard test sailing so near the gale, but however this narrative is classified it bears no relationship either to golden truth or black lies. To pursue truth one minute while denying there is any such thing the next has the advantage of realism. Such vacillation divides the compulsively verbal persuaders from the writer who has neither time nor leaning to swing anybody. For the talkers there is only one truth, and they know it. They go on talking so long that it stokes them up and keeps their home fires burning. Manic continual speech prevents self-knowledge and the threat of facing the wasteland. As a way of taking in air, it inflates them and keeps the feet just that bit above the earth to maintain their confidence. Politicians are so good at telling lies that their faces are not even pock-marked to show they are not being deceived by them.

  On the other hand those who see truth everywhere have great difficulty in selecting certain truths to make a pattern of wisdom from it. Language becomes more precious when truths proliferate. It is not so easy then to talk or write, for truth is difficult to pin down when it is everywhere. But those who exult in the truth turn into a river of semantic devastation.

  No one can speak for anyone else, and whoever says differently is a mean-throated, twin-faced liar. Perhaps I am saying that only God can speak the truth, which may or may not be a useful yardstick, because though it invites chaos in by the front door if one does not believe in God, one can only explore that chaos and reduce it to some ordered arrangement by a strict pursuit of truth regarding one’s own attitude—so as to get out of the back door before the house falls in on both truth and lies together.

  Having stated this, it seems unlikely at the moment that I shall ever get any truth from myself. But in case it becomes even more difficult in the future, through accident or loss of nerve, I had better attempt to do so now and get it over with, set my arms flailing and make a snatch at the truth with one or the other when any recognition of it seems possible in the distorting fog.


  Outside on the window-ledge a wasp stings a fly into unconsciousness and walks off with it under its arm like a parcel. A few minutes later, a mistle-thrush waddles back across the grass from chasing a sparrow, and the way the bird moves I know she has an egg in her. The same sights could be seen a hundred years ago, and at any time since.

  I sit at a table in my room, dreaming of far-off places, of vultures making
clouds of letters in the sky, black against blue, cutting up the sun with scissor-wings. They turn and spin, swoop and spit their deepest bile at a tree that is still burning, ignited by the sun whose hot rays pierce to the earth as soon as the vultures move down and away from it and are no longer its shadow.

  Each of my two eyes is a door that has locks but no keys, and I burst open each in turn to go through and see what they will show me. Sometimes it is landscape, now and again it is people; often empty sky.

  I live in a Kent village eight miles from the English sea, and wonder at my reasons for buying this house. It is an equal distance from Dover and Newhaven, so that I can get out of the country and on to the mainland with little delay, as well as being fifteen minutes from Lydd Airport in case a lightning getaway is called for.

  I long for a bridge to be built over the Channel or a tunnel dug under it to France so that I can drive as far as China without touching water. Better still if the Channel were filled in, and this island was connected to the mainland which is its rightful place, all the rubbish of Europe tipped into the sea until land joins land and cliff meets cliff. Two ample canals could be built through it for ships, and that would be that.

  The house is set in the comparatively fresh air of the countryside, though I can get to London in under two hours, and stand in Oxford Street choking thankfully on petrol fumes. It is so strategically placed that the built-up mass of London blocks me off from my past and family in Nottinghamshire. There were other reasons as I studied the map, though some of them seem wrong-headed now. Certainly I don’t write better or worse than anywhere else, which is all that matters. There is enough space for me to accumulate quantities of books. When my eyes want to wander over the shelves I begin to wonder which I would abandon if I had to leave and could only take fifty with me, or whether I would worry overmuch if I had to clear out with none at all. It is a hypothetical though frequent question, being so close to the coast.

  The few square miles of high land the village stands on are surrounded by marshes which are so flooded when the rains come that Oxney is again almost the island it once was in the Middle Ages. Acres of water on every side lap the borders of the few roads leading out from the island. Swans that float on it take off with a great fanning of wings and wild melancholy honkings that echo across the open spaces. Pink clouds reflected in the water remind me of the early morning rice fields outside Valencia.

  In spring and autumn the sunsets are broad layers of snake-green and ox-blood on either side of the church tower, with no disturbing noise except for the occasional car. The colours are so thick and livid with tranquillity it seems I have only to reach beyond the bedroom window and peel them off in layers. But peace begets the opposite of truth, which cannot be found behind the deadening tints of a country dusk slowly torn apart by the flitting of numerous birds.

  When frost comes the bushes and trees of the garden change from green to white. Even the smallest detail of leaves and grass blades shows up in the hoar frost. A freezing mist holds the patterns in their monochromatic place. By the end of the day it is like looking into a tank of milk, and I draw the curtain across it.

  If the temperature rises slightly it brings white banks of snow lifting against the doors. But the house is solid and warm, a fit haven to deceive any man who thinks of getting the truth from it. He can sit there and ponder, knowing that when the snow melts he will be able to smell the earth again and find a little measure of truth and beauty in that, though never enough to satisfy.

  All might be revealed if one goes back into the jungle, but the truth—never. Before a novelist comes into the open he must first find some trick of getting inside himself, and there is no other way to do it but go backwards, which is the only direction left if one is to rediscover the fictional truth that sprawls behind one’s spirit.


  If I am tempted to say that nothing I have so far written has been of the truth, it is only so that I can question whether it is true or not. What I do know is that it is difficult to use the truth for getting at the deepest structural fibres of one’s spirit. Truth may not be the tool for it at all.

  Not that I will tell lies. I have told many, of course, but lying is a generous and honest act in a writer, something he was born to do and is therefore bound to continue as well as he is able in order to get as close to the truth as possible. Telling lies to explain the truth is where Art and Conscience meet uneasily. Such a state is the other side of the coin to deception, like that island of such name in the South Atlantic which was thrown up by volcanic eruption and, being hollow inside, tricked ancient mariners into thinking it was larger and more important than it was, until they properly explored it and saw the true lie of the land, whereby it was confirmed that deception finally took in nobody, and that the island in any case was in continual eruption.

  The older one gets the harder it becomes to lie with conviction. One’s heart hardens, and one refuses to prevaricate either to entertain people or to save someone you love from pain. In other words, one will not compromise. One’s integrity stiffens—though there is a danger of it becoming fossilized. The time when I could falsify with ease was a carefree golden age. I did not even have to think about it or make a decision to do so, but simply dissembled out of a positive joy of life. If I want to tell lies nowadays I have to start speaking the truth and wait for them to grow from that, though it makes little difference in the end.

  Although it has become difficult to lie, self-interest prevents me telling enough truth to stop me living in the ease and comfort of creating fiction. And yet there is no danger, because I have been protected from speaking the truth. It hasn’t occurred to me to try and tell it, and I haven’t seen the need of it, nor felt it to be necessary. I thought I was already dealing with it, but realize that this is not so at all, because I didn’t know that the truth about myself existed. It seemed that I lived the truth and breathed the truth as far as I myself was concerned.

  Even in those years of sham, gullery, and make-believe I was searching for the truth. He who lies does so only because he feels he has more need of the truth than he who keeps silent, or than he who pompously professes to speak only the truth, which is next to saying nothing.

  So let me pick up another strand of my raw material, and begin to interweave several threads as I go along.


  Grandfather Burton hated dogs. He despised people who loved them and even those who showed them kindness. He was blind in one eye, and that was the one he looked at animals with, unless they had hoofs or horns and might be tempted to go for him, in which case he fixed them with the other till he had stared them out and could afford to ignore them.

  Dogs were as subservient and slavish as those who called them by name, petted and patted them. Such people were feminine and soft and did not know why they were on earth. They had to become friendly with dogs—as if dogs could ever tell them why or, more likely, inform them that it wasn’t necessary to question why they were on earth. Because of these blind and sweeping prejudices a large section of English humanity was cut off from him, which may have been exactly how he wanted it, though I think he had little opinion about it either way. If he kept dogs it was only because they had their uses, but they got little thanks for it.

  He was hard on human nature because it had him in its grip, though it must be said at the same time that he did not totally lack it. In my view there are neither good people nor bad people, no total devils or complete devilesses. It is impossible to give a person the face and soul of reality without first picking away the bad and showing it to whoever is interested. It must be put back later, however, otherwise the created picture will hang lop-sided and at some time crash down into splinters.

  Women who were close to Burton disliked and feared him, as did those members of his own family. Yet women unacquainted with his true side—if there was such a thing—were attracted by a certain distance he put between them, and occasionally fell in love across the gap of it, a space which could
be well seasoned by his wry and bawdy sense of humour when it wasn’t filled by a dignified and possibly defensive silence.

  In his prime and hey-day he was over six feet tall and extremely strong. There was no fat on him and not much muscle either, but he could twist an iron bar and shape steel, so that he might not have been as unfeeling as many people accused him of being. Nevertheless he was irascible and violent, and as rigid with others as he was rigorous with himself.

  He was born in 1868, so perhaps this book is in some way a tardy monument to his centenary. What power he possessed came from the strength of his working arms, which enabled him to provide bread and shelter for his family when lack of such meant starvation or the workhouse. He swore that everyone but he was bone-idle, that they were, to use his favourite phrase, ‘as soft as shit’. But while his wife and eight children were said to hate the sight of him he was respected by others as a first-class blacksmith, having won many prizes in Nottinghamshire and neighbouring counties.

  There was a showcase of exhibition horseshoes in his kitchen, and I have one on my desk for a talismanic object while I write. Burton was said to have so steady a hand and eye that he could ‘shoe Old Nick’s nag so that all four hoofs would come clattering back out of bloody Hell itself’. Known in the trade as a careful worker, his forge was always neat and tidy. He was a man who had to know exactly where every hammer and plier was, something his own father might have instilled into him as a youth but which continually made tension when he applied such a rule to his house.

  Burton governed the roost of a five-roomed cottage which was made up of a large communal kitchen, a parlour, and three bedrooms upstairs—one for the parents which contained an old four-poster curtain-drawn bed, one for the three sons, and one for the five girls, though it was rare for all the children to be at home together after they were grown up.

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