A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.43Alan Sillitoe
He felt hunger, but no appetite. If voracity is the spice of life, eat on. He tried to smile, but failed, so cut bread and cheese, and came back into the living room. Drummed out of theological college, he’d been glad of this refuge which he now despised. The spine and purpose had gone from his life, and he’d been near to doing away with himself, not because the dismissal had made him particularly unhappy (that was all over and put behind) but because it was a situation he’d been unable to control.
Thoughts of suicide had been tempered by curiosity at the mechanism of this community to which the others imagined he loyally belonged. He was amused at the intensity with which they worried about the world. Such concern seemed merely the premature onset of middle age. People only form this kind of togetherness out of fear, as if they never had father or mother to kick all that crap out of them.
He would appear as a devoted member of the community, though to cultivate the necessary subterfuge – which shouldn’t be hard after three years of trying to become a priest – would mean speaking as little as possible, because while you talk you cannot think, and he preferred to indulge in the fruitlessness of his secret thoughts. There was wisdom in silence, acquiescence to one’s innermost desires. If you smiled, everyone trusted you. Open your mouth, and you betray yourself. Speech is thought that kills itself as soon as it races aloud from between the lips.
He looked in the mirror, swilling down Nescafé between bread and cheese. The framed prints of early nineteenth-century huntsmen floundering in ditches seemed to have enticed Handley the Lincolnshire poacher to an early spiritual death. An artist did not need a settled base in which to work, so his father should have loaded tools and easels into the Rambler and taken to the road (after installing his family, as was only right, in some opulent bungalow), rather than accept this frigid nullity of communal life.
Looking round the white-walled room, it was hard to imagine a naked man with a penis in full bloom chasing a bare woman between plush chairs, and then going upstairs to rampage in one of the cool, impeccable bedrooms. You fucked quietly in this house, or not at all, didn’t even grunt between the sheets, which was why he supposed Dawley had installed himself like General Montgomery in one of the caravans to write his memoirs.
Two months ago he had no notion of staying long in his father’s establishment. The prodigal son had never been part of his make-up, and certainly no fatted bullock had been roasted on his tentative return. His life had cost little in the way of straight cash, for like all Handley’s children, he was a child of charity, the eternally promising youth of scholarship and patronage.
The nearest he came to a rebellion at school was one winter afternoon when he decided that if he heard another word about King Arthur and his screwy knights he’d go off his head. This state had been lately repeated at theological college when he had found himself beginning to accept the principles of Christianity that had been panned at him during the last three years. He dreaded losing his sacred assets of cunning and hypocrisy.
Over the affair of King Arthur he had throttled his indignation because it only increased his interior scepticism, but the more recent threat to his lack of faith he took so seriously that he entered into months of lying, cheating, perjury and screwing. He hadn’t gone into precise details of his expulsion with Handley, yet saw them chuffing into their beers over it one jovial night, in which case the simile of the return of the prodigal might have some relevance after all, and he knew Handley in his heart wanted nothing more deeply than this.
Under the livid strip-lighting he sliced more black rye and Camembert. During the day he could eat nothing, so throughout the night he was unable to overcome his insomnia while the wolf-rat of hunger pranced around in his stomach. At college he slung a loose cloth bag over the toprail of his bed so that when the famishings began he could dip in for biscuits and corned beef, slab cake and fruit – all the goodies he remembered wanting in childhood but hardly ever getting. In his hasty departure this precious piece of equipment had been left behind, so by night he turned into a shoeless marauder and made a sardonic trek for the icebox.
Any change made him bitter, especially one over which he’d had no control. Yet the more he thought of it the less could he remember any over which he had been in charge. This made him realise that his bitterness was misplaced, a spectacle which awed him slightly.
Even the acts which led to these alterations, carried out with much forethought, had somehow happened against his will – a will that was the most threatening part of him because he had never been united with it. Whenever he did something, he wondered why he had done it, and knew that this was not the best way to order your existence. His will was irresolute, disobedient and pernicious, and whatever happened in his life had never been connected to it.
Being without will, almost without desire, momentous events happened to you, but he was too busy eating at the overlit kitchen table to consider them now. It was as if matters of volition and decision were a thing of the past. Having no will created self-regard, led him to suppose that if it had perished in him then it must also be on its way out for the rest of the world. Whether it were or not didn’t concern him, for he felt in no way influenced by it.
The fact that he was without will did not mean that he could be manipulated by those who possessed it. Quite the opposite. He felt safe from the world, more his own master than if he were clutched by a rabid will-to-power. And under cover of your own pale lack of will what could not be perpetrated against friends and enemies alike?
He didn’t know why he suffered so much from lack of will, yet thought it might be because he’d come into the world unable to remember his dreams. It may not go together with everyone, but it did with him. And having no will he was sometimes resented by people who said he was harbouring a secret and wicked will against them, a will-lessness that went so far into his core that they saw a deep disguise, a trick, a threat of such forceful intent that they would be powerless against it when its aims became known.
Thus his father, whom Cuthbert suspected of having taken his share of both dreams and will – for what they were worth – and woven them into the fabric of his artistic life, distrusted his lazy contempt of all that went on in the house and its environs. He accused Cuthbert of brewing up black-souled mischief that boded ill for everyone.
At dinner when he was seen to eat nothing, Handley let go a tirade that Cuthbert found entertaining, though unnecessary because he merely lacked appetite at that particular moment.
‘And in this particular company,’ Handley said. ‘Look at him, my one and only sly-eyed eldest son. He’s left-handed, born under the sign of Pisces, and has no lobes to his ears. Could anyone be more marked by the devil than that?’
‘Leave him alone,’ said his mother. ‘Give him time to settle down.’
‘He can take as long as he likes,’ Handley said, getting back to his meat, ‘as long as he works in the meantime. The trouble is, he shows a sad inclination to mysticism, and there’s nothing makes you more bone-idle or treacherous.’
‘It was your idea to get me trained as a priest,’ Cuthbert shouted.
‘There was nothing wrong with that, until you gave it up. It’s part of a priest’s job to be mystical. The bishop might not like it, but they allow it. But you’re no longer a priest, so stop acting and behaving like one. And stow the bloody mysticism! We have a perfectly good way of life here, for the twenty souls in our community. It’s hard-working, happy, co-operative, and totally unproductive. But all you do is use it as a convenient hostel, drifting around between sleeping and eating – not that I see you do either, come to think of it – wrapped in a haze of self-defeating mysticism that threatens to take up all of us in a cloud of smoke. Don’t think I haven’t got you weighed up. You’ll find yourself in a factory one of these days, working for your living.’
As he sat through the dregs of the night, and more than compensated for his gorge-block at dinner, he did indeed consider it easy to drop his senses into a s
He could sit down, go into emptiness, and not wake from it till hours had passed, without even having been asleep. Or he could daydream, have visions, project himself, reach three distinct modes of disassociation with no effort. For a long time he imagined these states of human sensory breadth as more or less available to everybody, and when he realised they might not be he loathed himself for being different, the effect of which was to make him intolerant of everyone else.
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A Biography of Alan Sillitoe by Ruth Fainlight
Not many of the “Angry Young Men” (a label Alan Sillitoe vigorously rejected but which nonetheless clung to him until the end of his life), could boast of having failed the eleven plus exam not only once, but twice. From early childhood Alan yearned for every sort of knowledge about the world: history, geography, cosmology, biology, topography, and mathematics; to read the best novels and poetry; and learn all the languages, from Classical Greek and Latin to every tongue of modern Europe. But his violent father was illiterate, his mother barely able to read the popular press and when necessary write a simple letter, and he was so cut off from any sort of cultivated environment that, at about the age of ten, trying to teach himself French (unaware books existed that might have helped him), the only method he could devise was to look up each word of a French sentence in a small pocket dictionary. It did not take long for him to realize that something was wrong with his system, but there was no one to ask what he should do instead.
So, like all his schoolmates, he left school at fourteen and went to work in a local factory. Alan never presented himself as a misunderstood sensitive being, and always insisted that he had a wonderful time chasing girls and going with workmates to the lively Nottingham pubs. He also joined the Air Training Corps (ATC) where he absorbed information so quickly that by the age of seventeen he was working as an air traffic controller at a nearby airfield. World War II was still being fought, and his ambition was to become a pilot and go to the Far East, but before that could be realized it was VE Day. As soon as possible he volunteered for the Royal Air Force. It was too late to become a pilot or a navigator, but he got as far as Malaya, where as a radio operator he spent long nights in a hut at the edge of the jungle.
The Morse code he learned during this time stayed with Alan all his life; he loved listening to transmissions from liners and cargo ships (although he never transmitted himself), and whenever invited to speak, he always took his Morse key along. Before beginning his talk, he would make a grand performance of setting it up on the table in front of him and then announce that if anyone in the audience could decipher the message he was about to transmit, he would give that person a signed copy of one of his books. As far as I remember, this never happened.
In Malaya, Alan caught tuberculosis—only discovered during the final physical examination before demobilization. He spent the next eighteen months in a military sanatorium, and was awarded a 100 percent disability pension. By then Alan was twenty-three years old, and it was not long until we met. We fell in love and soon decided to leave the country, going first to France and then to Mallorca, and stayed away from England for more than six years. That pension was our only reliable income until, after several rejections, the manuscript of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was accepted for publication. Afterward, Alan would say that during those apprentice years he had been kept by a very kind woman: the Queen of England.
It is said that an artist must choose between life and art; sometimes Alan would tell whomever questioned him that after his first book was published and he became a recognized writer, he stopped living—there was not enough time to do both. I hope that was not entirely true. But writing was his main activity: He would spend ten to twelve hours a day at his desk, reading or answering letters when he needed a break from working on his current novel. And there were poems, essays, reviews—and scripts for the films of his first two books, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and later others. He was extremely productive. But certainly he also enjoyed social life with our friends and going to concerts or the theatre. This was the heyday of the young British dramatists at the Royal Court Theatre.
Now, in the 1960s, there was enough money for what we enjoyed most: travel, and although in the first few years our son was still a baby, we would spend up to six months of the year away from England. Alan’s books were translated into many languages, which meant that he was invited to many other countries, frequently to literary festivals, or sometimes offered the use of a villa or grand apartment for generous periods of time. I remember a stay at a castle in then-Czechoslovakia, where we were awoken every morning by a scream from our son, who had managed to get his head or hand caught in some part of the rickety crib that had been put in our room for him. We also spent months in Mallorca, in a house generously lent by Robert Graves. During our four years on the island we had become good friends with him and the Graves family.
Time passed … the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties.… Every year or two a new book, a trip to another part of the world. Japan, India, the United States, Mexico, and Latin America: the range extended. I usually went with him, and as by then I also was having work published, sometimes the invitation was to me, and he would assume the role of consort.
Looking back, I realize what a wonderful life we had then. But a year or two before his eightieth birthday, Alan told me he was not feeling well. It was always hard to persuade him to see the doctor; this time he suggested it himself. There were many hospital appointments for investigations and tests—the National Health Service was as excellent and thorough as ever—and a few weeks later the diagnosis came: There was a cancer at the base of his tongue. His suspicions were confirmed. Although he had continued to smoke his pipe (and the occasional cigar), now he stopped at once. The tragic program of treatments started, and the inevitable oscillations between hope and despair. Twice it seemed that he was cured; then it all began again. In April 2010, not long after his eighty-second birthday, Alan died. We had hoped he could die at home, but he needed the facilities of a good hospital. Months later, on a cupboard shelf in his study, I found the manuscript of Moggerhanger.
Sillitoe in Butterworth, Malaya, during his time in the RAF.
Sillitoe and Ruth Fainlight shared their first home together, “Le Nid”, while living in Menton, France, 1952.
Sillitoe in Camden Town in 1958, soon after the publication of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Sillitoe at his desk in his country house in Wittersham, Kent, 1969.
Sillitoe in Berlin while on a reading tour in 1976.
Sillitoe sitting at his desk in his flat, located in Notting Hill Gate, London, 1978.
Sillitoe writing at his desk in Wittersham in the 1970s or ’80s.
Sillitoe and Ruth Fainlight at the PEN conference in Tokyo, Japan, 1984. They both gave readings at the conference, and Sillitoe was a keynote speaker, along with Joseph Heller.
Sillitoe standing on the porch of his wife’s apartment in Nashville, Tennessee. He visited Ruth while she was a poet-in-residence at Vanderbilt University in January of 1985.
Sillitoe (right) in Calais, France, with Jacques Darras (center), a French poet and essayist, August of 1991.
Sillitoe in front of his and Fainlight’s Somerset cottage with his friends, American poet Shirley Kaufman and Israeli literary critic and academic H. M. “Bill” Daleski.
Sillitoe on holiday in Penang, Malaya, in 2008. Sillitoe spent time in Malaya as a radio operator for the RAF in 1948.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents eith
Copyright © 1967 by Alan Sillitoe
Cover design by Jason Gabbert
This edition published in 2016 by Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
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A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2) by Alan Sillitoe / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes