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Life Without Armour: An Autobiography

Life Without Armour: An Autobiography

by Alan Sillitoe

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A candid and surprising memoir of the early life of one of England’s most acclaimed and enduring post-WWII writers.
Born in 1928 into a poverty-stricken family in working-class Nottingham, bestselling British novelist Alan Sillitoe’s childhood was marked by his father’s unpredictable and violent rage, as well as a near-certain


A candid and surprising memoir of the early life of one of England’s most acclaimed and enduring post-WWII writers.
Born in 1928 into a poverty-stricken family in working-class Nottingham, bestselling British novelist Alan Sillitoe’s childhood was marked by his father’s unpredictable and violent rage, as well as a near-certain condemnation to a life of labor on an assembly line. His family relocated frequently to avoid rent collectors, trading in one bug-infested hovel for another. Though intelligent and curious, the young author-to-be failed his grammar school entrance exams, and it seemed he was destined for work in a factory. The onset of Sillitoe’s teenage years, however, coincided with the advance of Hitler into Russia, and the war offered a chance for the boy to seek out a different fate.
At the age of fourteen, Sillitoe used a fake ID to enroll in the Air Training Corps and went on to join the Ministry of Aircraft Production as an air traffic control assistant. He dreamed of becoming a pilot, but the war ended just after he qualified for training and he was instead shipped off to the Malayan jungle during the Communist insurgency as a radio operator for the Royal Air Force (RAF). After two years of living from one wireless watch to the next—taking in bearings and atmospherics though the radio, and exploring dangerous and primal landscapes by foot—Sillitoe finally returned to a prospectless postwar England and was diagnosed with tuberculosis. But this curse soon became a blessing: In the RAF hospital, Sillitoe began to read—everything from Kant to Descartes to Bernard Shaw—and he decided to become a writer.
Already a veteran on an RAF disability pension at the age of twenty-one, Sillitoe began writing full-time, neither his physical challenges nor his numerous rejections from publishers deterring him in the least. He joined the Nottingham Writers’ Club, and his short stories began to achieve some minor local success. Soon after, a chance meeting with the American poet Ruth Fainlight led to full-blown love, and the two set off for France eager to live in a bucolic setting where they could dedicate all of their time to writing.
Circumstance and favorable exchange rates then led the couple to Spain where Sillitoe continued his literary pursuits, met many artists and writers, had run-ins with gypsies, and even underwent police interrogations. Four unpublished novels later—and after nearly a decade of honing his craft—Sillitoe finally found staggering success in his working-class novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and his collection of short stories The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.
Written with Sillitoe’s signature simplicity, this in-depth autobiography not only gives insight into the formative years and mental maturation of one of Britain’s most influential writers, but also tells a great story of an underprivileged man who, with perseverance, made the most of his particular fate.

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Life Without Armour

An Autobiography

By Alan Sillitoe


Copyright © 1995 Alan Sillitoe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3501-9


An autobiography is bound to give details of more people than its author, even if only to mention the two who were responsible for him being born. With regard to my father, I have never been able to decide on the mental age at which he was stalled during much of his life. I am now well past the age of his death, over thirty years ago, yet recall that he sometimes seemed to have the mind of a ten-year-old in the body of a brute. He was short-legged and mega-cephalic, and what is certain is that given millions of years and a typewriter he would never have produced a Shakespearean sonnet. On the other hand, neither would I.

Much of the time he had the ability to conceal his backwardness, of which in some obscure dell of the mind he was indeed aware. His experience of the world helped, for he also had that self-centred kindness which brutes are said to possess, realizing that if he wanted affection from those around him he must show something similar to draw it out.

He often hit my mother, and an early memory is of her bending over the bucket so that blood from her cut head would not run on to the carpet. His way of atonement was to be helpful in a sentimental sort of way, but he became dangerously baffled when such gestures evoked revulsion. My mother decided early on that since it was his only form of truce she had better accept them, because not to do so could bring another squall of violence. She also knew that taking advantage of his sudden mellowing eased the pain of his existence and so, under the circumstances, she honoured the maxim that since you had made your bed you must lie in it.

The slow unrolling of age should have taught my father to know himself, and thus control his worst instincts. Unable to do so, he remained a menace to those nearby. I soon learned to think before I spoke, especially to people I feared, which included nearly everyone, a not unusual state for an infant. My father wielded the ultimate authority of the fist and the boot, tempered – if that is the word – by a fussiness which was only another form of self-indulgence, thus giving me an enduring disrespect for authority.

In those early days such black moods took up more of my father's time than his genuine need to make amends, so my sister and I lived in continual apprehension of someone who, we sometimes felt, should have been kept on a chain. We responded to his moments of kindness with relief rather than affection, but there was no haven of trust in either of our parents. My mother wanted to ameliorate my father's unpredictable rages, and suffered doubly because she could not, being unable even to protect herself. I recall her cry of protest, however, when my father was battering me – an infrequent event, for I soon learned to keep out of his way: 'No, no, not on his head!' I also experienced twinges of despair at my mother having met him and given me birth, though my spirit adapted speedily to something like that of a courtier in the cage of an orang-utan.

From the beginning my emotions were divided between hatred of my father and pity for my mother, but I occasionally realized that my father might be the way he was because he could not read and write. He was deeply ashamed when we children heard our mother shout in her anguish that he was a numskull unable even to decipher a street name or bus sign. The world thus seemed like a mystifying jungle, and I write about him because he was the first threatening force encountered on my coming out of the womb, though his presence was probably felt while I was still in it.

Apart from disturbances inherited, he was probably paying back what had been done to him since birth, indicating that he did not have the mental flexibility to control himself like a civilized person. The fact that I did not pass on such disadvantages to those who later surrounded me was because I identified, as who would not, with my mother's sufferings, and not with an anger which could always be turned on to me.

My mother, Sabina Burton, was one of eight children (for all that such data are worth), daughter of Ernest, himself the youngest of ten children, and a blacksmith from generations of the trade. He had married Mary Ann Tokins, a barmaid of Irish descent from County Mayo, her grandparents having left with their six sons during the Great Hunger of the 1840s.

Christopher Archibald, my father, was the last and eighth child of Ada Alice, and of Frederick Sillitoe who had an upholstery business. Frederick was the son of Sarah Tomlinson and John Sillitoe, who was a tinplate worker in Wolverhampton. Ada Alice was the daughter of Mary Jane Hillery, and of Henry Blackwell who worked as a hosiery warehouseman in Nottingham.

My father might claim, in an amiable attempt to explain his outlandish surname, that there was an Italian far back in the wayward stepping stones of the family's progress. Some thought he might be right, because of his black hair, before he went bald, brown eyes and sallow complexion, though I was to believe less and less in such stereotypes the further I got from him.

Sillitoe is an old English name, which gave much trouble to those Victorian specialists in family nomenclature, one writer suggesting that it may have originated in Iceland, and another stating that it came from North Yorkshire. Whatever the truth, it might be fair to say that my father had some of the oldest English traits. On my birth certificate he is described as 'engineer's labourer'. Since that was also my first job, I may have taken something from him after all, though exactly what it was I have never been able to decide.

When old man Sillitoe, the upholsterer, died in 1925 he left the proceeds of several slum houses in Wolverhampton to be divided between his eight children, none of whom had known he owned property. The eldest son, Frederick Wallace, a lace designer by trade, had a few years earlier hired a pantechnicon and loaded into it all the unpaid-for high quality furniture of his house, and gone to live in London, where he stayed twenty years. He changed his name and did not let the family know his address, which meant he could not be traced by his creditors nor found for the paying out of the inheritance. His share went to the others, thus tempering my father's story of the exploit with the truth that what you gained on the swings you inevitably lost on the roundabouts.

Such a windfall did little good, though with the hundred or so pounds my parents buoyed up their lives for a few months. When all of it had been spent except forty pounds, my father got spare-time work on a high platform painting the outside of a factory. The bank notes were folded neatly into a cloth wallet in his waistcoat pocket, and when the platform capsized he lay injured on the ground, covered in paint. Waking up in the hospital, his first thought was for the money, but some angelic nursing sister had placed it safely on a locker at his bedside, a kindness he never forgot.


I was born on 4 March 1928, under the sign of Pisces, in the front bedroom of a red-bricked council house on the outskirts of Nottingham, two miles north of the River Trent. On asking my mother many years later, for the purposes of horoscope, the hour of my appearance, she had no recollection as to whether it had been day or night.

A sister, Peggy Eileen, had been born two years earlier, so apart from my birth meaning one more mouth to feed the event was little remembered as a special day. In our family nothing was made of such yearly commemorations, because to be reminded of your birth meant disturbing those senses which were only to be used in existing from one dawn to the next; or it may have been that no one could be bothered to devise a gift or obtain the cost of one; and if no one thought of your birthday you had the advantage of not having to bother about theirs.

A mutual accord never to consider the ritual caused the reasons for it to be forgotten, though my father kept a list of his children as we appeared, as well as the dates, in order to tell at a glance how old we were if an argument on the matter arose between him and my mother. He had her write the first names of each child on a separate scrap of paper, and then he copied them facsimile on to a clean sheet which, found after his death, showed most of the names misspelt.

A few weeks after my birth I became ill, though no one ever told me the ailment, except that it was necessary to get me to a doctor before I crouped myself into extinction. My mother could not go into the snowstorm because she also was unwell, so her more robust sister Edith, who already had five children of her own, wrapped me in a blanket, buttoned the whole thing under her coat, and strove a mile through the blizzard, reaching the doctor's house in time to save my life. I have often wondered where my father was; he could not have been in a pub, because at that time he didn't drink, but if at home why didn't he put on his coat and face the weather?

Except for the house of my birth every place thereafter had the mangonels of slum clearance rumbling not far behind. One tiny cottage on a lane running parallel to the River Leen was flooded after a week of rain, and had to be abandoned. My parents did not remain within the decent confines of a council house because my father was laid off from his job, got into arrears with the rent, and had to find a cheap bug-ridden back-to-back in the middle of the city.

The pattern of their lives was punctuated by journeys with a hired handcart transiting what little they owned beyond the heavy tread of the bailiffs.

When the four of us lived on Alfreton Road an unemployed man sat by his window all day looking across at girls working their machines in Player's tobacco factory, to contemptuous laughter from the women in the house. I also recall the crowded furniture in our single room, and two fishing boat pictures leaning against the wall, at which I frequently stared because the sails to my eye looked so wooden. They were a wedding present from my mother's brother, and in future years were often pawned, until finally sold.

A boy younger than me, who lived in the same house, defecated along the corridor and on the stairs, and even in our room if the door was left open. The women tried to keep a check on him, but he always eluded them. His own mother (no father was around) was out all day at a lace factory. The quantities of evil-smelling excrement smouldering in his wake seemed enormous compared to his size and the amount of food he ate, and there was an often expressed wish that he would evacuate himself totally – shit himself to death – and free the house of his curse. The kid must have been an ongoing victim of mild dysentery, but he certainly deserved his sobriquet of Ka-ka, and was talked about in the family for years.

Early memories, vivid and enduring, are in no kind of order. My elder sister is dead, so can't be asked about the places we lived in, but she was my patient mentor, instructing me in how to tie shoe laces and tell the time, and making sure to take my hand on crossing the road to school half a mile away. During our parents' fights we calmed our natural distress by playing with Billy French and Amy Tyre around the common water taps in the open space before the houses of Albion Yard.

When I was ill at four years old my mother must have been so afraid that she fetched a doctor. Not wanting anyone to touch me, I retreated cursing to the end of the bed, like some delirious animal backing into a non-existent lair of the darkened room, maybe thinking they would take me away, or hating to have a stranger touch me. My mother, trying not to be angry, knew well enough how such foul words had come into my mouth.

My father was out of work except for a short period of employment at a tannery, or skinyard as he called it. Walking along the canal with my mother one Friday afternoon to meet him coming home with his wages was pleasant, because even a modest amount of money gave less cause for argument, and my parents were as content as they could ever be. My father pocketed the two pounds-odd, and dropped the small brown envelope into the depths of a nearby lock, almost the last wage packet any of us saw until the prospect of a war against Hitler's Germany created a demand even for his labour.

The weekly dole for the eventual four children and two adults (we quickly became a family of six) was thirty-eight shillings a week, the equivalent of about forty pounds in today's money. My mother and her sister Edith took me to an orphanage called Nazareth House, where it was known in the neighbourhood that the nuns gave surplus bread to first-comers.

Besides running up debts for food my father bought furniture on hire purchase, and sold the goods for cash before he had paid much on the instalments. He was sentenced to three months in quad at Lincoln for fraud. After eight weeks he came out looking healthier than when he had gone in, due to regular meals, rest from quarrelling, and decorating work in the open air which the governor had given him to do.

My father dwelt more gloatingly on the fact that his brother Frederick who had tried the same scheme so successfully had never been traced than on his own criminal act which had been such a failure, but which enriched my mother's retaliatory epithets no end during their quarrels.


Canvas bags of variously shaped wooden bricks emptied on to a polish-smelling floor were for us to build with. Even if I hadn't heard the word I would have built: Doric, Ionic and fluted Corinthian columns topped by entablatures and architraves and set on the firmest foundations: a megalopolis worthy of Mussolini, but ruined in five minutes.

Naked into cold swimming baths up to our chins, but holding a bar at the shallow end and ordered not to let go or we would drown, seemed a purposeless immersion. This other world of neither good nor bad was a two-storey red-bricked institution surrounded by railings and backing on to a canal where horses pulled barges to warehouses along its banks. Fear of strange territory was diminished by the relief of being a few hours from home, lured into the mystery of writing, the slowly dispersing puzzle of reading, and that comforting surety of arithmetic. Another world must be a better world.

Each morning the teacher read about God creating the heavens and the earth, and every living thing, told the story of Abraham and Isaac, the voyaging of Noah's family and all the animals in the Ark, of how the Israelites were troubled in Egypt, and of Moses leading them from the House of Bondage for forty years of wandering across the wilderness to the Promised Land. Saul and Jonathan in their deaths were not divided, and even the Mighty must fall.

She read from her own black leatherbound King James's translation of the Bible whose English, whether or not all parts were immediately understood, entered my soul for life. She intoned the Ten Commandments from Exodus and Deuteronomy over and over, so that if we couldn't recite them at least we would always know what was right and what was wrong, whatever right or wrong we committed.

She tried teaching basic musical notation but, in her lighter moments, rather than be discouraged, played the latest Jessie Matthews song on the piano, head thrown back and voice tremoloing happily around the room. Who she was, I'll never know.

Exotic and visionary biblical landscapes of mountains, a huge river, palm trees and bulrushes, and seas that fell back so that the People chosen by God to write the Bible could walk over on dry land, were different to the buildings and houses roundabout. Geography books described by simple word and picture such countries as Holland and Japan, Switzerland and India, pages turned with the firmest of infantile notions that as soon as I was able and old enough nothing would stop me going to such places. To the teacher I was no different from other smelly lumps of putty-flesh in the room, but though the diameter of my intake was little wider than a pinhole, what poured in was the purest gold.

Another moonlight flit landed me in a school opposite the church at Old Radford. The headmaster was a terror, and one day came into the class to find out how far we could count. A boy reached twenty, and a girl stumbled near to forty, but on asking me he had to call a halt when (thanks to my sister) I breached the hundred barrier, hardly knowing how close I was to my limit. He held up a penny for the achievement and, more amazed than pleased, my hand went out for the reward.

For some reason the Ancient Greeks featured prominently on the headmaster's curriculum, and I relished accounts of the various bloody skirmishes at the Siege of Troy, as well as a coloured illustration of Hector and Achilles fighting outside the tall grim walls, their shields resembling giant carapaces. The ruse of the Wooden Horse was unsubtle enough to be understood and approved of, while the story of Alexander the Great was enjoyed because of the beauty of his horse's name 'Bucephalus', repeated half a dozen times by the headmaster so that we would never forget it. At the same school we were taken by a woman teacher to a green dell by the church and taught to identify leaves and trees.


Excerpted from Life Without Armour by Alan Sillitoe. Copyright © 1995 Alan Sillitoe. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan Sillitoe (1928–2010) was a British novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright, known for his honest, humorous, and acerbic accounts of working-class life. Sillitoe served four years in the Royal Air Force and lived for six years in France and Spain, before returning to England. His first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was published in 1958 and was followed by a collection of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, which won the Hawthornden Prize for Literature. With over fifty volumes to his name, Sillitoe was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997.

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