Sunday, 24 April 2011


ALAN SILLITOE, 1928-2010

I wrote the text below as my contribution to 'Every Day of the Week', A Celebration of the Life and Work of Alan Sillitoe, held at the British Library Conference Centre, London, on Wednesday 20th April 2011.

The speakers were: Richard Bradford (chair), Peter Chasseaud, Tansy Davies, Margaret Drabble, Elaine Feinstein, Alan Jenkins, Miranda Seymour and D. J. Taylor.


Dr Peter Chasseaud

Alan was my beloved and generous mentor in the world of maps, and wrote forewords for two of my books. It is an honour and a privilege to be asked to make a contribution to his Memorial Event at the British Library. Unlike the explorer who believes he has discovered some terra previously incognita, only to find that another has preceded him, I was always aware that Alan had discovered the route and blazed the trail, and was more than content to sit at the feet of the master. Like Alan, I have continually to try to answer the question, ‘Why Maps?’ Here I use Alan’s words, and my own.

In 1975, Alan wrote:

‘In the beginning was the map. . . We are all born into the world with a sense of place, simply because a certain part of our senses are rooted forever to the locality in which – as an old-fashioned novelist might put it - we first saw light. We don’t see it straight away, however – though we can smell it, hear it, and touch it. Little by little it emerges greyly, flattish, without the latitude and longitude of social guidelines; and then as the senses develop and the years grow in us, we see it in our profile, contour and full colour.’ (‘A Sense of Place’, Geography, August 1975, 685-9, p.685).

A reluctant man-of-action (while he was accepted for pilot training in the Fleet Air Arm, his real love was aerial navigation), Alan, like Ulysses in Troilus & Cressida, was more interested in ‘the bed-work, mapp’ry, closet-war’ of staff work and the back-room, and in understanding and setting out the geographical and other coordinates of our human stage. He not only literally grounded himself and his characters in this way but, through his understanding of aerial navigation (derived from his teenage wartime years in the Air Training Corps and his national service as a RAF radio-operator), soared like Ariel above the surface of the earth he described so well in all its topographical complexities, and bounced his wireless waves off the heaviside layer. To his generation, well educated in school geography lessons in Mercator’s projection, map-reading and the technicalities of contours, hachures, spot-heights, conventional signs, magnetic, true and grid north, magnetic variation and even rhumb lines and loxodromes, such geographical language was not totally forbidding to publishers and public, and could be used and read without fear. Meridians and parallels became the warp and weft of his texts.

He related maps to people, and to human dramas, fixing the co-ordianates of his characters in the landscape. He listened to old men’s tales of the front, and found trench maps in cardboard boxes in second-hand bookshops. He heard stories about the Jewish Pale of Settlement in eastern Europe and sought out maps that showed the towns and villages that pogrom, war and worse had visited and destroyed.

Alan also loved the material culture of all this (quite apart from his pipe and leather waistcoat!) – the linen-backed maps, the compass and other surveying instruments such as the theodolite and the Abney level, his morse key and his bomber wireless set, both of which he was skilled at using. And of course he extended this love of the material to the typewriter and the book. (But there was a technological stop-line: metal keys on inked ribbon were OK, but the word processor and computer were a no-go area.) In his study, he not only pored over his amazing collection of topographical maps, many acquired as duplicates from the Royal Geographical Society, of which he was a Fellow, but naturally relished the materiality of his Baedekers and Murray’s Guides, books on topography and travel (including the wartime Naval Intelligence Division series), fortifications, military history and of course the city and environs of his dear Nottingham. Speaking of military history, he was a member of the Royal United Services Institute, and typically consulted the gunner Brigadier Shelford Bidwell when he wanted to get artillery matters right in The Widower’s Son.

He not only studied maps, but drew them. He was a cartographer in his own right, as readers of certain of his books will be aware, and he also drew them for pleasure – for example his ‘Map-Poem’ named Astronautical Research Area. His maps are accurate – they obey the logic of the terrain he created. They could be used on the ground. As Alan noted:

‘Joseph Conrad drew charts of Costaguana for his novel Nostromo, and in Victory and Lord Jim one feels he was using them in these books also, a re-drawing perhaps of the Admiralty Charts with which he had been so familiar. It is safe to assume that James Joyce kept a street plan of Dublin close to his desk, on which to work out one or two permutations in Ulysses.

Either you have the maps inside your own brain or, to bring to life the imaginative bit of country you see only dimly at first, you draw it clearly on a sheet of paper so that you make no mistakes at least in the geography of your tale. I did this for my novels The General and Travels in Nihilon, though in these cases it is understandable because both took place in countries which do not exist, and had therefore to be given some form of rudimentary cartography.

For my Nottingham novels and stories, which account for the greater part of my writing, I have always had near me a street plan, as well as a one-inch map of the area to the west and north of the city. These last two items are not essential for my writings about this piece of territory, because I know every nook and cranny, every hole and corner of it, and always will, but still it is good to be correct.

Another function of such maps is that, when searching for the surname of a character (and one has to be careful to get one that fits) I pore over the sheet of a one-inch map (not necessarily of the area where the character is supposed to have been born) and choose one from that of a hamlet or farmhouse, stream or hilltop, or some other such noticeable feature. This might appear to match the person to the region he or she lives in, but the place-names of England are so homogeneous that I tend to mate the names more for the onomatopoeic sound of the thing than to give any geographical clue to the person concerned. Above all, it is important to know what you are doing: to comprehend, to be accurate, clear and economical – as one would be in actually making a map.’ (Ibid, p.687).

Alan continually speculated as to why he developed a passion for making topographical maps, and concluded: ‘It is a great honour to be born into the world with all the makings of an engineer or geographer, but a greater mystery immediately becomes apparent if I wonder why I turned into a writer.’ (Ibid, p.689).