IT IS the greatest tribute we can bestow: Alan Sillitoe, Nottingham’s most famous living author, is to become only the seventh Honorary Freeman of the City of Nottingham.
“It really is an honour,” said Sillitoe, who turns 80 today. “It’s something I never thought I’d get. I’m staggered.”
He will join the likes of Salvation Army founder William Booth, industrialists Jesse Boot and John Player, Torvill and Dean, Brian Clough and Paul Smith.
There have been just 35 people granted Honorary Freeman since 1905 – bBut what does the honour mean?
“I don’t know, really,” admitted Sillitoe. “I suppose I will find out in good time.”
Perhaps the lifelong pipe smoker would be able to light up in pubs? “I don’t think so,” he said with a chuckle. “Well, maybe – I’ll have to look into it.”
The ceremony will include the presentation of an illuminated parchment scroll contained within a silver casket.
“Alan Sillitoe is Nottingham’s most significant author of modern times and a worthy successor to the literary giants Byron and Lawrence who came before him,” said city council leader Jon Collins.
“This is a hugely prestigious honour and an entirely appropriate one for a man of Alan’s outstanding achievements over the years.”
“Alan’s work is internationally acclaimed and yet inescapably tied to the city where he was born and raised.
“His writings brilliantly capture the essence of radical, working-class Nottingham in the post-war years. It’s the power of his storytelling and the authenticity of the heroes of his novels, and the films that were made of them, that made Alan one of the most significant British authors of the 20th Century.
“Not bad for a lad with such humble beginnings.”
Born on March 4, 1928, he left school at 14 to work in the Raleigh bicycle factory before joining the Royal Air Force four years later as a wireless operator; to this day he relaxes by listing to Morse code on shortwave – “It’s kind of a therapy, you might say.”
During his time in the RAF he contracted tuberculosis and spent 16 months in hospital where he began to read voraciously.
The poet Robert Graves, a friend of his American girlfriend Ruth Fainlight, who he later married, encouraged him to write about his Nottingham upbringing.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the tale of a young factory worker at Raleigh, disillusioned with his lot, was published in 1958.
“It wasn’t based on me. There was a bit of myself in there, of course, but Arthur Seaton was a number of people in the factory mixed into one.”
It was made in to a film, shot in Nottingham and starring Albert Finney.
“I wrote the screenplay so was involved quite a bit. And I went on the set just to see what it was like. No one was in awe of anybody – we were all young people doing the best we could.”
A quote from the film, “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not,” was famously used by Sheffield band Arctic Monkeys as the title of their debut album.
“They look a nice pack of kids. I wrote and told them ‘I’m glad you are going strong’. I was happy they thought to do that. They must have seen the movie I think. Which is fair enough.”
His lead story from his next book of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, also made it to the big screen.
Sillitoe, who lives in Notting Hill, has since written dozens of books including novels, poetry and children’s stories. Many find him returning to a Nottingham setting.
He said: “I’ve another novel practically finished that is set in Nottingham.
“It’s about a carpenter.”
Apart from a short period after leaving the RAF, Sillitoe hasn’t lived in the city since the 1940s.
“I didn’t leave Nottingham because I didn’t like it, I left it to see other places.
“But it’s always been at the top of my thoughts.
“I often come back to see my family and friends.”
He has a brother in the city and his son David, a photographer for The Guardian, lives in West Bridgford.
“The family seems to have moved back up there.
“He lives with his wife and three children. He wasn’t born there but he certainly likes it.
“Of course, I’ve been up there a few times.”
Sillitoe has no special plans to mark his 80th birthday. tomorrow.
“I grew up in that sort of family where we didn’t really know our birthdays, practically. I’ve got nothing in mind anyway.”
The ceremony to make him Honorary Freeman will take place in May.
Coun Collins added: “As a city, we’ll be able to pay tribute to Alan and thank him for the enormous contribution he’s made to telling Nottingham’s story to the world.”