by Jim Burns


Clancy Sigal wrote a book called Going Away: A Report, a Memoir that was marketed as a novel, but which was essentially an autobiographical account of how and why he left the United States in the late-1950s. It wasnít his first published book. Weekend in Dinlock, which appeared in 1960, preceded it, and pointed to the fact that Sigal was by that time living in Britain.

Weekend in Dinlock was interesting in that it was about the friendship between an American radical and a young British miner who was also a talented artist. It was, in fact, based on Sigalís association with Len Doherty, a miner from the North East who was also a novelist. Itís a sad question to raise, but does anyone read Doherty these days? He published three novels, became a journalist, and died in 1983. Weekend in Dinlock was widely read, but didnít always impress those on the political left in Britain. It didnít paint a picture of working-class life in a pit village as being anything other than it was, with heavy drinking and narrow-mindedness being integral parts of it.

Sigal had been introduced to Doherty by Doris Lessing, and they had in common their membership of the Communist Party in their respective countries. And it was the communist connection that had pushed Sigal into deciding that departing from American was, in the circumstances of the Cold War and anti-communist feeling, a wise move. He naturally gravitated towards left-wing circles in London, and for several years had an affair with Doris Lessing. He appears, in fictional form as Saul Green, in her novel, The Golden Notebook. She, in turn, is portrayed as Rose OíMalley in Sigalís novel, The Secret Defector.

Sigalís left-wing inclinations were shaped by his parents. His father, described as ďa gun-toting labour organiserĒ, came and went in an irregular way, and he was brought up by his mother, who also happened to be heavily involved in left-wing politics and union organising. His book, A Woman of Uncertain Character: The Amorous and Radical Adventures of My Mother Jennie (Who always Wanted to be a Respectable Jewish Mom) by Her Bastard Son is a racy account of what it was like growing up in Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s with parents, and their friends and acquaintances, often engaged in factional fights with other left-wingers: ďThere is hardly a Jewish clan of their generation that was not bitterly split between the Ďistsí Ė socialists versus Communists or both against the Trotskyists who didnít like the de Leonists who loathed the Cannonites who despised the Shachtmanites who Ė and on and onĒ. Itís an amusing aside to Sigalís early years that he said that the first time heíd been in prison was when he was five years old. His mother had been arrested for her union organising activities, and she took her son to prison with her. 

After army service, Sigal returned to Chicago and attempted to find a place for himself as a union organiser for the United Automobile Workers (UAW), but the union was starting to purge communists and their supporters from its ranks. Sigal moved to the West Coast, but continued with his radical activities. He once claimed that he had been fired from Columbia Studios when he was found using their copying facilities to run off political leaflets. 

Much later, when he was living in London, Sigal had other involvements, perhaps not political in the usual sense, but certainly considered radical at the time. Always good at turning his experiences into lightly-disguised fiction, Sigalís Zone of the Interior had its basis in his relationship with the controversial anti-psychiatrist, R.D. Laing. What was noticeable about Sigal was the fact that he always managed to deal with a subject with an element of humour built into the narrative. It was as if he was looking at himself and wondering how he had become involved in whichever situation he was in. The humour was, perhaps, a kind of survival technique. 

But itís probably for Going Away: A Report, a Memoir that Sigal will be most remembered. In it the narrator leaves the West Coast where he had been active, in various ways, in the film industry, and drives across the United States. On the way he visits old friends and finds them inevitably altered. The McCarthy years have had their effect and one-time union and political activists are keeping their heads down. Theyíre often family men now, and need to hold onto their jobs. The American Left has effectively fallen apart. Alongside the encounters with old and new friends there are loving descriptions of the landscapes, both urban rural, that are observed. Some commentators have almost linked Sigalís book to Jack Kerouacís On the Road, but with Sigal showing a greater social and political awareness.

I donít think Sigal meant to stay away from America as long as he did Ė his original intention was to spend six months in Paris, writing Going Away : he did and inevitably got to know Simone de Beauvoir and other intellectuals and political activists  Ė but it was thirty years before he made a permanent move back to his homeland. In those thirty years heíd written his various books, worked for the BBC, and The Guardian, The Observer, Encounter, and other publications, and generally built up a reputation as a lively and sometimes combative journalist. A book about his adventures in England is scheduled to be published in 2018.

When he did return to America, he lived in California, got married, taught at the University of Southern California, and was once again involved with films, sometimes as a screenwriter.  He was the principal screenwriter for the film, Frida, about the life of the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo. The final book published during his lifetime was Black Sunset: Hollywood Sex, Lies, Glamour, Betrayal and Raging Egos, a fast-moving account of his sometimes bizarre experiences working as a talent agent in Hollywood in the 1950s.

I always read anything that Clancy Sigal wrote whenever I came across it in book form or in the pages of newspapers and magazines. He was never dull. And he could always tell a good story. He was spoken of as being in a class with other Chicago-related writers like James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren. There are much worse ways to be remembered.