Mrs Bull and the Importance of Gossip

This is the first of three blogs originally published on the City Arts website for Words for Wisdom, a project which aims to bring older and young people together through literature. During my commission we explored Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Here’s how we decided on the project title of ‘Cheap Gossip for Retail Later’. 

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a book of two halves. The first 75% is Saturday night “the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year.” Here we follow Raleigh worker Arthur Seaton as he tests the elastic capacity of his guts by necking seven gins and 11 pints down his local before getting it on with women, he shouldn’t be getting it on with.

The last 25% is Sunday morning, when Arthur goes fishing and accepts “Everyone in the world was caught, somehow, one way or another, and those that weren’t were always on the way to it”. He has to settle down and get married because “If you went through life refusing all the bait dangled in front of you, that would be no life at all”.

Any analysis of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning rightly focuses on the wonderfully quotable antics of Arthur Seaton, the charismatic anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel, published in 1958. But for the Words of Wisdom project I wanted to switch focus to Seaton’s nemesis Mrs. Bull.

Mrs. Bull may not slug her guts out at the lathe, but she certainly puts in a shift at the yard. For twenty two years she has observed people coming and going, earning the nickname of the ‘Loudspeaker’ and ‘News of the World’. We are told that “her malicious gossip travelled like electricity through a circuit, from one power point to another, and the surprising thing was that a fuse was so rarely blown”.

Sillitoe’s descriptions of “Fat Mrs. Bull the gossiper” are wonderfully evocative, albeit derogatory, and led to some heated debates in the writing workshops that we held at the Meadows and Central library, Radford Care Group and the Marcus Garvey Centre. She is described as a “tight-fisted defender of her tribe” and as “queen of the yard” and so is not someone you want to provoke. But neither is Seaton. When he finds himself the subject of her tongue he shoots her in the cheek in the book (later toned down to the backside for the 1960 film adaptation), suggesting she is a real threat to his freedom, though given his behavior (sleeping with a pair of married sisters, one of whom he gets off with while the other is having a ‘gin bath’) it is no wonder he is the subject of gossip.

This led to some interesting conversations in our workshops. Had anyone ever been the subject of gossip and how did this feel? Was anyone in the group a self-confessed gossip? Was gossip a positive or negative thing?

It also opened up debates around the origin of the word gossip which led us to Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch Hunting, and Women where she argues “Tracing the history of the words frequently used to define and degrade women is a necessary step if we are to understand how gender oppression functions and reproduces itself”. It turns out that gossip referred to “companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations. In either case, it had strong emotional connotations.” The digested read: It’s good to talk.

Based on this, we decided to call our project ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’ as this is essentially what we had been doing in the workshops: we were gleaning gossip from each other, sharing stories, finding commonality through words. That choice gossip has taken the form of a series of illustrations with audio recordings which will be released bit by bit over the coming months. You can decide for yourself if this gossip is worthy of retail on 12 November.

Words of Wisdom: Choice Gossip for Retail Later, 12 November (6pm-8pm), City Arts, 11-13 Hockley, Nottingham. NG1 1FH   

Book tickets from Eventbrite here

 

 

 

 

 

City Arts Commission: ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’

Over summer I’ve been running writing workshops in the Meadows and Central library, Radford Care Group, and the Marcus Garvey Centre, gathering stories inspired by Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The commission was for a City Arts project called ‘Words of Wisdom’ which aims to bring older and young people together through literature.

Anyone who has ever stumbled across this blog or my work (with Paul Fillingham) will know how important Alan Sillitoe is to me. I explored the enduring relevance of his debut novel in a commission for The Space called The Sillitoe Trail, brought him back from the dead in ‘For it was Saturday Night’, a comic in my literary graphic novel serial Dawn of the Unread, and presently I’m working on a new graphic novel called Whatever People Say I Am, which aims to dispel myths around identity and give voice to those deprived of the right to speak. He’s popped up elsewhere, but you get the point.

For the City Arts project I broke Saturday Night and Sunday Morning down into four areas: Work, Factory, Community, Relationships. Groups were provided with relevant quotes and extracts which we read and analysed together. These then served as inspiration to reflect on our own lives. The stories that came out were incredible. Here’s a few from our work themed sessions: Life as a pig farmer and the sadness of befriending one animal and discovering the next day it was off to slaughter; a young female locking herself in a toilet to avoid the advances of a lecherous boss; knocking on doors to inform people they had contracted a sexually transmitted disease and having water thrown over you; working at the Greyhound Stadium and hiding tips in your blouse; physiotherapist in a rehab unit working with miners with head injuries; hungover female bitumen workers grafting every hour of daylight; a textile worker who kicks his wife in his sleep because he still dreams he’s sat at his machine working the pedals.

Any analysis of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning rightly focuses on the wonderfully quotable antics of Arthur Seaton, the hard drinking, anti-hero at the heart of the novel. But for this project I wanted to give Mrs Bull a bit of a focus. She may not slug her guts out at the lathe, but she certainly puts in a shift at the yard where she is known as the “Loudspeaker” or “News of the World” for “her malicious gossip” which “travelled like electricity through a circuit, from one power point to another, and the surprising thing was that a fuse was so rarely blown”. Mrs Bull watches people head to the Raleigh factory in the morning and afternoon with one main purpose: “to glean choice gossip for retail later”.

Gossip is a contentious term. Did Mrs. Bull serve an important social purpose in keeping her community in check or was her gossip malicious, with the intent of feeling superior over others? This was perhaps one of the most interesting discussions to come out of our sessions, particularly in light of recent feminist debates about being heard and supporting each other, such as #Metoo

In Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, Silvia Federici has traced the origins of gossip and found it originally meant godparent, “one who stands in spiritual relation to the child to be baptized”. Later it referred to companions in childbirth, then a term for female friends with strong emotional connotations. It is only recently that it has been used as a derogatory term.

We decided to call this project ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’ as a nod to women like Mrs. Bull who’ve been given a hard time over the years but also because this is what we were doing in our sessions: we were gleaning gossip from each other, sharing stories, listening and talking, evaluating and questioning our respective experiences to create a sense of togetherness through words. That choice gossip has taken the form of a series of illustrations with audio recordings which will be released bit by bit over the coming months. You can decide for yourself if this gossip is worthy of retail on 12 November.

Words of Wisdom: Choice Gossip for Retail Later, 12 November (6pm-8pm), City Arts, 11-13 Hockley, Nottingham. NG1 1FH   

Book tickets from Eventbrite here