Being Arthur and Raphael Hefti

Being arthurThis weekend saw Paul Fillingham and I produce the first ever live 24 hour Twitter presentation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning for a project called Being Arthur as part of the Being Human Festival at the University of Nottingham. We billed this as The Sillitoe Trail II as it developed themes and ideas from our Space commission a few years ago.

being arthur then and nowThe presentation was split into two parts: Then and Now. The script for ‘then’ was a combination of the novel, the screenplay, a few other Sillitoe novels and a bit of improvisation. ‘Now’ saw Seaton working his way through ‘nine hundred and fifty-bloody-four emails’, playing fishing on his wii because the canals have now dried up, and using dating App Tinder to meet lonely women because it’s cheaper and more immediate.

arthur pintsIt took a lot of research and time and was pretty much last minute due to other deadlines vying for attention. Paul created some beautiful visuals. I particularly liked the ‘drinking contest with the sailor’ as he visually created the slow, demolition of a pint. We created Twitter accounts for some of the other characters too, which was a right headache to properly synchronise so that it got tweeted in the right place.

One of the most pleasurable aspects of the project was getting comments from people who weren’t aware of what we were doing. As I’d used my personal Twitter account (TheSpaceLathe) for the modern Arthur, a few friends got quite concerned about the content of my tweets and thought I’d had some kind of personality change. I haven’t explained to them yet that I am not having a string of affairs as I’m quite interested to see if any of them start gossiping to my partner or spreading rumours.

tinder arthurBut using my personal account did restrict some of the content and meant I was more cautious than I should have been. One person on Twitter (@monsterlander) commented that the real Arthur Seaton would have laid in to noisy neighbours who woke him up (this is how the ‘new’ story starts) but as far as I am aware, Seaton didn’t really go around lamping people. There was always the threat of violence but he didn’t really instigate it. When he gets caught out by the squaddies it’s them that catch him rather than the other way around. But I was able to respond to this later on in the schedule by sending Monsterlander a threat.

It was a pleasant coincidence that Raphael Hefti’s exhibition was running at the Nottingham Contemporary at the same time as Being Arthur. Hefti is fascinated by processes and experimenting with materials. For his current solo exhibition he visited industries in the East Midlands, such as Rolls Royce with the aim of learning about the composition and treatment of metals in different states.

Arthur Seaton is a factory worker at Raleigh who grafts all day at his lathe for “14, 3 and tuppence for 1,000 of these a day”. Raleigh, during the period in which the book was set, was one of the largest employers in Nottingham, alongside Players and Boots. Sillitoe worked at Raleigh too, describing the daily grind as “a thousand times a day I set the bar, spin back the turret, push in the chamfer, force the drill. Working two cutting blades till the brass hexagonal nut falls into my right hand and gets thrown into a tin.”

Photograph taken from Evening Post, Nov 6. Mark Patterson article

Hefti, if you like, has taken these offcuts, these pieces of industrial waste from the production process, and given them new meanings through his experimental art. Instead of nuts he has used aluminium, titanium, copper and steel poles and heated them up so that they produce ribbons of beautiful colour. The artwork is entitled ‘Various Threaded Poles of Determinate Length Potentially altering their Determinacy, 2014’.

Both Seaton and Hefti’s artwork share quite a few similarities: Neither can be easily classified, they are both shaped by the industrial production process, and they equally strive to transcend their material existence. Seaton described his lathe as ‘my everlasting pal because it gets me thinking’. His imagination enabled him to temporary escape from monotonous, repetitious labour while defying anybody to try and grind him down. Hefti’s incredible artwork refuses to be pinned down and transforms industrial waste into something quite magical. But the similarities end there. Seaton would never be seen dead in some poncy art gallery, not even for a free cocktail on opening night.

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Radio Daze

The Midlands, in case you were wondering...

Author Robert Shore contacted me through LeftLion a year ago about a book he was writing about the Midlands. His central argument is that the Midlands is a forgotten region and all cultural arguments position people as either belonging to the north or south. He was after a local phrase to capture this and I suggested Neither Use Nor Ornament, though he eventually went with Bang in the Middle. I was really intrigued by his book as it was much needed and so I explained, or rather confessed, how the last ten years or so of my life had been dedicated to promoting Nottingham culture and history from creating The Sillitoe Trail to my current project Dawn of the Unread.

A few months ago he got back in contact to tell me the book would be coming out in April (there is a review in the next LeftLion) and that after five years of trying, he’d managed to persuade BBC Radio 3 to commission a series of essays on the Midlands. He asked if I’d be interested in writing one.

I mention this as an important tip to aspiring writers. Most commissions come through people you know. This isn’t nepotism. It’s serendipity. I write for free for LeftLion but through this I get to meet lots of people within the industry. The digested read: You create your own fate.

I pitched various ideas to Robert and we eventually settled on ‘Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’: Arthur Seaton and Nottingham’s Rebellious Individualists. It’s the first time I’ve written for proper radio and had to quickly familiarise myself with the grammar, such as repeating various facts as the listener can tune in at any point. Then there was the usual caution of the BBC, such as recording two versions of a Sillitoe quote (with and without ‘bastard’) as well as explaining who Brian Clough was, just in case someone living in Malaysia was unaware of the footballing genius.

Alan Sillitoe, author of Nottingham's defining book Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

It was challenging to write as I needed to talk about Nottingham in the context of the Midlands, due to this being the theme of the collection of essays, while also exploring specific literary history and rebellion in Nottingham. As we have this in abundance I was spoilt for choice, which is some ways made it even more difficult. In the end I took Arthur Seaton as the main narrative thread and interweaved relevant points around him.

The word count for a 15 minute essay is about 2,200 words. Any more and you can’t get in the natural pauses and emphasis. I recorded this in London and had Robert, a sound engineer and the controller for Radio 3 in my earphones offering advice. One piece that was really useful was smile when reading relevant passages as it helps to change the tempo and rhythm of your voice.

I hate my voice and laughed when the controller politely asked if I’d ‘ham up’ the Nottingham accent when doing quotes. Our dialect is notoriously difficult to capture, just look at Russell Crow as Hood and Albert Finney’s Manc Arthur Seaton accent. And did he mean north or south of the Trent? Also, how could I ham up an accent when I’ve lived in Leeds, Manchester, Cambridge and have weird inflections from each? But it was more enjoyable than I thought it would be thanks to some professional guidance. Hopefully I won’t sound too much of a numpty and Al Needham, the master of local vernacular, won’t give me a hard time. 

The essays come out around the 24 April. The four contributors are Geoff Dyer, Henry Hitchings, James Walker and Katherine JakewaysBBC Radio 3 The Essay website

Preview in the Guardian

Interview with producer Robert Shore