Upside Down at the Bottom of the World

Upside Down at the Bottom of the World is an award-winning play that details D.H. Lawrence’s brief spell in Cornwall and Australia. It has particular resonance for David Faulkner as he played Lawrence in the original play at the beginning of his career and has now directed it in his retirement. 

D.H. Lawrence lived in Cornwall from 30 December 1915 to 15 October 1917 in what he hoped would be a new life away from the industrial Midlands of his birth. It didn’t quite work out as he planned. He was accused of being a spy, his passport was removed, and he was booted out of Cornwall under the Defence of the Realm Act. His short tenure on the edge of Britain would have a profound effect on his ideas, not least his developing fascination with cosmic vibrations and the mysterious secrets of primitive cultures emanating from the dark black granite Zennor coastline.

Lawrence courted controversy throughout his short life, which is what I love most about him. He married a German woman called Frieda Weekley, a distant relation of the ‘Red Baron’, 15 days before the outbreak of WWI. The Rainbow, published the following year, lasted two months in print before being seized under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Prosecutor Herbert Musket declared it ‘a mass of obscenity of thought, idea, and action’ for daring to question fundamentals of everyday life, such as work, marriage and religion. Judge Sir John Dickinson ruled that the book ‘had no right to exist in the wind of war’, and that Lawrence was in effect mocking the very principles British men were fighting to defend. With no sense of irony, copies of The Rainbow were publicly burned, while ‘our’ boys fought for freedom on the Western Front.

Lawrence would live a restless life, travelling the globe and staying no longer than two years in any one place. His experiences of living in Cornwall and Australia would serve as the backdrop to David Allen’s play Upside Down at the Bottom of the World. Originally performed in 1980, it scooped the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Play. More recently, the play has been revived by David Faulkner and was performed at Lane Theatre, Newquay in March. It’s hoped the play may make its way back to Nottinghamshire at some point.

Frieda once said that what she loved most about Lawrence was his saying ‘yes’ to life, known as ‘Bejahung’ in German. The same could be said of David Faulkner. “One day, while on the London tube, I happened to see an advert in Time Out which read, ‘English Speaking Actors wanted for the Cafe Theatre Frankfurt’. Rather than send my CV, photograph and covering letter, I bought a £17.50 Magic Bus Ticket, packed an overnight bag and the next thing I knew I was in Frankfurt looking for The Cafe Theatre. Probably due to bare faced cheek rather than my chosen audition pieces I was offered the job. Eighteen months later I was still working at the Cafe theatre as both an actor and director, doing three monthly rep.”

It was here that he first encountered Davis Allen’s play, offering to play the part of Lawrence after the original cast member had to withdraw. “I had just ten days to learn the lines and replicate the role in preparation for a continued three-month tour of Holland and Germany. I remember so little of that production but often returned to the script with the thought that one day I would revive it.”

Now he has found himself directing the play that helped kickstart his career. Although remaining true to the original script, David has introduced some interesting extra details, such as Lawrence knitting bloomers. “Frieda liked wearing French knickers yet Lawrence preferred her to wear bloomers, which he often made for her. Therefore, at the beginning of the play we see Lawrence sewing a pair of bloomers which Frieda puts on in front of him. We see this sexual game playing is indeed a significant part of their relationship.”

David is now retired and living in Cornwall and runs a small touring company as well as guest directing for several local community groups. So why did he decided to put the play on now? “Sometimes a play comes along that has particular relevance at a certain time. Upside Down at the Bottom of the World is one of those plays. The political turmoil of the Diggers, the right/left struggle, the influence of the Unions in conflict with the capitalists is almost a mirror to what we are experiencing here and now.”

Brexit has certainly delivered plenty of turmoil as of late, so would Lawrence have voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’? “Now that’s a hard one. Married to a German, he may have voted Remain. Then again having no truck with a capitalist world order, and being the son of a miner, perhaps, Leave. Now that would make a great play, haha.”

Upside Down at the Bottom of the World was performed at Lane Theatre, Newquay, Cornwall, TR8 4PX from 14-16 March and 21 – 23 March 2019. This blog was originally published on the UNESCO City of Literature website. I’m currently working with Paul Fillingham on the D.H. Lawrence Memory Theatre. You can learn more about this digital pilgrimage by following  the project blog or Instagram account.

Arthur Century Later: 60th anniversary of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Half a century ago, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning became the first Pan paperback to sell a million copies thanks to master gobshite Arthur Seaton. The novel opens with Seaton having a skinful down his local, The White Horse, for no other reason than it was 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”. By the end of the evening he’s had a drinking game with a sailor, puked up over a couple of oldies, fell headfirst down the stairs, and ended up in bed with someone else’s wife. It’s no wonder that a councillor at the time wanted the novel banned, fearing it would damage the reputation of Nottingham forever.

But Seaton is more than just your average drunk. He’s belligerent and hedonistic with a healthy scepticism of all forms of authority. Despite only being twenty-one, he’s clocked how the system works, announcing in those flat Radford vowels: “Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, insurance and income tax offices milk money from your wage packets and rob you to death. And if you’re still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death.”

People often talk about Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as a working class novel, but it’s more nuanced than that. Firstly, this is not a novel about class solidarity and changing your material relations. It’s not us against them. It’s more personal than that. It’s me against them. Seaton is a defiant individualist who lives by cunning and wit. He’s too selfish and too wise to be a member of anyone else’s gang, he’s out for himself – all the rest if propaganda.

The novel is set during the transformations in postwar Britain faced by a more affluent society. Seaton was well paid for his graft, earning more at his lathe than a footballer at the time. He could afford nice clothes, drink himself senseless, and go out for the whole weekend. This is one reason why the novel wouldn’t work today. The working classes have been replaced by an atomised and powerless underclass. The system has become a lot cruder: there are those with money and those without. Manufacturing and overtime have been replaced with call centres and zero-hour contracts. The most you can hope for on a Saturday night now is to be able to fill the car up with petrol. If you’ve got a car…

Seaton is a product of his environment. He is not an ‘angry young man’ but someone trapped in a world where violence is just a part of everyday life. Husbands attack their wives and the wives attack their husbands. Men eye each other up in the pub and shaft each other at any opportunity. Tonally Sillitoe captures this through negative adjectives so that the sun smacks you in the face, the grass is flattened when you walk on it and tenderness is shown by grabbing the hand of the woman you love. Only an uneducated writer who’s not been on a creative writing course could cobble together such wonderfully claustrophobic and aggressive prose. You won’t read anything this raw again.

Sillitoe wrote that Arthur Seaton “has no spiritual values because the kind of conditions he lives in do not allow him to have any”. The problem is not an ‘angry’ author or a selfish character. It’s society itself. It’s for this reason that I think it’s more accurate to describe Saturday Night as an existential novel in which Seaton eventually concedes “everyone in the world was caught, somehow, one way or another, and those that weren’t were always on the way to it”.

All the factories in Nottingham have gone, as have the local pubs. Indeed, recent research published in the medical journal BMC Public Health, revealed that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds who do not drink alcohol has increased from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015. Yet we still love the hard drinking, womanising Seaton and crave his antics fifty years on.

This weekend, four journalists from a Swedish Food Workers Union’s magazine who are interested in working class literature came over to interview me and to discuss The Sillitoe Trail. We took a literary walk across Radford, tracing the perimeter of the old Raleigh factory which is now part of the University of Nottingham’s Jubilee Campus, ending up in Seaton’s old watering hole, The White Horse (now a curry takeaway).

The world Sillitoe described is radically different today, but the charismatic Seaton remains as appealing as ever. His defiant individualism and personal credo of “I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me” kept our conversation going for hours as we imagined how he would deal with Brexit (one less boss to worry about, another form of propaganda) and other contemporary issues. And this is the wonderful thing about literature, it has the power to bring random people together. It creates communities – the very world that Saturday Night describes, the very world that has disappeared.

This article was originally published by Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature

About: James is currently working on Whatever People Say I Am and D.H. Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage.  He has used the persona of Arthur Seaton to argue it’s Time to Ditch the Traditional Essay in the Journal of Writing in Creative Practice.