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 The working classes have been replaced by an atomised and powerless underclass.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.     

 

 

DH Lawrence: Herd Mentality

For the past couple of years I’ve been retracing DH Lawrence’s footsteps across the globe in preparation for a Lawrence inspired ‘memory theatre’ project with Paul Fillingham, due to be published in 2019. The following article was originally published on our Lawrence bloging site and then tweaked for an article published in the January 2018 issue of Leftlion, a UNESCO City of Literature special. The artwork is by one of my favourite artists, Eva Brudenell. 

On September 11th the world changed forever. DH Lawrence was born. To celebrate that special day in 1885 I’ve arranged to go for a stomp across his childhood home of Eastwood with other members of the DH Lawrence Society. Eastwood was a booming coalmining community at the turn of the 20th century, but Lawrence wasn’t a fan. In his early novels and plays he bemoans the destruction of the natural landscape. Although Emile Zola had written about coalminers in Germinal (1885) and Vincent Van Gogh slouched off to Belgium to live among the miners he painted, Lawrence was the first writer to portray them from the inside. He didn’t hold back. Eastwood has never forgiven him. Neither has the literati.

His books were consistently banned and he faced censorship throughout his career. Consequently, he turned his back on England in 1919, cursing “the sniveling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed”. He set off with his German wife Frieda, who he nicknamed the Queen Bee, travelling the globe in search of Rananim – a community of like-minded people. But there was no-one like Lawrence, so he just kept on moving. He lived in Sicily for a bit, but was irritated by the locals who were “so terribly physically over one another” like “melted butter over parsnips”. “Beastly Milano” was no better, “with its imitation hedgehog of a cathedral”. So he set off East for Mexico, stopping off in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he got bad guts and took it out on the Buddha “Oh I wish he would stand up!” Lawrence was a proper mard arse, raging at everything. It’s why I love him so much.

By the time I arrive at my destination I’m 15 minutes late. Nobody is around. Given that the average age of membership at the DH Lawrence Society is 70 I naively presume I can catch them up and so leg it across the field. But they’re nowhere to be seen. I start shouting which attracts the attention of a herd of cows in an adjacent field. They start to chunter over, perhaps thinking I’m the farmer rather than a disorganised reader wanting to recite bits of Sons and Lovers at relevant locations on a 6 mile circular walk. Then one of them kicks out a leg like he’s dancing. They start to pick up pace. Some run into each other. They’re not bulls are they? Then they pick up pace, charging. There must be sixty on them. I peg it towards a hedgerow in the middle of the field and within seconds I’m circled by angry cows. I shout at them to piss off. They take it in turns mooing and staring, like they want a fight. I begin to walk away calmly, but they follow, less calmly. Then one at the back panics and starts to run, setting off the others. I make it to a nearby tree and clamber up, waving my copy of Sons of Lovers at them, telling them to f*ck off. They’re having none of it. They want me dead. I can see it in their “wicked eyes.” Lawrence could name every flower, plant and tree. I haven’t got a clue what tree I’ve scrambled up. I just know it’s prickly and my hands are bleeding.

As I stare at the cows and the cows stare back I think of Birkin in Women in Love when he tells Ursula he wants their connection to be founded on something beyond love, “where there is no speech, and no terms of agreement.” This was definitely a moment of no speech and no terms of agreement. Just a lot of stamping and mooing. “This is the wrong book” I scream, waving my copy of Sons and Lovers. FFS! This isn’t Women in Love.

In Women in Love Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen end up singing and dancing naked in front of a herd of Highland cattle. It’s one of many incidents that have wrongly led Lawrence to be classified as a dotteh author. Nothing could be further from the truth. He believed that in privileging the intellect, we’ve lost touch with our more intuitive and instinctive senses, what he described as blood consciousness. He was more pagan than pervert.

I spot a man in wellies in a garden on the edge of the field. He has to be the farmer. He looks like a farmer. I scream at him from up my tree. Eventually he looks up; too casual for my liking, but at least I have his attention. “You ok?” he shouts. “Of course I’m not f*cking ok. These cows want me dead.” “Do you want some help?” “Of course I want some f*cking help.” He climbs over his fence and plods over, clapping his hands at the cows who immediately disperse. “Just got to clap at ‘em,” he informs.

He asks if I’d like to be escorted out of the field and I say yes, of course I want to be escorted out of the field. I consider giving him my copy of Sons and Lovers but decide against it as I’ve highlighted my favourite quotes. I tell him that it’s DHL’s birthday today. He nods. I don’t elaborate further. Once over the fence I give him a clap. He walks off. Not just cows, then.

When I get back to my car I smoke three cigarettes on the bounce and then speed out of Eastwood as fast as I can. I’m in such a rage that I pull over to call my GF. She’s more of a hornet than a Queen Bee, and delighted by my misfortune. I am always scalding the GF for her poor time management so she revels in my misfortune. She’ll store this day forever. Never forget it. September 11th will forever be cowgate. Rather than DHL’S birthday. Or the date when two planes flew into two towers.

As I head home I clock the blue and yellow hell that is Ikea. Lawrence wasn’t a man for flat-packed philosophies but he did love his DIY. Aldous Huxley said Lawrence “could cook, he could sew, he could darn a stocking and milk a cow, he was an efficient woodcutter and a good hand at embroidery, fires always burned when he had laid them and a floor after he had scrubbed it was thoroughly clean.” If the GF ever dumps me, I’m using that quote for my Tinder profile.

Although I missed the walk I’ve unwittingly celebrated elements of Lawrence’s personality on his birthday. He hated the herd mentality, despising any group that attempted to force its will upon him. He hated the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and how this slowly removed man from nature – the cows were a curt reminder that nature still has some fight left in it. Lawrence couldn’t get out of Eastwood fast enough and this led him to live a nomadic life across the globe, often in abject poverty. “I find I can be anywhere at home, except home,” he lamented.

Later that evening the radio reports there’s been an increase in tuberculosis in cows. To stop this spreading 33,500 badgers will be culled in autumn. Lawrence died of tuberculosis. He was my age, 44. Perhaps the cows were trying to tell me something. Instead of running I should have listened.

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