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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Seaton Rifles

One thing I am quickly learning about editing together Sillitoe: Then and Now for The Space is how much retrospective creativity is involved. By this I mean finding a narrative thread that draws together all of your writers in a manner that seems deliberate and well thought out. Our project explores five locations from the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. These are; Old Market Square, The White Horse, Raleigh, Trent and the Goose Fair. The order for these has changed at least three times since I originally put together the plan with Paul Fillingham. Only the Goose Fair has always remained the last event as this falls in October when the Mobile App is launched.

Market Square appeared first for the simple reason that we had content. The White Horse came next because I had immediate contact with Al Needham and so could talk through ideas face-to-face rather than via email. Derrick Buttress was originally asked to write about each decade he had experienced in the Market Square. I was expecting something leading up to the present but when I read his first couple of pieces from the 1930s and 40s I realised it was better if he gave context to the novel by writing only about the decades leading up to 1958. Al Needham has now picked up this journey and takes us on from 1958 to the present through a talk about his life through pubs. This wasn’t planned. It just happened that his parents were drinking during the 50s and so the natural link was made. It’s my job to ensure writers mirror each other and that there is a spine holding the content together. I never realised that so much of this would happen after, rather than before.

Another example of retrospective reasoning is through Seaton Rifles. This is where we (Neil Fulwood and I) imagine how Arthur Seaton would react to the observations of the five commissioned writers. So that the project isn’t text heavy I opted for these to be read out and asked a rising young star from Nottingham called Tom Keeling as he had recently played Arthur Seaton in the musical adaptation. This had numerous benefits. Firstly, the Alan Sillitoe Committee gets a cut from every production of the play which goes towards our statue fund. Therefore it’s in our interest if the musical tours nationally which becomes a possibility if we keep the lead actor in the media. His presence also means that we gain extra publicity by reaching actors/musicians/theatres. Building such partnerships is essential as we live and die by our statistics and so any opportunity to broaden our reach is welcome.

Tom’s reading was a lot softer than I imagined Arthur Seaton to be. This is probably because the Lancastrian tones of Albert Finney have become synonymous with the role. I was worried that it did not have the raw edge that people would expect and that this would open us up to criticism. The solution, then, was to approach Arthur Seaton not as a voice but as a spirit performed by different people, such as Todd Haynes did in his Bob Dylan movie I’m Not There. This then got me thinking about what a female Arthur Seaton would sound like as the book could quite conceivably have been written from a female perspective. Female factory workers of the period would have felt a greater sense of injustice than our iconic anti-hero given that a shift down at Raleigh was replaced by a shift at home sorting out the family. I suspect that the limited time they would’ve had to ‘have a good time’ would create far more outlandish behaviour than falling to the bottom of some stairs. And so what seems like a problem suddenly becomes part of the creative process. Writing is quite simply about finding patterns and my web grows more complex every day.

But I am not the only predator in the web. When the first Seaton Rifles was uploaded someone at the BBC changed the title to Arthur Seaton Rifles. This completely lost the subtle reference to the Jam song while becoming so explicit it felt insulting to the reader. I pointed this out to my mentor and thankfully it was changed. I wonder if anyone dares tinker with Will Self’s Kafka’s Wound for the London Review of Books? I suspect not.