Alan Sillitoe Writing Workshop at Radford Care Group

This is the second 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, which is why we had to host some of the sessions in Radford.

When thinking about possible locations to host writing workshops for the Words of Wisdom project, Radford was an absolute must. This was the setting for Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Karel Reisz’s 1960 film adaptation staring Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton would feature the family home of 5 Beaconsfield Terrace, with neighbours and family appearing as extras.

Born in 1928, Sillitoe grew up in abject poverty and squalor. The family lived an itinerant existence, moved on as the area underwent slum clearances. On one occasion the family of six occupied a single room in a building. They weren’t the only ones. Always on the brink of starvation, Sillitoe’s mother was forced into prostitution to help feed the family. “We were in a class of our own,” observed Sillitoe’s brother Michael “it was impossible to fall any lower.”

Sillitoe failed his eleven plus and ended up in Radford Boulevard Senior Boys’ School, leaving without qualifications. Like everyone else in the area, including his father, he ended up doing a stint at Raleigh. Given Sillitoe’s personal circumstances it’s little wonder he has Arthur Seaton declare “I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda”. Yet despite these awful conditions, Sillitoe avoids ‘misery lit’ in his writing. Instead we find a defiant individualism in his characters, epitomised by Seaton’s personal mantra of “don’t let the bastards grind you down”.

I found a similar attitude in my sessions at Radford Care Group where four women aged between 70 – 80 shared stories that were Seatonesque in their cunning and charisma. One woman, Brenda, grew up on Salisbury Street, a few doors down from the Sillitoe family, and brought in a photo of Sillitoe’s mother Sabina on the street. You can see the Raleigh factory in the distance. This was particularly poignant as Brenda explained her ex husband burned all of her photographs except a treasured few. She also shared a letter from Brian Sillitoe, who kept in contact over the years.

When we discussed dialect in the novel, Brenda introduced me to words from her childhood like ‘chumping’ – which is where you collect wood for a bonfire stack. Streets would have competitions to see who could make the biggest bonfire, meaning she would sneak out at night and steal debris from her neighbour’s stack. Presumably they were doing similar, so there was no point feeling guilty. Another favourite word was ‘guzunder’ as in ‘it goes under’ referring to a bed pan that goes under the sheets.

When I turned up for our sessions the group were usually intensely working on a ‘word search’, whereby they had to search through a grid of letters to find hidden words. “Keeps me brain working, duckeh” one of them explained. So, when we met up next, I created a word search that included local dialect and phrases from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, such as: White Horse, Gin and Orange, Blackberryin, Notnum.

The group were really grateful for the sessions because it helped them remember things they’d long since forgotten, such as the US Army billeted at Wollaton Park during World War II. Some of the stories I was told would make Arthur Seaton blush! Although Brenda was too young for a romantic liaison, it didn’t stop her from taking advantage of the ‘Yanks’. Instead, she promised soldiers a date with her sister if they gave her some gum. The scam worked, but much to the chagrin of her father when he had to chase away various soldiers who came knocking at the door for the promised date.

One thing I didn’t expect from these sessions is how it would make me feel. I struck up a real friendship with these septuagenarians and writing this I realise how much I miss our Friday conversations. They made the best of adversity and had a positivity that was infectious. “We had nothing growing up” one told me. “I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

While in the Care Home I also bumped into a man called Harry. He used to repair watches in Victoria Market and is a family friend I have known for 25 years. I sat down and said it was so lovely to see him, that I hadn’t seen him for ages. But he couldn’t remember me. He looked really confused and I realised he had dementia. He died a few weeks later.

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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.