Mrs Bull and the Importance of Gossip

This is the first 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. Here’s how we decided on the project title of ‘Cheap Gossip for Retail Later’. 

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a book of two halves. The first 75% is 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.” Here we follow Raleigh worker Arthur Seaton as he tests the elastic capacity of his guts by necking seven gins and 11 pints down his local before getting it on with women, he shouldn’t be getting it on with.

The last 25% is Sunday morning, when Arthur goes fishing and accepts “Everyone in the world was caught, somehow, one way or another, and those that weren’t were always on the way to it”. He has to settle down and get married because “If you went through life refusing all the bait dangled in front of you, that would be no life at all”.

Any analysis of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning rightly focuses on the wonderfully quotable antics of Arthur Seaton, the charismatic anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel, published in 1958. But for the Words of Wisdom project I wanted to switch focus to Seaton’s nemesis Mrs. Bull.

Mrs. Bull may not slug her guts out at the lathe, but she certainly puts in a shift at the yard. For twenty two years she has observed people coming and going, earning the nickname of the ‘Loudspeaker’ and ‘News of the World’. We are told that “her malicious gossip travelled like electricity through a circuit, from one power point to another, and the surprising thing was that a fuse was so rarely blown”.

Sillitoe’s descriptions of “Fat Mrs. Bull the gossiper” are wonderfully evocative, albeit derogatory, and led to some heated debates in the writing workshops that we held at the Meadows and Central library, Radford Care Group and the Marcus Garvey Centre. She is described as a “tight-fisted defender of her tribe” and as “queen of the yard” and so is not someone you want to provoke. But neither is Seaton. When he finds himself the subject of her tongue he shoots her in the cheek in the book (later toned down to the backside for the 1960 film adaptation), suggesting she is a real threat to his freedom, though given his behavior (sleeping with a pair of married sisters, one of whom he gets off with while the other is having a ‘gin bath’) it is no wonder he is the subject of gossip.

This led to some interesting conversations in our workshops. Had anyone ever been the subject of gossip and how did this feel? Was anyone in the group a self-confessed gossip? Was gossip a positive or negative thing?

It also opened up debates around the origin of the word gossip which led us to Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch Hunting, and Women where she argues “Tracing the history of the words frequently used to define and degrade women is a necessary step if we are to understand how gender oppression functions and reproduces itself”. It turns out that gossip referred to “companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations. In either case, it had strong emotional connotations.” The digested read: It’s good to talk.

Based on this, we decided to call our project ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’ as this is essentially what we had been doing in the workshops: we were gleaning gossip from each other, sharing stories, finding commonality through words. That choice gossip has taken the form of a series of illustrations with audio recordings which will be released bit by bit over the coming months. You can decide for yourself if this gossip is worthy of retail on 12 November.

Words of Wisdom: Choice Gossip for Retail Later, 12 November (6pm-8pm), City Arts, 11-13 Hockley, Nottingham. NG1 1FH   

Book tickets from Eventbrite here

 

 

 

 

 

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.