Indeed, amid the dross of reality television and Shameless-style degradation to which we are exposed, Sillitoe’s tale of working-class life in 1950s Nottingham might seem even more extraordinary and uplifting than it did back then.
Cultural revolts are best understood in context. To get the Sex Pistols, you have to grasp the stasis of the mid-Seventies. To understand the reaction to the writers dubbed the Angry Young Men, of whom Sillitoe was the best, we need to see the clash between the new and the old in the Fifties.
At the Tory Party conference in October 1958, a popular motion demanding the return of judicial flogging to deal with young tearaways was only defeated when the home secretary of the day – who argued that caning should be left to parents and schools – promised tough new detention centres to ‘de-Teddify the Teddy Boys’. That same week, 400 soldiers were confined to barracks in Essex ‘to prevent incidents which might occur from troops retaliating after being provoked by Teddy Boys last Friday’.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Sillitoe’s first novel, was also published in 1958, against the background of near-panic about the emergence of a new generation of unmanageable working-class youth, symbolised by the stereotype of the Teddy Boy. The book landed with the shock and force of one of the many punches to the face or boots to the groin delivered by Arthur Seaton.
“Writers like Sillitoe created a cultural template for the individual rebel that has been with us ever since”
When a sergeant major tells Seaton (during his national service) to get his hair cut because he’s ‘a soldier now, not a Teddy Boy’, Sillitoe writes that ‘Arthur knew he was wrong in either case’: ‘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.’
Arthur is a new kind of individual working-class rebel, with more money and clothes than ever before and attitude to match. In his early twenties, he hates the establishment, recalls with deep bitterness the unemployment and poverty of the 1930s, and sympathises with his older cousins’ refusal to fight the Second World War for the bastards in government who had offered them the choice between borstal or starvation before the war. He has no truck with religion or the traditional morality of right and wrong either, preferring to chase married women who offer the comforts of home without the responsibility.
Proud of the skilled work at the bike factory lathe that earns him the unheard-of sum of £14 a week in piecework, Arthur also dreams of blowing the place up as a more worthwhile political contribution than voting. He is hard-drinking – though his aim is always to appear in control rather than show off his drunkenness – and hard-arsed, fighting everybody from the neighbourhood gossip to the foreman and the ‘swaddies’ (soldiers), truculent drunks and aggrieved husbands.
In one sense Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, provides a snapshot of a time passed, an evocative picture of working-class life in the families, factories and pubs of 50 years ago. However, there is much more here than social history. Arthur might embody the spirit of the age in a drape suit, but in achieving Sillitoe’s aim of appearing ‘both ordinary and extraordinary’ he speaks to us down the years about the universal human spirit of resilience and aspiration.
As the working class has become more atomised and marginal in society, so cultural depictions of it have become more degraded and degrading, whether in the lowbrow world of EastEnders and Jeremy Kyle, or literary works such as James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late and other examples of the new ‘gritty fiction’. Arthur, by contrast, is nobody’s fool or victim, living by the creed ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’. Even as the Saturday Night section of the book shifts to Sunday Morning, and he contemplates settling down with his young (unmarried) girlfriend, Arthur is clear that growing up need not mean giving up, and that he will always be a rebel: ‘And trouble for me it’ll be, fighting every day until I die. Why do they make soldiers out of us when we’re fighting up to the hilt as it is? Fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government… Well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken, and if you know that the big wide world hasn’t heard from you yet, no, not by a long way, though it won’t be long now.’
The 1950s writers known as the Angry Young Men created a cultural template for the individual rebel that has been with us ever since. To me, the fighting Arthur Seaton is a far more engaging example than the whiny self-obsessed Jimmy Porter of John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, or the many pale imitations that followed in the Sixties. Viewed from the vantage point of today, some left-leaning observers might see Seaton’s attitude as sowing the seeds of the personal greed and selfishness they claim is now destroying society.
“It is possible to see the Arthur Seatons of the postwar world as the generation whom the left lost”
Yet it is equally possible to see the Arthurs of the postwar world as the generation whom the left lost. In that moment of the late 1950s, many in the newly confident and powerful workforce felt as alienated from the left and the labour movement leadership as from the old Tory establishment. The Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 had badly damaged the standing of the Communist Party. Arthur steals his father’s polling card to vote Communist as a two-fingered gesture to the government ‘because they’re different from those big fat Tory bastards in parliament’, but he’s not interested in the party’s politics. When he imagines a workers’ revolt – sparked by lads wanting to play football or go fishing rather than go to work ‘like sheep’ – those in the firing line include not only Sir Harold Blabbertab, Chief Inspector Popcorn and blokes in bowler hats, but also ‘that big-bellied union ponce [who will] ask us not to muck things up’. Or as Arthur puts it in the classic film version of the book, also written by Sillitoe: ‘I’m out for a good time. All the rest is propaganda.’
Alan Sillitoe himself turned 80 this year, still smoking (literally and figuratively) after all these years, still not ground down by the bastards yet. The young Arthur Seaton would buy him a pint.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe, is published by Harper Perennial. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)).
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