Saturday night, Sunday morning – and now

James Bloodworth

James Bloodworth on the meaning of Alan Sillitoe's novel, 60 years after its publication

19 September 2018 07:29

Sixty years ago, in 1958, Arthur Seaton burst onto the literary scene: a working-class character so ordinary as to be extraordinary, amid a deluge of crude stereotypes and caricatures.

‘If you look for the workingclasses in fiction, and especially English fiction,’ George Orwell had written eighteen years earlier in 1940, ‘all you find is a hole in the air’. As with many of the things Orwell wrote, this was a wafer-thin generalisation that merely looked good on the page. It was simply untrue to say that the working class had been ignored by English novelists, even in Orwell’s time. However, most novels featuring working-class characters contained an explicit class judgement: they were either propagandist in nature or patronising in tone; and they were almost always written into life by middle class authors.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was different. It was ‘the work of trying to portray ordinary people as I knew them,’ as its working class author Alan Sillitoe phrased it. His creation, Arthur Seaton, was not the first working-class character to break the ceiling of English middle-class condescension, but he was perhaps the most striking in a genre that was patronisingly called ‘proletarian fiction’.

‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down,’ says Sillitoe’s Jack-the-lad protagonist in one of several memorable quips. Arthur Seaton pits himself against all the usual stuffy antagonists – the boss class at the factory, the police, the army (national service was still calling men up in 1958), and the institution of marriage (he is having affairs with two married sisters). No complaisant representative of the so-called masses is Arthur, content to sweat at the factory, die in wars and bow down before Queen and country in exchange for a basket of consumer goods in a society that, as the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan would declare, had ‘never had it so good’.

Nor, however, is Arthur a socialist stock character railing against ‘private monopoly’, in the mould of Robert Owen in Robert Tressell’s Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. Indeed, Seaton exists neither to ventriloquise left-wing ideas on behalf of a radical intelligentsia, nor to sentimentalise the working class in the manner of Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. Instead, his life centres around a rowdy Saturday night of boozing and womanising – ‘the best and bingiest glad-time of the week,’ as he phrases it.

Seaton’s freshness – captured brilliantly by a young Albert Finney in the 1960 film adaptation of the book – is bound up with the fact that he rails against every vestige of authority, not just the obvious targets. Arthur invariably despises ‘these big fat Tory bastards in parliament’, yet he also takes aim at the ‘the Labour bleeders’ and the institutions associated with post-war social democracy. ‘They rob our wage packets with insurance and income tax and try to tell us it’s all for our own good,’ Seaton bemoans.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960)

One can find something self-destructive about this attitude while recognising that it derives its edge from its undiscriminating antagonism. As with the arrival of the punk movement two decades later, young Arthur is kicking back not just against the usual easy targets for adolescent rage, but against the things which morally upright people feel inclined to support. The paradox, if you will, is that one can only kick back against the conventions of social democracy when they exist to kick back against in the first place. Any rebellion against the tax man, however flippant, ought to be considered in the context of a society without a ‘tax man’, and consequently without a system of social insurance as existed in Britain after the Second World War.

Sillitoe does in fact do this: running right through Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is powerful social critique of working class conditions prior to the war, when life was unquestionably harder for working class families such as the Seatons (as it was for the author himself, whose family were often on the brink of starvation). He drums home to the reader the fact that the difference in working-class life before and after the war ‘didn’t bear thinking about’.

The novel is peppered with references to an earlier era when Arthur’s father was said to have ‘had no money and no way of getting any’. This is contrasted with the relative prosperity of Nottingham in the Fifties, when a revolving door of Labour and Tory Keynesian economics produced ‘week after week of solid wages that stopped worry at the source’. Thirteen years after the war had ended, a 21-year-old lathe operator at a Raleigh bicycle factory could earn 14 pounds a week: enough for ‘all the Woodbines he could smoke, money for a pint if he wanted one… a holiday somewhere, a jaunt on the firm’s trip to Blackpool, and a television set to look into at home.’

The appellation ‘angry young men’ was attached to writers like Sillitoe, who were said to deal in a style of literature know as ‘kitchen sink realism’. One can almost hear Arthur Seaton’s ghost cursing the contemporary caricatures of working-class life that prevail on both the political left and right. Today’s middle-class left greatly prefers working-class folk when they are on their way down as opposed to on their way up. Satisfaction is derived from patting a ‘downtrodden’ individual gently on the head, before leading them to the promised land, a place where they will live under – always under – some new system – i.e. a new set of rulers. Arthur is too much of a free spirit to be cajoled into toeing anybody’s party line: he is untameable and therefore untrainable. And the feeling would surely be mutual: Arthur is a rebel without a cause, and such people are invariably despised by those whose entire being is consumed by the pursuit of a cause, and for whom the greatest defect is not to have any cause at all.

But one can imagine Arthur being equally scathing toward the insurgent populist right, with its opportunistic veneration of the coarseness of working class life. The ubiquitous privately-educated Brexiteer in corduroy trousers and tweed jacket – a conglomerate of imagined working class affectations – railing portentously against ‘posh coffee’ and the ‘elite’ would be given short shrift by Arthur. Nor is Arthur a proto-Thatcherite: he shows open contempt for those attempting to climb the social ladder through promotion and toadying at work.

Arthur Seaton’s Nottingham – and by extension Sillitoe’s working class – is poor, but it is also proud and rebellious. When Sillitoe finally got around to writing the sequel to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, dragging the Seatons into the Twenty-First Century in his 2001 novel Birthday, a pensioned off Arthur complains about a New Labour government that is ‘no better than the Tories because they don’t care about ordinary people either’. Like so many lesser characters, Arthur has shed the cockiness of youth and now resembles a run-of-the-mill pub bore, sounding off about buying ‘as much dynamite as I could get my hands on and blow[ing] up the Houses of Parliament’. Much like Johnny Rotten’s metamorphosis into John Lydon, the passage of time has made the act stale, reactionary and, worst of all, rather boring.

By the time the Twenty-First century arrived, the working class was typically something you endeavoured to escape from.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning appeared at a time when working class people were – to a point, at least – celebrated. One could be a lathe operator and hold one’s head up high, even if such a job was never going to make a person rich. By the time Birthday was published, Britain was at the tail-end of another working-class revival, this time via the synthetic culture of Britpop and ‘lads’ and ‘ladettes’, a commercially-centred parody of working-class autonomy at a time when, for two decades, the security and stability of working-class life had been destroyed. By the time the Twenty-First century arrived, the working class was typically something you endeavoured to escape from, or else it was something whose childhood credentials you brandished for the purposes of credibility from a higher plain.

So what meaning can be derived from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and its protagonist 60 years after its original publication? Arthur Seaton is the distillation of many things. He expresses the mercurial vigour of early-twenties masculinity and its refusal to be stifled. He is hedonistic and cynical but, at times, tender to boot. ‘I’m me and I’m 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’. There is, of course, a darker side to all of this. A product of the Fifties, Arthur’s masculinity is invariably shaped by a patriarchal dominion over women. The account of Brenda, one of Arthur’s married flings, having a backstreet abortion is disturbing to the modern reader, yet it is an accurate representation of the horrors many women suffered prior to the 1967 Abortion Act.

But Arthur Seaton is primarily a lodestone of defeat, and one that is pertinent today in unexpected ways. The formula of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, like much of Orwell’s fiction, is that of paradise sought and paradise lost. Like many young men, angry or otherwise, Arthur seeks the freedom bound up with oblivion, and equates the latter with enormous quantities of booze and sex. In this he comes up against wider bourgeois society, which has other ideas as to what’s good for him. Ultimately, Arthur submits to societal norms, putting an end to his affairs and agreeing to marry Doreen, his steady – and conventional – girlfriend. The book closes with Arthur lounging indolently on the banks of the River Trent, fishing rod in hand, solemnly contemplating a life ‘roped in by the factory’ and ‘hooked up the arse with a wife’.

The broader working class would experience similar feelings of defeat a quarter of a century later. During the miners’ strike of 1984, the full heft of the state would be brought to bear on workers whom Harold Macmillan, a softer relic of another era, had described as ‘the best men in the world’. It became much harder to envisage another Arthur Seaton after that, and as the years went by the idea of a confident working class taking its destiny into its own hands – either collectively or through some individual expression of rebellion such as Arthur’s – gradually went out of fashion.