There had been working class novels before. But they’d generally been written by middle class authors slumming it for the sake of material. When Alan Sillitoe burst onto the literary scene in 1958, the difference was palpable. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ was the real thing. It was in-your-face, attitudinous, unapologetic and fired up with fighting spirit.
This is how the novel starts: twenty-something anti-hero Arthur Seaton (played to belligerent effect by Albert Finney in Karel Reisz’s film version), a lathe operator on piecework rates – ie. someone who gets paid per item he turns rather than an actual hourly rate or weekly wage, and who stands to get his per-item rate lowered if he’s too productive (a key indicator of the novel’s “us and them” stance) – goes to his local pub, gets into an altercation with a loud-mouthed sailor home on leave, accepts the sailor’s challenge to a drinking contest, bests him, then – overcome with the alcoholic intake himself (Sillitoe describes Arthur’s intake as “eleven pints and seven small gins playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach”) – plunges down a flight of stairs. Woken up by one of the barstaff, Arthur blags his way back into the pub and gets another pint down him. Bad move. His guts protest and he sprints for the Gents. He doesn’t make it. An innocent middle-aged bystander receives Arthur’s regurgitation all of his best suit. Said individual reacts by whining impotently about the stains. His wife, however, girds her loins and tears Arthur a new arsehole, demanding that he at least apologise. Arthur responds by barfing over her, as well. The mood in the pub turns ugly. He scarpers. There are plenty of occasions in the novel where Arthur is quite frankly a bastard. He shots a neighbourhood gossip in the face with an air rifle, he and a pal respond to a drunk driver by dragging him from behind the wheel and pushing his car over, he gets the married woman he’s “carrying on with” pregnant and when she holds out on him sleeps with her sister. He baits the foreman at the bicycle factory where he works. He pretends to be a pal to the workmate he’s cuckolding. He whiles away the hours at his capstan lathe fantasizing about planting dynamite under the factory and “blowing it to smithereens”. In Britain in the 50s and early 60s there was an imperative called National Service. My old man got out of it because my granddad, out of the pit and running a small haulage business at this point, was driving for the government and therefore my dad wangled a deferment (he was paying court to a lass at the government office at the time, which helped). Most of his mates weren’t that lucky and reluctantly accepted their call-up papers and trudged off to spend two years in khaki. Alan Sillitoe’s first stories, as a kid, were about his cousins who had deserted from National Service; his mother destroyed them lest they be used in evidence. For me, one of the key passages in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is when Arthur goes to do his “fifteen days” (ie. a yearly additional stint in uniform): On his first parade, the sergeant-major exclaimed that he couldn’t make out the shape of Arthur’s head because there was so much hair on it … “You’re a soldier now, not a teddy-boy,” the sergeant-major said, but Arthur knew he was wrong in either case. He was nothing at all when people tried to tell him what he was … What am I? he wondered. A six-foot pit prop that wants a pint of ale. That’s what I am. And if any knowing bastard says that’s what I am, I’m a dynamite-dealer, Sten-gun seller, hundred-ton tank trader, a capstan-lathe operator waiting to blow the army to Kingdom Come. 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. Or, earlier in the novel, you can boil down Arthur’s philosophy to the one-sentence statement of purpose “All I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda.” Between these two statements – “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” and “All I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda”, Alan Sillitoe gave me a reminder, a reality check, a suit of armour. I’m the first Fulwood to hold down a white collar job and it’s changed in my short lifetime beyond anything my granddad or my old man would recognise. The corporate mindset has pushed me through some hoops neither of them would have thought existed. But there’s always been a point where I’ve talked back, argued the toss, pissed off my bosses even though it’s ostensibly been to my detriment. Arthur’s reprehensible in many ways, but he’s never less than honest about what he is. The theme of a technically dishonest person being true to himself in the face of the system/the establishment is something Sillitoe would address in greater detail in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, however, more than lays the groundwork. Arthur, to whom family is the only social gathering to which he owes any fealty, has an ingrained antagonism towards authority figures from the outset. In an early chapter, Arthur has a brief conversation with foreman Robboe while he hands out the paypackets: He walked away, and Arthur slipped the wage packet into his overall pocket. Truce time was over. The enemy’s scout was no longer near. For such was Robboe’s label in Arthur’s mind, a policy passed on by his father. Though no strong cause for open belligerence existed as in the bad days talked about, it persisted for more subtle reasons that could hardly be understood but were nonetheless felt … Us and them. Bosses and workers. Rich and poor. The peasantry and the upper classes. It fills me with despair that four hundred years have passed since a proper revolution was attempted in Britain. Arthur fantasizes about revolution, even in the novel’s last chapter. Like Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ finds itself at a final chapter where its brawling, reactionary anti-hero takes a longer and deeper look into himself and faces up to the reality of maturity and responsibility. But whereas Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ reflects Perhaps that was it, I kept thinking. Perhaps I was getting too old for the sort of jeezny I had been leading, brothers. I was eighteen now, just gone. Eighteen was not a young age. At eighteen old Wolfgang Amadeus had written concertos and symphonies and operas and oratorios and at all that cal, no, not cal, heavenly music … And now I felt this bolshy big hollow inside my plott, feeling very surprised too at myself. I knew what was happening, O my brothers. I was growing up. … Arthur Seaton uses a quiet Sunday morning fishing to come to this conclusion: Trouble it’ll be for me, 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 and government. If it’s not one thing it’s another, apart from the work we have to do and the way we spend our wages. There’s bound to be trouble in store for me every day of my life, because trouble it’s always been and always will be. Born drunk and married blind, misbegotten into a strange and crazy world, dragged up through the dole and into the war … Slung into khaki at eighteen and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint … and nothing but money to drag you back there every Monday morning. Alex: the thug, the truant, the rapist and the murderer. Arthur, the worker, the drinker, the womanizer and the voice of the working class. Reading ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, half the time I reckon I might not like Arthur all that much if I met him. The other half, I recognize myself in him.