|Apr/May 2009 Nonfiction|
The summer after I left University, 1974, still undecided about what was going to happen next, I landed back at my parents' house, in the small town where I had grown up, at the heart of what was then still the industrial belt between Glasgow and Edinburgh. To wind up back there seemed like something of a failure for me—I had, I felt, expended quite a lot of my time and energy trying to get away, still nursing my resentment at an environment that I had convinced myself was stifling and narrow-minded. Perhaps only a solipsistic 21-year-old would insist on seeing the situation this way, when the truth was that I was taking advantage of the only people on earth who would unconditionally take me in, put me up and indulge me while I complained about what a hard time I was having. In that respect, I was still thinking like a child, while in another I was still thinking like a student—my plan was to work at something undemanding for the summer, and save the proceeds to go travelling at the end of it, even though, unlike in the previous few years, I had nothing specific to come back to afterwards.
The job I landed was as a kind of jack-of-all-trades at a Hoover distribution centre—a huge warehouse about two miles from my parents house, where vacuum cleaners, washing machines and other white goods came in from the factory in the South of England, in large trucks, to wait for their eventual despatch out to shops all over Scotland in smaller trucks and vans. I painted doors, oil tanks and walls, mopped floors, cleaned toilets, carried out small-scale repairs—inexpertly, in all cases, ineptly in some, but they seemed happy enough. The other workers were mostly married men in their 30s and 40s who had evidently spent their lives since leaving school drifting from job to job. Many of them appeared to have been unable to hold anything much down because of some vague problem with authority. On more than one occasion, I watched as one workmate or other—usually with a family to support—walked out after a shouting match with one of the foremen, over something utterly trivial. The foremen didn't care—there were plenty more to fill those jobs—and the other man always gave a good impression of not caring, either. At least, I assumed, until he got outside and realised he'd have to explain—again—to a family who had heard it all before.
Another of the employees, Harry, my own supervisor, was the very opposite. Now in his mid-fifties, Harry had worked for Hoover for years, yet still occupied the lowest job in the place (except for my own, of course, but everybody knew I wasn't hanging around). Nevertheless, he represented the very model of the company man. Totally dedicated to the cause of Hoover appliances, he kept his overalls washed and pressed to a degree that nobody else ever bothered with, and would hear no word spoken against the company. The story goes that the living room of Harry's house—a small prefab council home within walking distance—was decorated from wall to wall with Hoover publicity materials and ephemera acquired over a couple of decades. It was, said another workmate who had once given Harry a lift home with a particularly large item, not so much a museum, as a kind of shrine. He had plenty of opportunity to build his collection; there was always plenty of the stuff lying around, and nobody would have been concerned about anybody helping themselves (actually, I knew of at least two or three people who helped themselves to top-of-the-range refrigerators as well, but that's another story). It was another early lesson in how the world is made up of very different kinds of people—Harry was also the first and last person I ever knew who lifted his wig to mop the sweat from his bald head.
The warehouse was about a half-hour walk from my parents' house, crossing the characteristic landscape of that area—an odd mixture of fallow agricultural land and old industrial waste heaps. I knew it all very well, had spent my childhood playing around what I had then assumed were natural features, and only later learned were entirely man-made—deep railway cuttings and high embankments, as well as dumps of ashy iron slag, long since overgrown with scrubby grass, bushes and even trees. Many years later, researching family history, I would discover that my own great-great grandfather had been directly responsible for creating a sizeable proportion of those slag-heaps, as he had been keeper of one of the blast furnaces at a nearby ironworks through quite a lot of the 19th century. But that summer, walking across that peculiar terrain in the quiet of the early morning, and back in the haze of late afternoon, I was starting to find a kind of satisfaction—almost a kind of attachment—that I had never felt in an adolescence preoccupied with getting out of it all. The experience of previous years was beginning to come more sharply into focus, even as the prospects of the future remained impossibly fuzzy.
Saving money for my travels, and feeling the effects, for the first time in my life, of days spent on physical labor, however lightweight, I passed most evenings in my parents' living room, in front of their tiny 14-inch TV. For some reason, a number of the things I watched that summer have stayed quite vividly in my memory— a couple of BBC dramas, a documentary about D W Griffith, labored sitcoms that disappeared as swiftly as they arrived. Then there was that year's World Cup tournament, the one where Johann Cruyff's consummately talented Dutch national side, playing some of the most breathtakingly beautiful football ever seen in Europe, were robbed of their deserved victory in the final by the sheer dogged efficiency of the West Germans. But what made most impact on that small screen was a film I had never even heard of before and which, given that at the time there were only three channels to choose from, I probably settled down to watch out of resignation rather than anything else. This was Karel Reisz's 1960 film of Alan Sillitoe's novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which had been published the previous year and so is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. All these years later, when I have watched the film many, many more times—on TV again, on videotape, on DVD and on the big screen at the National Film Theatre in London—I can still remember the sheer visceral impact of that first time.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is the story of a few months in the life of a young factory worker, Arthur Seaton, brilliantly portrayed by Albert Finney. Seaton's horizons are limited, but he's determined to make the most of what lies within them. He has worked out just exactly the right degree of compromise he needs to make, in order to live the kind of life he wants to lead ("I'm out for a good time. All the rest is propaganda."), and he has no illusions about any of it. Still living with his parents in their two-up, two-down, red-brick terraced house, he works hard all week and spends the weekends drinking, womanising and fishing in the canal with his mates. If Saturday Night Fever had been set in 1950s Nottingham, and the fancy dancing replaced with the consumption of endless pints of black-and-tan, it might have looked something like this. All the action was filmed where it was set—on the streets, in the houses, pubs and factories, and by the canals. You couldn't be romantic about any of this—it was all decidedly unlovely, but it was one of the first films I'd ever seen that had such a powerful sense of place, of putting you right in there. It's a cliché to say that you could almost smell it, but the scent of machine oil, of cheap fried dinners, and of sawdust-strewn pub floors soaked with stale beer has never been so vividly conjured on screen. From the opening monologue—"Don't let the bastards grind you down..."—to the closing scenes where he contemplates life after marriage, Seaton/Finney elbows his way across the screen like a force of nature.
In retrospect, I could probably pick out a few flaws. Some of the accents wobble a bit, but this was a time, even more so than now, when English regional accents could change within a few miles, and short of casting entirely from the same few streets in the same part of Nottingham, that was inevitable. Compared with so many of the other films of the day—with Irish Richard Harris trying to sound Yorkshire in This Sporting Life, or posh Julie Christie trying to sound like she'd just come off a council estate in Billy Liar—it remains a landmark of authenticity, perhaps all the more surprising given that the director Reisz himself was a Czech. One crucial factor must have been that it was the author of the original novel, Alan Sillitoe, who had written the screenplay, and my guess is that he had probably also advised Reisz on how to make the whole thing as real as possible. Sillitoe was a professional writer by this time, but his background was working-class Nottingham. He might not have based the character of Arthur Seaton directly on himself, but he knew the world portrayed on that screen as intimately as anybody, from his own first-hand experience.
I wanted to watch the film all over again, but in those days there was no immediate prospect of that. The next evening, I checked the local library for a copy of Sillitoe's book; it had one, but it was out. I headed for a local bookshop but drew a blank. I had to wait until the weekend when I could get into Glasgow, where there were shops that were far more likely to have it, if it was still in print. It was. I still have the copy of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning I bought that day, and I remember how my first impression was a sense of disappointment at the cover. Trying to update its visual appeal in the 1970s, the publishers had used a photograph of a moody-looking man, presumably intended to be Arthur Seaton, with long hair and flared trousers, a mini-skirted girl leaning on his shoulder. You could see their point, but that wasn't the Seaton I'd seen on the screen. Nor was it the one I would find inside the book, and there was nothing else that would disappoint.
When the book was first published, commentators were so taken up with the author's humble background and the brash, swaggering unconcern of his main character, that they seem almost not to have noticed the skill and invention of Sillitoe's writing. He was, and is, a far finer writer than those with whom he was often compared—like John Braine, John Wain or Keith Waterhouse, for all their own strengths—would ever be. Already in this, his first novel, he is a master of dialogue, capturing the pace and the rhythm of a conversation, as well as the characteristics of individual speech, and studding it skilfully with enough dialect words to create the necessary realistic effect, without ever obscuring the meaning.
"You know," Arthur said, "those two big swaddies might be after me, but if it comes to a fight I'll give 'em a run for their money. They want to be careful. I shan't run away from 'em."
Jack shook his head. "No, I know you wain't. I wish you would though, because if you don't keep out of their way it'll be trouble for you."
"And trouble for them bastards," Arthur swore, feeling his back pressed too close to the wall...
"Don't say I didn't warn you," Jack said.
"I won't. Thanks for the favour. I'll look out".
"See you another time, then". He was already on his way down the gangway.
"So long," Arthur called, twisting the turret with such force that its noisy clack echoed above the sound of the other machinery.
His descriptive powers are also highly-tuned, the words almost pushing their way out as he conjures brilliantly the unique character of those English industrial towns, making the descriptions work in just the right way in the service of his narrative. If Seaton himself were as articulate as he was voluble, he might come out with a description like this:
Rain and sunshine, rain and sunshine, with a blue sky now... and full clouds drifting like an aerial continent of milk-white mountains above the summit of Castle Rock, a crowned brownstone shaggy lion-head slouching its big snout into the city, poised as if to gobble up uncouth suburbs hemmed in by an elbow of the turgid Trent. Two smart Sunday-afternoon couples on their way to the pictures stepped out of the cold, dank air on to a double-decker trolleybus, which left the road empty of all but Arthur when it turned off by the tight-shut front of the Horse and Groom.
But Sillitoe's prose has another very special capacity, which is to use aspects of the external world to help manifest the internal workings of his characters. The following paragraph was one of the first I ever read that touched so directly particular buttons in my own mind and my own emotional experience:
July, August, and summer skies lay over the city, above rows of houses in the western suburbs... Arthur sweated at his lathe, worked at the same fast pace as in winter to keep the graph-line of his earnings level. Life went on like an assegai into the blue, with dim memories of the dole and schooldays behind, and a dimmer feeling of death in front, a present life punctuated by meetings with Brenda on certain beautiful evenings when the streets were warm and noisy and the clouds did a moonlight-flit over the rooftops. They made love in parlour or bedroom and felt the ocean of suburb falling asleep outside their minuscular coracle of untouchable hope and bliss. From his own bed one night, when the blankets were thrown to the floor before falling asleep, he heard a dustbin lid rattled against the backyard paving, disturbed by some cat on a nocturnal prowl for food, and he remembered Fred taking him by the hand to the dinner centre when he was six; and the assegai into the blue was only tipped with death when newspaper headlines rammed the world war with a nail-punch into the staring sockets of his eyes...
I should take a moment here to emphasise that, while it might appear that I'm trying to lead the reader towards drawing some kind of parallel between my own life at this period and Arthur Seaton's, I'm not. Even at that age, I wasn't so dense as to mistake myself for a working class hero, striding across the industrial landscape, fornicating with the foreman's wife. Far from it. In fact, I was increasingly aware of how lucky I was, with my comfortable background and university education (and I never even met any of Hoover's foremen's wives). But watching Reisz's film—unequivocally grounded in its particular time and place—somehow made me that bit more grounded in my own, with who I was and where I was, while reading Sillitoe's book was a revelation of empathy. By then, I should have known very well that there were people in this world who could feel some of the exact same things that you do, even while they're very different from you. It's a simple lesson, but it's one that it can take some time for a self-obsessed young person to assimilate, and one that I suspect some people never learn.
Also, to be honest, if I had met Arthur Seaton, I'd probably have decided to try and stay out of his way. I knew some guys a bit like that, and my experience was that while they tended to attract a welcome sort of female attention, they also invited the kind of male attention that was best avoided—in short, they were trouble. I could objectively admire his attitude and aspects of his character, the way he was determined to work with the cards life had dealt him, but Seaton wasn't necessarily the kind of person I'd have wanted to hang around with. All the same, for me, he stands out from all the other rootless, restless, "angry young men" who were crowding into novels and onto theatre stages and cinema screens at around the same time as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Over the next couple of years or so, I read a lot of those books and watched quite a few of the movies—Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim struck me as pretty repellent, and all the clever existential dialogue in the world couldn't make me believe that Jean-Paul Belmondo in Au Bout De Souffle was anything other than a witless, trigger-happy waste of space. Don't get me started on Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger. Which is not to say that there isn't an education in the process of coming to all of those conclusions.
The question of whether you can adapt a book successfully as a film is one of those perennial discussion topics. My own criterion is simply that a great book deserves a great film, not a copy of the great book—the two forms are completely different and there's no use complaining that the film isn't exactly the same—but a great work appropriate to the different medium. If I'm honest, it doesn't happen all that often, but Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is one example of where it does. This is a great book, and Reisz, Sillitoe, Finney and the rest made a great film of it.
I read as many of Alan Sillitoe's other novels as I could get my hands on. Arthur Seaton would reappear in some of these, which disorientated me slightly as by then I thought I had already found him, in a slightly different guise, in Sillitoe's extraordinary (although, to be honest, rather uneven) trilogy—The Death Of William Posters, A Tree On Fire, and The Flame Of Life—whose central character was one Frank Dawley. Dawley, who inside my head was of course played perfectly by a suitably older Albert Finney, seemed to me a more mature version of Seaton, grown perhaps even more cynical, but in some respects moving towards a kind of liberation, driven by the realisation that he had the power in his hands to make a difference to his own life, if not to everybody else's. My favourite of the other novels is The Storyteller, a hell-for-leather exploration of the role of a maker of fictions and fantasies in people's lives, told in a matter-of-fact way that still somehow seems to have a hint of magical realism about it. If Sillitoe had stayed in Nottingham and channelled his gifts for story-telling into public performance, this might have been his own legend.
I also ate up Sillitoe's short stories, and it seems to me that he was one of the last English writers to make a very significant mark in a form that has, for no reason I can understand, become almost terminally unfashionable in this country. I loved how, when a nurse at a clinic where he was receiving treatment told him off for leaving a child character alone and vulnerable at the end of one of his stories, he promptly wrote and published a new story showing what happened next. I loved how he could encapsulate almost as much in a story like The Ragman's Daughter as many other writers could manage in a whole novel, and still include some startlingly evocative descriptive passages. And I've been pleased to see that he could still do it pretty well in his most recent collection, Alligator Playground, from 1997.
Albert Finney has never stopped working, amassing a huge number of impressive credits and even an Academy Award nomination for his part in Erin Brokovitch. It isn't to detract from any of that achievement to say that his Arthur Seaton remains an evergreen, blooming as impressively today as ever. Karel Reisz's career was less consistent. Some people loved Morgan! A Suitable Case For Treatment, while others just didn't get it. I'm pretty neutral, myself. His version of The French Lieutenant's Woman is a brave attempt at finding ways of translating some of the formal complexities of John Fowles's novel into a different medium, and it succeeds at that level, but by the above-mentioned criterion, well—the novel is great, the film is good.
It probably doesn't do much for any writer's self esteem to have somebody suggest that after a long and prolific career, their most impressive work was the one they started their career with, but perhaps it wouldn't sound quite so bad, if accompanied by the proposition that, for all sorts of reasons, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning might be one of the most significant novels to come out of the UK in the second half of the 20th century. That is a golden anniversary worth celebrating.