Mashed tea and black moods: Alan Sillitoe, the British New Wave and Harry Enfield
Having long been a fan of the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960's, I finally got around to reading two books by Alan Sillitoe, a highly-influential figure in the movement. Starting with his short story collection The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, I got caught up in the prose style, the world portrayed and the unstinting clarity of the author. Well-known of course through the BAFTA-winning screen adaption of the same name starring Tom Courtenay, I actually found the title story came across better on film (due to the brevity in it's written form), but the other stories in this collection are very strong and evocative of the time. The power of the runner (unnamed in the short story, he was given the moniker Colin Smith for the movie) not winning the race by his own choice, to allow an upper-class runner to win in order to rebel against the wishes of the Borstal Governor is still tangible.
Writing about ...Runner and Billy Liar (written by Keith Waterhouse and also adapted into a movie featuring Courtenay) for a 1966 edition that collected the two stories together, academic David Ellwoway wrote 'they challenge our more comfortable assumptions, especially the belief that, like the Governor, we know what the winning post is, that our principles are self-evidently the correct ones. Having no winning posts themselves they raise questions rather than offer solutions, but their sympathetic penetration into two rebellious minds helps to break down the barriers of complacency and cynicism that are the chief obstacles to the reconciliation of the rebel and society.'1
Tom Courtenay in Tony Richardson's big-screen adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.
The stories feature industrial England and deprivation but capture moments of poetry in amongst this, such as the below excerpt from The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller:2
I then read his debut; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which of course was also adapted for the cinema as part of the influential and cutting-edge British New Wave of the early-1960s. For the novel that made his name, Sillitoe reflected that he 'he had no theme in my head except the joy of writing, the sweat of writing clearly and truthfully, the work of trying to portray ordinary people as I knew them, and in such a way that they would recognize themselves. This took me a long time to achieve, and was more difficult than on might imagine.'3
Shirley Anne Field and Albert Finney: has there been a better-looking screen couple in British Cinema?
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning focuses on Arthur Seaton, played by Finney in the film adaption, and Sillitoe told the Daily Worker in January 1961 that his protagonist was 'an individual and not a class symbol. My main concern was to show, that while in one sense a certain section of those who worked in factories had their earthly bread, they by no means had been shown any kind of worthwhile spiritual bread.'4
The world of these stories are squalid streets, factories, strong mashed (i.e. brewed) tea and black moods that coincide with dark weather. Relief is offered by train trips to nearby country-side for fishing and heavy petting. Post-war Britain does offer opportunity; Arthur often reflects on his good wages and the knowledge that work is available elsewhere should he choose to leave his factory job. Wages are spent on having a good time - beer, clothes and cigars at Christmas.
Arthur is a rebel without a cause, looking to have a good time in life. Sleeping with two married women is his main focus. The women, Brenda and Winnie, are sisters and aware that he lies in both their beds. Brenda is the wife of a quiet co-worker who considers Arthur loosely to be a friend. Arthur often reiterates that should any women hit him, he'd hit back (although the threat never manifests itself over the course of the book). In addition to that, he can be shallow. Brenda reveals that she is pregnant following one passionate night with Arthur. On hearing the news, and seeing Brenda despondent (she has two children already with her husband), he thinks that 'It did not seem right that a woman should worry overmuch. He wanted all her troubles for himself at that moment. It was easy. He had only to take them and, having no use for them, throw them away.'5
The voice of Arthur is authentic and his urge to question authority still holds power and attraction to the reader and to culture. Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, the debut album by Arctic Monkeys was named after the below passage from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning because frontman Alex Turner recognised the kindred spirit and themes of the two works written decades apart; Sillitoe's novel from experiences in post-war Nottingham and Turner's songwriting from growing up in Sheffield in the early 2000's. The passage itself is one of the strongest in the book on Arthur's viewpoint, and view of himself. It occurs when Arthur is performing his National Service and a sergeant-major says Arthur's hair is unsuitable, and tells him that he's a soldier, not a Teddy-boy. Arthur's inner response is that 'He was nothing at all when people tried to tell him what he was. Not even his own name was enough, though it might be on his pay-book. 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 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 Cum. 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.'6
Arthur's selfishness in his dealings with women is apparent in his cynical romance of Doreen, the innocent girl who represents his progression from the affairs once they have become public. Doreen is perhaps the weak point of the novel, as she is lightly sketched and is given very little page count to leave as strong an impression as the other female characters. The film refined this by streamlining Arthur to one affair with a married woman instead of two. It would have perhaps been interesting given this self-interest streak and a recurring anger at taxation for Sillitoe to have satirised the young rebel by having him turn right in the 1980's by writing a sequel in that decade with Arthur as a working-class Tory. Perhaps that's being too cynical especially given Sillitoe's contemporaries such as John Osborne and Kingsley Amis becoming increasingly bleak and Amis in particular leaning right in his later work. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning retains the humanity, empathy and clarity that Sillitoe sought to capture when beginning the novel. In a tour-de-force piece of writing to close the book, Arthur resolves to keep kicking against the bastards:
'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. 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 with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at the week-end and getting to know whose husbands are on the nightshift, working with rotten guts and an aching spine, and nothing to for it but money to drag you back there every Monday morning.'7
Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field and Alan Sillitoe attending a pre-premier party for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
As an interesting footnote, due to the glut of films focusing on working-class subjects (This Sporting Life, A Taste of Honey, A King of Loving etc) a subject of discussion at that time of the New Wave films were that audiences and critics alike were exhausted by the similar themes and subject matter being explored. Private Eye mocked this trend with the news of a film adaptation of 'Stan Blister's little-known novel A Waste of Living', the story of 'the latently homosexual professional lacrosse player Arthur Sidmouth and Doreen, the girl who watches sympathetically from a bar stool in the film's opening shots as Arthur vomits up his half-pint of ginger shandy'.8
The Private Eye parody of the British New Wave has acclaimed book A Waste of Living adapted into a movie named A Taste of Living by the London elite.
Perhaps the best parody of the New Wave is from Harry Enfield, who I think is at his best in his recreations of British pop culture. There's a real affection and attention to detail that comes from a passion for the subject he skewers. It's Grim Up North comes from his brilliant 1989 Channel 4 special Norbert Smith: A Life in which Melvyn Bragg interviews our hero about his starry, wide-ranging career in Brit cinema. Worth seeking out and the scene lampooning The Wild Geese is priceless (though alas, not currently online at 4oD). Enfield wrote the script at university and reflected that 'Norbert Smith was a fictional actor who we used to satirize British cinema from its beginnings to the present day. I love old British films and we made spoofs of such genres as the fifties kitchen sink dramas like Look Back in Anger with It's Grim Up North - 'I'm going out to fly me bloody whippets!'.9
It's Grim Up North: "Who’s nicked my bloody belt? I find out, I’ll take my bloody belt to them."10 is my particular favourite line. Great casting to have Joe McGann as the Finney-like son.
1 David Elloway B.A., ed., Billy Liar/The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Longman's Heritage of Literature Series, 1966), pp. 227-228.
2 Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (reprinted edition: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), p. 168.
3 Sillitoe, Introduction to 1979 edition of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, quoted in reprinted edition (Harper Perennial 2008), p. 6.
4 Daily Worker, 28 January 1961, quoted in Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good (Abacus, 2005), p. 200.
5 Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, (Harper Perennial 2008), p. 50.
6 Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, (Harper Perennial 2008), p. 138.
7 Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, (Harper Perennial 2008), p. 219.
8 Richard Ingrams, ed., The Life and Times of Private Eye (London, 1971), p. 41.
9 Harry Enfield, Harry Enfield and His Humorous Chums (Penguin, 1997), p. 28.
10 Norbert Smith: A Life 1989, video recording, Channel 4, UK. Directed by Geoff Posner. Online clip available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y37ocMI53xo&t=5s