Saturday Night And Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe


“Once a rebel, always a rebel. You can’t help being one. You can’t deny that. And it’s best to be a rebel so as to show ’em it don’t pay to do you down. Factories and labor exchanges and insurance officers keep us alive and kicking – so they say -but they’re booby traps and will suck you under like sinking sands, I you aren’t careful. Factors sweat you to death, labor exchanges talk you to death, insurance and income tax officers milk money from your wage packets and rob you to death. And if you are still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the Army calls you up and you get shot to death. And if you’re clever enough to stay out of the Army you get bombed to death. Ay, by God, it’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop that bastard government from grinding your face in the mock, though there ain’t much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow the four-eyed clocks to bits.”

Just spoke Arthur Seaton, twenty-one when we first meet him and twenty-four by the time we leave his life. He turns a lathe in a bicycle factory in Nottinghamshire in England’s Midlands. He makes good money – as much as 14 quid a week on piecework. He could work harder to produce more, but if he did the time and motion man would penalize him, lower his piece rate and he would work harder for the same money. Mug’s game. So, despite the above rant about his status in life, he has already learned to do as he’s told, not stick his neck out and collect his pay on a Friday. At least that’s his technique at work. In private, he has less time for convention.

He lives with his mother and pays her rent, or board as we in the north of England call it. It’s a terraced house, in streets that hang around the factory like piglets being suckled by a sow, as he puts it. Much of his spare time is spent in the pub, where he drinks paint after pint of beer and often chases it down with a spirit or two.

Arthur is a big lad. He’s tall, fair, well-built and can look after himself, so he thinks. He’s already seeing Brenda, a woman older than himself and married to a senior colleague at work. She enjoys him and he enjoys her. He often has to leave her house by the front door when her husband comes home from the night shift. He is two-timing Brenda, seeing another married woman called Winnie, when he meets Doreen quite by chance in a pub. Doreen is single.

She likes to go to the pictures, wants to get married and feels on the shelf at nineteen. We are, by the way, at the end of the 1950s in working class England.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe was one of a series of books in that era that dealt with working class life, in all of its brash and uncultured detail. At the time, these works shocked people. They were repeatedly describing life as it was, without the patronizing lens of middle-class judgment or standards, so commonly applied in English writing. Room at the Top, A Kind of Loving and then Alan Sillitoe’s novel stand out because they became famous films. Albert Finney, the actor, made his name playing Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, albeit in monochrome, a quality that might just also have added comment to the one-dimensionality of the lives depicted. He played the part of the over-the-top, heavy-drinking, devil-may-care antihero of Alan Sillitoe’s novel, but he did not overplay it. The character in print is probably brasher, more uncouth than the screenplay might suggest. By the end, Doreen may just have reformed him, at least rendered him conventional, but only after he has been beaten up at the behest of the husbands he was cheating. What happened to the women involved, we are not told. We surely can guess.

The book is written in northern English dialect, not that far north, but certainly working class. For the record, the quote at the start of this review includes the term four-eyed clocks near the end. For the record, in that particular dialect, this means bespectacled faces. The implication, clear to anyone with the right background, is that the people are bookish, middle-class, grammar school types. In some ways, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is like D H Lawrence a few decades on. But where Lawrence claims a certain dignity for the poverty of working-class life, Alain Sillitoe merely lists its characteristics, being primarily consumerism, one-up-manship and materialism. There seems to be no community here, but much competition.

Some seventy years on, the text has dated. The racist assumptions of these people would not be publishable today but may still be prevalent. But, when all is said and done, they welcome Sam, a Ghanaian-origin sergeant in the British army, with open arms, perhaps because he has achieved a rank to which they aspire, or possible they simply dare not oppose him. And he sounds more civilized than his hosts.

But, as with many iconic works that summed up a bygone age and its assumptions, there remains a sense that, almost three quarters of a century after it was written, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning still resonates today. The material goods may have changed, along with the sums of money needed to acquire them. But the conflict of interests, the class and wealth divisions and the underlying assumptions that characterize antagonism are pretty much unchanged, though today they may appear in changed garb.

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