12 November 2008

John Lucas Talks on Alan Sillitoe and the Working-Class Imagination

Last night John Lucas gave a talk entitled 'Alan Sillitoe and the Midlands Working Class Imagination' at the Council House in Nottingam, with specific reference to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning because this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of its publication.

Lucas also (perhaps unsurprisingly) quoted Engels, Walter Brierley's Means Test Man, Simon Blumenfeld's Jew Boy, Philip Callow, and (far more surprisingly) Baudelaire and T. S. Eliot.

Means Test Man was written in the 1930s and shows the degradation of a family: Lucas's contention was that characters (particularly the Arthur Seaton character in Sillitoe's novel) developed a much greater self-assurance in later decades, although somewhat perversely he gave an incident in the film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (where Seaton, as played by Albert Finney, runs to catch a bus) as an excellent example of this. He justified this because far more people visualise this story through the film because, doubtless, many more people have seen it than have read the book, which admittedly would be difficult to contest; and also because this episode is done so well in the film: the working-class hero has come of age, as it were, and has developed a deep-seated pride. Fine, I also find this generalisation difficult to question.

Lucas's final point, in which he juxtaposed T. S. Eliot's and Baudelaire's expressions of fear of the city to Arthur Seaton's fear of the city, I found very novel. He initially made a remark about the internal monologue in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (which I must admit I don't really remember), although he didn't once use the words 'modernism' or 'realism'. Bringing modernist writers such as Baudelaire and Eliot into a talk essentially about Sillitoe is interesting. I really must read that novel again.

I was obviously thinking all the time how Lionel Britton fitted into all this, but didn't really come to any conclusions. But it was interesting to see Lucas read from Jew Boy, in which the protagonist lambasts Britton's dramatic work, even saying that the elderly George Bernard Shaw was dead and that Britton was now writing his plays: 'the same verbose, muddled, amateur sociologist' (Lawrence and Wishart, p. 245).

I had heard of Philip Callow (1924-2007), although, partly because my speciality is working-class fiction up to World War II, I knew nothing of him. John Lucas mentioned Callow's first book, The Hosanna Man (1956), and the problems Callow had with it, so I had a look at one of Callow's obituaries and discovered some interesting information. Lucas had mentioned that a character in the book, Louis Thompson, was modelled on a Nottingham bookseller and that Cape had pulped their stock of the book rather than face a libel action, but not the fact that the book appeared to be suggesting that this was because Thompson ran a pornography business on the side. Also, the book shows bohemian characters in Hyson Green, Nottingham. Unfortunately, as Ross Bradshaw said in response to one of the questions asked by a member of the audience, copies of The Hosanna Man are now very scarce and therefore expensive. There are in fact only two copies available online, but one is considerably less than the £300 Bradshaw quoted: it is misspelt The Hosana Man, and can be bought for a mere £95.

I also discovered that the title of Pulp's (or Jarvis Cocker's) song Common People came from Callow's novel of the same name.

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