Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)
Alan Sillitoe is generally included as part of the ‘angry young man’ movement of the late 1950s, novelists and dramatists who wrote with passion and polemic energy. He is also part of a wider cultural phenomenon of 1955-65 which focussed attention on the working-class. From the mid-50s onwards the post-war boom, increased prosperity and the beginnings of a youth culture fostered various movements which were interested in attacking the establishment and representing the lives of those ordinary, dispossessed workers who were generally ignored by higher culture. This interest collects together figures as diverse as Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz (whose ‘Free Cinema’ documentary movement was massively influential), Ken Loach, John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Keith Waterhouse, Nell Dunn, and John Braine. This fascination with the rawness of working-class life provoked debates which still rages – is making the anti-hero an icon just a way of controlling them; is sensationalist presentation simply caricaturing?
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a raw, aggressive novel that is unapologetic in its presentation of ‘real’ life. Its opening demonstrates how the protagonist, Arthur Seaton, could teach contemporary binge-drinkers and ASBO-holders a thing or two: ‘With eleven pints of beer and seven small gins playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach, he fell from the topmost stair to the bottom’. He then drinks another pint and then vomits in someone’s face before fighting his way out. Arthur works at a lathe in a bicycle factory, making just enough money to drink his way through the weekend. He fishes, fights, sleeps with other worker’s wives, goes to the pictures, drinks, works. He has no ambition to speak of other than to look after himself. He hates anyone with any pompous authority, and only looks out for himself and, at a push, his family.
Arthur’s bleak outlook on life is fuelled by experience in the Army and at the hands of the factory; he is a cog in a wheel, ignored by society in the main. It isn’t until he is badly beaten by soldiers that he reflects on the emptiness of his existence: ‘He felt a lack of security. No place existed in all the world that could be called safe, and he knew for the first time in his life that there had never been any such thing as safety, and never would be, the difference being that now he knew it as a fact, whereas before it was a natural unconscious state’. After this event he settles down a bit more, finding a single girl to get engaged to. He reflects at the close of the book ‘Well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken’.
Little happens in the novel, but its portrayal and celebration of working-class life eschews mere caricaturing in order to say, in an up front way, this is how it is and we don’t care what you think. The prose is flat, in the now, inflected by dialect, rarely more than perfunctorily descriptive. It is marvellously sharp and direct. Sillitoe never romanticises, and rarely editorialises; the novel is more interested in the politics of putting this life centre stage. A brilliant section near the end of the novel consists of the Christmas celebrations at Arthur’s aunt’s house. Sillitoe manages to make them bittersweet and inclusive, communicating a sense of belonging and rightness that is at once moving and alienating. In comparison the horrifying scene of his married lover taking a scalding bath to abort a child is uncompromising and harsh. Sillitoe and his contemporaries are now read as period-pieces, but this searing novel shows that they were vital, exciting voices that exerted huge cultural and social influence.