Nottingham nightlife, Beastmarket Hill
Arthur Century Later 4
Originally published in 2012 as part of theSpace arts project funded by Arts Council England and the BBC
The second featured writer is Al Needham, editor of LeftLion magazine, who is writing a series of essays about the demise of the British pub as part of the second featured location, The White Horse. His fourth essay imagines what Arthur Seaton, the main protagonist from the novel, would be doing for employment.
Actually, when you piece the evidence together, maybe the answer to where Arthur Seaton would be on a Saturday night in 2012 lies in the other question people ask when they attempt to update the book; where he would be working nowadays. Because it probably isn’t going to be in a factory, a fact that requires a quick word about the employment history of Nottingham…
After the demand for lace settled down, there’s never been one major industry that dominated the town, as there were in other cities of comparable size.
The upshot of that was that your average factory worker in Nottingham appeared to have a bit more leeway than their counterparts elsewhere.
If the demand for steel dropped, the whole of Sheffield was going to suffer; if the demand for say, bicycles or pharmaceuticals fell, it wasn’t as big a blow to Nottingham; there were plenty of other things to make or build.
As anyone who grew up in Nottingham during the recession of the 1980s will tell you, there wasn’t a day your parents didn’t disbelievingly shake their heads when you tried to tell them that there was no work about, and bang on that when they left school they had the pick of Boots, Raleigh, Players and scores of smaller factories. And if you didn’t like your job, you could pick up your wages and leave on the Friday and pitch up somewhere else the following Monday. No CV, no interview process, no Human Resources rammel; if you fancied a change, or you didn’t like your boss, or you wanted to work with your mate, you moved. For example, when my Mam was expecting me, both my parents worked for a door factory that was famous in the area for employing a huge swathe of the local lesbian community, who just wanted to stick together. Different times.
The Nottingham of today is a factory city that doesn’t have factories. Out of the triumvirate of Raleigh, Players and Boots, only the latter is in the top ten employers based in the city. We can assume that the other top employers – the city and county councils, the NHS, two universities, a power utility office and the Police – wouldn’t appeal to a lairy young snot like Seaton. We all have our opinions as to where he’d figure on the career ladder; in his last ever interview, Alan Sillitoe pegged him as a van driver. I’d humbly beg to differ. Because, if we’re being honest, there’s only one sort of employment that’s still widely available in 21st century Nottingham that combines both mind-numbing piecework and endless clock-watching with the opportunity to work your own fiddles, the means to beat the system in a series of minor victories and the freedom to move around at will.
The Arthur Seaton of 2012 still spends his Saturday night propping up a bar, but this time he’s on the other side of it. Instead of sweating over a lathe cranking out bike parts, he’s hunched over a counter preparing taps, pumps, slices of lime and freshly-cleaned glasses. Instead of a nosey foreman on a mission to cut his rate to the bone, Arthur’s gaffers and nemeses are a stressed-out line manager who knows his stock right down to the last plastic cocktail straw and a manual from head office that states exactly how many ice cubes should be in a vodka and cranberry. Instead of grafting in a grim, imposing old factory, he’s now grafting in a trendy chain bar conversion in a grim, imposing old factory building.
If you think the Arthur of today isn’t best pleased about working his nuts off during the ‘best and bingiest glad-time of the week’, you’d be very much mistaken, for a bar job gives Arthur the opportunity to indulge in the two things he loves most; rising above the herd and getting his. Arthur ‘12 would spot the main perk of a bar job a mile off – access to women who were no longer cheeky or daft, weren’t automatically attached to meathead ‘swaddies’, or trapped in dead-end relationships; women who knew exactly what they wanted and weren’t afraid to take it from the right-looking bloke.
Although the bar is inevitably filled with bastards of all creeds, colours and sexes, every one of them intent on grinding him down, Arthur’s an expert at turning it to his advantage. He knows all about the ‘penny millionaires’, who take all their wages out of the cashpoint on Friday, flash round a fat roll, spend a mingy twenty quid all weekend and then put the rest back in the bank on Monday morning. He can tell in an instant whether the credit card offered by a poker-faced lad in a Hackett shirt is going to work, or if it’s even his. Most importantly, he knows how to deal with the dickheads. If they’ve been rude to him or the rest of the staff and they’re drunk enough, he can mix them a round of cocktails with no alcohol in them and get away with it, or make sure a reasonable chunk of change ends up in the tips glass. If they’re on the verge of getting violent, Arthur can rely on an almost telepathic line of communication with the door staff. He can even wait until they’ve gone to the toilet, accuse them of waving a wrap of coke about and watch them escorted out when they get back.
All in all, the one thing Arthur likes best about his job is coming off a solid night’s shift, where the clock has spun like the big wheel at Goose Fair and he’s leaving the place relatively sober with money in his pocket (and on a promise) while everyone else has staggered out skint and in a right state. And then, as he stops to take in the cool air and picks his way through spilled kebab meat, liquid streams of God-knows-what and other detritus, he strolls into any other bar or club that’s still open and has drinks on the house, for the bar staff of Nottingham look after their own. One day, he’ll be too old for this and will have to settle down. Until then, he’ll be content to feel like he owns the whole town at the weekend.
Interview with Al Needham
Listen to the writer talking about why he believes pubs are community centres with project editor James Walker.
The Sillitoe Trail
Take your own interactive tour of the author’s city and follow in Arthur Seaton’s footsteps around Nottingham, exploring the real locations of key scenes from the novel. You can go back to the Old Market Square or visit The White Horse pub, the Raleigh factory, the River Trent and Goose Fair. For updated content, visit Sillitoe Trail Xtra
Follow: Arthur Seaton @Thespacelathe on Twitter
Download: Sillitoe Trail Factory Handbook (17MB PDF)
Fillingham and Walker 2012 - 2022