Saturday Night and Sunday Morning would become Pan’s first paperback to sell a million copies. The success of the novel put Sillitoe under a critical and media spotlight leading him to be first labelled as an angry young man and then a fraud: the working class writer with wealth who was sunning it up abroad in self-imposed exile, having left England for Tangier in 1960. When the Daily Express falsely claimed he was a member of the Communist Party, the stories started to have a direct effect on his life; meaning he may have had difficulties entering McCarthyist America, the birthplace of Ruth Fainlight, his wife. But arguably the most frustrating accusation was that through the character of Arthur Seaton he had gone some way to betraying his own class.
Sillitoe had always deplored labels and had no interest in being the poster boy for any kind of institution or a member of anyone’s gang, a characteristic he shared with Arthur Seaton. Everyone was out for whatever they could get and only a cunning attitude would ensure protection from “the snot-gobbling get that teks my income tax, the swivel-eyed swine that collects our rent, the big-headed bastard that gets my goat when he asks me to union meetings.” The message both Sillitoe and Arthur send to the world at large is clear: Leave me alone!
Nigel Gray in The Silent Majority (1973) is one commentator who accused Sillitoe of being a traitor to his own. He sees Arthur Seaton as “tolerating” the “inhumane conditions” of factory life and hiding away in drink rather than doing something more “constructive” to change his material existence. Instead of uniting with his work colleagues, he turns them against each other through his lying and cheating.
Sillitoe addressed these accusations in The Long Piece: “Those individuals who work in factories are only members of a ‘class’ when they band together to come out on strike for better wages and conditions. In normal circumstances they see each other as unique people, otherwise they would not see each other as human beings at all.”
Sillitoe’s prioritising of individuality above all other labels of identity is evident throughout his debut novel. Many of the relationships, for example that between Robboe the Foreman and Arthur, fly in the face of conventional Marxist analysis. Robboe, who as a servant of the factory bosses should be Arthur’s biggest enemy, is recognised as “a human being afflicted with the heavy lead weight of authority.” Similarly, Chumley, the Bombay Indian working hard to save up enough money to return to his native country, is not deemed ignorant or unwilling to embrace British culture because he can’t speak a word of the language, instead his silence is described on a more humane level as “missing his mates”. It’s not his ethnic identity that intrigues Arthur, rather how he can put up with living alongside Doreen’s mother who is “a big loosely built woman with no beauty”.
The novel is not so much about anger but the violence latent in everyday life, where everyone turns against each other at the slightest provocation. Husbands proudly protect the reputations of their partners or set about any predatory male in the pub who dares utter a civil hello, yet subject their wives to equal levels of fear at home. Winnie is just one wife in the book who is threatened with having her eyes blackened if she lets the housework slip. The women can dish it out as well, as we find out when Jane smashes a beer bottle over her husband’s head. Even the tender moments carry seeds of violence: when Arthur heads off to the fields to make love to Brenda, we see him kicking out at the wheat, “wanting to flatten it”.
The way Sillitoe describes it, life is literally a battle that comes at you from all angles, every day. Even when Arthur receives a kicking from two Swaddies he realises it is not just the men themselves laying into him but “the world pressing its enormous booted foot on to his head.” No wonder people were so offended by the novel or that a Nottingham Councillor wanted it banned. The violence is relentless. Writing in the Nottingham Evening Post in 1961, Sillitoe explained that Arthur Seaton “has no spiritual values because the kind of conditions he lives in do not allow him to have any.” The problem is not an ‘angry’ author or a selfish character. It’s society itself.
Yet, despite all this, Arthur Seaton remains a charismatic and exciting character. If he wasn’t charming as well as selfish he wouldn’t be able to lure the married women he does from their homely nests. His world may be depressing, but his life is not. He earns £14 a week (which would have been about £3 above the national average and only £6 below that of a professional footballer at the time) and if he gets into ‘trouble’ he never bears grudges or animosity towards those who deliver his comeuppances. It’s simply the way things are, “fighting until the day I die…fighting with mothers and wives. Landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government.” In this he’s more like an existential rebel without a cause than a hopeless drunk who’s betrayed his class roots: Nottingham’s very own mirror image of Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One when he answers the question “What are you fighting against?” with “What have you got?”.
He has to weigh the short term benefits of the pleasures he takes for himself on Saturday nights against the long term securities represented by Sunday mornings. His actions have consequences: excitement means danger, safety can quickly become boredom. There is only so long that a man like Arthur can swim about with freedom, doing what he wants and caring about no-one.
Yet self-determined as Arthur is, some decisions are beyond his control. This is captured on the canal-side, when he goes fishing and remembers his Uncle’s forge down in Wollaton Village where he’d lived independently off land that “had long ago been destroyed to make room for advancing armies of pink houses, flowing over the fields like red ink on green blotting paper”: the kind of homes he resigns himself to settling down in with Doreen at the end of the novel.
The closest he can get to the spirit and independence of his grandfather’s life is the long hours he spends carving wooden floats for his rod. The canal offers Seaton a temporary escape where “no one bothered you: you were a hunter, a dreamer, your own boss away from it all for a few hours”. One suspects that in his writing and the distance he tried to put between himself and the media spotlight, Sillitoe probably felt exactly the same.