Feeding pigeons in the Old Market Square, early 1960s Source: Radford Red
Originally published in 2012 as part of theSpace arts project funded by Arts Council England and the BBC
Derrick Buttress, a contemporary of Sillitoe, describes the characters who have populated the Old Market Square over time
The Square is a shared space: when it’s not being used by the council as a site for entertainment and markets it becomes a place for shoppers, a place to lounge and watch passers-by. It’s restful, and the water feature is beautiful. In the 1940s and 50s there was little in the way of council provision. Today, Nottingham folk look as though they enjoy the ersatz beaches and the monster fairground rides that appear here.
For years after the Second World War there was little money to spend on such fripperies as communal happiness. In the 1950s it seemed to be the old and the infirm who usually occupied the benches in the Processional Way. Some fed the huge flock of pigeons with crusts. When the crusts ran out the pigeons stalked any stroller with a bag of crisps in their hand. The only other entertainment was to watch the regular odd-balls who frequented the Square. One, who had the face of a meths drinker, used to plunge his hand in the dirty pool in the corner of the Square as though he was catching fish. He made a show of slipping his catch into his mouth and swallowing just to make kids squeal in horror.
Another regular character hunted down limping pigeons. When he caught one he would stuff it into the pocket of his ragged overcoat then walk out of the Square, probably to eat it when he got home.
My favourite character was a shell-shocked ex-soldier who had a bass drum strapped to his back, an accordion strapped to his chest and a trumpet in his hand: a one-man band. He played them all at the same time, the racket sending startled pigeons into a noisy lift-off marked by a cloud of dust.
In the 1950s, Sunday evenings in the Square were lively. A Salvation Army band and a crowd of enthusiastic hymn singers competed for attention with shouting communists extolling the virtues of Karl Marx and the Soviet Union’s five-year plans. My wife, Joan, would always make sure we paused on our way to the Odeon cinema to listen to this continuing fight between the sacred and the profane.
My wife enjoyed the hymns, but I laughed at the passion of the communists when they castigated me and my fellow workers for being servile and weak in comparison to the heroes of Soviet factories. I enjoyed it even more when they spat out their contempt for what they called ‘Yankee Culture’, including the Hollywood films that Joan and I were on the way to enjoy in the Odeon.
Some of the speakers were active in trade unions, and I knew one of them. He was passionate about the forthcoming revolution, The Daily Worker newspaper and Joseph Stalin. I think he would be sad to see his hoped-for revolutionary heroes had now become a small crowd of bedraggled figures, fizzling out in a squalid camp, pitched on the site where the old meths drinker caught his minnows.
The new Square that opened in 2007 was hard to get used to for someone whose memory of it goes back to seeing one of the old trams of the 1930s trundling up Long Row.
But seeing the Square on a sunny day, I’m still struck by the quality of the dazzling light that fills that space and by the sound the water makes in the new fountains. A young man was leading two toddlers by the hand through the sparkling jets of water. The happy squealing of the children conveyed that both were thrilled by the experience. And I’m glad to be here, still able to enjoy the sights.
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.
Follow: Arthur Seaton @Thespacelathe on Twitter
Download: Sillitoe Trail Factory Handbook (17MB PDF)
Fillingham and Walker 2020