Alan Sillitoe’s contemporary, local author, Derrick Buttress (1932 – 2017)
Originally published in 2012 as part of theSpace arts project funded by Arts Council England and the BBC
Derrick Buttress (1932 – 2017)
2012 was the diamond jubilee wedding anniversary of our first featured writer Derrick Buttress and his wife, Joan. It was sixty years ago that the newly-weds were crossing through a bustling market square with a world of possibilities ahead of them. For Derrick, these experiences would be captured via Shoestring Press in two memoirs, three poetry collections and a short story collection, Sing to Me.
Both Derrick and Alan Sillitoe left school at 14, were the sons of Raleigh workers, and grew up in poverty in war-torn Nottingham. Following the dictum of ‘write what you know’, the rhythms and sentence structure of their narrative voice transport you immediately into the back streets of their respective Broxtowe and Radford where misadventure, cunning and being out ‘for a good time’ is the most viable means of escapism from hard times. The result is authentic representations of working class people on their own terms. For Sillitoe, these terms require a ruthless self-belief to survive, as with Ernest Burton, Colin Smith or any of the Seaton clan. Buttress is more forgiving, perhaps because he didn’t begin writing until his early forties. In his eighties, Derrick’s journey became digital.
The first stop on our cycle ride through Sillitoe’s Nottingham is ‘slab square’, where folk arrange to meet at either the left or right lion.
Nottingham’s Council House under construction, Old Market Square, 1927. Source: Nottinghamshire Archives
I was born in New Basford in 1932 and grew up learning about life on the terraced streets of Radford, Hyson Green and, later, on the raw roads and circuses of Broxtowe Estate. As a young child I remember being in awe of Cecil Hewitt’s grandiose, Neo-Baroque show-piece Council House and its attendant Old Market Square – which everybody called ‘Slab Square’, its white slabs and walls relieved by concrete tubs of vivid, red geraniums.
The Council House and Square had ‘class’ in my eyes, and were an imposing eyeful after a bus ride through the depressing suburbs. But I found it intimidating too. This was where authority lived and most children were taught, by parents and teachers, to be scared of it; authority was invested in well-dressed men, some in bowler hats, most of them wearing three-piece suits with watch – chains slung across their waistcoats. I had seen them striding confidently up the steps to disappear into the gloom of the Council House, recognising, young as I was, that the building belonged to them and not to my parents, who were having a struggle to pay the rent on our council house. Little John, the main bell of the Council House clock impressed too. It was a ten tonne monster that could be heard seven miles away in the days when there was little traffic noise to prevent its vibrations travelling beyond the city.
The awe I felt as a child melted away when I had to cross the Square every day to reach the Lace Market, and work. In the rains of winter the beautiful, white Portland stone turned to a dirty grey. On sunny days, the pigeons scavenged and fouled it. The formality of the design, I thought, was unclear: did Hewitt intend the Square to be used as a civic space, an expression of the Council’s authority, or an area that the general public could use like a park? Perhaps the removal of the Goose Fair to the Forest in 1928 answered that question.
Not everybody loved the Council House and the Old Market Square, however. I’ve found visitors from London particularly scathing. A friend, who had never travelled further north than Reading, thought the Council House was a suitable model for a Slavonic police state. Another committed cockney thought it a ridiculous edifice in a city he considered too small for such a grand building. But the only time I was really miffed by an insult was when an Irish acquaintance called it a ‘town hall’. The rambling rooms of the building are like a town hall inside, apart from the Hollywood style marble staircase. But outside I love its statues, its friezes, its columns and Art-Deco stone lions. Above all, I love its awesome dome which soars 200 feet above Long Row and South Parade. It all goes to the making of a building far greater than a mere ‘town hall’.
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