Writer Alan Sillitoe at work
Turgid Trent: Caught I
Originally published in 2012 as part of theSpace arts project funded by Arts Council England and the BBC
The fourth featured location on the trail is the “turgid Trent” and the canals where the novel’s anti-hero Arthur Seaton would take in a bit of fishing to escape the noise of the factory and the gossiping neighbours. In the third of four essays, project editor James Walker explores the fishing metaphor of being caught and applies it to Sillitoe’s career as an emerging writer in 1958.
“Everyone in the world was caught, somehow, one way or another, and those that weren’t were always on the way to it. As soon as you were born you were captured by fresh air that you screamed against the minute you came out.
Then you were roped in by a factory, had a machine slung around your neck, and then you were hooked up by the arse with a wife. Mostly you were like a fish: you swam about with freedom, thinking how good it was to be left alone, doing anything you wanted to do and caring about no-one, when suddenly: SPLUTCH! – the big hook clapped itself into your mouth and you were caught.”
The quote above represents a rare moment of reflection for the head-strong and guttural Arthur Seaton towards the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Yet perhaps his chosen metaphor also describes the way in which Arthur’s creator, Alan Sillitoe, himself became trapped by media labels that always tried to define him as a particular type of author and by implication a particular type of person.
This process started even before Sillitoe had been published, thanks to the 1950s media hype surrounding the ‘Angry Young Men’, a label first coined by a Royal Court Theatre press officer to promote Look Back in Anger (1956). The catchphrase was used to describe a widely perceived change in attitude among a new generation of grammar-school educated male writers. Heading the pack was John Braine, with Kingsley Amis and John Osborne not far behind.
Tom Maschler, Commissioning Editor at the publishing house MacGibbon and Kee, had failed to sign any of the emerging ‘angries’ to his own lists and realised he’d failed to cash in on the new zeitgeist. To redress this, he put together a collection entitled Declaration (1957) that celebrated this new wave of individualism, although it was an individualism that reflected his own outlook rather than that of the leading ‘angry young men’ themselves: Braine was conspicuous by his absence and Amis had refused to be included.
Maschler cannily used the incoherence of the movement to his own advantage in his forward:
“They attack one another directly or indirectly in these pages. Some were even reluctant to appear between the same covers with others whose views they violently oppose.”
Sillitoe’s agent Rosica Colin had sent Maschler a copy of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and he was clearly fascinated by Arthur Seaton, or rather what Arthur Seaton might become under his expert editorial guidance. Although you would expect nothing less from a good editor, Maschler, according to Sillitoe’s biographer Richard Bradford, took things too far for Sillitoe’s liking, and adopted a somewhat patronising tone towards a writer he clearly saw as his own protégé, whose work was to be reshaped in Maschler’s own image.
He suggested that Sillitoe should produce two manuscripts: the original (by implication amateurish) version, and the superior one following Maschler’s own directives. In essence, it seemed he wanted a different book with a different lead character.
Prior to this Sillitoe had already seen numerous other manuscripts rejected so the bait of publication must have been tempting as it would finally validate a decade of hard work. But he wasn’t prepared to compromise his integrity, particularly to fit the whims and preconceptions of the publishing industry and its somewhat romantic notions about the realities of working class life. The experience would leave Sillitoe with a lifelong distrust of editors, to the point where he would bluntly refuse any form of intervention in future manuscripts. This wasn’t always to the benefit of his writing, and when viewed as a whole, his books can often be repetitious in parts, something that has become evident since tweeting his entire works to raise awareness of this project and thereby reduced his many books’ contents to their core elements.
The consensus among the eight or so mainstream publishers who rejected Sillitoe’s debut novel was that it was too gritty. They wanted a more edifying narrative, feeling that the working class had it hard enough already, with no need to rub it in further. It was feared the book might even incite hatred for decent working men among its potential readers, and suggested that the author had no experience of the life he described.
Of course the opposite was true. Sillitoe had grown up in chronic poverty and witnessed his illiterate, violent father Christopher imprisoned for the crime of being unable to pay for food acquired on tick, while his mother, Sabina, had at one point turned to prostitution to provide for her family. You just didn’t get grittier than that, and Sillitoe was simply following the advice of Robert Graves and writing what he knew with such devastating accuracy that it scared the living daylights out of the literati.
It’s interesting to note that D H Lawrence, another expatriate East Midlands figure Alan Sillitoe is often compared with, once wrote:
“the human soul needs actual beauty more than it needs bread”.
Yet when Sillitoe returned home from his first job with a pile of books, his father Christopher looked on disapprovingly, believing the money should have been spent on something more worthwhile like food or shoes. Without Beer and Bread (1957), a small pamphlet of poetry, would be the aptly named title of Sillitoe’s first publication.
Fortunately Sillitoe’s agent, Rosica Colin, had the foresight to look beyond the mainstream publishers and approached W.H. Allen.
Founded in the eighteenth century, W.H. Allen were the respected publishers of pamphlets on contemporary political and social issues who had latterly been building a reputation for publishing memoirs and books on theatre and film. They had the necessary guts and vision to finally unleash Arthur Seaton on the world.
Sillitoe was fearful that he would be marketed as some kind of literary oddity; the working class writer who had failed his eleven-plus and left school at fourteen, or the self-taught radical. When the novel was published in October 1958, the media were keen to assign Arthur Seaton a rank in the angry young men’s pecking order, with Peter Green of the Telegraph describing the book as “a novel for today with a freshness and raw fury that makes Room at the Top look like a vicarage tea-party.”
The suggestion that John Braine had been knocked off his perch by this newcomer was obvious. The film rights were quickly acquired by J Arthur Rank, who, in his eagerness to cash in on the furore, had failed to read the novel. When he did, the proposed film was just as quickly dropped.
The problem with being labelled an ‘angry man’ or a ‘working class writer’ was that it restricted Sillitoe in producing the work he as a writer wanted to write. He was becoming a victim of his own success, which meant W.H. Allen were fearful of publishing The General or The Rats as his next books as they were simply too different to the books his readers now seemed to expect.
A compromise was reached when Colin Smith entered the pages of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a character who, like his creator, turned inwards to his own thoughts and found his own imagination to be the one place where the bastards couldn’t get at you.
Only then could Sillitoe crack on and diversify, producing more than 50 further books that included everything you’d expect of a true man of letters: poetry, children’s books, travelogues, screenplays, non-fiction and essays.
Turgid Trent: Caught II
Read James Walker’s fourth essay in which he explores how Sillitoe’s reluctant place in the media spotlight after the book’s publication echoes Arthur Seaton’s feeling that “everyone in the world was caught”.
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