The park at the bottom of my road is set on the Lincoln Cliff, a steep, 50 miles long Limestone scarp slope which withstood the meltwater of the Ice Ages. It’s a prehistoric feature with the rather cool name of the Jurassic Way. The dinosaurs could saunter along this path avoiding the marshland of the Trent Valley, keeping their hooves dry (what ?). These lowlands can impress too. Now drained & fertile it’s a much more diplodocus-friendly place. The flood plain of the River Trent is a 25 mile wide featureless flatland but this Big Sky country fixes up some sensational sunsets to burnish our daily doings. On a clear day I can see for miles across the western side of the river into Nottinghamshire & the East Midlands…another country, Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood & his Merrie Men, medieval mumbo-jumbo.
Man, we are a parochial crew on our small crowded island. We think we’re so clever & classless & free but we’re still…you know it. There are antipathies between the nations which make up our “United” Kingdom. The football hooliganism of the late 20th century was an expression of perceived rivalry & prejudice which existed between towns before they could even be considered towns. The only thing we are sure about that lot who live at the top of the hill is that they don’t like us either. I am from the North of England. There are geographical & cultural arguments to dispute this but they are wrong. I am a Northerner. The rationale ? It’s like trying to tell a stranger about Rock & Roll.
Any road up, here’s something that Nottingham folk have got going on.
Ray Davies sang, in 1973, “Where are all the angry young men now ? Barstow and Osborne, Waterhouse and Sillitoe. Where on earth did they all go?” Alan Sillitoe, a Nottingham man, the writer of “Saturday Night & Sunday Morning” was seen as an A.Y.M., an ill-defined literary movement which began in 1956 with John Osborne’s play “Look Back In Anger”. Something was happening in British society but the critical/literary establishment was never expected to know what it was. The elite, born to rule the British Empire & thus the world, had blundered their way into 2 “world” wars in 30 years. No family in the country avoided sacrifice & loss. There was blood on the hands of the aristocracy. Us British have never been a street fighting race other than after the pubs close on a Saturday but a change was gonna come. If we were going to fight & win & die in your battles then we wanted a fairer share of , a bigger say in, the division of the spoils. Post-1945 the nationalisation of essential industries, the establishment of a National Health Service & a Welfare State, was expression of the will of the working class towards social inclusion. The days of deference were numbered. Take your “Gosford Park” & shove it up your powdered & privileged rear.
These new writers were too young to have fought in the war. Their brand of social realism articulated the opportunities & anxieties of working class life in post-war Britain. Alan Sillitoe had bombs dropped on him. He left school in 1942 & worked in the same Nottingham Raleigh bicycle factory as his working class hero, Arthur Seaton. The one we see in this clip. By the time he was 21, in 1949, he was living in France on an R.A.F. pension, recuperating from tuberculosis. His first two novels, “S.N & S.M.” & “The Loneliness Of A Long Distance Runner” did very well thank you. There was an element of cultural tourism about an educated reading public living vicariously through this “kitchen sink” literature & its plain-speaking, hard-drinking, sexually active protagonists. This was, however, a new voice in British society with a concern that the ideals of a decade earlier had been diluted by full employment & an aggressive materialism. Higher living standards were a diversion from the fact that economic control & therefore power remained unchanged. Meet the new boss…
These plays & books were quickly adapted for the cinema. In “Saturday Night” Albert Finney as Arthur was the British Brando, a bright new star (he was also the first Billy Liar). There was a squad from West Yorkshire, David Storey (“This Sporting Life”), Stan Barstow (“A Kind Of Loving”), Keith Waterhouse (“Billy Liar”), who all did very well. Some of these Angry Young Men (& Women)were assimilated & embraced by the same literary Establishment that they had scorned. The genie, though, was out of the bottle. Film is a more populist, more accessible art than literature. Audiences saw, for the first time, a mirror held up to their lives. They heard voices which sounded like their own saying things which were dramatic, opinionated, funny. Britain was no longer defined by the narrow range of the received pronunciation & values of the BBC. With a rush & a push many new talents found the confidence to say what they were thinking…out loud. The world was in thrall to 4 young men from Liverpool before you could say “many a mickle makes a muckle”.
Alan Sillitoe produced an impressive body of work in his life. There are over 50 books but it is the first 2 (& their screenplays) by which he is remembered. His two young protagonists choose different ways to seek dignity in a life where your path is chosen by others. Seaton knows that his willful kicking against the pricks is a temporary stage before an inevitable acceptance of responsibility. Colin Smith, on the other hand, is less impressed by the rewards for playing by someone else’s rules. That moment when he decides to run just when he wants to, that carrots can be dangled but he ain’t no donkey is just a beautiful thing. I’ve done it myself…hope that I will still do it.
Sillitoe kept on keeping on, his politics shaped by injustice, a feeling for the underdog &, importantly, a hope that things can improve. Nottingham was, he wrote, “a town built into my bones and heart, carried with me forever. Always part of me, impossible not to make it live for others as it lived and still does for me”. There are others like him, I intended this post to include a couple but…you get me. Those young writers of the late 1950s were from a class that was insisting that it told its own story for the first time. Their success & the opportunities it created for those that followed deserves a better iconography than the collected picture sleeves of the Smiths. At the time we thought that there had been a permanent change in the social & cultural fabric of the country. Yeah…that was then, this is now.