Making the ordinary extraordinary
Alan Sillitoe talked to Brendan O'Neill about the degradation of the working-class hero
'I'm a bloody billygoat trying to screw the world, and no wonder I am, because it's trying to do the same to me.'
Arthur Seaton, the hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving hero of Alan Sillitoe's 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, was one of the first genuine working-class characters in twentieth-century British fiction. 'Miles nearer the real thing than DH Lawrence's brooding workingmen ever came', praised the Sunday Express. The novel was made into a film in 1960, starring Albert Finney as Arthur and hailed as a turning point in British cinema, and became one of the first million-selling paperbacks. 'Arthur was ordinary and extraordinary', says Sillitoe of his best-known creation. 'He was recognisable as real, but also stood out from the crowd.'
For Sillitoe, writing about working-class people was a way of imbuing them with 'a kind of dignity': 'Here they were, in writing, in literature, and that can be all right, a dignifying experience.' But today, the working classes seem only to appear in literature and film as objects of ridicule: useless drunks (James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late), drug addicts (Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting), wife-beaters (Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth), or child abusers (Tim Roth's The War Zone). Sillitoe and the 'angry young men' of the 1950s and 60s may have, in his words, 'blown the door off its hinges' and explored 'unmapped territory beyond Potters Bar', but what seems to have followed is an obsession with the disgusting and mundane sides to working-class life.
'Some today go over the top', says Sillitoe. 'They're just throwing up the filth. If you depict ordinary or working-class situations, it has got to be artistically in context. There's no point just drumming your way through all the garbage and saying "look at this".' According to Sillitoe, it is not enough for a writer to 'say what he sees' - he needs 'sensibility, imagination, experience, and a desire to explore', rather than just wanting to scrape the bottom of the barrel and stick it on the page. 'I can't see how that is artistically worthwhile. A writer is an artist and ought to use things with economy and harmony. He's like a sculptor, starting with a block of crude stone, and trying to shape it into something meaningful. You don't give the reader the block of crude stone.'
Sillitoe was always more 'gritty' and 'realistic' than his angry young contemporaries in the 1950s - not for him the lower middle-class angst of Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim (1954) or the self-obsession of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger (1956). He depicted the 'real thing': Nottingham factoryhands fond of fighting and boozing in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and a Borstal boy who refused to play by the rules in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). But it was never his aim to play working-class life back to working-class people: 'When the film of Saturday Night came out, it was criticised by some for showing people the kind of life they knew and probably wanted to escape; but that isn't what the film or the book did at all. The way I saw it, they depicted an extraordinary character who wanted to take on the world.'
By contrast, Sillitoe's heirs apparent are expected to do little more than provide a mirror image of working-class life. The New Scottish writers, like Irvine Welsh, James Kelman and Alan Warner, are compared to yesterday's angry young men for their raw, cutting-edge, warts-and-all portrayal of poverty and hardship. As Jason Cowley, literary editor of the New Statesman, points out, 'nothing is too decayed, filthy or marginal for [their] literature'. But while there is some brilliant and innovative fiction coming out of Scotland, the search for an 'authentic' working-class voice can be stifling, where writers are looked upon to capture the reality (usually exaggerated and degraded) of working-class life, without saying anything more.
'That's not giving people art', says Sillitoe, 'if the aim is just to show them what already exists. Maybe I'm talking old-fashioned bollocks, but I think art should have some elevational quality to it, an element of aspiration'. Sillitoe felt uncomfortable when he was labelled a 'working-class writer' at the height of his fame in the early 1960s, because his aim was to go beyond the ordinary. 'People used to call me "provincial" and part of a "northern wave", but that isn't how I saw myself. In my twenties I was reading Balzac, Zola, and great American novels, writers who could write about anything, and that is what I wanted to do.' Labels like 'working class' can 'stifle the writer', pushing him into a corner and 'limiting his field of exploration'. The writer's role becomes one of depicting what he has experienced and what his readers already know, rather than taking them to other worlds. When Sillitoe's third book, The General, was published in 1960 (telling the story of a wartime music conductor, made into the 1967 film Counterpoint starring Charlton Heston), he was chastised by some critics for abandoning Nottingham and working-class themes. He wonders if they expected him to write 'Monday Night and Tuesday Morning, Wednesday Night and Thursday Morning, or Son of Arthur Seaton...'. Today, the emphasis on making literature 'relevant' and 'accessible' means that writers are often expected to speak to a particular audience in the kind of language and about the kind of things the audience will immediately understand and empathise with. The end result can be bland writing which fails to challenge or inspire its readers.
In many ways, the change in the depiction of the working class reflects changes that have taken place in society. Sillitoe's most influential works were published at a time when the working class had a collective identity through institutions like trade unions and working men's clubs. Today, such institutions have declined and working-class people are more likely to be seen as 'socially excluded' losers in need of therapy and education than as a confident social class. In Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, if Arthur is not 'pursuing his rebellion against the rules of love, or distilling them with the rules of war, there was still the vast crushing power of government against which to lean his white-skinned bony shoulder, a thousand of its laws to be ignored and therefore broken'. In the 1990s, Arthur would be sent on an anger management course to have his masculinity educated out of him.
It is ironic that as the working class has declined in stature and influence, working-class life is everywhere - in TV, film, literature, art. Sillitoe remembers when the British Board of Film Censors allowed the word 'abortion' to be mentioned in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as long as there was no suggestion that the backstreet abortion 'had in any way been "brought off"' (seriously watering down the book, according to Sillitoe). Today, filmmakers vie to show the most disgusting and degraded parts of working-class life. Sillitoe and his contemporaries were criticised for showing people their own lives - today, the ever-popular docusoap really does show us our own lives, with no pretence of doing anything else. The angry young men may have been cutting edge in their early portrayals of the working class, but now we can't get enough of it - it's a fact: we like to watch and read about our own lives.
'I realise it's all very popular', says Sillitoe. 'But you don't give the public what you think they want, you give them what you want. And if they don't want it, too fucking bad.' Sillitoe thinks that giving people their own lives to watch and mull over smacks of laziness on the part of the writer. 'A writer needs to be confident that he is doing something worthwhile and elevational. You are your work's own best judge, and you have got to judge it, not only within an immediate sociological context of what it says about the here and now, but also within a more historical and universal context.'
Sillitoe may have captured something specific about the postwar working-class experience in Nottingham, but his aim was always to be 'universal'. He names his influences as 'the orations of Demosthenes, Cicero, the Bible, Shakespeare...men with the most noble thoughts'. In his attempt to follow in their footsteps, he was never interested in writing about the degraded, but in trying to say something positive about humanity: 'I never wanted to write a novel in which the disgust that people feel overrides your intention to tell a humane story. I'm not saying I believe in happy endings, no way; but I never wanted to tell a story where the reader thinks humanity is disgusting and the only thing left to do is kill myself.' If there is anything which distinguishes between Sillitoe's depiction of the working class and that which is so popular today, it is this, his aim to 'create works which leave the reader, and therefore the author, in favour of life by the end of the book rather than in a state of despair at all the vile things that go on in the world'.
Or as Arthur Seaton would have it, 'I'm out for a good time. All the rest is propaganda'.
Alan Sillitoe's latest novel The German Numbers Woman is published by Flamingo
Reproduced from LM issue 127, February 2000