Alan Sillitoe, 1928-2010

The novelist who changed the way the working class was represented.

The novelist and poet Alan Sillitoe died today at the age of 82. In 2007, Sillitoe wrote a short piece for the New Statesman in which he described receiving a diagnosis of cancer:

Whenever I began a book in the 1960s I wondered whether I'd finish it before the bomb dropped. Now, at nearly 80, a small lump in my neck turned out to be cancer. Having survived tuberculosis in my twenties, I assumed there'd be no more illness from then on. How wrong can one be?

Sillitoe's reputation was made by his first novel, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, published in 1958 (and subsequently adapted for the cinema by Karel Reisz, with Albert Finney in the lead role). The novel is memorable most of all for its hard-drinking, womanising working-class protagonist, Arthur Seaton. As the critic D J Taylor has argued, Sillitoe was "almost single-handedly responsible for a shift in the way working-class characters found themselves represented in literature."

For the political historian David Marquand, Arthur's significance lies in what he told readers about the newly affluent British working class. In his magnum opus, Britain Since 1918, Marquand argues that Arthur embodies a new kind of bloody-minded working-class self-assertion that was one of the fruits of Macmillan-era growth and prosperity:

Trade-union militancy reflected deeper shifts of attitude, born of full employment and rising living standards. Arthur Seaton, the boozy, promiscuous and nihilistic hero of Alan Sillitoe's novel of late-1950s engineering workers, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, epitomised one element in it. . . . There were plenty of Seatons in early-1960s Britain. Macmillan's whiggish generosity of spirit had turned traitor. A society that had it good was determined to have it better. . . . Affluent workers did not embrace middle-class lifestyles or middle-class attitudes to politics or the workplace. They still thought in terms of collective action, not of individual self-improvement, and remained more likely to vote Labour than Conservative. But their approach to collective action -- political or industrial -- had become instrumental rather than solidaristic. They joined trade unions to improve their living standards, not out of class loyalty . . .

A piece Sillitoe wrote for New Left Review in the summer of 1960, about the experience of seeing his novel adapted for the big screen, corroborates Marquand's reading of the meaning of Arthur. Sillitoe wrote in defiantly unsentimental terms about his creation:

When I heard that Saturday Night And Sunday Morning was to be made into a film, and that I was going to be asked to write the script, I felt I was in for a tough exercise in resurrection. Nevertheless I agreed to it, mainly because I wanted a hand in the kind of film it was going to be. I didn't want Arthur Seaton -- the main character -- getting transmogrified into a young workman who turns out to be an honest-to-goodness British individualist -- that is, one who triumphs in the end against and at the expense of a communist agitator or the trade unions. I didn't want him to become a tough stereotype with, after all, a heart of moral gold which has in it a love of the monarchy and all that oldfashioned muck.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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