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.