Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) by Alan Sillitoe

Book review by Alice C: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was: ‘That rarest of all finds: a genuine, no-punches-pulled unromanticised working-class novel which makes Room at the Top look like a vicar’s tea party’, according to a review in the Daily Telegraph.

Born in a council house in Nottingham in 1928, his father illiterate and frequently unemployed, Alan Sillitoe’s upbringing was marked by poverty and domestic violence. He left school at 14 to work in factories until he joined the RAF in 1945. He began to write four years later.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (SNSM) is set in Nottingham and draws on Sillitoe’s own experience of working-class life and culture. Interestingly, five mainstream publishers refused the book before WH Allen published it in 1958. Other publishers had insisted Sillitoe rewrite sections to better reflect the reality of working-class life. Sillitoe said this was akin to being advised by a clairvoyant on the true nature of his existence, and refused any changes.

We first meet Arthur Seaton blind-drunk (Blindo), belligerent and falling down the pub stairs in the opening scene of the book – all vivid and shocking. We are immediately thrown into the world of hard graft, beer, football, old money, casual sex standing up in alleys or, luxury, lying on a coat in a field, of clearly defined gender roles subverted only by strong matriarchs and gentle men, marked out as weak ineffectual. Everyone yearning for that final factory Friday night whistle; yearning for Saturday night. Set pre-TV but there is some mention of this ‘new fad’ and the ‘suckers’ who spend their Saturday nights hypnotised in front of the box instead of down the pub getting Blindo. The pub is where real life happens, getting the monotonous graft of the factory swilled out of your system. ‘Be drunk, be happy’, as Arthur tells his mates.

There are elements of this culture we might disapprove of – the father who spends all his wages at the races – dogs, horses or motorbikes. Or the mother who leaves her children asleep upstairs as she slips out to the pub. Or, set pre-1967 abortion act, the secret knowledge shared by most women on how to ’bring it off’. We see Arthur’s married lover, Brenda, lying in a bath of boiling water, swilling down gin, in a desperate attempt to ‘bring it off’ before her husband gets home from the night shift.

This is the world of bread, jam and tea for your supper, setting the table and mashing the tea. Of post-war full employment, of abundant factory work: well paid, unionised, the era of the closed shop. Arthur’s father was young in time of depression, poverty and no work. Far from being radicalised by his struggles, we are told he is happy with a few simple pleasures, a TV, good food and a job. But Arthur our working-class anti-hero, is less interested in politics, unions or class solidarity than women and beer. He’s satisfied with his weekly wage of £14, to work any harder meant more Income Tax: ‘like feeding cherries to swine’ and he’s suspicious of P iecework; resentful of the Rate-checker who stands over him and reduces his rate of pay if he works too hard and produces too much. So he doesn’t.

No one owns their home on Arthur’s street. Most live in private rented all their lives, bad landlords and no repairs. Some are miners or work for the Coal Board, most boil their kettles on open fires of cheap or subsidised coal.

The novel is set post-war, when young men were still called up for National Service. Arthur has done two years as a Redcap in the military police: ‘a six-foot pit prop that wants a pint of ale’, he describes himself. He remains a Reserve and has to do two stints of Basic Training, fifteen days at an army camp. Arthur hates the strict conditions, breaks all the rules, gets drunk most of the time, but has a great time playing practical jokes on the officers with the other reserves.

Many episodes in SNSM involve beer, sex or violence, often all three. Arthur takes revenge on ‘nosey parker’ Mrs Bull, shooting her with his air rifle. She stands every day on his street corner, gossiping with other women, who both observe and experience domestic violence, drunken husbands, ‘getting a battering’ – all are tolerated up to a point. Then sometimes someone intervenes. Arthur and his brother Fred stood up to their dad to put a stop to the violence at home: their dad’s regular Saturday night beatings of their mum. And Arthur’s family gave shelter to his sister and young son when she left her husband after frequent violence.

Arthur tells the reader he needs a violent rowdy pub atmosphere with the threat of a fight to distract him from other feelings, to channel his aggression; in order to ‘wash him clean’. And it is after a brutal beating by two cuckolded squaddies Arthur finally reaches an epiphany, as the ‘stuffing has been beaten out of him’ and he momentarily feels defeated. He says he been cast adrift: he has never in the past even had to leave the harbour, now he feels adrift in the middle of the sea. He is helped, of course, by the love of a good woman, Doreen, and his own inner will to survive – to win means to survive, he tells us, and to survive with some life left in you meant to win.

So, what does Sunday Morning bring? Fishing, of course. Men fished, standing apart on familiar river banks, nursing their hangovers, before reuniting in the pub for ‘hair of the dog’, sharing tales of who did what the night before, before returning home for Sunday roast. Arthur is one of them. At the end of the book, chastened and if not exactly tamed, by his beating, Arthur goes with his new love, Doreen, along the banks of the Erwash canal where, whilst sharing a bar of chocolate and a bottle of pop, he suggests, in a roundabout way, they might share a future together.

‘Well, it’s a good life and a good world, if you don’t weaken’, he tells the reader. And ‘once a rebel, always a rebel. You can’t help being one’. We believe him.

One thought on “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) by Alan Sillitoe

  1. HI all, I came across this podcast. I have just listed to one about Elizabeth Taylor – the Soul of Kindness and I know there’s one about the Constant NymphBacklisted

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