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Sunday, 14 July 2019

Angry Young Men

Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning John Braine: Roome At The Top

Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (4*)
John Braine: Room at the Top (4*)

Two more nineteen-fifties, angry-young-man novels: tales of northern working-class life set just after the war before the sixties and seventies provided an escape route from lives which would otherwise have been as predetermined as those of our parents. Thank goodness I was not born ten years earlier. I would never have had a chance, let alone a fourth chance after blowing the first three.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning begins with a nauseating scene of drunkenness and extra-marital sex. Arthur Seaton is a lathe operator doing piecework in a Nottingham bicycle factory. He earns good enough money to spend on nice suits and as much as he can drink at weekends. He can certainly drink a lot: eleven pints and seven gins to start, and then fall down a flight of stairs, wake up and drink a lot more and still have enough left to go to bed with a married woman while her husband is away.

In contrast, Joe Lampton in Room at the Top seems more civilised. He moves from the ugly industrial town of Dufton to the pleasant manufacturing town of Warley, both in Yorkshire, to take up a post in the municipal accountant’s department. From his thoughts you know he later becomes a wealthy man and that this is the story of how he got there.

While Arthur is uneducated and lives in the large extended family where he was born, Joe has accountancy qualifications and is making his way alone in a new town. What they have in common is that both are good-looking and clever, and both are trapped. Arthur is set to spend the rest of his life tied to a lathe and Joe will remain a local-government functionary, perhaps a gentler existence but hardly any better-off. White- or blue-collar the same: you slaved for small reward. Both resent it but respond in different ways.

At first, you want Joe to do well. It’s hard living in lodgings where you know no one, I’ve done it. But soon you begin to see into Joe’s vain and selfish mind and don’t much like what you find. He judges people, especially women, on a social scale from 1 to 10 and is determined to shag himself to the top. He starts at the town’s amateur dramatic society where he takes up with a worldly married woman, ten years his elder, for whom he develops some feeling, and also with the innocent high-class daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the town, who he doesn’t really love:
I was the devil of a fellow, I was the lover of a married woman, I was taking out the daughter of one of the richest men in Warley, there wasn’t a damn thing I couldn’t do.
Joe’s story leads to tragedy after he gets the wealthy daughter pregnant so he can marry upwards and join her father’s business, and then ditches his married lover who dies in a suicidal drunken car crash. Joe knows he is responsible, leaving an enduring sense of guilt, but it makes him no more likeable.

With Arthur, it’s the other way round. You think he’s disgusting at first but gradually come to understand and even have time for him. He is a rebel fighting against social norms:
I'm me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that's what I'm not, because they don't know a bloody thing about me.
Eventually, he is badly beaten by one of the husbands he has been cuckolding and confined to bed for a week. Recovering during a lively, crowded family Christmas, he comes to realise that even a rebel can be happy “where there’s life and there’s people”. At the end of the novel he is courting a single girl and planning to marry, but is never going to knuckle down completely:
And trouble for me it’ll be, fighting every day until I die… with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army, government… dragged up through the dole and into the war with a gas-mask on your clock, and the sirens rattling into you every night while you rot with scabies in an air-raid shelter. Slung into khaki at eighteen, and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint, doing women at the weekend and getting to know whose husbands are on the night shift, working with rotten guts and an aching spine… well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken.
Truly an angry young man.

Two and three decades later, I knew the settings of these books. Warley is perhaps Bradford or Bingley where Braine grew up and became a librarian. Life chances had increased for the young by the time I was travelling the mills and factories as an auditor, but I came across hundreds of all ages still stuck in the same old class-bound tram tracks. Things did change. We know now that a real Joe Lampton in a town hall would probably have become moderately successful through local-government expansion. But the one that stepped up through marriage would have had to be pretty smart when his business inevitably went bust.

Later, I lived in Nottingham for five years and remember the local dialect so brilliantly captured in Sillitoe’s novel (shopkeepers used to ask: “D’yer want enythink else duck?”). I went to Goose Fair and drank in The Trip to Jerusalem, and walked the country paths around Wollaton and Strelley where Arthur takes women and goes fishing (the locations are described by The Sillitoe Trail web site).

‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is the only truly working-class story of the four so-called angry-young-man novels I’ve written about (the other two being university lecturer Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim and draughtsman/shop manager Vic Brown in A Kind of Loving; and should I include Billy Liar as well?). A real Arthur Seaton would have faced the hardship of redundancy and the dole when the factories closed. Had I come across anyone like him or his hard-drinking, hard-knuckled family, I wouldn’t have dared go near them. I guess that’s because I did indeed escape and now my family mock when I claim to be working class.


Key to star ratings: 5* would read over and over again, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.  

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4 comments:

  1. Could a link be made between the popularity of these novels and the rise of actors like Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in 1960s British cinema?

    An aside: The Dresser was shown on our public television when I was a teen. I watched it with my father (a working-class kid in the 40s/50s of SF) and was mesmerized by their performances.

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    1. They were young and right for the parts at the time, and good enough, and yes, developed into brilliant actors. I haven't seen The Dresser but will look out for it.

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  2. There but for grace sort of reads. I must check them up, especially if they have been recorded. Today I listened to Sally Fields' memoir. About a 3.75.
    I had a TBI several years ago, which stole ALL my books from me. I so enjoy reading reviews and finding books, new and old, for they all are new to me. Thank you.

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    1. Post-war economic growth provided lots of opportunities, and grammar schools in the UK equipped many to benefit from them. I see people now who didn't escape into the middle class, and in some cases it has taken quite a toll on their lives. Sally Fields escaped of course through acting.
      A TBI must be difficult to come to terms with, but you're still here to enlighten us through your blog.

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