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All the Fun of the Fair

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It can be hard to pin down one’s motives for deciding to read, say, Lucky Jim in preference to millions of other books. Not that there’s anything wrong with Kingsley Amis’s novel: far from it. The point is, I suspect our choices are influenced by all sorts of factors we’re ashamed to acknowledge. At least that’s been my experience.

Like most people, my own selections tend to be guided by an admiration for an author’s previous books or an interest in a specific subject. But I’m not always so rational. I must admit I’ve sometimes been put off a writer’s work by a humourless radio interview or a smug-looking publicity photo. On the other hand, I’ve sometimes ended up reading a book for no other reason than that I came across a cheap copy of it. I’ve even occasionally bought books because of their attractive dust jackets.

I was drawn to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 debut novel, for just such unintellectual reasons. I suppose I must have been about 17 at the time. From what I remember, my sudden urge to read this two-decade-old novel stemmed from seeing the 1960 film adaptation on TV. I was also curious because it was set in Nottingham, where I’d grown up.

Since it wasn’t on the shelves of my local library and I couldn’t afford to buy a new copy, I plodded round the second-hand bookshops. I eventually acquired an old paperback film tie-in edition. Its dog-eared cover featured a painting of the young Albert Finney, who stars as Arthur Seaton, a rebellious, self-assured factory worker. The picture, reminiscent of the covers of American pulp novels of the 1940s and 1950s, shows him standing with his hands cupped round a lighted match, which casts an implausibly strong, virile glow across his trousers and blue sports jacket. It’s an appropriate image for a story powered by the libido of its central character.

In both book and film, Seaton courts a girl of his own age while conducting an illicit affair with an older, married woman. There may be nothing original about the story, tracing his painful journey into sexual and social conformity, but its setting must have seemed start

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It can be hard to pin down one’s motives for deciding to read, say, Lucky Jim in preference to millions of other books. Not that there’s anything wrong with Kingsley Amis’s novel: far from it. The point is, I suspect our choices are influenced by all sorts of factors we’re ashamed to acknowledge. At least that’s been my experience.

Like most people, my own selections tend to be guided by an admiration for an author’s previous books or an interest in a specific subject. But I’m not always so rational. I must admit I’ve sometimes been put off a writer’s work by a humourless radio interview or a smug-looking publicity photo. On the other hand, I’ve sometimes ended up reading a book for no other reason than that I came across a cheap copy of it. I’ve even occasionally bought books because of their attractive dust jackets. I was drawn to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 debut novel, for just such unintellectual reasons. I suppose I must have been about 17 at the time. From what I remember, my sudden urge to read this two-decade-old novel stemmed from seeing the 1960 film adaptation on TV. I was also curious because it was set in Nottingham, where I’d grown up. Since it wasn’t on the shelves of my local library and I couldn’t afford to buy a new copy, I plodded round the second-hand bookshops. I eventually acquired an old paperback film tie-in edition. Its dog-eared cover featured a painting of the young Albert Finney, who stars as Arthur Seaton, a rebellious, self-assured factory worker. The picture, reminiscent of the covers of American pulp novels of the 1940s and 1950s, shows him standing with his hands cupped round a lighted match, which casts an implausibly strong, virile glow across his trousers and blue sports jacket. It’s an appropriate image for a story powered by the libido of its central character. In both book and film, Seaton courts a girl of his own age while conducting an illicit affair with an older, married woman. There may be nothing original about the story, tracing his painful journey into sexual and social conformity, but its setting must have seemed startlingly fresh at the time. Along with other books and films by writers such as John Braine and directors such as Tony Richardson, it was part of a wave of fiction set in unglamorous provincial locations. Short-lived though this movement turned out to be, it enjoyed much more success than the comparable working-class fiction of Leslie Halward and the earlier Birmingham Group writers, who also depicted that now long-gone world. Whether a film adaptation of a novel is an embarrassing failure or a minor classic like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, images and sounds from it are bound to colonize the original book. As I read Sillitoe’s novel, his pared-down prose kept prompting memories of the film. Even now, whenever the book is mentioned, I can’t help thinking of Finney’s voice, his surly good looks, and his truculent charisma. Unlike the novel, which is full of references to Nottingham, the film’s setting remains unspecified. With its smoke-plumed factory chimneys and back-to-back houses, it could have been any one of numerous northern cities. But though the movie was shot in murky black and white, I spotted several familiar parts of Nottingham on that first viewing. These included the terrace at the back of the squat Victorian castle that provides the backdrop for scenes in both book and film. It’s there that Rachel Roberts, the dour Welsh actress who plays Seaton’s married lover, announces that she needs forty quid to pay for an abortion. Over the years, I’ve often visited this spot, most recently in the 1980s when I was accompanied by my girlfriend. Surrounded by camera-wielding tourists, lured by the Castle’s tenuous associations with Robin Hood, we positioned ourselves in the same windswept doorway where Finney and Roberts once stood. Quite why it gave me such a frisson of pleasure, I’m not sure. That same day we continued the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning theme by visiting the annual Goose Fair, the rowdy funfair where Seaton suffers the climactic beating by friends of his lover’s husband. We waited until nightfall before making our way from the city centre to the stretch of parkland where the fair is held. Walking up the hill that overlooks this area, we could hear the steadily rising stutter of electric generators, punctuated by shrill screams and snatches of throbbing, overamplified music. With childlike impatience, we hurried down the sparsely wooded hill and into the labyrinth of teeming aisles. Beyond a test-your-strength machine, we found a marquee with a sign advertising ‘BOXING’. Outside, a large crowd had gathered around a stage where a grey-haired Irishman, dressed in a dinner jacket and bow tie, was speaking through a microphone. He was trying to recruit someone prepared to fight either of the boxers flanking him, arms folded across their muscular chests. For the successful challenger, there was a £50 prize. But the only volunteers were a pair of tiny kids. ‘It’s no good,’ the Irishman kept telling them. ‘We haven’t got anyone small enough to fight you.’ Eventually someone suitable stepped forward. He was a tall, broad-shouldered Rasta with loose, shoulder-length dreadlocks. People patted him on the back as he swaggered towards the stage. A moment later, we joined the crowd funnelling into the tent, and found a place at the back. After a brief delay, the fighters clambered into the brightly lit boxing-ring. The challenger’s friends shouted encouragement when the bell rang and the two-round bout began. The Rasta launched a series of wild swings at his adversary who ducked and feinted with practised ease. Midway through the second round, the Rasta caught him on the side of the head – hard enough to make him wince, exposing a flash of white gum-shield. Angered, he responded with a punch that sent the Rasta careening into the ropes. Dreadlocks standing on end, the Rasta resembled a cartoon character who’d been electrocuted. From the ropes, he slumped on to the canvas. Looming over him, the referee started the slow count to ten. The Rasta attempted to stand, but couldn’t. Meanwhile, the referee finished counting, then walked over to the other boxer and lifted his glove into the air in a half-hearted victory salute. This provoked a crackle of applause. As we filed out of the tent, I caught a final glimpse of the Rasta’s crumpled features. Like the bloodstained Arthur Seaton, he had, in only a few seconds, lost all that youthful bravado which had given him such misguided belief in his own invulnerability.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 7 © Paul Willetts 2005

 

About the contributor

Paul Willetts is the author of Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia: The Bizarre Life of Julian Maclaren-Ross. He has also edited the recently published editions of Maclaren-Ross’s Collected Memoirs and Selected Stories. He still visits Nottingham on a regular basis, usually to indulge his masochistic passion for Nottingham Forest Football Club.

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