Alan Sillitoe: The Bard of Nottingham

In 1958 Saturday Night and Sunday Morning became the first Pan paperback to sell a million copies thanks to the antics of hard drinking, womanising anti-hero Arthur Seaton. In the opening chapter to Alan Sillitoe’s raw portrait of working-class Nottingham life, Seaton quenches payday thirst by having a skinful down his local, The White Horse. By the end of the evening he’s had a drinking game with a sailor, thrown up over some fellow drinkers before exiting head first down the pub stairs.

Yet Seaton is more than just your average drunk. He’s belligerent and hedonistic, with a healthy scepticism of all forms of authority. Karel Reisz’s 1960 film would immortalise him forever as the icon of anti-establishment defiance.

Sillitoe’s novel has provided the defining image of my home town, Nottingham, be it in our labelling as the binge capital of Britain, or in recognition of the defiant streak that has manifested itself in numerous ways over the centuries.

sat night

You don’t get more unconventional than the 1766 Cheese Riots, when we expressed our dissatisfaction with rising food prices by flattening the mayor with a barrel-shaped cheese, or the 1831 Reform Riots when we burned down our very own castle. And let’s not forget that we’re home to England’s favourite potty mouth, D H Lawrence. The acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960 would pave the way for greater freedom of expression for us all. A Nottingham man made it possible for everyone to swear more freely.

But Nottingham has an incredibly rich literary history that extends beyond booze and foul language. It was home to Quaker poet Mary Howitt who translated the works of Hans Christian Anderson, it’s the birthplace of Alma Reville, aka Mrs Hitchcock, and it was here that J M Barrie found the inspiration for Peter Pan and Graham Greene converted to Catholicism. More recently it has become the adopted home of Booker-shortlisted author Alison Moore and Impac winner Jon McGregor. Yet despite this, Nottingham, and the Midlands in general, are largely ignored when it comes to mapping out English literary culture. Hopefully Dawn of the Unread will go some way in halting this vulgar prejudice.

Arthur Seaton in our current issue: For it was Saturday Night

Arthur Seaton in our current issue: For it was Saturday Night

Having such an incredible literary history has enabled Paul Fillingham and I to embark on numerous digital projects about our beloved Midlands home. Our first collaboration together was a commission for digital arts platform The Space where we took a virtual tour of Sillitoe’s Nottingham in the form of videos, essays, photographs, illustrations and podcasts and called it The Sillitoe Trail. You can download it for free to your iPhone or as an ebook. More recently we ran Being Arthur: the first ever live 24 hour Twitter presentation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning as part of the 2014 Being Human humanities festival. Our next project is going to explore D.H Lawrence’s savage pilgrimage and is called the Memory Theatre.

The video essay The Bard of Nottingham was originally commissioned for BBC Radio 3 series The Essay. This was produced by Robert Shore, author of Bang in the Middle, for a four-part series called In Praise of the Midlands. Since its publication my words have been validated as Nottingham is currently bidding to be recognised as a UNESCO City of Literature. At long last we are starting to stand up for ourselves.

Read issue 12: ‘For it was Saturday Night‘ starring Arthur Seaton, Colin Smith, Ray Gosling, Alan Sillitoe and more…

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