I know a few Not­ting­ham lads, mostly liv­ing in Lon­don these days. My friends had grand­dads who worked in one of the big Not­ting­ham light indus­tries: for Play­ers, Boots or Raleigh, unless they were unlucky and had to go down the mines. I’ve had a lot of fights with my Not­ting­ham friends about the cul­tural iden­tity of the mid­lands. Being from York­shire means I look down on the light indus­tries; the mid­lands are not north­ern enough, they just aspire to be (see Stu­art Maconie’s Pies and Prej­u­dice). My friends reckon that the shared coalmin­ing her­itage, as the pic­ture sug­gests, brings Not­ting­ham into the north, and that just begs the answer “scabs” (see GB84 by David Peace for a fic­tion­alised account of the min­ers’ strike for more).
Pit Mural by Quietloner http://www.flickr.com/photos/quietloner/

Alan Sil­li­toe[i], who died today, makes the case for Not­ting­ham being psy­cho­geo­graph­i­cally north­ern bet­ter than any­one else. The world of Arthur Seaton in Sat­ur­day Night and Sun­day morn­ing already dis­cussed on the site, is what my friends’ grand­dads had when they were back from the war: they were skilled on the pro­duc­tion line, got a good pay packet and tipped it up to their moth­ers, and then to the wife, get­ting 5 shillings back for fags and booze.

In ‘Mr Raynor the school teacher’, one of the short sto­ries that are part of ‘the Lone­li­ness of the Long Dis­tance Run­ner’ col­lec­tion[ii], there are hints as to the chang­ing rela­tions of power in post-war Not­ting­ham: the incip­i­ent decline in author­ity and the rise in women’s employ­ment con­comi­tant with increas­ing sex­u­al­i­sa­tion in the pub­lic sphere. Mr Raynor’s class don’t mind how his atten­tion drifts from teach­ing, they’re not com­mit­ted to school. Mr Raynor is one of the few almost-sympathetic author­ity fig­ures in Sillitoe’s early work; sym­pa­thetic because he isn’t quite in con­trol (as the stu­dent Bul­li­vant, with his “Teddy boy ideas” susses out). It’s an open secret that Mr Raynor likes to watch the girls work­ing at the depart­ment store across the road from his school. The shop­girls come and go; work for them just fills in a space between leav­ing school and get­ting mar­ried (or get­ting preg­nant). He has his favourites amongst them and the story focuses on his mem­ory of the best:

As she walked she had car­ried her whole body in a sub­lime move­ment con­ducive to the attrac­tion of every part of it, so that he was even aware of heels inside her shoes and finger-tips buried per­haps beneath a bolt of opu­lent cloth.

Sil­li­toe, 2007: 69

The shop worker here is as much the object of con­sump­tion as the bolts of cloth and the suits she sells. As the class mis­be­haves and dis­tracts him, Mr Raynor tries hard to hold onto the image of the name­less girl, who is both the cause of his dis­trac­tion and the thing that keeps him going through the daily grind. The voyeuris­tic gaze isn’t enough, though by the time the (mar­ried) Mr Raynor has plucked up the courage to talk to his favourite, she’s step­ping out with a young man and he’s missed his chance. And then, this eman­ci­pated, sexy young woman, earn­ing her liv­ing at the coal­face of the new con­sumer soci­ety, becomes a woman pun­ished: she’s killed by her young man. Mr Raynor mourns her, but his life con­tin­ues its cycle of keep­ing just enough con­trol of the class­room to leave time for more daydreaming.

Ref­er­ences

  1. Maconie, S. (2007) Pies and Prej­u­dice: In Search of the North. Ebury Press.
  2. Peace, D. (2005) GB84. Faber and Faber.
  3. Sil­li­toe, A. (2007 [1959]) The Lone­li­ness of the Long Dis­tance Run­ner. Harper Peren­nial.

[i] I saw Alan Sil­li­toe at the Essex Book Fes­ti­val in 2008. He gave a charm­ing talk about his writ­ing, tol­er­ated all the ques­tions being about his early work very patiently, and ended by demon­strat­ing his hobby: morse code. It was a splen­did vision of his pri­vate passion.


[ii] The Lone­li­ness of the Long Dis­tance Run­ner itself speaks to the chip on every rebel or awk­ward sod’s shoul­der.