April 25, 2010 Alan Sillitoe and other Nottingham Lads
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).
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.
- Maconie, S. (2007) Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North. Ebury Press.
- Peace, D. (2005) GB84. Faber and Faber.
- Sillitoe, A. (2007 ) 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.