by James Walker
Nottingham has always been very good at standing up to authority and making a noise when things aren’t right. But we’re not so good at standing up for ourselves. That’s all about to change as a bid is currently being put together to recognise Nottingham as a UNESCO City of Literature. So let me take you on a quick tour of the city via three male authors and share some of the many stories that have helped shape our streets.
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 (313 Ilkeston Rd, Nottingham NG7 3FY). Although Seaton’s local still exists it’s no longer possible to neck 11 pints and six gins and fall down the stairs. In 2009 it closed down and is now a curry take-away.
Raleigh, the cavernous factory which formed its own ‘village’ in Radford, was where Seaton and thousands of others spent their days grafting over a lathe. The Sturmey-Archer site on Triumph Road closed on November 28, 2002 with the last wheel coming off the production line at 3pm. A hundred years of history were quickly wiped out and the site was sold off to the University of Nottingham. Adjacent to the White Horse is Sillitoe Court, Raleigh Park, which is now home to student flats. For this community the lathe has become digital and takes the form of a laptop.
The pubs and factories may have gone but Saturday Night and Sunday Morning remains a seminal text because it gave validity to the deprived world it described, a world which could now take its place alongside the more familiar middle and upper class terrain long considered the proper domain of literature. When Sillitoe and Arthur Seaton emerged together, it was as if the experience of living in Radford had suddenly been revealed to the wider world. It seemed nothing short of a revelation; a widening in the scope of literature to bring a whole new world into the pages of respectable fiction, and a move away from middle-class etiquette and taste.
Arthur Seaton lived by the personal credo of ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ so it is rather fitting that when there were plans to put up a blue plaque at Sillitoe’s birthplace of Manton Crescent, Lenton Abbey in May 2010, a month after his death, it created a dispute with the council tenant currently living there. Katie Young argued that the property had been without a fence for six years and that before any commemorative plaque was installed she wanted basic repairs fixing. I think Sillitoe would have approved.
Although you would have to head out to 8a Victoria Street to find the first of the four DH Lawrence family homes in Eastwood, Nottingham’s favourite potty mouth is also prevalent in the city. As a young twenty-one year old Lawrence embarked on a degree course at the Arkwright Building, which would eventually become Nottingham Trent University. This was funded from teaching miners’ children in his home town. He graduated in 1908 and there’s a beautiful wooden plaque commemorating it in the foyer as you enter from Goldsmith Street.
The gothic-Arkwright building was completed in the 1870s and was unique in that it contained a University College, a public library and a natural history museum, the Victorian equivalent of the Holy Trinity when it came to educational values. Lawrence had a love-hate relationship with Nottingham, describing it as a “dismal town”, though he affectionately described the Arkwright Building as one of the “finest pile of public buildings in Nottinghamshire”. His time spent studying there would resurface in both poetry and prose.
In The Rainbow (1915), Ursula Brangwen describes “the big college built of stone, standing in the quiet street, with a rim of grass and lime-trees all so peaceful: she felt it remote, a magic-land.” Like Lawrence, she was impressed with the grandeur interior: “She liked the hall with its big stone chimney-piece and its Gothic arches supporting the balcony above.” But typically everything was not to her (or his) liking, particularly “the vulgarity of the lobbies and cloakrooms.”
Arkwright would resurface again in the poem From a College Window (1916), where the bearded author sat looking out onto Chaucer Street, aware he was destined for better things.
The glimmer of the limes, sun-heavy, sleeping,
Goes trembling past me up the College wall.
Below, the lawn, in soft blue shade is keeping,
The daisy-froth quiescent, softly in thrall.
Beyond the leaves that overhang the street,
Along the flagged, clean pavement summer-white,
Passes the world with shadows at their feet
Going left and right.
Remote, although I hear the beggar’s cough,
See the woman’s twinkling fingers tend him a coin,
I sit absolved, assured I am better off
Beyond a world I never want to join.
If Alan Sillitoe made drinking an acceptable topic for fiction then Lawrence made it possible for everyone to swear more freely after the acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley Trial, 1960. So significant was this that QC Geoffrey Robertson said of all of the Old Bailey trials “for murder and mayhem, for treason and sedition – none has had such profound social and political consequences”. It was, he has argued, a ‘symbolic moral’ victory that paved the way for the prevailing liberalism we now take for granted.
And Lawrence certainly liked to ‘fuck’ on both the page and in print. In the graduation photograph below you can see Louie Burrows (Ursula in the Rainbow) bottom right and Prof Weekley with the ‘tash and arms folded in the middle. A few years later Lawrence ran off with Weekley’s wife – according to Brenda Maddox they were making love within 20 minutes of meeting at the Weekely house on Private Road, Mapperely. (thanks to Jeremy Hague for this story and photograph).
If you nip on the tram outside Arkwright and follow it up Waverley Street it brings you to the Nottingham High School, home of Booker Prize winner Stanley Middleton. But let’s save him for another day and concentrate on former pupil Geoffrey Trease. Trease was born in ‘the Queen of the Midlands’ in 1909 and produced a staggering 113 novels before retiring from fiction at 88. Whereas Sillitoe enabled the working classes to be represented on their own terms and Lawrence fought for freedom of expression, Trease strived for greater equality, particularly across the genders.
In Bows Against The Barons (1934)Robin Hood gets a Marxist makeover and is transformed from the outlaw nobleman to a peasant from the radical left. His left-wing sympathies offered an alternative to the jingoistic children’s fiction of the period while also creating meaningful lead roles for female characters. His historical fiction spans just about every period imaginable from Ancient Greece, the Middle Ages, Elizabethan England to the Bolshevik Revolution. But what all share in common is a sense of fairness and a more complex reading of history that is inclusive to all. But what I like about him most is he walked out of his Classics scholarship at Oxford University after one year because he was bored with the tuition.
If there’s one thing that characterises all three of these writers, and perhaps Nottingham as a city, it’s that we really don’t like being told what to do. That is as good as any reason to justify becoming a UNESCO City of Literature.
James Walker is the Chair of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio. He is currently celebrating Nottingham’s literary history through a graphic novel called Dawn of the Unread.