Don’t let the bastards grind you down: Seaton and Byron, a well matched pair.

Arthur Seaton, the hero of Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning uses this catch phrase as he faces up to life in the factory -as a cog in large machine. He symbolises  a new working class for the new post war era – the workers of literature have always drunk and chased skirt, whether in D.H Lawrence or Dickens, yet this is something new – Seaton does not ‘know his place’ – he actively seeks married women, wives of co-workers on night shift and seems utterly selfish in his life of Bacchic riot. Certainly he will never take responsibility for his actions, most shockingly seen (for the 1950s) in the abortion sequence as Brenda seeks to dispose of the unwanted result of their lovemaking.

He is a new man: a working class ‘hero’ with good income, untouched by the war (at 24 he is too young to have fought) yet sufficiently shaped by National Service to have learned to have despised the ‘swaddie’ mentality. He owns his world and he sets out to keep it.

In Johnny Byron, Butterworth has created a different hero – an older man who seems utterly removed from the societal rules which allow the ‘civilised world’ to run. A man of riot and destruction, of violence and wild sexual licence, and yet a man who does seem to face responsibility in terms of his son – he is just really bad at it! He evidently sees his role as a father being to ensure that Marky grows into the world with an awareness of his lineage as a Byron boy. Johnny is another Bacchic figure, though one rooted in pastoral tradition – a green man/Pan figure  who faces down the encroaching world by opting out of society for good. He challenges society and we love him for it. It is hard to love Seaton.

I hope my next group of students will enjoy this challenge. two texts seemingly so different yet with so many links to explore:

The pastoral and anti pastoral : we need to recognise the power of the countryside as a key element of Seaton’s taming on Sunday Morning – and not the lovely coincidences – that he and Doreen walk from the ‘edge of the housing estate’ and the mention made of the landscape changing as the ‘new pink houses’ replace the glorious rural idyll of his heritage. We can also explore the reality of the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’. In the play it is Davey who presents his nihilistic view of life in the abattoir as justification for the licenced riot of the weekends. In the novel, this is the life lived by Seaton – ‘make paper… shag on’ as Davey would put it.

The idea of Carnival and riot is central to both texts. Not just the ‘gatherings’ and the wondrous level of riot depicted in Nottingham on a Saturday night – the opening of the novel is a wondrous tour de force of drunken excess (real men can drink gallons…), but there is an echo in the play in that the older protagonist does not need to be shown overindulging – Butterworth shows us the hangover – the morning after and it is left to the younger characters to give a flavour of the misrule. There is, however, also the central role played by licenced carnival: The Goose Fair and the Flintock Fair are central to the works carrying their notion of riot, but a riot which is ‘allowed’ or licensed (cf Olivia’s ‘licensed fool’). By 2009 the carnival is tainted with a level of hypocrisy unknown by Sillitoe and there is food for thought in this area – the role of carnival as an outlet for the worst excesses of society. Yet both are clear Lords of Misrule – Johnny’s tales abound, and Seaton moves from personal misrule to another plane with his behaviour on the ghost train – molesting and frightening in equal measure.

Both texts are brutal in the treatment of the protagonist. Both are physically bested and live to face up to the future. For Seaton, this will involve his opening to the recognition of the Pastoral as healer and to his relationship with Doreen which begins to blossom as the novel ends; for Byron, nothing is certain. He ends the play invoking the giants of his heritage to fight for him against the weight of society – we assume a futile gesture, however much we sympathise with him – but his outcome is unknown. He is doomed to remain an outsider while Seaton adjusts. It is certainly hard to imagine Johnny standing Troy a pint in the manner of Seaton and the swaddie.

From both, there is no respect for authority or for societal norms. They are both bigger than the world they inhabit. One a ‘white collar proletariat’ – a frightening image in the 50s, seeming to threaten all that ‘we fought the war for’. The other, a larger than life force of nature who lives beyond class in his pastoral idyll. Both are utterly amoral and both seem irresistibly attractive to the women who cross their paths. Seaton remains angry throughout – I find him hard to ‘like’ and there is a violent chauvinism in his behaviour which a 21st century lens finds utterly abhorrent – yet compelling. Byron may or may not be a paedophile and a danger to children, yet there is a Messianic quality, established through his myths and stories which put him on a higher level of complexity – fitting for a figure portrayed in a more complex and morally uncertain century.

What a great pair of texts… Of course students might like to compare Byron with Pinkie in Brighton Rock…. I’ll get to that another time.