A Lifetime Guarantee: Introduction
The Alan Sillitoe Committee is presenting a virtual tour of Sillitoe’s Nottingham for you on The Space, focusing on five locations from the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958): Old Market Square, The White Horse, Raleigh, the River Trent and Goose Fair.
The third featured location on the trail is Raleigh, the factory where Arthur Seaton slugged his guts out over a lathe. This is of particular significance this year as Raleigh proudly celebrates its 125th anniversary of building bikes for the world.
In the video, you can see exactly how they did it in this short film How A Bicycle is Made which is part of the British Council Film Collection, an extraordinary archive of more than 120 short documentary films made by the British Council during the 1940s designed to show the world how Britain lived, worked and played.
On this location, we will be featuring an essay by journalist Mark Patterson about the last working day at the Sturmey-Archer site in Radford where the novel is set and a series of testimonies from workers and managers at the Raleigh factory. As an introduction James Walker, who is editing together this project with Paul Fillingham, assesses Raleigh’s enduring significance and asks whether Arthur Seaton 2012 would find himself sat at a digital lathe.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of Raleigh, the bike factory that created thousands of jobs for folk in Nottingham and gave us something more to cheer about than that thieving get in green tights, Robin Hood. But it was in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning that the Sturmey-Archer site gained iconic status as the workplace of a certain Arthur Seaton. It’s difficult to imagine what a modern day Arthur Seaton would be doing today, as Britain’s manufacturing industry has gone the way of the Sinclair C5 and taken with it a sense of community and identity that is impossible to recreate. As we discovered at our second location, the White Horse, Britain’s pubs – or ‘community centres’ as Al Needham presciently refers to them – are also disappearing at an alarming rate. All of which means the novel is now a social document; the record of a time gone by. David Cameron has shouted loudly that Britain needs a ‘big society’ but when all the old nodes of commonality and kinship are removed it is hard to see where this sense of community and belonging will come from. And no, liking someone on Facebook doesn’t count.
My own first job was working as a barman at the Crown Hotel on Raleigh Island, a five minute walk from the factory on Triumph Road. At the time, the pub was split into two parts. The back bar was for those with grubby fingers who laughed loudly over a pint and its clientele was generally made up of dustman, painters and factory workers of various persuasions. The front side had a sign saying ‘no work boots’, but there was no need, as Raleigh workers wouldn’t be seen dead in that side, probably because the landlord at the time insisted on serving ladies’ half pints in stemmed glasses, “the gret ponce”.
Working in a place like this meant you were quickly assimilated into the Raleigh routine. The workers would filter through and leave at exactly the same time every dinner, where one or two pints would be consumed. They would return again straight after work and sink a few more before heading off home. At seven o’clock they would return for their third and final instalment, but this time with clean fingernails, fresh shirts, combed hair and a determination to finally quench the thirst. They were always convivial as they entered the bar and the tables would host games of dominoes and the occasional gambling racket at cards. Keeping an eye out for the landlord meant I was rewarded with the occasional beer. It felt like one big happy family.
This was a world where you earned respect by simply doing your job well. Maximum points were scored by starting to pull the pint the minute someone stepped towards the bar. This conveyed not only that you knew who they were, but that you placed value on their time. Nearly all of the workers drank mild, or ‘rocket fuel’ as they referred to it, on account of the taste. They drank it because it was the cheapest drink, £1.15 a pint in 1991. Just as the production line demanded a variety of very specific skills, so each worker had very specific requirements when it came to the presentation of their drink, and woe behold anyone careless enough to get it wrong! Some liked their pints pouring without a sprinkler while others liked a thin layer of froth. If the pint had too much head it would be thrust high, for the entire room to witness, and a chorus would ring out saying, ‘Ayup, the vicar’s in town.’ At the end of a hard day they simply wanted what they paid for. This is what Alan Sillitoe captured so well in his writing, that sense of entitlement that came from hard graft. Naturally, some felt they were entitled to more than they could afford, and so the drip tray from each pump was shared out equally among those desperate enough to want what it offered.
The digital lathe is now the thing that enslaves workers and the foreman of Sillitoe’s day has been replaced by more subtle and anonymous forms of control, such as the blocking out of websites and the right of employers to spy on email usage. There’s no need to clock on because the MSN messenger flashing up on your screen is a more socially acceptable form of surveillance. Is it any wonder that respect is perceived to be missing in a society that no longer values trust?
The dynamics of the workplace are the same but the ground has shifted. Now ‘targets’ and breaking your day down into ten minute segments have replaced the ‘four-and-six a hundred’ piecework terms set by the rate-checker. The ‘cramp-inducing, back-breaking, knuckle-knocking’ labour of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has become the ‘boredom-inducing, back-bending, tip-tapping typing’ of 2012. The sense of identity that came through work has gone because contracts are shorter and dictated by temp agencies who’ll pimp out your labour to the highest bidder then pass on a fraction of the hourly rate to you. As for a pint after work, well, that’s not going to happen because your company has just relocated to save on rent so you’re now driving an hour to work every day – an extra cost that’s going on the second credit card.
The modern workplace is insecure and anonymous. People lose not only a sense of collective identity but accountability too, a point echoed by Al Needham’s essay on the demise of the British pub. It’s no wonder ‘I’m sorry, I just work here’ has become an all too familiar mantra in the present-day workplace. In Sillitoe’s novel, Arthur Seaton and Robboe the foreman ‘tolerated and trusted each other’. But how many of us at our own digital lathes could honestly say we trust our own bosses, never mind the politicians, bankers or even our neighbours (if we’ve ever met them). For this reason the novel no longer has the same immediate social relevance as it clearly did in 1958 and for a good decade after its first publication. Simply transferring its contents to the present would be as foolish as trying to update the Carry On… movies, which is all the more reason to evaluate what society loses when large industries like Raleigh are cut out of the heart of a city.
The Raleigh motto was ‘a lifetime guarantee’, but unfortunately this didn’t apply to workers at the Sturmey-Archer site in Nottingham. It closed on 28th November 2002, three days after the director of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz, died at the age of 76. Nottingham would never be the same again, neither economically nor aesthetically. Quite apart from the unmistakable presence of the factory itself in its own corner of town, it’s part of local folklore that you always knew where a Raleigh worker lived, because long before ‘Changing Rooms’ was invented, workers’ homes got the Raleigh make-over through a process of stealing tins of corporate grey and green paint from the factory. It had nothing to do with identity: it was another drip tray to help ease the cost of getting by.
Here, then, we want to give a greasy thumbs-up to the people who made Raleigh what it was, with a short film and a couple of essays, but also by giving the workers themselves space to speak in their own words. We commissioned Pete Davis, a local storyteller, to do the interviews because his own personal story is one that really captures the essence of Raleigh. Pete’s father died when he was thirteen and his mother went down to Raleigh and asked if she could get a bike for him for Christmas and pay in small instalments. A workman told her not to worry, that her lad would still have his Christmas and that he would be round next week. He turned up promptly on the Friday with a wheel; the following week with a frame. Then came the spokes… He snuck something out of the factory each week thereafter and, once everything was in place, assembled the stolen parts in time for Christmas. You can call it breaking the law, if you like. We call it community service.
You can also read another essay by James Walker, who turns his attention to factory life at General Motors in Flint, Michigan, by comparing Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with Ben Hamper’s Rivethead (1991) and wondering which ‘shoprat’ had it worse.
Use the material from Sillitoe’s Nottingham: Then and Now to take your own interactive tour of the author’s city. iPhone users can download the Sillitoe Trail App and follow in Arthur Seaton’s footsteps around Nottingham, exploring the real locations of key scenes from the novel. Or download the Sillitoe Trail Factory Handbook, where the content is presented in the style of a 1950s cycle maintenance manual.
The entire collection of films by the British Council, such as How a Bicycle is Made, are available to view, to download and to play with at www.britishcouncil.org/film.