A Lifetime Guarantee: Seaton v Rivethead
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.
Here James Walker from the Alan Sillitoe Committee finds some similarities – and differences – between Sillitoe’s novel and Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, a 1991 book about working at General Motors in Flint, Michigan.
Alan Sillitoe despised labels and particularly resented being categorised as part of the “angry young men” generation of the 1950s.
So instead of lumping Saturday Night and Sunday Morning beside the usual suspects of John Osborne, John Braine, Harold Pinter and the rest, perhaps a closer connection can be found across the Atlantic in Ben Hamper’s Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line (1991), an autobiographical account of the author’s abusive marriage to General Motors in the US during the 1970s and ‘80s.
Both Hamper and Arthur Seaton found themselves performing monotonous labour in factories the size of small towns, with humour and alcohol becoming all-too familiar distractions from the boredom of the production line. Yet despite the similarities of the two men’s working lives there are some startling differences in the ways they coped with being ‘shoprats’ for their respective employers, Raleigh and General Motors. Judge for yourself who had it worse…
Of mice and men
When Arthur Seaton finds a mouse ‘the factory cat had missed’ he strategically places it where a female worker will find it, her discomfort temporarily amusing Seaton and making the rest of his shift more bearable. In Hamper’s factory, a similar rodent suffers a more sinister fate when it is discovered by a fellow worker called Roy. At first, Roy is attentive to the mouse. He makes a house for it out of cardboard which even has windows ‘so his pet could watch him do his job.’ But the friendship is short-lived: Roy soon becomes paranoid, convinced that the mouse is mocking the way he performs his job, and so he incinerates it with a welding torch.
Hamper’s tale chronicles a full decade on the assembly line and offers insight into the long term effects of mind-numbing labour. Roy takes some acid at work and ends up puking everywhere, but instead of being granted time off work, as was presumably his intention, the management are impressed, commenting that he must be ‘dedicated’ to still come in when he obviously felt ill. Sadly our testimonies from former Raleigh workers suggest similar desperate acts were not unknown, such as the man who drank the cyanide used to clean manufactured parts and soon afterwards jumped to his death from a window at home.
Tea-breaks and Tailgates
Arthur Seaton is firmly his own man and can be belligerent when it comes to any form of comradeship making demands on him. This is captured in many ways in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as when Arthur refuses to drink out of the shared tea urn. This is in stark contrast to his colleague Jack who chides him with: ‘this thing’s good enough for the others so it’s good enough for me’. Jack is considerate: drinking out of the tea urn saves his wife from having to make him up a flask. But Seaton’s only responsibility is to himself. He makes his own tea and dictates his own rate at the lathe.
Ben Hamper has similar disdain for the work cafeteria, which ‘always looked yellow to me as if the air itself had contracted hepatitis.’ Where he differs from Seaton is that, by uniting with his fellow workers, Hamper can save himself 45 minutes by getting ahead of the assembly line. As Hamper writes in the Suburban and Blazer tailgate section of his book:
‘The hitch was to bust ass and built up the tailgates faster than they were pulling them off the end of the feeder line. We each drilled our separate tailgates, leaned them aside, and once we had enough built, it was time to converge and arrange the tailgates on the conveyor line. When the bottom line was finished, we began double-stacking. When all was completed, the conveyor line was left trudging, a two-tiered mountain of gleaming silver slowly creeping toward the buttocks of the nation’s finest-built recreational vehicles.’
Freeing up time is important to Hamper, perhaps even more than being paid. Trusting fellow workers is essential if he is to achieve the ultimate skive of dodging an entire shift by getting a skilled worker to do both their jobs at once. The ultimate skive also produces the ultimate satisfaction, ‘outsmarting all those management pricks with their clean fingernails and filthy bonuses… they couldn’t earn their pay checks outside the walls drinking and fucking and evading and watching home runs through the twilight.’
Seaton’s family were just as wily, and his father speaks with great pride of how he failed an eye test to miss the draft: ‘When I went for my medical in the war they were A1, but I swung the lead and got off 3C’. Victories, no matter how little, keep all of these people and characters ticking over.
The Generation Game
Despite the monotony of their labour, both Seaton and Hamper take pride in their work. It took Hamper four months of working on the Rivet Line before ‘the blisters of the hand and the mind had hardened over, leaving me the absolute master of the puppet show… I became so proficient at twirlin’ my rivet gun to and fro that the damn thing felt as comfortable as a third arm.’ But any sense of pride is marred by a sense of inevitability that nothing really changes or ever will: ‘I was the son of a bitch, an ancestral prodigy born to clobber my way through loathsome dung heaps of idiot labour… Graceful and indomitable. Methodical and brain-dead. The quintessential shoprat. The Rivethead.’
These sentiments are echoed, in slightly more moderate language, by Derrick Buttress, our first commissioned writer on The Space. He recalls in his memoir Broxtowe Boy how: ‘the jobs the visiting careers officer brought into school gave details of factory jobs, only. The dunces were directed to labouring, those with a few brains being offered the more skilled work such as training for lathe operating.’
Like Buttress, Hamper can take solace that it was geography rather than genetics – he was the fourth generation to work at General Motors – that determined his route into those ‘loathsome dung heaps of idiot labour’. No matter how depressing, it is an option that has long been unavailable to the unemployed of both Nottingham, England and Flint, Michigan.
Time is a four letter word
Hamper may have devised numerous ways to trick his supervisors, ‘but the clock was a whole different mammal altogether… It ridiculed you each time you’d take a peek. The more irritated you became, the slower it moved. The slower it moved, the more you thought. Thinking was a very slow death at times.’ To fend off the boredom, and keep the clock moving, Hamper tries everything from spitting contests to chain smoking and ‘rivet hockey’, which he describes as ‘a combination of football, soccer, the civil war and every Charles Bronson movie ever made after 1972. It was total mayhem, a Neanderthal free-for-all that was both violent and one hell of a lot of fun’.
For Arthur Seaton, ‘living in a town and working in a factory, only a calendar gave any real indication of the passing of time’. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, as the title suggests, is a novel of its own very specific time. Although the weekend really starts on a Friday afternoon, ‘when different species met beneath white flags, with wage-packets as mediators, when those who worked in the factory were handed proof of their worth.’ Seaton’s view is less bleak than Hamper’s. He describes his lathe as ‘my everlasting pal because it gets me thinking’ and even suggests it’s better than being a lorry driver which requires the worker’s thoughts to be on the job.
Bars on the windows
Where Arthur Seaton saw alcohol as a reward for surviving a week of monotonous labour, Hamper’s GM workers are more hardcore: booze and hard drugs are consumed in the factory, so unbearable is the work.
Al Needham, our second commissioned writer, explored the demise of the British pub, a decline that could perhaps be related to the death of the manufacturing industry. Hamper is certainly convinced the two are inseparable: ‘Go to any General Motors plant in Flint. Turn your back to the building and gaze directly across the roadway. I guarantee you’ll be peering at a tavern, perhaps several of them. This bit of truism is as unfailing as spotting a bail bondsman’s office across from a jail or a motel next to an airport. Find a factory, you’ll find a bar.’
Living to tell the tale
Arthur Seaton may have ‘tolerated’ Robboe the Foreman but this is nothing compared to what poor Ben Hamper had to deal with when General Motors installed electronic message boards across the plant with their displays of corny propaganda, brain-jarring ruminations and such motivational pep talk as ‘SQUEEZING RIVETS IS FUN!’ ‘We had no idea whether this was some kind of big brother Orwellian brain-dunk or just some lowly office puke’s idea of a nimble-witted gibe.’ It’s perhaps best not to dwell on the insensitivity of the General Motors management, particularly given that their previous attempt at bonding had been to dress up a manager as…a cat.
At the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton settles down and recognises that it’s a good life and a good world when all is said and done, at least as long ‘as you don’t weaken’. It would perhaps have been hard not to feel at least a little bit optimistic at that point in post-war British history. It’s a very different story for Ben Hamper in eighties America, as he begins to suffer hallucinations, panic attacks and agoraphobia. Eventually he has a nervous breakdown and is unable to work anymore.
So while celebrating 125 years of Raleigh, let’s also celebrate all of those men and women across the world – the Arthur Seatons, Derrick Buttresses and Ben Hampers – who have endured ‘cramp-inducing, back-breaking, knuckle-knocking labour’ and lived to tell the rest of us their tales.
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.