Last Monday we went along to Pizza Express in Soho’s Dean Street to hear the John Aram Quintet play his suite inspired by Alan Sillitoe’s landmark novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
Like Sillitoe, trombonist John Aram was born in Nottingham. He wrote the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning suite over a four year period as a loose adaptation of Sillitoe’s novel, with musical passages that correspond to the twists and turns of the plot. I can still recall the thrill of reading that book, borrowed from the local library when I was about twelve, around the same time that I also read Keith Waterhouse’s There Is A Happy Land. Reading Sillitoe’s book, the thrill was in realising that everyday scenes and characters from northern working class life could be the stuff of novels – and in the candid portrayal of sex. A year or so later, I saw the film version, one of those brilliant, gritty adaptations of novels of northern life that amounted to a New Wave in British cinema.
- Overture: In the Factory/Arthur and Brenda
- 2nd Movement: Brenda Pregnant
- Interlude:Brenda, Arthur, Jack (The Dilemma)
- 3rd Movement: Playing with Doreen
- Interlude: Brenda or Doreen
- 4th Movement: Goose Fair (Swaddies Revenge)
- Interlude: Growing Up !
- 5th Movement: A New Day
- Interlude: Contemplation
- 6th Movement: Settling Down
- Finale: Sunday Morning
In addition to John Aram on trombone, the Quintet consisted of Graeme Blevins on saxophone, Tom Cawley on keyboards, Arthur Hnatek on drums and Phil Donkin on bass. The energy level was ratcheted up even higher in the second set which was dominated by interpretations of Stevie Wonder numbers, with vocals on a couple of numbers from a guest vocalist whose name I didn’t catch.
Alan Sillitoe emerged as one of the ‘angry young men’ of the late 1950s: novelists and playwrights who wrote with passion and energy about working-class life. The plays and novels of writers such as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Keith Waterhouse, and John Braine were populated by ordinary working class characters whose lives had generally been ignored by metropolitan writers and the establishment. Directors such as Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz turned these texts into powerful, social realist films.
Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 debut novel was a landmark in British fiction, with its realistic and visceral depiction of working class life in Nottingham.
For it was Saturday night, the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year, a violent preamble to a prostrate Sabbath. Piled up passions were exploded on Saturday night, and the effect of a week’s monotonous graft in the factory was swilled out of your system in a burst of goodwill. You followed the motto of ‘be drunk and be happy,’ kept your crafty arms around female waists, and felt the beer going beneficially down into the elastic capacity of your guts.
The novel’s protagonist, Arthur Seaton, worked hard and played hard. Arthur works at a lathe in a bicycle factory, making just enough money to drink his way through the weekend. He goes fishing, fights, sleeps with other men’s wives, goes to the pictures, drinks, works. He has no ambition other than to look after number one, and despises anyone in authority:
All I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda.
In the first part of the novel, on Saturday night, he puts away eleven pints of beer and seven small gins before falling down a flight of stairs, drinking another pint and then vomiting in someone’s face before fighting his way out of the bar.
Arthur’s sceptical outlook on life is fuelled by experience in the Army and in the factory. He is a cog in a wheel, used by those with more power and authority:
Once a rebel, always a rebel. You can’t help being one. You can’t deny that. And it’s best to be a rebel so as to show ‘em it don’t pay to try to do you down. Factories and labour exchanges and insurance offices keep us alive and kicking – so they say – but they’re booby-traps and will suck you under like sinking-sands if you’re not careful. Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, insurance and income tax offices milk money from your wage packets and rob you to death. And if you’re still left with a tiny bit of life in your guts after all this boggering about, the army calls you up and you get shot to death. And if you’re clever enough to stay out of the army you get bombed to death. Ay, by God, it’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop that bastard government from grinding your face in the muck, though there ain’t much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow their four-eyed clocks to bits.
Yet Arthur is not ground down. At the close of the book, Sillitoe has him reflecting:
Well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken.
This is the opening scene from Karel Reisz’s film, shot in black and white by Freddie Francis with a look that echoed the photography of Bill Brandt:
And this is the trailer for the film:
- Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: Overture: In the factory /Arthur and Brenda, played by the John Aram Quintet with special guest Kenny Wheeler (thespace.org)