If you have listened to much British music or watched many British films then it is hard to come to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe with a clean slate. The tale of Arthur and his desire not to be crushed by the social and economic system is hard to read afresh. It is hard not to see the retro-styled album covers of The Smiths, to see Hylda Baker, to hear The Artic Monkeys, to see every subsequent British New Wave film on working class culture running through your head: A Taste of Honey, Billy Liar, The Family Way, and so on. You can't help seeing motifs that have become cliches, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not", yet of course in 1959 they were far from cliches.
The plot is fairly simple: Arthur aged 22 and recently out of National Service slaves all day on piece work in a local factory. He has no responsibilities beyond giving a few pounds for board to his mother and enjoys drinking heavily, spending his money on nice clothes, and dallying with several married women. None of this particularly engages his brain though it is entertainingly related to us by the narrator, and so we get his rambling internal views on all aspects of the working class world in which he lives as he muses on the lives of his parents' generation and his own, on the government and the army, on marriage and husbands and wives, and on the future for men like him. He wants something more but as yet cannot see what that really might be.
I find this post-war era fascinating. The tail end of military service meeting the social movements and discontent that led to much of the 60s' activism and change. So if you can come to this book with fresh eyes it is remarkably light. Arthur's gripes might seem petty to those who experienced the squalor of the interminable dole years described in the brilliant but tuly 'grim oop north' Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood, but Arthur experienced those too, as a child, and he mentions them a couple of times. The lightness comes from the fact that Arthur must know that, compared to real years of hunger in the past, he is a lucky man, yet still his spirit strives for more. It is this striving in Arthur that points to hope for the future: whatever compromises Arthur might make in his own life, the human spirit constant seeks the stronger light.
I love this book and can see it becoming a regular re-read.
I wonder if others find an extended context of cultural references a help or a hinderance when reading a book like this for the first time?