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Nottingham Castle

A Man of His Time

12 March 07 words: James Walker
"I learnt more about the last 100 years of Britain through reading this book than I ever did at school, an accolade which I'm sure would please Sillitoe"

Alan Sillitoe is unquestionably the greatest writer to emerge from the region and certainly one of the master storytellers of his generation. Born on the outskirts of Nottingham in 1928 he has produced over 50 books; including poetry, children’s books, travelogues, screenplays and essays. He has constructed the definitive Nottingham landscape, producing narratives and characters which are revisited throughout his books, similar in principle to Balzac’s comédie humaine. The best known family to reappear in his work are those lovable rogues the Seaton family of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. In A Man of His Time, originally written as a screenplay, we are introduced to their great grandfather, the irrepressible Ernest Burton, who has appeared elsewhere in Sillitoe’s work and has now finally been given his own platform.

A Man of His Time, like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning are both books that depict England on the brink of change. Saturday Night dealt with the transformations in postwar Britain faced by a more affluent society under regeneration - as seen through the eyes of Arthur Seaton, for whom everything was all famously ‘propaganda.’ A Man of his Time follows the fortunes of a Blacksmith’s family from the late 1800s up until the present and so entails a far more complex and thorough transformation as the title indicates, in particular; the damaging effects of modernity upon skilled tradesman, the replacement of independent living with the welfare state and the slow progression from a patriarchal society to a more inclusive democracy.

In the tyrannical figure of Ernest Burton, Alan Sillitoe has created arguably the most powerful despotic figure ever to grace the pages of literature. ‘Burton’ - as he is known by all - is a hard grafting Blacksmith who reigns over his eight legitimate children with an iron fist, demanding loyalty and obedience through a mixture of fear and hatred. Despite his unrelenting stubborn authoritarianism he is also a charismatic individual whom, for better or worse, has an immediate impact upon those who encounter him. It is perhaps his utter conviction in himself that makes his so alluring as you know exactly what you are getting and where you stand. For this reason alone there are endless quotes from Burton which could quite conceivably have come out of the mouth of Arthur Seaton such as ‘animals were built to serve man, and if anybody doesn’t think so let them go without meat.’

Ernest, like Arthur Seaton, is an iconoclast. He doesn’t believe in God, he doesn’t believe in war, he doesn’t believe in his country. The only thing he believes in is himself. It is a brutal, undeniable and uncompromising truth. In Saturday Night Arthur was a ‘piece-worker’ – paid for his output rather than an hourly wage and so made a tidy sum, much to the annoyance of his floor manager. Hard graft and independence are traits which Burton excels in. Whether he is ringing a bull or fitting horseshoes he works from day-break to night, refusing ever to relax. Unlike Arthur, Burton has responsibility to his family and to his credit he never complains once. But he never celebrates them either. He is a man of few words and would be utterly appalled at today’s culture of psycho babble as personified by Raj Persaud et al or chat shows such as Trisha which repackage emotion as entertainment. Between these extremes of silence and hyperbole, happiness somewhere lies.

Like Arthur, Ernest is a womaniser whose insatiable appetite knows no end. If it’s there on a plate he’ll take it, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately this has tragic effects for his family on numerous levels – in his bastard children littered up and down the country, his wife’s humility and unforgivably upon his children whose partners are deemed fair game. These selfish liaisons leave you feeling repulsed, especially as he shows remorse but refuses to change, destined to repeat the same mistakes. This is a particular Sillitoe forte and why his characters are so definitive, so enjoyable – because he refuses to give his readers the Hollywood glaze and magical resolutions we have come to rely upon.

As always with Sillitoe these events have a bigger context. The dalliances offer an escape from the long hard hours spent over the fire at work in much the same way that affairs helped Arthur Seaton survive the drudgery and repetition of lathe work in a factory. Burton’s first seduction is of a young widow on a railway carriage. The resulting offspring, Ernest Dyslin, comes to visit him years later after his mother has passed away. Rather than being delighted to see him, Burton is more concerned as to whether he will start ‘blurting’ as it would be a ‘disgrace in a grown man.’ He doesn’t and unlike the children Burton has raised, this one has a fine career for himself in the army and a healthy loving family. This is the key to Sillitoe’s writing. He is able to criticise Burton and his particular branch of parenting without ever directly coming out and saying it, the subtly of such alternative existences does this for him.

Having said that my only criticism of the book is that in taking onboard such a mammoth genealogical sketch it does tend to fizzle out towards the end as he attempts to tie up the loose ends of the various family strands. Another hundred pages would have done this more justice although this may have taken away the emphasise from Burton. Either way my absolute delight at finding Arthur and Brian Seaton drunkenly commemorating the anniversary of their deceased great grandfather at the end was a literary treat bar none.

I learnt more about the last 100 years of life in Britain through reading this book than I ever learnt at school – an accolade I’m sure which would please Sillitoe, given he left school at such an early age. I couldn’t help but imagine how many people would cycle home after losing an eye and proudly refuse compensation as Burton does. In today’s culture when suing has become more productive than labour it would seem the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. If you do decide to trip over a curb and sue Nottingham City Council then please buy this book with your winnings. You might just learn something. 

Vital Statistics
378 pages
Harper Perennial

Alan Sillitoe on wikipedia
James Walker website

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