Turn of the screw

Rebels and Riots in Nottingham

12 August 15 words: James Walker
"Nothing makes me prouder to be from these parts than the knowledge we'll smash up or burn our most precious symbols if it'll bring about change"
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Illustration: Raph Achache
 

In 1958 Alan Sillitoe gave two fingers to the establishment when he released the hard-drinking, womanising Arthur Seaton into the world through his debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Never before had literature witnessed such a raw and honest portrait of working class life. Yet Seaton is more than just your average drunk. He’s belligerent and hedonistic, with a healthy scepticism of all forms of authority. And in 1960, Karel Reisz’s film would immortalise him forever as the icon of anti-establishment defiance.

“Factories sweat you to death, labour exchanges talk you to death, and income tax offices rob you to death,” the wonderfully quotable Seaton declares. “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.”

Sillitoe’s novel has provided the defining image of Nottingham, with Arthur Seaton integral to this identity. Seaton has reappeared recently in Jason Williamson, the snarling Sleaford Mods singer who fists it to the toffs and then demands they wipe his hand clean. But history suggests our defiant streak has manifested itself in numerous ways over the centuries, largely as a reaction to various forms of poverty, making us a right gobby lot. It’s resulted in us burning down our castle, smashing up our greatest invention and lobbing cheese around.

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Alan Sillitoe's
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

The Great Cheese Riot of 1766 is one of our earliest recorded forms of public dissent and was born out of sheer desperation at rising food prices. It was one of 22 food-related riots that happened during September and October in fourteen counties across England. Europe had experienced disastrous crop failures and so there was a demand for export. Inevitably, this meant there wasn’t enough left to go around at home and the stuff that was available went for silly money. If the traders were going to take the proverbial biscuit, the punters, literally, decided to take the cheese, and so began one of the more bizarre footnotes in our complex history.

A date book of the time records that “their violence broke loose like a torrent; cheeses were rolled down Wheeler-gate and Peck Lane in abundance, many others were carried away, and the Mayor, in endeavouring to restore peace, was knocked down with one in the open fair”.

When we got bored of lobbing cheese around, we turned our hand to smashing stuff up. The stocking frame was invented here in 1589 by William Lee but Elizabeth I wouldn’t fund his invention on the grounds that it’d put loads of people out of work. King Henri IV of France was more receptive but this investment went tits-up when he was assassinated in 1610. Lee died soon after.

The technology eventually made its way back across the channel and two master framework knitters are recorded in Nottingham in 1641. By 1739 there were around 1,200 frames. Due to the demands of this growing industry, a Framework Knitters Company was formed in the capital with the aim of enforcing a national charter detailing various forms of regulation around employment, wage and quality of work. But Nottingham was having none of it, and opposed so many of the demands that parliament had to get involved.

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Image: Framework Knitters Museum Nottingham

After various ding-dongs in court, it was ruled in 1753 that the charter was bobbins; manufacturers were free to exploit an expendable workforce however they liked. This created an unofficial slave trade whereby Parish officers, who oversaw the poor, were able to sell orphans as apprentices. They would then replace skilled adult workers, who would join the starving unemployed. Naturally, people started to get a bit rattled.

Over the next century, the population of Nottingham boomed from 10,000 to 50,000 in 1831 in order to service the expanding textile industries. We would transform from a ‘Garden City’ with well laid-out houses and orchards into a right shit-heap, destined to be defined by outbreaks of cholera rather than crocuses.   

Unlike other centralised industries, stocking frames could fit into a worker’s home and so were loaned out by manufacturers. This created an atomised workforce and made collective action difficult. Despite this, the Associated Stockingers was formed and, in 1779, a bill was petitioned to parliament regarding basic workers’ rights. It failed. When they demonstrated, a Combination Act was passed in 1799 making unionism illegal.

At the same time, a new practice was emerging known as ‘cut-ups’ which meant frame workers were expected to produce more for less in order to compete. Sound familiar? Thus the era of the Luddites was ushered in, meaning that no sooner had we invented something, we were smashing it up.

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Lord Byron: International Badman

On 11 March 1811 a group of workers met up in Arnold and broke 63 frames. By the end of the month, they’d smashed more than 200. The government put out some lucrative rewards to capture the leaders, but no one was ever dobbed in. Instead, they made the act of smashing up frames a capital crime. Lord Byron, who had inherited the ancestral home of nearby Newstead Abbey, stepped forward and delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords.

"Can you carry this bill into effect? Can you commit a whole county to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows?" The answer was yes. The bill was passed.

Byron isn’t around to stand up for the poor anymore – come to think of it, nobody is, certainly not in these parts. A recent survey found that there are fewer noble lords and baronesses in the House of Lords representing the East Midlands than any other part of the UK.

Given the abject poverty, squalid living conditions, growing awareness of worker rights and sheer desperation for a better life, a few decades later a lot of hope was pinned on the 1831 Reform Bill. When it was rejected by the House of Toffs, the locals were absolutely gutted. Nineteen requests were received by the mayor for a public meeting to discuss this latest shafting of the working classes but the wiser members of the public had learned that actions speak louder than words. So we set off on a right rampage through town.

During the scuffles the mayor was once again knocked down. But this time there was no cheese involved. Railings were ripped down from Notintone Place and used as weapons; an attempt was made to liberate prisoners from the House of Corrections, and Colwick Hall was sacked. But the crowning glory was turning our castle into a massive bonfire (not before tapestries were removed and sold at three shillings a yard).

Nothing makes me prouder to be from these parts than the knowledge we’ll smash up or burn our most precious symbols if it’ll bring about change. And it did. The bill was passed the following year by both houses, and would lead to the Municipal Reform Act and greater power at the form of local government.

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DH Lozza

But our defiant streak extends beyond violence. Let’s not forget that we’re home to England’s favourite potty mouth, DH Lawrence. The acquittal of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960 would pave the way for greater freedom of expression for us all. A Nottingham man made it possible for everyone to swear more freely.

Much has been written about Lawrence’s ‘fucking’ stand for liberalism and the censorship he experienced as a writer. But his paintings were equally controversial. They include a swan circling between a woman’s cleavage (Leda) a man having a waz in a field (Dandelions) and a chap happily kipping in the countryside, with flaccid appendage gently nuzzled into his gut. In the foreground are a bunch of distressed nuns (Boccaccio Story).

Lawrence absolutely loved his todger and spent most of his life seething at the prudish morality of the time. He wrote “I paint no picture that won’t shock people’s castrated social spirituality. I do this out of positive belief, that the phallus is a great sacred image: it represents a deep, deep life which has been denied us, and still is denied.”

This shouldn’t be confused with some kind of Freudian psychosis; Lawrence was simply in touch with his pagan roots. The body was more than equal to the mind. On 14 June 1929 an exhibition of his work was held at Warren Street Gallery, London. Immediately it kicked up a right stink with the Daily Express commenting these “repellent” works would “compel most spectators to recoil with horror”.

If the intention of the reviewer was to protect the public it had the opposite effect. Around 13,000 visitors flocked to the gallery to see what all the fuss was about. And then something utterly bizarre happened. On 5 July the police ‘raided’ the joint and impounded 13 of the 25 paintings. It is surely the first and only time in history that an artwork has been given its own cell. Once more Lawrence found himself subject to the Obscene Publications Act which threatened to burn his pictures. This was avoided on condition the artwork was never shown in public again – a ruling that lasted half a century. Lawrence died the next year.

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Many adventure

Our most famous rebel, the fella in green tights, offered a way out of censorship in the fifties television serial The Adventures of Robin Hood, when it was used as an allegory of McCarthyism by blacklisted Hollywood screenwriters. Joseph McCarthy was a Republican US Senator (1947-57) who became the public face of Cold War paranoia, unfairly accusing thousands of Americans of being communist or commie sympathisers. This in turn legitimated a moral crusade into government, entertainment, education and Trade Union institutions to ‘out’ those displaying ‘un-American behaviour’.

Anyone deemed to be a ‘red’ was blacklisted and unable to work again. Ring Lardner Jr, one of the ‘Hollywood Ten’, managed to smuggle scripts to the UK for the Robin Hood serial. Although it contained the usual left wing slant, note how often villagers are captured and forced to inform on the whereabouts of the Sherwood outlaws. His story was told in Michael Eaton’s 1989 film Fellow Traveller.

Nottingham is a city built upon struggles that cut right through our sandstone heart. It’s created a healthy scepticism of all forms of authority and the knowledge that, if you want something doing, do it yersen. It’s why Arthur Seaton warns “I’m me and nobody else, and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.”  

I don’t think people know a bloody thing about Nottingham either, and I think most of us here prefer it this way. We’re much happier left to our own devices, something the villagers of Gotham can testify to. Back in the days of King John, folklore has it that, to avoid a Royal Highway being built through the village – which the locals would be expected to build for free – they feigned madness by fencing off a small tree in order to keep a cuckoo captive. At the time, madness was seen as contagious so when King John’s knights witnessed Cuckoo-gate, they re-routed their highway to avoid the village. It’s a cracking story that pretty much sums up our attitude to authority and unnecessary work.

I see this sense of defiance everywhere I look in Nottingham, not least in the River Trent, which cuts a crooked smile through the heart of England and has acted at more than one point in history as the dividing line between north and south. Its refusal to take the natural route offered by the geological configuration of the land by suddenly darting north east captures the rebellious and unpredictable essence of our personality, though I guess you could also say it suggests indecision. Let’s not get carried away...

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