Living for the weekend

Living for the weekend

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is a grainy reflection of working class life as it used to be in the British Midlands. Jefferson Chase looks at the role alcohol plays in this classic

Whisky & Culture | 05 Apr 2005 | Issue 47 | By Jefferson Chase

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One of the things about being male is that there are so many different ways of getting in trouble.Curiously enough, most of these disasters seem to occur in conjunction with alcohol, at precisely those moments when we feel most confident in the essential goodness of our intentions, i.e. our ability to get away with anything. Big mistake.To quote a friend of mine who lives in Nottingham, England: no matter what you do, they always know it was you. Maybe it’s something in the water of the River Trent, but he’s not the only one. Midlander Alan Sillitoe’s 1958 novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is also all about screwing up one’s life while under the influence.The story begins with hero Arthur Seaton downing seven portions of gin and 13 pints of ale as part of drinking contest, falling down a flight of pub stairs and fighting a losing battle against increasingly insistent waves of nausea.For the third time he demanded a pint. His eyes were glazed with fatigue, and he would have let go of the bar-rail had not an ever-ready instinct of self-preservation leapt into his fist at the weakest moment and forced him to tighten his grip. He was beginning to feel sick, and in fighting this temptation his tiredness increased. He did not know whether he would go upstairs to Brenda afterwards, or have his pint and get home to bed, the best place when you feel donein, he muttered to himself. Brenda is the wife of a fellow worker at the Raleigh bicycle factory, so Arthur faces the classic masculine dilemma: be a good boy or a true bloke? The choice is clear. Brenda’s husband, Jack, the kind of ingenuous, salt-of-earth fellow you find everywhere in provincial England, does not cotton on to what is going on behind his back – not even after Brenda becomes pregnant and tries to induce a miscarriage by taking a bath in a tub full of hot gin. Meanwhile Arthur is back in the pub, chatting up – whom else? – Brenda’s sister, Winnie.He had met her once before, at Jack’s birthday party last year, which she broke up at two in the morning by flying into a temper at Jack and smashing every pot and bottle on the table with a poker because he accidentally spilled half a pint over Brenda’s best dress. Such an act of destruction fascinated Arthur. He wanted to get to know her.Get to know her he does, despite the fact that her husband, a soldier stationed in Germany, is due back on leave the next day.For variety, Arthur also starts a fling with a non-married woman, Doreen, whom he invites to Nottingham’s Goose Fair, the highlight of the city’s working-class social season. But as Hemingway famously noted, the check always comes. He ends up taking both Brenda and Winnie to the fair, where they run into a pair of angry husbands.Arthur manages to beat a hasty retreat but is later cornered by a group of soldiers, led by Winnie’s spouse, who put their fighting skills to good use on Arthur’s head. He seeks solace in a familiar place.Pushing open the saloon-bar door he walked quickly to the counter with his overcoat collar well pulled up, and asked for a double whisky. The lights were too bright, like giant magnets inflating his head to several times its size, burning his eyes into a squint so that he was hardly able to see. The whisky went into him like a sheet of flame, and he was about to ask for another, wondering how it was that no one could see the blood that seemed to be running down his face, when someone tapped his elbow. He turned and saw Doreen.“Hey up, duck,” he said with a smile. Note to the uninitiated: “Hey up, duck” is Midlandese for hello.The beating makes Arthur realize that every boozing, brawling Saturday night is followed by a splitting, Sunday-morning headache – and maybe a split lip.But Sillitoe, who grew up in the same milieu as his hero, isn’t really interested in moralizing. He’s much more intrigued by the excessive pursuit of simple pleasure that is part of the reality of the English working class. Arthur may have taken some hard knocks, but you get the feeling he hasn’t ultimately learned his lesson.The good thing about Sunday morning is that next Saturday night isn’t all that far away...
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