Page last updated at 12:19 GMT, Friday, 25 November 2005

The ghost of Saturday night

By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Drinkers on the streets of Nottingham this week
Drinkers on the streets of Nottingham this week

Amid the concern about drunkenness and 24-hour pub opening it's tempting to think binge drinking is a recent phenomenon. But anyone who has read the ground-breaking 1950s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning will know such behaviour is nothing new. So what does its author, Alan Sillitoe, think about Binge Drinking Britain?

The streets of Nottingham, like many other urban centres across the UK, were dotted with drunken revellers in the small hours of Thursday morning.

As the new 24-hour licensing laws came into force, allowing pubs to open beyond the traditional 11pm curfew, some young drinkers took full advantage.

Earlier in the week, the Daily Mail had reported on how the city "epitomises the dangers of a drinking culture spiralling rapidly out of control".

In Thursday's early hours it returned to find a youth slumped next to a pile of vomit, a middle-aged woman collapsed as she left a nightclub and police who had arrested drinkers in a street brawl.

"Binge drinking Britain" is a label that has become wearily familiar in recent years.

But anyone who has read Alan Sillitoe's 1950s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning will recall a Nottingham seemingly not so different from the reports in today's press.

Factory life

The book, which was made into a film in the early 1960s starring Albert Finney, begins with a vivid portrayal of the drunken antics of its anti-hero Arthur Seaton, in a Nottingham pub.

Aged 77, Alan Sillitoe today

Seaton, a young factory labourer, has come off the worst in a drinking competition.

After seven gins and 11 pints he's feeling distinctly unsteady on his feet and collapses down the pub staircase. He eventually picks himself up, downs another couple of pints, and promptly vomits over two unsuspecting fellow drinkers.

For Seaton at least, it's just another 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," wrote Sillitoe.

Later in the book, Seaton comes across another reveller, crumpled on the ground "his eyes rolling as if to shake away the fifteen pints he must have drunk".

It's almost 50 years since Sillitoe, who grew up in a working class Nottingham family, wrote those words.

Although he has long since left his home town - these days it's Notting Hill rather than Nottingham - he periodically returns.

Drink pub dry

So how does a Saturday Night in the Midlands city in 2005 compare with one in 1958 - the year the book came out?

To get helpless was to be stupid or ridiculous so you just didn't do it - you might have a few over the odds but you took care not to do damage
Alan Sillitoe

"In the 1950s I don't think there was as much what you call binge drinking. They just needed a certain cathartic experience every weekend to continue living. They might not get blind drunk although they might get a bit drunk."

Drink-fuelled revelry was certainly part of the picture, he says.

"At the weekend the boozers in the street I lived in were jumping with people talking, singing. They were always very lively until sometimes they even drank the boozer out of its beer. It happened."

The novel landed Sillitoe with the "angry young man" label that was being accorded to a clutch of writers at the time whose gritty portrayals of working class life blew the dust off the hitherto conservative publishing world.

Yet Seaton, says Sillitoe, now 77, was not a exactly a man of his time, being something of a maverick. Mostly there was more reserve when it came to appearing drunk and out of control.

"There was an instinctive feeling to get helpless was to be stupid or ridiculous so you just didn't do it. You might have a few over the odds but you certainly took care not to do much damage.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
The original binge drinker? Saturday Night's anti-hero Arthur Seaton

"If you had too much to drink and you couldn't hold it you went into the backyard and quietly threw up and then came back. You didn't go out for a fight.

"To go out and know you are going to be seen chucking up in the street, it's a kind of self indulgence with regards to the rest of society."

Yet Sillitoe admits it's sometimes easy to be sentimental for a time that never really existed.

"That's the thing I have to guard against in myself because I don't think [life] was better in the 50s. I'm damned sure it wasn't.

"People have so much more now, more possessions and more possibilities."

And while the binge drinking of old may have been a tamer affair than today, Sillitoe, "a bit of an anarchist", believes the reform of licensing laws will, eventually, lead to a more mannered drinking culture.

"The British, they drink, they've always drunk, they've always got drunk, for better or worse... right from Hogarth's day, and before.

"The people of that level," he says, apparently referring to the working masses, "even if they don't have the actual physical miseries there is still some kind of feeling that they're just not getting what they should and it's nothing to do with society... there's something they feel they want, some aspect of life that's been denied to them and it causes them enough misery to want to go out and want to blot themselves out and nobody's to blame.

"They can't help themselves, the government can't stop them, publicans have to serve them to make a living."

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