Goose Fair is the setting for one of the most iconic scenes in Alan Sillitoe’s great Angry Young Man novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), where anti-hero Arthur Seaton gets his comeuppance for messing around with another man’s wife and is beaten up by a group of squaddies. Ironically, given that it’s set in Nottingham, aka the Queen of the Midlands, Sillitoe’s classic novel – along with Czech director Karel Reisz’s no-less-classic film adaptation (1960) – helped to launch the phrase ‘It’s grim up North’.
Lots of people get the story’s setting wrong, some unwittingly – for instance, in his Hope and Glory: Britain 1900–1990 (2004), the distinguished Cambridge historian Peter Clarke describes the novel as a ‘class-conscious account of the industrial north’. Others, however, do it quite deliberately. A notable representative of the latter tendency is Stuart Maconie in his popular paean to the North, Pies and Prejudice, where he discusses the late Fifties/early Sixties British cinematic New Wave, describing it as that ‘glorious swathe of films about the experience of love, sex, work and struggle among the working classes of the industrial north’. In this category he includes the film of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning starring Albert Finney. ‘I know Sillitoe’s book… is set in Nottingham,’ opines Maconie, a Northern exile who actually admits to living in the Midlands, for god’s sake, ‘but Finney and his film are indisputably northern.’ Given that all the key scenes in both book and film take place at Nottingham landmarks, this is a distinctly odd thing to say. Maconie apparently feels he has the right to claim Seaton for the North merely because, as he argues, he has ‘provided me [i.e. Maconie] with some of my favourite catch-phrases… That’s the truth, as Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton would say. The rest is propaganda.’ The problem is, to anyone with ears attuned to the speech patterns of Nottingham and its environs, anti-establishment rebel Seaton sounds exactly like what he is: a Midlander, not a Northerner. Now that’s the truth, and what Maconie writes is classic cocky Northern propaganda. (The Arctic Monkeys, those musical darlings of the North, adapted another of Seaton’s most resonant phrases for the title of their debut album: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.)
Goose Fair in 1959: photograph by Jack Leeson
We shouldn’t be too surprised by Maconie’s act of cultural appropriation: after all, Northerners have been nicking bits of Midland heritage and claiming them as their own for centuries – since the Northumbrian monk the Venerable Bede, the so-called ‘father of English history’, set the pattern with his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in about 731 ad, in fact. And as the instance cited above suggests, it’s more than just a matter of poor geography – Maconie knows Nottingham isn’t in the North; he actually says as much. It’s actually part of a conspiracy to strip the Midlands of its identity and claim the most distinctive elements for the North instead. As Maconie says, he likes the way Seaton talks and feels a kinship with him, which means – in the wonderful logic of Northern appropriationism – that Seaton must therefore be a Northerner like him.
Midlanders have traditionally been slow to react to such acts of daylight robbery. I once asked Alan Sillitoe about the wavering accents in the film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, for which he wrote the screenplay, and he explained that the problem was that they simply hadn’t been able to find ‘a clutch of actors who all came from Nottingham’. As a result, it ended up ‘a kind of mish-mash of South Yorkshire and Scouse and this, that and the other’. Didn’t it worry Sillitoe – the late twentieth-century Bard of Nottingham – that his works could so easily be claimed for the North? ‘That’s other people’s problem. Who cares about the North, or indeed about the South?’ he told me. For him, the Midlands was a place of ‘illimitable frontiers’. Then, after a pause, he added, ‘Bugger the North!’ and excused himself as his tea was waiting for him in the other room. Where uppity Northerners rage and bluster for attention, stoical Midlanders just shrug and concentrate on more important matters – buttered toast, for instance.
The cinema has never been particularly helpful where Midland identity is concerned. Take the more recent example of Shane Meadows’s Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002). With a title like that, you’d think that Meadows’s starrily cast modern spaghetti western would deliver a firmer, more differentiating picture of life as it is lived between North and South. Indeed, with a title like that, you might even think that that was one of its principal raisons d’être – especially as Meadows is himself a Midlander. So it’s curious that there’s no attempt to make the setting of the film identifiably Midland – the locations are all anonymous, unromanticised suburbs of the kind that can be found anywhere in the UK – or even to make the characters sound like Midlanders. Rhys Ifans speaks with a Welsh accent, Ricky Tomlinson – who plays ‘the Midlands cowboy’ – is audibly Scouse, while Kathy Burke, though she does use the very North Notts term of endearment ‘mi duck’ when talking to her brother (a very Scottish-sounding Robert Carlyle), is her usual salt-of-the-earth, Norf Lunnon self. So there you have it: a drama that announces boldly that it’s about the Midlands, but that then goes on to look and sound anything and everything but. Go figure.