Shipstone’s Brewery Star and Home Ales Robin Hood figure
Arthur Century Later 3
Originally published in 2012 as part of theSpace arts project funded by Arts Council England and the BBC
The second featured writer is Al Needham, editor of LeftLion magazine, who is writing a series of essays about the demise of the British pub as part of the second featured location, The White Horse. His third essay examines the changing nature of drinking culture in Nottingham over the centuries.
For better or worse, the relationship between Nottingham and alcohol runs deep. Round about 700 years ago, local brewers were making use of the sandstone caves which dominated the city to create an underground malting system, which made it the only place in the UK cool enough to be able to turn barley into malt and brew beer all year round.
Such a technological edge was a huge boon to the local economy, a massive fillip for the locals (at a time when beer was still seen as a safer alternative to water in the days before proper sewers were built) and marked out Nottingham as a hardcore ale town. They even had a song of praise dedicated to the local product.
The evidence of Nottingham’s beer-sodden past is all around us – not only are completely intact underground maltings still secreted in the Lace Market area of town (under a nightclub) and on Sneinton Hermitage, but three pubs in the area fight a constant battle to be recognised as the oldest pub in the country; Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem (stopping off point for knights on their way to the Crusades), The Olde Salutation Inn (a recruiting post for both Roundheads and Cavaliers during the Civil War) and The Bell Inn (the former refectory of a monastery which brewed beer).
Fast forward to the late fifties and Nottingham’s status as a beer town had been well and truly established. During the decade when Alan Sillitoe was honing the character of Arthur Seaton there were nine breweries operating in Nottingham, each with their own individual products, their own pubs, and their own followings. The big two – Shipstones and Home Ales – divided loyalties across the city as much as Forest and County did. The latter were savvy enough to adopt Robin Hood and plaster his silhouette across their branding, and did it so successfully that when the idea that Nottinghamshire should have its own flag was mooted, the winning suggestion was scarily close to the Home Ales logo. Shipstones meanwhile, left its own mark on the city, placing a huge red neon star atop its brewery which could be seen for miles around. This meant if you were a lorry driver who never entered the city but skirted past it on your way up North, it would have been the only recognisable landmark. You’d also have assumed that Nottingham was part of the Soviet Union.
By the time Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published – and definitely by the time the film version was released in 1960 – Nottingham’s working and drinking culture had been practically crystallised. The pub may have been Arthur’s reward for flogging his guts out over a lathe all week, but in its own way it was just as communal and regimented as the factory he’d left earlier, with a rigid code of rules, a strong sense of place (you wouldn’t sit in any of the regular’s seats any more than you would work on their bench), a definite hierarchy (although your gaffer at work had far less clout than the local landlord and his wife, and there wasn’t a union to take up your case if you got barred out). It had been that way for decades; it would continue to be so for decades more, as Sillitoe’s factory-pub-home-for-a-kip-and-a-change-of-clothes mantra was replicated by every depiction of male working-class life in films, plays and (especially) TV sitcoms well into the eighties.
The irony of Alan Sillitoe’s vision of Nottingham is that the moment it became the de facto literary depiction of the city, huge chunks of the place were torn down and rebuilt. St Ann’s was one of the first, then The Meadows (one of Sillitoe’s favourite locations for short stories) and Hyson Green (next door to Radford) were all flattened, scattering communities to the outskirts of the city; by the time they finished in the mid-seventies, it was obvious that they’d made a right balls-up of it. The eighties saw the phasing out of the factories, setting Britain on the path from being the undisputed workshop of the world to becoming its biggest pound shop. The only things that stayed the same were the pubs and they were about to change, too.
The nineties saw the rot set in. First to go were the local breweries; they were swallowed up, absorbed into and eventually wiped off the map by brewing conglomerates who were keen to flex their muscles and expand. Meanwhile, a proposed new bar in town called Liberty’s turned out to be the birthplace and crucible of Binge-Drinking Britain. You see, the liquor licensing laws in the UK at the time – as they had been for decades – were pretty much based on the principle of ‘need’. If a local magistrate felt that the proposed area already had a sufficient amount of pubs, planning applications could be slapped down at will. This went against the free-trade principles of the government of the day, but – for the time being – public safety would generally win out. The next government weren’t so prissy; the principal of ‘need’ was quietly dropped. And it turned out that the first new bar application was for another pub on a street that was already awash with them.
The local police were dead against Liberty’s and produced reams of statistics regarding the drink-related public order problems, violence and hospital admittances that were already generated by the area’s existing watering-holes. Thanks to a battalion of top-notch lawyers, however, the Liberty’s license was granted. When the police appealed, the judge turned them down, predicting that the place would be: “a positive contribution to law and order and to the public good”. So in came the enormo-pubs, the converted churches and adverts where the old lady complained that her bank was now a trendy wine bar. The judge was dead wrong about Liberty’s it quickly gained a reputation for being one of the worst pubs in town and it was eventually closed down in 2008 when a customer had their nose bitten off in a fight.
The dust has settled now, but it isn’t clear where today’s Arthur Seaton would drink. There are still plenty of pubs but the game has changed. The main target audience is the student population, to the extent that there are certain venues that shut down in the summer when they’re not about (while the ones that do stay open moan that local people don’t support them, after spending nine months of the year either ignoring or overcharging them). Arthur Seaton would turn on his heel and storm out of the queue the minute he realised he was expected to spend four times as much to get into a pub for a drink as some sucky lad who couldn’t pull his jeans up properly, just because he didn’t have an NUS card.
Another main revenue stream for this new pub landscape is even more problematic; stag and hen dos who have been lured into Nottingham after being endlessly told that we’re the Binge capital of the UK, all of which automatically gravitate to the biggest, shiniest clubs where the third segment of the Saturday Night audience – meatheads who would continue to go to town even if there was nothing but a broken fridge with a can of Skol waiting for them in the Square. I imagine Arthur would be interested in the endless supply of women he’d never have to see again; he wouldn’t be so keen on paying through the nose for the pleasure.
The more you look into it, the more the question of where Arthur Seaton would go in town on a Saturday night in 2012 is as outdated as asking what colour suit he’d wear. Maybe Arthur would be one of those moody kids in the trackie bottoms who skulk around the fringes of an evening. Maybe he and his mates would bypass the pub scene completely, getting tanked up at home before taking a cab to a club. Maybe he wouldn’t leave the house at all, preferring to indulge in the local garage-grown skunk that’s renowned for having the highest THC content in the country. Or maybe there’s another answer…
Arthur Century Later 4
Read Al Needham’s fourth essay in which he imagines what Arthur Seaton, the main protagonist from the novel, would be doing for employment.
The Sillitoe Trail
Take your own interactive tour of the author’s city and follow in Arthur Seaton’s footsteps around Nottingham, exploring the real locations of key scenes from the novel. You can go back to the Old Market Square or visit The White Horse pub, the Raleigh factory, the River Trent and Goose Fair. For updated content, visit Sillitoe Trail Xtra
Follow: Arthur Seaton @Thespacelathe on Twitter
Download: Sillitoe Trail Factory Handbook (17MB PDF)
Fillingham and Walker 2012 - 2023