Academic Articles

In this Section of the site there are a series of Academic Articles on the Work of Bill Naughton.


Betwixt and between: the canonisation of Naughton and Nolan

Dr David Rudd



David Blunkett, the former British Secretary of State for Education, announced a list of authors of recent fiction who would appear on the National Curriculum for secondary pupils from 2000, with a ‘particular [view to] re-engage the interest of underachieving boys’.i To the surprise of many, one of the authors was Bill Naughton, who has for too long existed only on the margins of children’s literature. A look at some of the standard critical works on children’s literature quickly confirms this, as they almost universally ignore him. In fact, I know of only one critical piece about him: an article by Andrew Stibbs, published almost thirty years ago. Yet, if you ask many time-served classroom teachers about Naughton, they will tell you that he has never gone away: My Pal Spadger, A Dog Called Nelson and, especially, The Goalkeeper’s Revenge (this collection, including the infamous ‘Spit Nolan’, has never been out of print as far as I am aware). They are ideal for reading aloud to a class, having the laconic appeal of the street-corner teller: vivid characters, visualisable scenes, terse, witty dialogue, sensuous, physical description and that frequent twist at the end, something that relates his tales to the oral world of the joke.

But if this is the case, why has Naughton been so neglected by the critical establishment? This is one of the things I want to explore in this article, the second being to reappraise Naughton’s work in view of his recent official recognition. To do this I intend to focus on what seem to me to be two of Naughton’s most important works. The second is uncontentious; it is that much anthologised masterpiece ‘Spit Nolan’ (it is, for instance, included in The Oxford Book of Children’s Stories). However, pace Stibbs, it has received almost no critical attention. The first work I shall examine, though, is less well known. It is Naughton’s neglected 1957 novel, One Small Boy – a far better crafted work than his first attempt, Pony Boy (1946), though this latter, rambling, episodic work is still entertainingly readable. Both novels are full of humour, and would go down well in class (edited somewhat), but Pony Boy consists more of set pieces. One Small Boy is far more carefully observed, the humour arising out of character and incident (it might now be classified as a ‘young adult’ novel). In fact, it contains some of the funniest descriptions of school life that I have ever read – or read to others. As I do not intend to discuss Naughton’s humour much in this article, the exploits of a memorable character called Charlie Criddle are worthy of mention. Aside from such physically challenging incidents as getting his ‘willy’ stuck in an inkwell, Criddle’s entire understanding of the curriculum is unusual; as the narrator puts it, Charlie had ‘lapses of mind’. When asked “What is God?” he replies “God is a supreme creamy caramel” eventually amending this to “God is a supreme spirit” (p. 159); to the beatitude ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, Charlie responds, “For they shall be made rich in body”. It is also thanks to Charlie Criddle, I have to say, that my reading of Keats’ ‘La belle dame sans merci’ has been forever changed, with his more child-friendly rendition: “The sledge has withered from the lake” (p. 276).

However, before I discuss some of the more serious themes in this neglected work, let me first deal with the reasons for Naughton’s long neglect. The first is alluded to in my title, ‘betwixt and between’. Naughton, more than any other author, is inveterately interstitial. Even classifying his work is a problem: the latest, most populist edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1998) omits him entirely, perhaps seeing him as more a children’s author. Its companion volume, The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature does give Naughton an entry, but suggests that he was an adult writer who ‘wrote several books for children … including The Goalkeeper’s Revenge (1961) and Spit Nolan (1961)’ (though these were, in fact, the same book!).ii Naughton also has a more substantial entry by Rosemary Stones in St. James Guide to Children’s Writers, though, strangely, she does not explicitly mention his most popular work, ‘Spit Nolan’. This said, she is closer to the mark in describing Naughton as ‘a writer about childhood’ rather than ‘a children’s writer’ (p. 777). Certainly, Naughton himself did not see The Goalkeeper’s Revenge as specifically for children, and was surprised when Kaye Webb of Puffin wanted to market it as such. Looking at the protagonists of his stories, it is easy to see why, as many move beyond childhood, often inhabiting that liminal state between child and adult – some of them exploring the very problems of this transition; as he puts it in My Pal Spadger, there ‘was a sort of gulf, a sharp divide, that separated a schoolboy from his pal who had begun work … a hint or acknowledgment of strange and mysterious things, ever to be unknown to a schoolboy’ (p. 64). Nowadays, of course, the ‘teenager’ is a clearly labelled and packaged phenomenon, but in Naughton’s youth, particularly amongst the working-class, it was not so recognised: youths were more seen as ‘tweenagers’. In fact, some characters in his work are even described as ‘half-timers’, which meant that, for a transitional period, they spent half their day at school, half at work.

Naughton’s writing also falls between other stools. He was born of Irish parents and lived in County Mayo for his first few years, before emigrating to Bolton, Lancashire. But an Irishness still deeply infuses his works, as Liam Harte has argued (this said, Naughton is also totally ignored by The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature); and much of his appeal seems to stem from his ability to be what ethnographers call a participant observer: his ability to recreate a culture of which he was certainly a part, but one from which he also maintained a lifelong distance. (It seems noteworthy that Naughton spent his last years living on the Isle of Man, itself between England and Ireland; perhaps an as-yet-unwritten Oxford Companion to Manx Literature might give him final recognition!) Certainly, though eminently readable in their own right, his books would also provide excellent material for National Curriculum projects with its ethnographic riches – a world of brews, ginnels, night soilsmen, pig’s-bladder football and trolley-racing (Describe a day in the life of a working-class Lancashire boy in the 1920s) – let alone the resonant dialect (Find out what the following terms mean and use each appropriately in a sentence: ‘slanced’, ‘mawp’, ‘clemmed’, ‘muckmisers’ and ‘little piecer’iii).

Aside from Naughton’s nationality, there are other divisions, too: his Catholicism (he frequently depicts himself as being stranded in a heathen land of Protestants); the division between the North and the South, the working- versus the middle-class, male versus female, and the physical versus the spiritual. These are all oppositions that Naughton’s characters find themselves caught up in. Naughton even, I would suggest, sits uneasily within the normal generic divisions of literature, with his short stories and episodic novels sliding easily into reminiscence and autobiography on the one hand (in many of his stories he remains ‘Bill’ and, several of the stories he tells recur in his excellent volumes of autobiography); and anecdote and tall tale on the other, much in the tradition of Mark Twain. If, then, one wanted to categorise his work (especially the short stories), it would best be located in the oral tradition, as I have suggested above: street-corner tales committed to paper, with events transposed and exaggerated for dramatic effect. The Goalkeeper’s Revenge even hints at this in its dedication: ‘To all my old mates who used to gather at the street corner’.

The final reason for Naughton’s critical neglect is, I think, his lack of ‘political correctness’, became an increasing barrier after the 1960s and 70s – when he was at the height of his popularity. The working-class north of Naughton’s youth – which is what he chiefly writes about in his children’s work – was a very gender divided society, and Naughton depicts it from a male perspective. In fact, the blurb of my Puffin edition of The Goalkeeper’s Revenge celebrates this: ‘stories for and about boys: boys fighting, boys playing and even boys working’. This gives it an exclusive ring, as do the titles of some of his other works – like Pony Boy and One Small Boy. Then, of course, there is Alfie (1966) – which, for many people, is all that Naughton is known for – giving us an early portrait of laddishness, of men behaving badly. Ironically, this is part of the reason for Naughton’s official renaissance, with the government trying hard to make reading more acceptable to boys, after years of trying to bring girls into the picture by promoting more feisty, female protagonists.

Is this not turning back the clock, then, reinstating an insular, white, male, working-class, northern writer? When I recently had the chance to ask a group of teachers specifically about this, they thought not, confirming that, not only was Naughton popular with girls as well as boys, but also, and more surprisingly for me, that he was popular with ethnic minorities (particularly Asian heritage children).iv In the course of the rest of this article I hope the reasons for this will become apparent.

One Small Boy – a neglected masterpiece

One Small Boy, set mostly in the 1920s, evocatively describes the shift of the young protagonist, Michael M’Cloud, from rural Ireland to the industrial northern town of ‘Towlton’ (i.e. Bolton) in England. However, despite becoming ‘a Lancashire lad’ in some respects, he never loses the feeling of being an onlooker, an outsider. In fact, he falls back on this with pride and defiance when his difference is flagged up. Thus, though none of his friends speaks with ‘Received Pronunciation’, it is Michael who is reprimanded for it, as when he says “ting” for “thing”; “Don’t you know the king’s English yet, M’Cloud?”, he is asked, and retorts, “King’s English – I’m Irish.” (p. 149) As he was later to put it in Saintly Billy, ‘we were reluctant members of the same empire’ (p. 57).

Children experience varying degrees of difference between home life and school, so some sort of culture shock is inevitable. But for those from a different culture such changes must be exacerbated. Naughton is very good at putting these differences in concrete, physical terms. There is, for example, Michael’s repulsion at having to use an outside privy, or petty, which gives him constipation. It is not that he is used to an indoor toilet (unlike the children in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War); rather, he finds the whole idea of a shared toilet barbaric compared with the ‘alfresco’ arrangements in Ireland: ‘All the miles of bushes back home where you could get down and enjoy it’ (p .41). There’s also Michael’s revelation that there is countryside in England – thinking at first that the whole place is paved over; again, a telling physical detail brings this home, where we have Michael’s mixture of revulsion and fascination at the young boys and girls playing in the gutter.

At the top of Back Greenley Street some small children were playing beside a grid in the gutter. One boy had a broken clog-iron with which he was scraping away the earth from between the cobblestones, whilst another beside him piddled on the earth. Two girls were pressing the damp earth into tin lids, and laying out the moulds on the pavement.’

Hot pies,’ called out one of the girls.

Michael is accused by his pals of wanting to play with the younger children:

He felt himself flushing and shook his head. Suddenly he realised that he had wanted to join in and scrape away at the black bits of earth, for the endless pavement of the street was like some hot stone field, that made him want to dig like fury at times into the bits of earth between the cobblestones. (pp. 105-6)

Michael also cannot get over the fact that – in his perception – the English eat meat every day, though the quality of it is not always so delectable:

A slice of jelly-like meat was given to each child, and with it three fritters of potato. Each odour touched him, from hot fat to stewed tea, and the sickly sweet odour of Nestlé’s tinned milk as he raised the cup to his mouth. He strove to overcome a sickness of disgust at the strange smells and flavours, the grease-blobbed fritters, burnt and swollen, the gristle and jelly on the potted meat, the bread and margarine, and all the unfamiliar mixture of the Duckworth home and family, and he gulped the hot tea to quench the nausea rising in him. … (pp. 48-9)

This vivid description is as evocative as anything in Roald Dahl, but with Naughton there is hardly any malice: differences are more dispassionately observed. He manages to tease the poetry and pathos out of the everyday, as in his descriptions of such mundane topics as the work of the ‘night soilsmen’, who would come round emptying the midden pails and ash-tubs while others slept. In My Pal Spadger, for instance, he has a whole chapter lyrically describing these ‘muckmisers’ at work, the rhythms of the prose perfectly capturing their intricate tempo and gusto, as in the memorably described ‘chirpy sort of fellow who kicked the catch of each ash-pit door open with his clog-toe’ (p. 33). But Naughton is also equal to dealing with more elevated subjects, too, like religion. And for me, One Small Boy is one of the best depictions of a Catholic upbringing since Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though, rather than intellectual debate, Naughton represents it in far more tangible, earthy terms.

A key example is Michael’s encounter with two pears that he finds at home in the back kitchen. He manages to convince himself that they have been there for a while, forgotten about. Even so, when he finally succumbs to temptation and takes one, he still feels it necessary to sneak down to the privy to eat it. Aside from its intrinsic power, the incident works on deeper levels. Obviously there is the reference to the tempting in the Garden of Eden (Naughton often uses fruit in this way) but, more provocatively, there is a persistent sexual subtext, beginning with the description of how he has problems extracting the stolen pear from his pocket once in the privy (elsewhere in the novel there is reference to him adjusting his trousers to accommodate his sexual arousal). This is built on in a richly sensual passage where he consumes the fruit, ending with the pear’s discarded (or spent) seed going down the petty:

The juice ran across his gums and over his lips as his teeth went into the fruit. A sensation of pleasure, rare and intense, brought a momentary touch of weakness to him. He took another bite and another, giving way to the urge for pleasure. It’s lovely. He caught the juice in his palm and licked it. He ate every bit, spitting the pips down the privy hole. I feel different. (p. 242)

He then convinces himself that his mother will not miss the second pear, either: ‘I’m deaf an’ blind an’ I can’t stop myself’, as he puts it, using symptoms thought typical of the dissolute onanist. He takes this second pear back to the closet, but by now the pleasure has gone: ‘Guilt – that’s all I can taste …I feel black an’ miserable inside’ (ibid.).

He cannot dispel this feeling, with its sexual and religious overtones, of having eaten forbidden fruit. To add to it, when he meets his girlfriend, she too tempts him, with a tomato stolen from her own household – something he has never even tasted before, but thinks, significantly, might be like an apple. Predictably, he doesn’t enjoy its ‘pungent rawness’ and ends up trying to expunge his guilt by paying her for the stolen fruit. But he experiences no relief, no more than later when he goes alone to church, to expiate his sin. He ends up aimlessly wanders the street envying the small children playing games, wishing he could join in, just as he had earlier, when he watched them innocently shaping mud pies. But he has moved beyond such innocence, the taste of experience now lodged in his mouth. When he meets up with his non-Catholic cronies, who are now working as ‘little piecers’, this sense of isolation persists, especially when he hears them use the word ‘effin’:

That terrible word that begins with f, he thought. The last thing in human abandonment when you say that. It’s as though you’d given up all hope of heaven. (p. 250).

The ‘effin’ word (this was published in the 1950s, remember) has associations not only with swearing, but also with carnal knowledge, with the taste of forbidden fruit: it pollutes his mouth, as have both the pear and tomato. Michael thus feels himself utterly torn between the two age groups – betwixt and between – a feeling exacerbated by his religion. Sex, in particular, seems to be everywhere to him; in fact, it seems to be the key to initiation into the world of adults. Thus, when he hears his pals teasing one of their number who has just started at the mill – “I heard about ’em greasing thy pinkler” – Michael is horrified at the prospect (they are clearly ‘little piecers’ in more ways than one):

The image of women doing that with grease on their hands had made him dry-throated. A woman’s hand touching my trouser-buttons. That rotten sex is rising in me. I can feel it. I’d better hurry off and put my trouser front right before they spot it.

He walked away. They do the talking but I do the suffering. (p. 251)

Once again, his Catholicism keeps him apart; as he sees it, his friends are the ones condemned to hell, but he is the one with no peace of mind, living in continual torment. This sense of ceaseless self-regulation, which Catholicism seeks to induce, is emphasised through the narrative voice. For, though the book is generally told by an omniscient narrator, a first-person stream of consciousness regularly erupts and displaces it. Not only does this help capture Michael’s mental turmoil, but also his sense of being continually observed from on high – precisely something that we, as readers, are doing. We can see this shift in the passage quoted above, where we move from a description of ‘him’ being dry-throated, to the ‘my’ of his ‘trouser-buttons’ in the next sentence (another shift occurs in the subsequent paragraph- as it does at the end of the fruit eating episode: ‘I feel different’). It is clear that Michael’s sexual arousal brings with it a disturbing awareness of emergent selfhood and, once again, we have the associations with forbidden fruit from earlier.

This episode reaches a tormenting conclusion when Michael returns home and denies to his mother that he ever saw any pears. He learns that, as a result, his father has had to go down the pit without any fruit to quench his thirst in the night (as though Michael has consigned his father to purgatory). Significantly, it is during this same night that the privy pails are emptied and, we are told, the stink of the operation fills his room (p. 253). (Whilst this concludes the episode as far as the novel is concerned, it seems to have been based on a real incident, for he also recalls it in his autobiographical Saintly Billy, some sixty-years after the actual event. Clearly, it had deeply disturbed Naughton.)

Naughton, then, is adept at depicting the trials and tribulations of growing up, at showing us how children manage to negotiate the various cultural categories that many of us take for granted: whether it is small things like going to a strange house where they eat different food, or larger areas of cultural dissonance, as of language, class or religion.

Naughton presents such dilemmas in a movingly intimate and physical way, but he also maintains an outsider’s distance which questions whatever beliefs are held. As Michael at one point says of his non-Catholic friends:

I’ve kept myself back from them … and didn’t let myself think they could have decency in them. I’m guilty of Lucifer’s sin of pride. The way their faces and voices were so lovely when they sang on the tramcar! – I can never look like that. They’re really the innocent ones – and I’m the bad one. I never have been innocent. (pp. 111-2)

Naughton’s protagonists are therefore not only aware of the various divisions that run through our society, but also of the fragility of their own stance, whether on religion, class or sex. In terms of the last category in particular, though it is true that Naughton’s stories are predominantly about ‘boys’, they are by no means as exclusive as they might at first appear. Superficially it seems a very ‘macho’ world, but there are, in fact, very few macho characters. We certainly hear that fighting occurs, about pitmen in clogs kicking each other in the shins till one drops unconscious, but his books are generally about companionship rather than confrontation, about doing things with your trusty ‘mates’ or ‘pals’ – something that made much sense, given that adult lives often depended on a mutual trust, in such dangerous physical jobs as mining. Close physical contact and affection are therefore not unexceptional. Indeed, boys are presented in a quite feminised way: sitting together, huddling up for warmth, little piecers grooming each other, mutually squeezing blackheads, lads bedding down in the cinema with one’s head in another’s lap, and so on.

Many of Naughton’s main characters, in fact, have a very ‘feminine’ side to them (even Alfie), which is celebrated. Thus, in One Small Boy there is a highly respected character called Herbert, whom we see keeping the domestic economy of his household ticking over while his mother recovers from having another baby (his father is blind). We meet Herbert hanging out the washing, see him cooking (it is his ‘grease-blobbed’ cuisine that was described earlier), and wheeling the baby out to his mother who works at the mill, for her to feed. If anything, it is the grown men who are more of an alien species in Naughton than the world of women, whose centrality is openly recognised.

I think this helps account for the continued popularity of Naughton’s work in classrooms, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Whilst his appeal to ethnic minorities might initially seem unlikely, on reflection it makes much sense; for Naughton himself felt an outsider, holding on to a culturally distant homeland. He, of course, was from an earlier ethnic minority, also with a different religion and way of life. So it is hardly surprising that Naughton’s fictionalised predicaments have special appeal to any who feel themselves in some way marginal. There is also the fact that Naughton paints a picture of a life and time when the sexes were far more segregated, and where a sense of right and wrong is starker. For the Catholic Naughton it was the loose ways of the English Protestants that shocked him. Again, there may be discursive threads here that have particular resonance for some communities.

But let me now move on to the universally popular ‘Spit Nolan’. I mentioned Herbert above, who is emblematic of one of Naughton’s most intriguing character types: the charismatic figure who seems to rise above cultural divisions. Other examples would be Nelson (a one-eyed dog, for the uninitiated) and Spadger, but Spit Nolan is undoubtedly the most celebrated (‘Spit Nolan’ is collected in The Goalkeeper’s Revenge, but it is Spit’s picture that frequently displaces the goalkeeper’s in cover illustrationsv). On first sight it seems a slight story – a cautionary tale – but thematically, it is very rich. It covers class, nation, empire, spirituality, integrity, comradeship, besides this idea of standing apart, of being different. Most famously, it is guaranteed, in almost any class reading, not to leave a dry eye in the house.

The Canonisation of Spit

Many of Naughton’s key characters have some physical or mental impediment – like Sim Dalt, the famous goalkeeper who gets his revenge – and with Spit, it is his one lung. He obviously suffers from TB – though it is not named; there is simply a reference to the fact that if you were rich, you could go to Switzerland to get better.

Mortality is written on Spit from the beginning, the very first sentence situating him in the past: ‘Spit Nolan was a pal of mine’ (p. 20). There is some fine prose in this story, and I think this opening sentence is masterly: short, predominantly monosyllabic, with a beautiful symmetry in its vowel sounds, pivoting on that past tense at its centre – /i/o/a/a /a/o/i – and ending on the longer, drawn out i sound. Spit’s mortality is also emphasised in his pale ‘bony face’ – apart from ‘two rosy spots on his cheekbones’ – though his friends, of course, actually envy him his time off school. But mostly, they envy his skill: ‘Spit was the champion trolley-rider of Cotton Pocket’ (p. 20). We get a detailed description of how to fashion a trolley out of bits and pieces (Describe a typical Lancashire ‘trolley’ and outline how you would go about making one; details of activities are very common in Naughton’s works, whether it is pigeon-fancying, getting into Saturday morning pictures, or whatever). However, Naughton’s description here, though undoubtedly of a trolley, is also suggestive of other things, like a catafalque – that is, a trolley for a coffin – with its ‘stout piece of wood five feet in length and eighteen inches wide’ (p. 22): just the right size for a young body. It is also, of course, cruciform with its cross strip of wood, fixed with nails and rope, and Spit, it is emphasised, rides ‘belly-down’ on it in key races.

In case the above is too subtle, there are more obvious clues as to one-lunged Spit’s fate; for he practises on Cemetery Brew, one of the most popular roads because of its steepness, and the fact that it is one of the only ‘macadamized’ hills around, the rest being cobbled. Aside from the obviousness of the word cemetery, ‘brew’ itself, besides being a term for a steep incline, encodes a fatalistic pun, in that a cemetery brew also suggests a lethal potion. Lancashire locals might find more, too: ‘going down the brew’ is a phrase that means one’s health is Even the name of Spit’s trolley, Egdam, is suggestive of ‘endgame’ – that last stage of a chess tournament when one side’s forces have been depleted by their adversary. However, the real secret of the name, ‘Egdam’, we are told, is that it is ‘Madge’ reversed: the name of Spit’s secret love, whom he met at a sanatorium (albeit in Southport rather than Switzerland).vii There is also, therefore, a suggestion of doomed lovers who might become united in their fate. As if to seal his destiny, we are told that Spit knew Cemetery Brew ‘like the palm of his hand’ – not the ‘back’ – again suggesting a keen awareness of mortality, as clear as his lifeline.

In setting up the tale, we hear how Spit once beat a rival from the Engine Row gang, Ducker Smith. Not only is Spit more skilled than others, he is also tactically smarter, having borrowed a wheel from his mother’s pram for this race, and returned it just in time, we are told, to prevent his baby brother from being wheeled, a wheel less, off the doorstep. Without Spit’s alacrity, ‘the child would have fallen out as the pram overturned’. Spit, therefore, is not only a champion; he is also a protector of the young and innocent.

The fateful contest at the centre of the story occurs as a result of Leslie Duckett, ‘the plump son of the local publican’ (again, an evocative phrase, the rounded vowels suggesting his relative opulence), turning up with a ‘magnificent trolley’ of oak, pneumatic tyres, lamp, bell, and the rest, “everything chamfered and fluted off to perfection” (p. 24). It is called The British Queen after his father’s pub and, though a work of art, the point is made that Leslie has had nothing to do with it: it has been specially made for him. As Spit says, “That trolley will be a stranger to you to your dying day” (ibid.) – again, a heavily ironic comment, given that it is Spit’s own demise that will keep it estranged. Leslie, though, disagrees, averring that he does own it, to which Spit responds: “You own nothing in this world except those things you have taken a hand in the making of, or else you’ve earned the money to buy them” (p. 24).

The gauntlet is laid down and a race organised for Sunday morning. Clearly, we have far more here than an everyday contest (though it is very much that, too). We have an archetypal battle: of the craftsman against the mechanised world, of John Henry against the steam-hammer. There is class at stake, too: the plump rich child, who arrives dressed in his ‘serge Sunday suit’, against the poor thin waif with holes in his jersey. There is even a national issue – the English-named Duckett with his oak cart against the Irish Nolan – and the hint of more, of coloniser versus colonised: Duckett with The British Queen, having acquired something that is not rightfully his, having put no labour into it, simply having had it given to him, whereas Nolan’s cart is truly his own. (We know from elsewhere that this was an issue that rankled Naughton; in Saintly Billy he writes with distaste about how, ‘At school the huge map of the world would be spread on the blackboard, the vast British Empire marked in red’, particularly resenting that he was seen as one of the colonised (p. 57).)

But there is more to ‘Spit Nolan’ yet. There is also a battle of the spiritual against the physical. Spit is a Christ-like figure, as I’ve already hinted, saving the innocent, and here we observe him moving amongst his disciples, admonishing some for whistling on the Sabbath: ‘He walked in and out among us with an air of imperturbability that …seemed almost godlike’ (pp. 25-6). It even inspires ‘a curly-headed kid with a soft skin like a girl’s, and a nervous lisp’ to climb ‘up on to the spiked railings of the cemetery’, to grab a yellow rose that he thrusts into a small hole in Spit’s jersey (p. 26) – something that Spit says is bad luck but, to appease the boy, agrees to wear, saying, “Ee, wot a ’eavenly smell!” (ibid.). Naughton comes nearest to overdoing it here, but like Dickens with his saintly innocents, manages to bring it off. Like Simon from Cyrene, the narrator, Bill, even pulls Spit’s trolley for him, ‘to keep [him] fresh’ (p. 25). By the time the group reach the top of the hill (and, of course, one thinks of Calvary) ‘a faint sweated glow had come over Spit’s face’ – suggestive of a halo, of a numinous quality.

Ernie Haddock, the officiator, tells them, ominously, that the winner “is the first who puts the nose of his trolley past the cemetery gates” (ibid.). Spit takes the lead, riding belly-down. Then Leslie starts to catch him, but it is Spit’s style that commands the narrator’s attention, Spit riding with such balance that he ‘looked as though he were a bird that might suddenly open out its wings and fly clean into the air’ (p. 27) (a veritable angel or Paraclete, no less).

Leslie just wins, but his wheel catches Spit’s and sends the latter into the path of a charabanc, ending with Spit lying ‘white and dusty...a rivulet of fresh red blood’ coming from his mouth, and with ‘yellow rose petals’ scattered round him (pp. 28-9).

It is a melodramatic death scene, worthy of Dickens, with Spit asking who has won, and Leslie shouting “Thee! ...Tha just licked me” (p. 29). Interestingly, this is almost the first use of dialect in the story, and most unsuited to Leslie, but it indicates his deference and, again, the wider issues of the story. Spit will have none of this and his dying words are, “I didn’t win – I lost” (p. 30) – lost the tournament, certainly, and his life, but also lost against mechanisation, capital and class – historical forces weighted against him from the outset. And, of course, he has also lost thanks to Leslie’s lack of skill and craftsmanship, in clashing wheels, whereas earlier, Spit had saved someone by deftly replacing a wheel.

Yet there is also a sense in which Spit is the ultimate winner: he maintains his integrity to the end; though he did not win the race, he is certainly the one that gets through the cemetery gates (the line, “I’ll run an’ tell the gatekeeper to ring” (p. 29), suggests a call to St. Peter). Spit becomes the timeless, mythologised hero, elevated from ‘Spit’ to ‘Saint’ Nolan. As Bill reflects, giving particulars of Spit as the two go off in the ambulance, ‘it suddenly seemed as though Spit Nolan had been dead and gone for ages’ (p. 30).

For those who know more about Naugton, there are clear links with his own wish to purify himself, and rise above material things: hence the half-joking title Saintly Billy for his autobiography; but their names are close enough without this knowledge: Spit Nolan/ Bill Naughton: if you transpose the t and l consonants, the names are almost identical. And the links run closer still, which helps explain the persistence of this saintly figure in Naughton’s work. The model seems to have been Naughton’s maternal Uncle – also a William – who is described as a gentle, sensitive man, one who rose above the divisions of class and nationality, but one who, partly as a result of the divisive miners’ strike of 1921, committed suicide, himself dying in a Bolton ambulance.


Children, of course, won’t necessarily pick up on these larger discursive threads, and need not, but they will, I would suggest, relate to the problems of being an outsider and an underdog that make so many of Naughton’s stories appeal. Indeed, though he is included in the National Curriculum under the list of writers of English heritage, he could just as aptly fit within the adjacent list of ‘writers from different cultures and traditions’. I have also suggested that although the world he depicts appears to be a very male-oriented culture, it is one that has elements of appeal to all, and in many ways gives us an insight into the more feminised and vulnerable side of young males. These elements, aside from his more obvious gifts as a storyteller telling us about an almost forgotten culture in an engagingly personal style, make Naughton’s official comeback a welcome return.


Humphrey Carpenter & Mari Prichard (eds), The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, Oxford University Press

Margaret Drabble (ed.) The Oxford Companion to English Literature, rev. ed., Oxford University Press, 1998

Liam Harte, ‘Migrant memory: the recovery of self in the autobiography of Bill Naughton’, Critical Survey 8 (2), 1996, 168-77

Jan Mark, The Oxford Book of Children’s Stories, Oxford University Press, 1993

Bill Naughton, Alfie, MacGibbon and Kee, 1966

Bill Naughton, A Dog Called Nelson, Dent, 1976

Bill Naughton, The Goalkeeper’s Revenge and Other Stories, Harrap, 1961

Bill Naughton, My Pal Spadger, Dent, 1977

Bill Naughton, One Small boy, MacGibbon and Kee, 1957 [published by Allison & Busby [UK], Schocken Books [US], 1988]

Bill Naughton, Pony Boy, 1946

Bill Naughton, Saintly Billy: an autobiographical excursion, Oxford University Press, 1988

Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast (eds) St. James Guide to Children’s Writers, 5th ed., St. James Press, 1999

Andrew Stibbs, ‘Spit Nolan and the short story for children’, Children’s Literature in Education 7, March 1972, 17-22

Robert Welch (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, Clarendon Press, 1996

Joseph Wright (ed.), The English Dialect Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1898

slanced – stolen?

doffer – person who removed a full bobbin from throstle frame; doffing; act of removing full bobbins and replacing them – to do off with them. p. 55

kench’ – bend down, to strain, canch: a step. (p. 200?)

Warching – contemptible, insignificant (warcher= a ‘worker’)p. 55

little piecers’ – beginner at mill originally called because they would have job of piecing together broken ends of thread; later, a more general dogsbody.

Favvers – the army shape of favours

Clemmed – starved

Mawpus – mopus, moping, dull, stupid person.

Mawp – bullfinch {blue tit in Fylde}, or a blow. Spadger, p. 108

Brew – steep bank, or hill ‘going down the brewe’ = giving way in health p. 398 vol 1

coppit p. 200 ‘Will you get coppit?’

marded’ pp. 207-8 [whined?]

they pinkler p. 251

mucky doffer, p; 254

and no brids sing, p. 274

Spadger – butty, ‘capel’ [wooden clog to which metal fastenings were attached: p. 40 'a clog which came up to the ankle and fastened by a clasp, and a sort of boot-clog which came above it' - wood, but metal clog-irons and a metal strip over toe known as a capel

i QCA/DfEE ‘National Curriculum Review Consultation’

ii Humphrey Carpenter & Mari Prichard The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 371. The St. James Guide to Children’s Writers (5th ed., edited by Sara and Tom Pendergast St. James Press, 1999) also deserves mention, with an entry and overview of his work. Curiously, though, Rosemary Stones, the contributor, omits any specific mention of ‘Spit Nolan’.

iii For the interested: ‘slanced’ means pilfered, stolen; a ‘mawp’ is a dull, stupid person; ‘clemmed’ means starved; ‘muckmisers’ or night soilsmen, were those who emptied the ash-tubs and privy pails; and a ‘little piecer’ was a beginner at a textile mill, originally called because he or she would have job of piecing together the broken ends of a thread.

iv This was at the one and only conference dedicated to Naughton’s work, so far as I am aware, held at Bolton Institute in June 1997, and entitled, ‘Bill Naughton – the man who wrote Alfie?’

v In 1993 Creative Education brought out an illustrated edition of this story, published on its own.

vi This meaning is also given in Joseph Wright’s authoritative The English Dialect Dictionary, 1898, vol. 1, p. 398.

vii The others, we hear, give their trolleys more macho names, like ‘Invincible’ or ‘Dreadnought’ (p. 20).

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