Academic Articles

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


On Your Marx with Spit Nolan: Childhood, Ideology, and Taking Fantasy Seriously


Dr David Rudd

Marx, in seeking to explain why we are still moved by literary works from another historical epoch, such as those of ancient Greece, came up with the rather touching notion that they appealed to our sense of nostalgia, that they took us back to our collective childhood. Of course, this is remarkably similar to the reason that adults are said to like children’s books in the first place – that is, literally in the ‘first place’ – in that they re-invoke what L.P. Hartley calls the ‘foreign country’ of childhood. In this conference we’ve given this an extra twist, seeing the study of children’s books as – possibly – taking us back, not only to our childhoods, but to our Marx as well, in order that we may rethink our way forward.

But the two areas – Marxism and childhood – are more closely connected even than this, in that childhood is often figured as an Edenic time. As Mary Winn writes, ‘our myths of Paradise teach us the truth about childhood. There must be an Eden at the beginning, just as there is in every creation myth’ (Winn, 1983, p. 204). It is seen as a utopian space preceding the fall – a time when Wordsworthian and Rousseauian children trail their clouds of glory. A number of children’s literature critics have sought to make this link even more explicit, arguing that the key appeal of children’s literature lies in its utopian leanings, its attempt to show us the good society. Indeed Fred Inglis (1981, p. 131) uses Stendhal’s statement that ‘all great art holds out “the promise of happiness”’ for the title of his study of children’s literature. ‘The best writers’, Inglis declares, ‘seek to create an ideal social order out of the values there are to hand … the finest life he can imagine’ (ibid., p. 92). He even includes otherwise denigrated popular writers such as Enid Blyton and Malcolm Saville within his compass (see also Inglis, 1997). Similarly utopian notions are central to Michael and Margaret Rustin’s study, Narratives of Love and Loss (1987), and to much of Jack Zipes’ work.

The point is that the child is a figurative being in all this: a given, a constant, a symbol of the good, of that to which society as a whole should aspire (even when figured by such unpalatable regimes as Nazi Germany, with the Hitler Youth – cf. Kamenetsky, 1984). A particular sort of child is thus constructed in much children’s literature: one that is indeed special, that can redeem society. Ironically, although the child-within-the-text is seen to be relatively untouched by the socially degenerate adult world (e.g. Emil, Pippi Longstocking, the Famous Five, Peter Pan), child-readers-of-the-text are regarded in the opposite manner: as highly impressionable beings who must, therefore, be kept apart from the adult world and its literature, and for whom reading the wrong texts can be a serious matter:

Fairy tales …reinforce unhealthy and destructive images for the reader. …. Concerned parents and educators should work to liberate homes and schools from such potentially destructive materials and to provide children with more progressive and equally enjoyable fare. (Robert Moore, 1978, 34)

Because children are symbols of the good, promising happiness, actual child readers are potentially a threat to this vision, and must therefore not be allowed to contaminate the utopian realm. In other words, the dialectic is not something that includes children: they stand outside the historical process.

In making this move, though, many social critics seem to forget their own history; what they themselves read as children, particularly as, given the generational slippage, one would expect it to have been far more explicitly racist, sexist, class-ridden, and so on. Not only have these critics survived such material but, more than this, see themselves as especially qualified to testify as to how harmful it will be for others. One could, of course, argue that many readers did not survive; that, for instance, the imperialist literature of G.A. Henty and others was responsible for readers ‘playing up and playing the game’ of the First World War. However, one might then want to point to all the other elements that led to that historical conjuncture, rather than scapegoat books; one would also want to know why and how conscientious objectors – A.A. Milne, amongst others – managed to read such material differently; and to know about those that read and enjoyed this material after the Great War. As I shall suggest later, there might be a need to consider literature in other than social realist terms; to take fantasy more seriously.

Jack Zipes is an interesting figure in this regard, trying to hold on to ‘real’ children while simultaneously mythologizing them within a Marxist framework. Thus adult children’s literature critics are invited to see themselves as akin to Lenin’s vanguard party, ‘proletarians of the university’ who, ‘working from marginalized positions … take the side of the powerless, the children, to speak for them, to include them, and to fight for their rights …to improve the manner in which we acculturate children’ (Zipes, 2001, p. 73). It is hard to see in what manner, apart from rhetorically, we, or indeed this collective, ‘the children’, might be ‘proletarians’. Children, of course, are as cut across by divisions of class, gender, ethnicity, abled-ness (and so on) as adults. They are no more proletarians than they are the Golden Innocents that Mary Winn, from a very different perspective, champions when she argues for a return to that ‘Golden Age of Innocence’ when ‘children read books about fairies and animals, or about other children engaged in the carefree pleasures of childhood’ (Winn, 1983, p. 61).

This problem, of what children really want (whether it be fairies, animals, Barbie dolls, Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket) has proved problematic for many researchers (Karín Lesnik-Oberstein (1994, p. 3) argues that finding ‘the good book for the child’ is the holy grail that children’s literature critics are always in search of). Although Zipes does not specify exactly what children’s needs are, he does believe that they are there and, through a dialectical process, tries to indicate what is working against the realisation of these needs (for him, such negative exemplars are works like the Disney versions of fairy tales, or Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series (Zipes, 2001)). However, as we saw above, Zipes can only do this by making children into proxy agents of history – a pseudo-proletariat. And, as he also seems to suggest, this powerless group can only succeed in coming into their own with the help of some vanguard of adult intellectuals. The strains that this places on Marxism are considerable, as is apparent in the following passage:

…it was not possible for a broad range of books to be approved and to reach children in specific ways until the system of production, distribution and reception was instituted and became focused on how to socialize children through reading. Children’s needs were not necessarily taken into consideration. It was and still is the need of the economic order that dictates how children will be formed and what forms are or are not acceptable. (ibid., p. 46)

Here Zipes attempts to historicise the construction of children (‘how children will be formed’) and their literature while simultaneously arguing that children exist independently, as a group with their own needs. Once again, the parallel with the proletariat is clear, with children’s needs being supposedly obscured by the prevailing economic conditions, such that they are alienated from their species being (although given that many western children do not sell their labour in this manner, the parallel is rather difficult to sustain). Effectively, Zipes’ move once again creates a loophole in the unfolding of the dialectic, in that children seem to be left relatively untouched. In short, we seem to be back with the powerful figure of the Romantic child, who somehow stands outside ideology, or could do so, with a little help from the community of adult children’s literature critics.

Zipes is by no means alone in the way he figures children, of course. He just happens to be one of the best known and most eloquent critics in this area. Likewise, his treatment of fantasy is by no means exceptional. But just as children are figured as ciphers of some future utopia, so too is fantasy frequently read in terms of social critique, as offering alternative forms of sociality. Thus, for example, Zipes informs us that the fairy tale

opened up possibilities for children and adults to formulate innovative views about socialization, religious training, authority, sex roles, and art. For many late-Victorian authors, the writing of a fairy tale meant a process of creating an other world, from which vantage point they could survey conditions in the real world and compare them to their ideal projections. (Zipes, 1999, p. 133)

This tendency to see fantasy as, at worst, escapist and epiphenomenal or, at best, a blueprint for a more equable society, is fairly standard in Marxism. So too is a belief in some unproblematic ‘real world’ discernible outside ideology. Clearly, the main difference with writers more influenced by postmodernism is that the latter query our access to this bedrock of the real, which is – of course – to query Marxism’s hold on the historical pulse, its millenarian trajectory.

Instead of the traditional ‘grand narrative’ of Marxism, Jean-François Lyotard and others prefer to talk less grandiosely of the ‘little narrative’ (Lyotard, 1984, pp. xxiv, 60; ‘little narratives for little hands’, one is tempted to say, to adapt Beatrix Potter’s aphorism). For these latter writers, the real world is not something that can so easily be detached from ideology. Instead, in the light of the ‘linguistic turn’ in theorising, we are all seen to be ideologically situated (or ‘interpellated’, as Althusser would put it), as – through language – it is ideology that structures our social world. There are a number of Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers who have tried to think this through while holding on to the basic framework of Marxism (e.g. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, 1985, and Fredric Jameson, 1991), but here I want to concentrate on the work of the Slovenian Marxist/ Lacanian, Slavoj Žižek.

Briefly, Žižek argues for the centrality of fantasy, seeing it as far more embedded in our everyday lives. Indeed, we could not exist without it as, for Žižek, fantasy does not give us a false notion of reality, but is what structures reality in the first place, warding off that which lies outside In other words, fantasy is synonymous with ideology. As Žižek phrases it, in slightly more powerful terms, ‘The function of ideology is not to offer us a point of escape from our reality but to offer us the social reality itself as an escape from some traumatic, real kernel’ (Žižek, 2004, p. 722). Fantasy thus gives shape to our desires, providing us with a sense of coherence as a subject. So it is no good for some group of secure, white, middle-class, male intellectuals to proclaim, to more marginal groups, that they see through their fantasies, when the fantasies are the very thing that structure, or give meaning to their existence (for example, the feminist who is highly critical of women wearing high-heels and make-up, accusing them of being mere pawns of patriarchy; rather than recognising that the pleasures these items deliver are more intrinsic to a person’s identity, often giving the wearer a sense of power; see, for example, John Fiske, 1989, on Madonna; or Kate Soper, 1990). In terms of literature, then, we should try to recognise more openly the multiple pleasures that texts and their writers offer us, without necessarily decrying them for being simplistically reactionary or progressive. As Jean-Paul Sartre (1963, p. 56) sums it up, writing of the work of the French poet, Paul Valéry, he ‘is a petit bourgeois intellectual, no doubt about it. But not every petit bourgeois intellectual is Valéry’.

In order to take this further in a more concrete way, let me now turn to Bill Naughton’s famous and much anthologised story, ‘Spit Nolan’.

Re-reading Spit Nolan

I have examined this text by Bill Naughton (1968) elsewhere, and would like, quickly, to revisit that reading before taking it further (Rudd, 2000). Briefly, it’s the tale of a one-lunged waif, Spit Nolan, who is a champion trolley, or soapbox rider. He rises to a challenge from Leslie Duckett, who has been given his own custom-built trolley. They race down one of the few tarmac roads in Bolton (it seems to be set some time after the Great War). Leslie just beats Spit but, in the process, sends him careering into an oncoming charabanc, causing Spit’s death.

A Marxisant reading would no doubt pick up on the class differences: Spit – thin and undernourished in his holey jersey, only able to be cured if he ‘went away to Switzerland, which Spit certainly couldn’t afford’ (Naughton, 1968, p. 20) – against Leslie, ‘the plump son of the local publican’ in his ‘serge Sunday suit’ (ibid., pp. 23, 25). And not only class differences, for this thread is connected to one of nationality and colonisation: Spit Nolan is clearly Irish, up against the might of the plump English Duckett, whose father owns the pub, The British Queen, which gives Duckett’s trolley its name (Spit’s is named Egdam ‘in memory of a girl called Madge, whom he had once met at Southport Sanatorium, where he had spent three happy weeks …he had reversed the letters of her name to keep his love a secret’ (ibid., pp. 21-2)). One can detect a Marxist sense of owning one’s labour here, or else of experiencing alienation. Thus Leslie’s trolley, we are told, is ‘specially made to measure … by the gaffer of the Holt Engineering Works’ (ibid., p. 23) – not even, note, by one of the regular workers. The narrator comments that ‘nobody had ever had a trolley made by somebody else’; and Spit tells Leslie, ‘it’s got none of you in it … you haven’t so much as given it a single tap with a hammer’. He goes on, ‘That trolley will be a stranger to you to your dying day’ (ibid., p. 24) – a statement heavy with irony, as it turns out.

In historical terms, then, Ireland can only lose, replaying contests that have run for centuries, with the victors holding most of the cards. Thus Spit, a craft-worker with his trolley, a bricolage construction, is set against Leslie’s factory-made, precision British Queen, with its ‘beautiful ball-bearing wheels, engineering made, encased in oil’ (ibid., p. 28). The wheels of British Empire are metaphorically turned on Spit, reinforced literally in the way that The British Queen’s ‘heavy rear wheel’ tips Spit’s makeshift trolley into the equally ‘heavy solid …wheel’ of the charabanc (ibid.). Spit’s trolley thus ends ‘smashed-up’, transported away on the back of the victorious British Queen’ (ibid., p. 30).

The story’s ending is particularly interesting. It might be seen to reflect the historical situation of the Irish working-class in England (especially at this time) in the way that it re-inscribes the hegemonic power of the British. The opulent Leslie Duckett and his British Queen will therefore always win, albeit being saddled with the guilt over what they have done to the Irish. The final words of the story seem to endorse this:

Then [the ambulance man] touched me on the elbow with his pencil and said:

‘Where did he live?’

I knew then. That word ‘did’ struck right into me. But for a minute I couldn’t answer. I had to think hard, for the way he said it made it suddenly seem as though Spit Nolan had been dead and gone for ages’ (30).

Spit’s mythologisation at the end could thus be read as a subterfuge – religion, the opium of the masses, being the sop. Given that the Irish were also seen as more demonstrably (and Popishly) religious, this might give the story added poignancy for an English Protestant audience. The ambulance man’s unanswered question, ‘Where …?’, perhaps endorses this sense of Nolan’s displacement; what we might today discuss in terms of ‘diasporic identities’. Spit’s very surname, in fact, hints at this: ‘No land’.

However, many will also be disappointed with this ending, wanting, against the odds, for Spit to win. Spit could then be seen to function more like a Brer Rabbit figure, a trickster underdog overcoming more mighty opposition thanks to his guile and skill, emphasising the importance of recognising and owning one’s labour. In other words, readers could be presented with a working-class hero who might inspire others to fight against the system. Naughton’s story would then fit Ernst Bloch’s notion of a liberatory, utopian text. Naughton, however, himself an expatriate, working-class, Irish Catholic, chose not to have Spit triumph – which must make us cautious, especially as Naughton always declared a dislike for hack writing ‘as a sin against the Holy Spirit – from which source all literature springs.’ He continues: ‘what a writer needed most was the impulse to tell the story or incident he had in his heart to tell’ (Naughton, 1987, p. 33) – a stance that has parallels with what Zipes terms ‘genuine storytelling’, that which sets out to expose ‘sham and hypocrisy’ (Zipes, 2001, p. 145).

However, the dilemma over the ending arises only if we insist on making the socio-political context the ground from which the story has to make sense. Moreover, if we are to explain it in class terms, we have the added problem of dealing with the story’s wider appeal – without, that is, resorting to notions about it invoking a nostalgia for some golden age of innocence, for lost childhoods, solid values, or whatever. Following Žižek’s lead, we can perhaps see the story as fashioned out of a number of threads, which themselves circle around the staging of more basic issues of identity or, indeed, its lack: in death. Seen in such terms, we can take more seriously (rather than ideologically, epiphenomenally) issues of religion and, indeed, pleasure in general.

It seems to me that there are two other key discourses that frame this tale, which are themselves interwoven: love and religion. In order to make most sense of them some biographical information is also pertinent – not simply in the fact that Naughton grew up at the time and place of the story’s events, but that, just as ‘Egdam’ encodes Madge, so ‘Spit Nolan’ encodes Bill Naughton (if we reverse the /t/ and /l/ letters, phonetically he becomes ‘Spill Norton’). Naughton also called one of his volumes of memoirs Saintly Billy, in which he reveals (with some satisfaction) that he himself was often seen in this ascetic light. However, in this volume of memoirs we are presented with another Saintly Billy: Naughton’s Uncle William, a soft, gentle Irishman, who committed suicide by slashing his throat, depressed as a result of the 1921 miners’ strike: ‘Uncle William, God rest his soul, … was to die in the ambulance as it drove through the streets of Bolton on that sunny June morning’ (Naughton, 1988, p. 77).

In Spit’s story, religious imagery is rife, with the hero sounding very much a Christ figure: he is described as ‘almost godlike’ on the Sunday when the race is to be held; his disciples round him, pulling his trolley up the hill (as Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’s cross), and the hill reminds one of Calvary, accentuated by the ‘faint sweated glow …over Spit’s face’, like a halo. He even rides ‘belly-down … lying flat on his trolley’ (Naughton, 22, 27); that is, on a ‘piece of wood about five feet in length’ (21) with a cross piece of wood (for steering the front wheels) attached to it – a regular crucifix. His death is also foreshadowed, with the race being held ominously on ‘Cemetery Brew’, and with Spit being presented with a flower from the cemetery, described by Spit as having ‘a ’eavenly smell!’ (26). Even as he rides, ‘gliding, as it were, over the rough patches’, he is thought to be ‘a bird that might suddenly open out its wings and fly clean into the air’ (27) – a veritable soul in ascension.

Yet there seems to be even more to it than this. The name ‘Madge’ signifies both Spit’s lost love and his trolley (there are parallels with Citizen Kane’s sledge, ‘Rosebud’). But beyond this, the name ‘Madge’ literally means ‘pearl’, and there would seem to be parallels with the medieval religious poem of that name.i In ‘The Pearl’, the main character bemoans the loss of his love: his precious daughter, Pearl. Lying on a ‘flowery mead’ (Spit, of course, ends up lying amongst ‘yellow rose petals’), we are told of how his ‘spirit sprang forth in space’ as he envisions her. She is described as a ‘little queen’ of heaven, not lost, but there awaiting him, in the manner of the ‘Mother of Jesus, our Lady sweet’ – just as Madge, Spit’s Pearl, is presumably waiting for him. In these terms Spit can be seen to have won the bigger prize – a place in heaven alongside his ‘little queen’, leaving Duckett (whose name also suggests ‘ducats’, money – that which should be rendered unto Caesar) with his British Queen very much in second place (at the end Duckett actually defers to Spit, using, for the first and only time, a lower-class, Lancashire dialect: ‘Thee! …Tha just licked me.’ – Naughton, 1968, p. 29).

Of course, aside from the religious discourse there is the more amatory one of Spit riding ‘belly-down’ on Madge, giving the tale a certain sexual frisson; also her reversed name, ‘Egdam’, besides foreshadowing the doom of a chess ‘endgame’, more positively carries connotations of rebirth – of eggs, dams, damsels – or, of resurrection.

In this revised reading a number of discursive elements have been identified – intermixing class, nationality and colonialism with autobiographical, religious, sexual and amatory threads. It is suggested that, by taking note of all of these we are some way nearer to capturing the complex pleasures of the text, its sources of jouissance (by which is meant both its bitter-sweetness, its pleasure and pain); and, as I have suggested, at the centre of these lurks an omnipresent fear of death, of non-existence. This is an area where we all rely on ideological support, where we continually need to tell ourselves stories in order to ward off what Žižek earlier termed ‘some traumatic, real kernel’. In more Lacanian terms, this kernel represents an intrusion of the Real; that is, a disruption of the order of the Symbolic, where signs give us a place and a name – where, in short, we keep ourselves pacified with stories.

For Lacan the Symbolic, despite the best attempts of any ideology, is always ultimately flawed; it is porous, and therefore the very place where the surplus of the Real will encroach. In Naughton’s story, Spit has been shown in this tenuous light from the outset: marginal and one-lunged, he exists at the interstices of society’s main discourses – a bricoleur, as I’ve described him – not even possessing a proper name (‘Spit’ itself suggests abjection, gesturing towards that most abject of all things: death). When, therefore, Leslie’s wheel strikes Spit’s and the charabanc appears, the Symbolic order is disrupted. But though Spit is seen to die in the Real, he is narrated, mythically, as living on in the Symbolic. He is what Žižek (1999, p. 170) describes as being ‘between two deaths’. For Žižek, such figures are seen to possess a ‘sublime beauty’. They are paradoxical, representing that which is not normally representable; hovering, in this case, between the Symbolic and that which lies beyond it: the Real.

It should also be noted that this story is the narrator’s fantasy (i.e. it is the story told by a homodiegetic character called ‘Bill’) – not Spit’s. It is Bill who gives this tale its Imaginary glow; that is, who reads Spit’s life and death in terms of a spiritual ascension, rising like Elijah in his chariotii (the ‘Imaginary’ being that realm of wholeness, of plenitude, which we think we once enjoyed with the mother). Thus the relation of Spit to his Egdam, and to his little heavenly mother, helps suture this story into grander and more comforting cultural narratives. In Lacanian terms, this is the narrator’s ‘quilting-point’, the point from which he stitches together the elements of a story in a particular way.

Fantasy, then, is essential to our being, helping us to live, to make sense of (or to quilt) a reality that is always flawed; in other words, that has parts which cannot be narrated without rupture because of historical circumstances (struggles of class, colonialism and nationalism, in this instance). Fantasies both show us the coordinates of our desire, but also hint at the way our desires are fabricated, and at how they might be otherwise. Spit Nolan is, thus, actually ‘split’ Nolan. The way he has been narrated might patch over some divisions while simultaneously revealing others – and ones to which we will continually return (they are the faultlines in our society, representing a return of the Real, as Fredric Jameson (1991) would say), and will continue to be worried over. However, this does not necessarily mean that we, participating in such pleasures, are ourselves seduced by these so-called opiates of the masses. Rather than reflect ideology, then, Naughton’s story reworks it (Pierre Macherey’s insight). Ideology is both restored and ‘re-storied’ in the process, delivering a sense of existential pleasure (perhaps), while recognising the local, cultural coordinates of its satisfactions.

So, to return to matters raised at the beginning of this paper, I am suggesting that the tendency of Marxist writers to use the child as a symbol of the good society to come, or as a symbolic victim of a currently divisive and inequitable society (as is more the case with ‘Spit’) often loses sight of the more complex pleasures offered by texts – even if these pleasures sometimes seem worthless, crude and cheap; or, in more Marxist terms, expressing false-consciousness. This is especially a tendency amongst traditional Marxists who feel that they hold the reins of history and, somehow, themselves stand outside the historical process (in this paper, never having had childhoods). The commonly used imagery of the midwife, giving birth to a new child / society, is revealing here, in the way that it turns the child into a symbol once again. Some, more recent Marxist thinkers have relinquished this grand narrative, though, recognising the way that they, too, are subject to multifarious narrative threads, which should not be so readily dismissed by fiat. Equally so, the tendency to use children merely as convenient symbols of a former, or future, paradisiacal state is slowly being challenged and unpacked.


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Inglis, Fred (1981) The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children’s Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Inglis, Fred (1997) ‘Enid Blyton, Malcolm Saville and the good society’ in Nicholas Tucker and Kimberley Reynolds (eds) Enid Blyton: A Celebration and Reappraisal, London: NCRCL, pp. 127-33

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Žižek, Slavoj (1999) The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso

Žižek, Slavoj (2004) ‘The Sublime object of ideology’ in Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd ed., edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 712-24

i Naughton, brought up a Catholic, despised the dogma of the church, but was deeply religious in a more mystical sense, finding comfort in such medieval works as Thomas à Kempis’ Of the Imitation of Christ (Naughton, 1987, p. 31), after which he named his final home in the Isle of Man.

ii Of course, as any Biblical scholar will point out, Elijah did not actually do this: he ascended in a whirlwind.

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