An appreciation of Bill's work by Dave Burnham




Bill had been writing from the age of 28, keeping a journal mostly but attempting short stories too.  But he had had nothing published and probably had not even submitted anything.  So what changed?  What brought about this flood of creativity and success?   There may be several reasons.  First of all his journal was, he claimed, never meant for publication.  Secondly, and I believe this is immensely significant, yrafe graniteoung Bill was trapped in the deeply embedded class based default position: working people were not meant to write!  This was emphasised by workmates as well as his family.  His mother had not taken seriously the suggestion that Bill sit for an exam to go to grammar school when he was fourteen.  His pal fat Steve thought of Bill’s reading as a time filler only.  Honest Tom at the co-op stables advised him that he’d never make a writer while he had ‘a hole in his arse’.  And as a lad his experience was that the guardians of anything cultural or regarded with respect in Bolton was not for the likes of him.  Young Bill speaks of the ‘guard’ on the door of the library looking the likes of him up and down as he entered.  At the tribunal he attended in 1940 which examined his claim to be a conscientious objector one of the panel of the local good and great responded to his use of the word ‘background’ (as in a ‘man of my background’), by asking where Bill had learned that word, as if the use of it were some sort of trick, that a coal lorry driver would only use as some sort of ruse.  All the books Bill read were produced by people with an education, with money, with a leg-up from daddy.  Few enough were written by people from his ‘background’.  (Strangely enough one of the working people who did break through in the 1930s, Walter Greenwood from Salford who wrote Love on the Dole, became a neighbour of Bill’s on the Isle of Man decades later).  Finally Bill Naughton’s life before 1938 had been patterned by long hours as a coal delivery driver, his family and his mates.  Bowls, pigeons, wrestling, the pub and family visits – these were working class pursuits, not writing! 

For all that Bill Naughton was something of his own man.  Whether his claim to feel different from his mates has any merit, he was, as a Catholic and the son of an immigrant family, a bit of an outsider.  His form of physical exercise, individual calisthenics and yoga was not something shared.  He did not go to Wanderers – or at least he never mentions doing so.  And he reports that after his baby son Sean died in 1935 he gave up nights out at the pub.  By 1937 he was in a decent, secure job delivering coal – even if it was open to the elements and blindly repetitious.  The job had a pension and his family had a new council tenancy, but by this time the failings of his marriage were becoming obvious.  He and Nan had nothing in common.  He was looking for something.  He found it in 1938.  That summer Bill stumbled across Mass Observation (MO).  MO, the brain child of poet Charles Madge and anthropologist Tom Harrisson, set out to ‘observe’ the behaviour of ordinary people in Bolton, recording precisely what they did and said.  Volunteers would listen to conversations and watch people at work, in the pub, on the bus, anywhere, and record their observations precisely.  Harrisson explained that the point of this ‘anthropology of ourselves’ was to help people understand each other, especially political leaders, who he suggested had no idea how working people lived.  Bill’s volunteering with MO had him rubbing shoulders with students and intellectuals: coming men like novelist and Spanish Civil War veteran John Sommerfield, Medical student Brian Barefoot, Sociologist Dennis Chapman, future journalist Woodrow Wyatt and possibly people like Harold Wilson and Dick Crossman – each of whom spent a week or so in Bolton.  Bill would never have come across men of education, privilege or aspiration before, and certainly not on an equal basis. Men such as this had only ever been his teachers or bosses: his betters. There was also an Austrian sociologist, Gertrud Wagner.  She had been involved in the seminal study of unemployment, Marienthal, in Austria but had decided to leave as Nazism took hold. She was in Bolton working on a survey of how working people saved money.  Bill was asked to take her to a wrestling match.  They hit it off.  They started an affair – an affair which, on an off, was to last ten years. Bill also wrote a few reports for MO and therefore imbibed the notoriously (some would say) detailed instructions of what volunteers were to look out for.  This acute observation was to become the key tool of Bill’s approach to writing So Bill owed Madge and particularly Harrisson a great debt.  And meeting all these Oxbridge men and exposure to a world of ideas, aspiration and entitlement must have had a considerable impact on him.     

After this introduction to a different way of life and taking the step of entering a long lasting affair was he ever going to settle back to just delivering coal and going home to Nan?  We’ll never know because then the whole world was turned upside down. He registered as a Conscientious Objector (CO) in 1939, even though nothing in his previous actions or attitudes had suggested he might contemplate, indeed, he had in the 1920s even tried to join the Royal Navy!  Although working for the co-op delivering coal he was in a reserved occupation, after the invasion of France in 1940 the co-op decided to sack all COs.  Faced with what others might think of as a disaster Bill’s decision was immediate. He left Nan and the children and followed ‘Gerti’, eventually to London where he soon found himself work as a civil defense driver.  This move led to Bill’s introduction to another different world.  In Vienna Gerti had been part of a social democratic opposition to Nazism and had escaped in the mid-thirties to Britain.  Later her best friend in Vienna, Annie Weisselberg and Annie’s husband Marcel had got out – lucky for him as he was Jewish. But Annie was as much an ‘outsider’ as Marcel.  She was a Theosophist, which was an esoteric (not to say whacky) religion practiced by people who could be described as 1930s style hippies.  In Newbury where they bought a house Annie worked for the Dutch government in exile and Marcel ran a timber business, employing many refugees. These people were educated professionals, with liberal views and had mixed in cosmopolitan circles in Vienna.  They had managed to get enough cash out of Austria to live a comfortable life, their children benefitting from ponies, travel, a good education and exposure to a continuing stream of political, intellectual and bohemian exiles from across Europe.  When Gerti gave birth to Bill’s baby, Bernard (Barney), in 1941 she stayed at the Weisselbergs and Bill moved his other children Larry and Marie to live in there too: a bustling, somewhat privileged household. 

So here he was associated with central European intellectuals, but otherwise isolated in a strange city being bombed to smithereens by the Luftwaffe.  Not surprising then that the stiff carapace of discouragement about his life and particularly writing was knocked about a bit.  And think about it, could there have been a more stark change of scene for Bill Naughton, lorry driver from a Johnson Fold Council House, with his calloused hands, Catholic sensibilities and life patterned by a gruelling fifty hour week?  

The Gaps

The intimate and detailed observational techniques used by Mass Observation volunteers in Bolton between 1937 and 1939 can be seen in much of what Naughton wrote.  His dialogue sings with authenticity in radio play, film and on the page.  However much Bill Naughton had been an ‘observer’ before MO, the focussed approach demanded by Tom Harrisson of Bolton volunteers became embedded in the young man’s thinking.  The experience of looking, listening and taking notes became central to his approach to writing.  Strangely he made a very few comments about this and never in his published work, as far as I can tell, used the phrase ‘Mass Observation’ in anything he wrote.  Naughton has a piece in the MO publication of 1961 (Britain Revisited) for which ex MO volunteers wrote follow ups, or reviews of their work in the thirties 25 years after the original project, but even in that Naughton does not mention his connection with MO. 

And there is no mention in anything he wrote about Gertrud, his two children by her or his or his children’s exposure to (and welcome from) the Weisselbergs; nothing either about the stream of Dutch, Austrian and French exiles who passed through their home, nor indeed about meeting the British intellectuals who stayed for a week or so each at the Davenport Street HQ of MO in Bolton in 1937/38: people the like of which he would never have met before.  In A Roof Over Your Head (1945) and On The Pig’s Back (1984) Naughton hints at having a ‘partner’ at the end of the war.  He does not name or describe her, but this is Gerti his lover of ten years standing. Bill simply says he decided against reviving domestic responsibilities and he tells of their parting at Victoria Station as sad but amicable.  And that’s all.  There is one story which tells a version of his tale; Away from Home which is in the Late Night on Watling Street collection.  Originally this was published in Lilliput Magazine as A Man’s Life in 1950, after his first trips ‘home’ to Mayo in the late 1940s, after Gerti and her children had returned to Austria.  1950 was also the year of his divorce from his first wife Nan.  At the start the tale is an amalgam of his parents’ early lives; emigration of a young woman to America, return, marriage and three children, a mishap or two followed by poverty in Mayo and the husband leaving to work in England to send cash home.   Dominic, the husband, works in England but then in Liverpool on his way home he is waylaid by drink and the chance of good money at the docks.  He stays and falls in with a young Belgian maid, Marie, at his lodgings and a baby, Sean, is born.  But after a while an uncle appears from Belgium and spirits Marie and the baby home.  Dominic stays in Liverpool sending toys and letters to Sean for years, no thought for his family in Mayo.  Then during a dock strike he takes a trip to Belgium to find poor Sean dead these three years. Lost, Dominic eventually returns to Mayo to a kind welcome from his original family.   It is the memory of Sean which animates the character in the tale, not any sorrow for his lover or sense of betrayal of his family in Ireland.  The death of Naughton’s own infant son, Sean, in 1935 obviously feeds the heart of this tale, but the structure is that of his own life with his betrayal of his first family and being left by Gerti with his second.  An additional excruciating poignancy is that Barney, Bill Naughton’s first son with Gerti, born in 1941, died in 1957.  He was 16.      

Much of Naughton’s writing is intimate and he does not shy away from exposing his own foolishness, ignoble thoughts, ill-judged actions and lusts.  He also has a reputation for naming names – many of his fictional characters have the names of real people and in some of his work it is relatively simple to find the places he mentions: Skinny Nancy’s, Bibby’s chip shop, the Derby Street Picture House.  All the more peculiar then that in his published work there is nothing of the volunteers or activities of MO, Gerti, even of Nan and the children there is precious little.  But in the Bill Naughton Collection in Bolton Library there are extensive notes for a fourth volume of autobiography. This includes painful detail about Nan’s 1930 pregnancy which forced the couple to elope and the subsequent problems in his marriage.  Nan was dead by the time the notes for this work were written so perhaps that freed Bill up to reveal some of himself which was not flattering.  But we don’t know what he would have included of these intimate concerns in any publication. This fourth book, to have been called Wine and Roses or Young and Foolish, was never published.  And even here, even though Nan appears in the notes for Young and Foolish she is never properly described, nor given a voice.   She, like Gertrud and Erna (Bill’s second wife), in whatever Bill wrote, are not active characters, just occasional sounding boards.

For someone who prided himself on his honesty in writing this is odd indeed. At the same time he was scrupulous in never telling a lie in thank you letters for gifts he did not appreciate.  In the few of these letters I have read Naughton remains kind and expresses his thanks without actually praising the gift: convoluted but honest. So was he hypocritical in his treatment of the troubles and betrayals in his life?  The embarrassment of leaving his wife during the war, farming his children out, fathering two illegitimate children with his lover and then seemingly abandoning her must have been acute and there is no doubt Naughton was sensitive to this.  In 1963 All In Good Time then Alfie were great hits at the Mermaid theatre, which made him famous and drew attention to him.  A review in The Observer that June was a little snooty about his Northerness, implying a naïve approach to his writing.  But the piece also referred to him having settled down somewhat since his marriage in 1952 to Erna, curbing his previous ‘exuberant sexuality’ - a clear reference to his affair with Gerti.  Naughton was livid.  He threatened to sue.  He wanted to keep things quiet.  However, on balance, I think there was no hypocrisy about this.  He neither claims sainthood for himself nor lies about his own behaviour.  He just does not mention certain things or slides over them.  He does not want to publicise those things he is not proud of, so he just remains silent.   

So he had things he felt obliged to hide…and Erna, his second wife, carried on hiding those things until she died: possibly because she had a reputation to lose as well.  She, at the age of twenty, met 38 year-old Bill in 1948 while Gertrude was pregnant with her second child with Bill.  Erna, young and fresh from Austria, was employed to care for the children and help Gerti out.  But once the baby was born Gerti almost immediately returned to Vienna with both her children.  Was this a decision the outcome of a slow culmination of feeling that her future was not with Bill?  Or had there been a more traumatic falling out?  Had Erna caught Bill’s eye already – before the baby was born?  We’ll never know. 

Bill Naughton’s silence about the influence of Mass Observation is more perplexing.  I wonder if it was because he wanted to be seen to have achieved what he did entirely on his own.  His achievement in getting his first short stories published from where he was - a driver with twenty years manual work behind him and no education, no sponsor, no money and a publishing industry attuned to the cadences of middle class sensibilities – all this was extraordinary enough.  And later success is entirely down to him: his obsession with writing, his determination, his securing of a wife who was a constant support.  And his approach of paying comprehensive attention to detail in his work and his rewriting, honing, shifting formats and so on meant that what was presented for publication was complete and engaging.  He also took on any work he could – scriptwriting for children’s TV, adverts, more short stories, on and on and on.      

Once into his stride Naughton’s output was not only prolific but had considerable breadth: short stories, non-fiction articles, novels, radio plays, TV scripts, stage plays and film scripts, writing for both adults and children.  This is uncommon, writers generally prefer one or two forms as a primary vehicle.  But not being meant to write anyway he could have been forgiven for thinking, ‘well, if I can get short stories published without the benefit of a middle-class education, why not write radio plays, and TV?’.  If, like Naughton back then, you are making it up as you went along, there are no boundaries are there? So why mention Mass Observation?  He’d done it on his own. 


Autobiography and Fiction

 Naughton’s autobiographical output was considerable; On The Pig’s Back (1984), Saintly Billy (1987) and Neither Use Nor Ornament (1994).  These cover his life from arrival in Bolton in 1914 to his leaving school at the age of 14 in 1924 and were all written at the end of his life.  There are also notes in Bolton Archive’s ‘Bill Naughton Collection’ for a fourth autobiography, to have been called Wine and Roses (or Young and Foolish). His first Novel, A Roof over your Head (1945) is wholly autobiographical, focussing on the early years of his marriage, unemployment and poverty.  Naughton’s 1957 novel One Small Boy is also semi-autobiographical and many of his short stories revive his childhood or working years.    

Apart from odd exceptions his fiction follows a pattern, being about working class men or boys set in a recognisable ‘present’ of his childhood years or early manhood and based either in a barely disguised Bolton, or in London, or on one or two occasions in Mayo.  

It would be naïve to assume that an author writing about his life, or dramatizing real events, is writing accurately.  A writer’s trade is to interest readers and embellishment is one of the ways dull reality can be made interesting. Bill Naughton did make things up, but invariably around something he knew.  For instance in Roof he mentions a young lad dying of fumes in a cotton ‘kier’ (a huge pressure cooker) at the mercerising croft.  No one died while he worked at the Ainsworth Mercerising Company, but a year after he left two young men were scalded on opening a kier and one died.  Naughton simply time shifts the event.  There are a few short stories about prison (On the Run, 24 Hours Out, All Correct Sir), of which he had no direct experience.  These derive from a visit he made to Strangeways Prison in 1948 and the development of his friendship with the governor there, Charles Cape.  His Mayo tales appear after his visits to Ballyhaunis in 1945 and 1948.  He wrote several short stories about long distance lorry driving, including Late Night on Watling Street, The Jimmy Diddle and The Tell Tale Clock, and a third of the novel Pony Boy includes long distance lorry trips.  He was never a long distance lorry driver, but he did drive a coal delivery lorry in Bolton and from 1938 onwards travelled back and forth between London and Bolton along the A5 hitching lifts in lorries, becoming fascinated by that life’s strange romance.  

Much of his material follows his own life path.  So in the short story Weaver’s Knot a young boy starts work in a weaving shed working with a loom fettler, the only other male in a clattering maelstrom of noise and women.  The boy is put with Hetty, a 29 year old weaver, and she shows him the ropes.  This is exactly what happened with young Billy when he started at Kershaw’s weaving shed at fourteen.

The use of ‘Skinny Nancy’, the eponymous character in a story in The Goalkeeper’s Revenge is absolutely preciseShe also appears again in On the Pig’s Back and Saintly Billy having first appeared in a short story La Belle Dame and the Toy Shop (Lilliput, Jan 1950)In the story Nancy runs a dusty sports shop on Derby Street.   The tale focusses on how this crabby old woman offers a kind but secret deal to young Bill for something he desperately wants.  In the tale she dies as the shop burns to the ground.  She not only existed but despite her real name being Harriet Davenport everybody knew her as ‘Skinny Nancy’ running her toy shop at 246 Derby Street. Everything in the tale rings true, though she died of natural causes in 1935, not in a fire. 

And specific real life incidents fill Naughton’s fiction.  Here in the vignettes below about his first marriage, which are from unpublished notes, are the seeds of the incident which appears in Rafe Granite/Spring and Port Wine which sends Daisy to her doom: 

One Evening…Nan (Naughton’s wife) found herself thinking to leave me.  I was full of mean talk.  I had discovered some little debt of hers.  (Roof, p114). 

He found out about the debt when he was talking to a debt collector on his coal round.  Bill slowly realised that our own home was on the list of bad debts …clothes coupons at so much a week.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had no idea of the debts.   (ZNA 1/352/10)

And Naughton uses some incidents more than once, the ‘the haircut’ and ‘first day at work’.  Being two examples. The haircut appears in a short story as well as in On the Pig’s Back and Saintly Billy.   The impact of a tough ten hour day’s labour on a man who is not used to it appears first in A Roof Over Your Head, then in an early version of the radio play Jackie Crowe, then in radio plays A Day’s Coalbagging, November Day, then On the Pig’s Back and finally in Lighthearted Intercourse (1970, revived in 2012).


Naughton’s Narrative Voice


Bill Naughton did not belong to any literary grouping and eschewed literary society.  Neither did he much stray in his work from attempting to represent a form of reality.  His work in the 1950s was neither mannered nor magical, neither iconoclastic nor traditional, neither Rattigan nor Beckett or Pinter.  His work, focusing on working class life, was published in the 1940s and 1950s but did not grab national attention.  Until 1960 Naughton’s income relied on short stories and an emerging talent for radio plays, most based on earlier short stories. Naughton also wrote about thirty scripts for TV series, Nathaniel Titlark, Yorky, and Starr and Co whose episodes included some of Naughton’s familiar themes.  He only came to national prominence in the early 1960s with his Mermaid Theatre stage plays All in Good Time and Alfie.  Writing about working class life in 1960 it is understandable that he was associated with that time’s wave of working class writers, many from Northern England; Waterhouse, Barstow, Sillitoe, Delaney, Wesker.  But these writers were a generation younger than Naughton and most had attended grammar school, while Naughton had made do with an elementary school, leaving at 14.  The Northern wave also had a political edge, flourishing in the early 1960s, when the fabric of Attlee’s post war ‘New Jerusalem’ was coming under scrutiny.  The Northern wave were saying, ‘we’re still here, we’re still poor, we want more!’

In 1960 Naughton was 50 years old, no thrusting youngster.  He had broken into the literary world on the back of challenging material, but in the late 1940s.  He was lucky then because for a brief time at war’s end there was a vogue for social commentary, as working people, after the dour and dangerous privations of wartime, hoped (and voted) for an improvement on the grim 1930s.  This explains the huge success of Joan Temple’s play about abusive foster parents, No Room at the Inn (1945) and the popularity of such films as David Lean’s This Happy Breed (1944), Great Expectations (1946) Oliver Twist (1948).  Naughton’s A Roof Over Your Head (1945) rode that brief wave of interest in social commentary and launched his career.   

Naughton’s startling success during the 1960s, with the same sort of material he had been using since 1943, was helped because social commentary became fashionable again.  He had not adapted to the age, but by the 1960s the world had come full circle, back to the ‘kitchen sink’ he had been toiling at for twenty years.


Working Class Culture

Naughton’s writing is about people.  He describes settings only inasmuch as it allows us to see the people clearly.  And people are described in basic terms, red hair, tall and so on, but not much more.  Big Corner, the mercerising croft, the Cromptons’ council house are described simply, skeletally almost. Our understanding of the people emerges within a ’lifescape’, Naughton evoking the world of his characters by telling of the sounds and smells around them, their back stories and most of all the detail of the way things happened and what people did – how ashpits were emptied, how street games were played, how people walked tall on a Friday afternoon.  The working class lifescape was a key theme of his work; championing the culture he was brought up in. He wrote about life lived, not some crude underclass, itching to escape.  He understood he and his pals’;

…deprivation [was] so bred in…we were unable to grasp it was anything other than what might normally be expected from life (Saintly Billy p88),  

And in Roof he was clear about the physical dangers of work at the croft and the daily drudgery of delivering coal.  But for all that his family and pals were not clinging on in pale desperation, in fear and filth. No, they occupied an intricately layered world; vibrant, complex, valid.   

And there is a clear difference between his work and the 1960s generation of working class writers.  Their material – Billy Liar, A Kind of Loving, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and so on - include characters pushing against the chains of their upbringing, all potential ‘escapees’.  Most of these characters fail to ‘escape’ or acquiesce in the end, but their theme is flight from their background. The same could be said of later writers about working class culture, such as Alan Bleasdale and especially in plays like Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita. There is a strong implication here that ‘bettering’ yourself, was exactly that, which inadvertently maybe demeaned those ‘left behind’: their lives implicitly seen as less worthy, less meaningful than those who grabbed at an education, went off to London and so on.  Naughton’s alternative to this is epitomised by the comment Billy Connolly made on being made a knight of the realm.  ‘People say I came from nothing. I didn’t come from nothing.  I came from something!’  Similarly to admit today to having been brought up on a council estate is to imply dull beginnings and ‘betterment’ since. This was not the case until the 1980s. Before that nearly half the British population lived in local authority housing and as Ian Waites (architect and blogger) says To me it was a good world to live in.  I belong to it.  So do you.

Naughton’s work is different from the early sixties working class wave in that he accepts working class culture as legitimate, not something to escape from. Naughton’s characters may want to escape their circumstances (Alfie, Arthur Fitton, Hilda and Florence Crompton), but to achieve their own independence within their own culture. Simon Hoggart commented in The Guardian in (21/8/70) of a Liverpool production of Spring and Port Wine, the characters settle for an uneasy acceptance of their own background and upbringing.  I’m not sure Bill Naughton saw it as uneasy. He had undoubtedly escaped hard labour and poor wages, but with his gift for friendship he kept up with many men from his coal lorry and civil defence days throughout his life.  And after moving to the Isle of Man, during Bolton Holidays he was off down to the quay at Douglas listening for the accent, watching out for old pals.

And while he was certainly not traditionally ‘political’ but he was not blind.  His analysis of the 1921 miner’s lock out (Saintly Billy p51 – 54) is acute and his anger at the wrong done miners through the twentieth century is deep.  But the emphasis is on the impact on the miners as people, and he offers no sweeping political programme. 

Similarly despite his reputation as apolitical his focus is about righting a wrong:

in no fiction that I read was one given any true idea of how human beings actually lived, and almost every portrayal of working class life and people that I read was a travesty.  No wonder the different classes had such absurd notions of how one another lived.  I felt it was my personal obligation to rectify this disparity (On the Pig’s Back, p34).

There is an echo here of Tom Harrisson’s motivation for launching Mass Observation in Bolton, as an anthropology of ourselves; in particular to educate affluent people who had no idea how working people lived. The snooty response of London reviewers to Naughton’s work reveals just how vast the cultural divide was in the 1950s between the southern elite and northern interlopers.  David Williams in The Manchester Guardian (3/12/1957) refers to Naughton’s childhood house as a slum, and the Panther edition of One Small Boy (1967) quotes a New Statesman review that Naughton was brought up in a Lancashire slum.  This would have irritated Naughton and devastated his mother.  Even the praise is laced with metropolitan hauteur.  An Observer review of Timothy a ‘North Country’ radio play, sad, funny…authentic…another example of the excellent things that come from the Regions (4/11/56). Ken Tynan, acute as ever, noticed this and mischievously quotes from the programme of the Mermaid’s production of All in Good Time:

…although the theme is poverty the bluff northerners are proud people,

 …making Bolton, comments Tynan, sound as quaint and remote as Lapland (The Observer 10/3/63).       

In truth there was an elegiac quality about Naughton’s writing about his childhood and working tales.  This is not just the vibrant melancholy many of us feel for times past.  Naughton’s voice in, say, A Dog Called Nelson, or November Day is reminiscent of Richard Hoggart’s tone in The Uses of Literacy (1957) in which the memories of Hoggart’s childhood world in Leeds are not just melancholic because he has grown up and away but because the world he was part of has gone: the type of work, the closeness of family and community, the very streets and workplaces at the heart of that life, all gone.  In Bolton, the weaving sheds are gone, mills used for other purposes and the site of Naughton’s Unsworth Street home is now occupied by a mosque.  A feature in the Observer (June 1963) captures Naughton’s tone well:

…in conversation as well as in his writing he never really leaves the lost, rather romanticised world of his youth.  In a sense he has never grown beyond it and it remains very real to him. 


Side Alleys

It would be misleading to suggest that Naughton’s entire output derived from his Bolton experiences. There are a number of very different pieces of work.  The TV scripts he wrote for the series Nathaniel Titlark, Yorky and Starr and Co are examples.  They were not to his taste – he had to work with characters created by other people and in tandem with other writers.  But on Nathaniel Titlark he established a friendship with Bernard Miles (who played the lead character) who later put on All in Good Time than Alfie at the Mermaid Theatre.  These productions made Naughton’s reputation.  But the TV work was ‘needs must’.  It provided an income.  Two plays produced in the 1960s, at the height of his reputation were his own creations and way off his usual ‘beat’.  The premise of He Was Gone When They Got There (staged at the Mermaid in 1965) was that the government has a computer Simon, (Secret Intelligence Memoranda on the Nation) which has been fed data about all UK citizens.  But one man, the last free man, cannot be pinned down.  This is Badger Brown of Abbotsbottom. Badger has had the tax system explained to him but decides he does not want to join.  Two undercover civil servants are sent to sort Badger out.  Still with clanging resonance today, the idea was as modern as could be – the little man facing down the creeping tendrils of malevolent bureaucracy - a million miles from Unsworth Street.   Despite riding the wave of his success and Peter Sellers voicing the computer, He Was Gone failed. 

Another oddity was the radio play, The Mystery (1972) based it seems on a dream in which a man substitutes himself for his pets to be neutered.  I wonder if these diversions from what he knew was strengthened by a commentary about him in the Observer (23/6/63).  The writer obviously knew a bit about Naughton and commented that his exuberant sexuality had been quieted since his marriage to Erna in 1952. But perhaps the reviewer’s other comments had a longer term impact.  The suggestion was that Naughton’s commitment to his childhood somehow confirmed an immaturity and inability to write about anything else.  Did this spur him into a different sort of content?  Possibly, although the idea for He Was Gone was bubbling away as early as 1959.

Work published in the 1970s, like Lighthearted Intercourse, Alfie Darling and children’s books A Dog Called Nelson and My Pal Spadger saw Naughton return to home territory.  Nevertheless He Was Gone is perhaps the clearest exposition in Naughton’s work of the free spirit tied down. Naughton himself always said he preferred working outside. Having experienced being cooped up with hundreds in the claustrophobia of a weaving shed he tried to escape to sea, then worked in a vast shed with only five others, then chose to work on a horse and cart outside, no matter the rain and cold.  Then he was seduced by the idea of long distance lorry driving.  And when he felt cornered as a young man he burned his bridges; trying to join the Navy, eloping, escaping to London in the 1940s.  His primary characters are free spirits and their nemesis the tied soul.  This is a regular trope in fiction, but shines forth in many of his characters – Hilda Crompton, Spadger, Spit Nolan, Alfie Elkins.  And he remained a free spirit himself - immune to the temptations brought on by celebrity and wealth.  He remained unclubbable, kept up with old friends, avoided public attention and withdrew with Erna to the Isle of Man.

Low Drama

Associated with the emphasis on working class culture is Naughton’s focus on workaday aspects of life; life lived in the everyday, which must be recorded so;

When I read through the diaries it is the big thought that is stiff, pompous and dead on the page, and these tiny ones that have life.  They are as I wrote them, in bed, lorry, lavatory.   (Roof p140)

As David Pierce points out (The Irish Theme in the Writings of Bill Naughton, Estudios Irlandeses, 2005), the larger sweep of history has no place in Bill Naughton’s work, apart from as background if relevant, like miners’ strikes.  Neither, as we have seen, does the high drama of his own life much inform his writing – uncle Willy’s suicide, his elopement, his affair with Gerti. It’s Naughton’s low drama, the petty crises of daily life which dominate his fiction – getting a haircut, Spit Nolan’s trolley race, his first day at work, a man’s unease about going bald (Crowning Glory, Lilliput 1949). All these things his readers can understand.  It is where we all live.   

One aspect of his work which contradicts the point about low drama is the number of characters in his tales who die - Spit Nolan, Skinny Nancy, Hetty’s baby (Weaver’s Knot), Timothy the budgerigar, Spadger (My Pal Spadger), Nelson (A Dog Called Nelson), Jackie Crowe, Daisy Granite and her son Wilf (Rafe Granite) and brother Willie and Charlie Scarlett in One Small Boy.  At first I thought this was overkill (so to speak).  But if you remember how many people died around Bill Naughton as he grew up this is not out of the ordinary: uncle Willy, two of his children – baby Sean and one of Gertrud Wagner’s children - Jimmy Golding at school, Harry Scarlett who sold him his bike, the lad at the Ainsworth Mercerising Company, men from his father’s pit.  Death was commonplace; part of ordinary life.    




 In a lot of his output Naughton writes in the first person.  Often, this first person is a narrator, the voice of the main character’s mate, often called ‘Bill’.  Variations on this observing narrator include ‘Bolton’ as the narrator in Late Night on Watling Street and ‘Lancy’ in Alfie Elkins and his Little Life.  In an early version of Jackie Crowe the narrator is the main character’s pal ‘Knocker’ (whose life story is, surprise, surprise, just like Bill Naughton’s).  Knocker describes growing up with Jackie and his later life in London.  An odd feature is another character ‘The Questioner’, who directs Knocker’s flow about Jackie. This clumsy device is removed in a later version, as is Knocker who is replaced by Jackie himself, but a dead Jackie, an observer looking back on his younger self’s escapades.  In Lighthearted Intercourse a ‘visitor’ arrives and comments on Joe’s approach to life – the ‘visitor’ being an older version of Joe.  So the ‘observer’ in Naughton’s work is ubiquitous, either ‘Bill’ or an internal commentator, but someone standing back, watching, commenting.



Bill Naughton had a problem with plotting.  Some short stories are so low key they are just a set of observations, such as The Carter (Lilliput, Nov 1948).  And books such as A Roof Over Your Head or My Pal Spadger and plays such as Annie and Fanny use a series of vignettes, with only a vague linking theme.  His first publications were short stories and much of his longer work consists of a series of short stories set in a broader context.  David Williams’ review in the Guardian (3/12/1957) of Naughton’s novel One Small Boy praises the glow of vitality and Naughton’s genuine creative talent. But Williams was obviously frustrated by the sheaf of related sketches rather than a novel…a suite rather than symphony.  Finally, he comments that Mr Naughton cannot construct…promising characters are introduced then dropped.  This episodic approach is certainly evident in Alfie but as the point of that piece is Alfie Elkins’ steadfast unconcern and detrimental hedonism, which life’s shocks can do little to dent, it is not so noticeable.  Ken Tynan, in a review of Naughton’s first London stage success All in Good Time (later renamed The Family Way) refers to the denouement as a glib patching up (Observer 10/3/1963).  If that is the case then the ‘patching up’ at the end of Spring and Port Wine is even glibber.  Naughton did resolve this tendency somewhat towards the end of his life, but only in his autobiographies, where neat ‘plotting’ is not so important anyway.  The first of them On The Pig’s Back starts out referring back to his initial experiences writing, mixing those observations up with his visits to Ireland in his thirties, but then concentrates on his childhood life in his family. Saintly Billy is much more focussed, following a theme - his palling up with God until God lets him down - and the last one Neither Use Nor Ornament concentrates on his last days at school. 

It must be said though that Naughton did not seem to worry overmuch about plot.  He is quoted at the end of his life as saying:

Plays were an excursion for me.  A play is an artifice…Recording life is the one thing that counts.  (Independent on Sunday 11/8/91) 

He is protesting a little too hard here.  Bill Naughton is one of the very few dramatists to have had three plays on in London at the same time. He had three plays produced on Broadway, endless revivals in the UK and across the globe and five films made out of his plays. He earned an academy award nomination, national recognition, a great deal of money and the freedom later in his career to spend so much time on his journal and his work on dreams.  Nevertheless his commitment to his observational work was lifelong. Plot was secondary.     


Observation and Dialogue

The detail with which Naughton remembers early childhood so brightly implies that this skill was always there.   He mentions sitting reading in the front room at Unsworth street surreptitiously listening to the adults’ conversation.  This observational skill (or weakness for snooping) was confirmed by his time with MO, whose very purpose was to get volunteers to secretly listen to conversations.  Tom Harrisson’s peculiarly detailed instructions to observers about watching how quickly people drank in pubs, how many swigs they took and how they swirled their beer is so reminiscent of Naughton’s detailed descriptions that Bill must have been influenced by MO; precise accounts of the rules of children’s street games (Pigs Back, Saintly Billy, One Small Boy, A Dog Called Nelson), the nose blowing ceremony used by priests and teachers to preface important remarks, what cigarettes different people smoked, how they lit up, inhaled and held their cigarettes – his interest in detail is endless.

Obviously Naughton reconstructed a lot of detail, no one’s memory of childhood is that good.  The Bill Naughton Collection includes mention of Street Directories and maps he consulted to check his facts for his autobiographies.  But even when he gets facts or dates wrong, which he does regularly (Nan falling pregnant on 12th or 13th December? Skinny Nancy’s brother’s name – Mark or Luke? His sister in law Kath living in Ainscow or Ainscough Street?) the underlying truth of the events and relationships described shines through.  

But it is his dialogue where his genius shows most strongly.  Take a look for instance at the exchange about squeezing blackheads in One Small Boy (pp 214 and 215, 1967 Panther version) or the way Mrs Tiplady fiddles more vinegar in the chip shop than Mrs Bibby usually allows (Saintly Billy p50), Lizzie’s detailed explanation of what ‘feeling up clothes’ meant (Saintly Billy p101 – 103), or Jud’s embarrassment at one of his sons playing tennis in June Evening.  Often conversations roll this way and that across the page as if the book itself is speaking to you.  And listen to the 1962 version of Alfie Elkins and His Little Life, broadcast on January 7th ( ) for an example of Naughton’s masterful use of language.  Bill Owen plays Alfie Elkins in the play which is a series of monologues, which stutter and flow and slide and circle about, know what I mean? 



 Naughton repeatedly reworked stories and plays. Several works had a number of ‘lives’.  The radio play June Evening for instance, was repeated on TV.  Naughton then reduced the number of characters and renamed the play Derby Day, but also wrote Can Row Corner using many of the same characters and situations.  All of it was based on his childhood experience in Unsworth Street.  And his three most famous and successful pieces all had long gestations. 

Technically Alfie Elkins first appeared in the 1962 Radio Play.  Then came the stage play, the novel, the film, then a follow up novel, Alfie Darling in 1970.  And the ‘reworking’ is intricate.  The first versions are first person narratives (Spiv in Love and Taking a Beauty Queen Home). The radio play is technically third person, with ‘Lancy’ asking questions and Alfie responding in long monologues.  Famously Alfie the film (Naughton being the scriptwriter) includes significant sections in which Alfie talks directly to the audience as the action carries on behind him.  Interesting this as Naughton transfers the ‘observer’ function evident in so much of his work directly to the audience.

Alfie Elkins, Naughton says, was based on a civil defence driver he met at the depot in South London in the war, Johnny Harris.  This is not to say that Naughton simply stole what Johnny Harris said and did.  It was more complicated than that.  There are a number of themes underpinning Alfie.  First is the spiv, who operates at the edge of society perpetrating minor fiddles to get by.  Meet the Spiv, in the News Chronicle 13 September 1945, is written as a monologue recognisable right up to Alfie the 1966 film.  Then a recognisable character appeared in Spiv in Love in Lilliput in August 1947. 

The second theme is the man who charms and seduces and uses women and has no regrets about his behaviour.  The conceit of The Little Welsh Girl (Lilliput 1949) is of Alfie like characters using a naïve young woman.  Her obsession for cleaning the flat transfers directly to Alfie.  Also the male character in Taking a Beauty Queen Home (Lilliput Feb 1948) is coldly calculating about young women.  So although Alfie only fully appeared in the 1962 radio play Alfie Elkins and his Little Life he had been lurking about since the war.

The third is a self-regarding concern for his looks – making sure he always looks well turned out and wears the best clothes he can afford.  This is pure Bill Naughton.  He was a better dresser then dancer at the Empress Ballroom in his days of youth and laughter in the 1920s. Not for nothing did he revel in the nickname Rudy.  And his home in Johnson Fold was said to be barely furnished, though he made sure he looked his best whenever he went out.  Associated with this is a fussiness – Alfie abhors any blemish on his clothing, or anything out of place.  This is also expressed in his squeamishness in the face of life’s hazards.  Alfie has to leave the house while his lover gripped with pain and distress after the illegal abortion procedure, because as Alfie puts it, men are more sensitive than women.

The fourth theme in Alfie, however, was closest to Naughton’s heart.  What Bill Naughton saw in Johnny Harris was not fiddling or unconcern for women but his inability to sieve out the socially unacceptable thought from what came out of his mouth; a man so little given to self-reflection that he remained unaware that in his conversation he was constantly revealing his petty selfishness, joy in another’s comeuppance and routine diversions from the norms of polite society.

A shorter gestation but a piece with three different titles, started out as a stage play, Honeymoon Postponed in 1961, became All in Good Time and was filmed as The Family Way in 1966A more comprehensive reworking was Spring and Port Wine, the plot and characters of which first appeared in Rafe Granite, Naughton’s third novel, in 1947. Its final form, the 1970 film Spring and Port Wine is a slimmer version of the novel with most of the characters and plot lines the same as 23 year earlier.  The voyage of the piece included three titles, the initial novel, a radio version, a BBC TV adaptation, a stage play which had 1200 performances in London alone, and finally the film.  Some reviewers on the IMDb website comment on the unlikeliness of the complete change of heart by Rafe Crompton at the end of Spring and Port Wine the film, when the whole family is reunited after all the trauma.  As well they might because Naughton’s original, Rafe Granite, is a tragedy.  Rafe Granite is so stiff that one daughter is cast out, another leaves to marry and is barred, another son dies of pneumonia and his wife kills herself.  Over the years then Naughton reworked this tale from a kind of King Lear into something closer to The Darling Buds of May    

One notable feature of this reworking is that the starkness of Naughton’s writing mellowed over the years.  While A Roof Over Your Head (1945) is almost embarrassingly intimate, the three autobiographies at the end of his life which use some of the same material, are much lighter.  Mary Jane Miller in Three Radio Plays of Bill Naughton (Brock University, undated) notes that the film Alfie was not as bleak as the radio play, Alfie Elkins and his Little Life.  

But the most telling observation about the reworking is just how much of his core material was published in some form by 1950: Alfie Elkins, the Crompton family of Spring and Port Wine and, by my count, seventeen of the stories in his collections The Goalkeeper’s Revenge and Late Night on Watling Street as well as much material used in plays such as June Evening, Jackie Crowe and Lighthearted Intercourse.  There were of course pieces created in the 1950s and 60s, The Mystery, He Was Gone When They Got There, A Dog Called Nelson, for instance, but his major themes were revealed very early in his writing career.  Looking at the whole of his work you could argue that he lived the first part of his life until 1943, gathering material all the time. Then he spent the next seven or eight years writing about that. Then until around 1970 he honed his core themes to perfection.  In the last twenty years of his life his focus was himself.  His major interest became his dream life and latterly writing up his autobiographies.  (Two were published before he died, one afterwards.  There are significant notes in the Bill Naughton Collection in Bolton Archive for a fourth and a few notes for a fifth).  Also during that time he religiously wrote up his journal daily and made strenuous efforts to write down his every dream in detail.  This is made clear in the posthumous The Dream Mind in which he expounds is theory that the purpose of dreams is to preserve sleep.  His observational concentration was on himself.  So from the 1970s although the impetus to write was as strong as ever, the impetus to publish and to publish anything new was gone.  One final point is that in all his work, both autobiography and fiction neither of his wives occupy any space at all.  For instance I can find no physical description of either Nan or Erna, nor of Gertrud for that matter, the mother of his other two children.  His journals, hundreds of little black books, literally millions of words, may include reams about his marriages, but are closed until 2030.



If we place [Naughton] beside Beckett, Pinter, Orton, and Osborne as one of the key literary figures of post-war years, it's surprising how little of his work has remained in print.  (Independent 1/6/2013)

 Naughton belongs to no group, has never been fashionable, avoids all publicity… (Quoted in David Pierce, biographical note to Spring and Port Wine, 1973).

 There is little recent academic attention paid to Bill Naughton’s work, other than him as part of Mass Observation, pieces by David Pierce & Mary Jane Miller and work by David Rudd.  I wonder if this is because Naughton gives the reader just what he sets out to – simple observations and stories.  So comparison with Naughton’s contemporaries, say Pinter, Orton or Beckett, with their layering and literary contrivances, don’t get critics anywhere.  Bill Naughton offers no subtle message, just careful construction and a flowing narrative.  Also although some of the conundrums facing his characters are farcical, others, even though seeming far-fetched, have the ring of truth.  In Poison Pincher (Lilliput, May 1948) the boys’ mad chase to catch a dragonfly (for which the doctor was reputed to pay half a crown) seems ridiculous, but you know that such rumours are the bread and butter of children’s lives.  And yet the anxiety facing children before their first confession, the hoped for glance from the girl over the road, the tension in the family when father’s pride and joy has been secretly pawned – these are all too real.  And Naughton writes of working class culture, his own culture, as if it were enough.  No one has to escape.  Who else does that?

Likely comparators writing about the interwar period include Lewis Jones (Cwmardy/We Live, 1937), Walter Greenwood, (Love on the Dole, 1933), Richard Llewellyn (How Green Was My Valley 1939) and A. J. Cronin (The Stars Look Down, 1935).  A slightly earlier US cohort of writers including Upton Sinclair (Jungle, Oil), Jack London (People of the Abyss) could be said to occupy similar territory.  But all these writers tackle big themes: class, industrial struggle, injustice, looming disaster.  Bill Naughton’s literary arena is the individual within a family or workgroup or street, any larger social or political concerns are just noises off.  In that sense Paul Elliot’s The Last Time I Saw Paris (1942) although distinctly literary, is a better comparator as it focusses on life in one street (much like June Evening).  But that too incorporates warnings about dark times ahead.  Of today’s writers perhaps Jimmy McGovern with the direct representation of his characters’ lives and behaviour is as close a comparison as there can be. 

Bill Naughton’s completely human focus on the ‘now’ required an almost forensic concern for the detail of what was being described – a skill which meant he had to a certain extent be detached even while intimately involved in situations; school, family, work.  No doubt he fostered this but this insider/outsider status may also have been wired into this son of an immigrant couple; 

…we had only a remote feeling of belonging since we were aliens.  That was a feeling I never lost (Saintly Billy p57)

This claim to be an outsider has force.  Even if he had to construct a deliberate separateness from his family and workmates as he was ‘observing’ them, being a Catholic in Bolton, Irish in England and a Northern working class writer in London set him apart.  He maintained this ‘separateness’ through his life: developing a reputation for being private, not joining literary groups, refusing an entry in Who’s Who and from 1968 decamping to the Isle of Man.  This may have been for tax reasons in part, but he and Erna felt comfortable there, halfway between Naughton’s heartland of Mayo and his homeland in Bolton.

And the way he used material was unique. Apart from the script writing for children’s TV programmes in the 1950s, where he was constrained by the characters created by others, Bill Naughton’s material was entirely of itself.  He alludes to no literary forebears and used only what was already bubbling away in his head - brilliantly clear memories of life in Bolton and then London, which he nurtured and nagged at over the years - memories which have entertained millions.  And still do.       


  1. Alfie Elkins and His Little Life,,
  2. Bill Naughton Collection Bolton Library and Archive le Mans Crescent, Bolton
  3. Campsie, Alexandre. Mass Observation, Left Intellectuals and the Politics of Everyday Life, English Historical Review, Feb 2016,
  4. Gazeley, Ian, Lanhamer, Claire. The Meaning of Happiness in Mass Observations Bolton, History Workshop Journal, August 2012 
  5. Independent 1/6/2013
  6. Hoggart Richard, The Uses of Literacy, 1957
  7. Interview, Independent on Sunday 11/8/91
  8. Lilliput Magazine, various 1946 – 1954, Bolton History Centre
  9. Mass Observation Records, Box 23 Reel 8 All in Wrestling
  10. Miller, Mary Jane., Three Radio Plays of Bill Naughton, undated
  11. Notes for Wine and Roses, (ZNA 1/326 - 353), Bolton History Centre
  12. Rudd, David, The Significance of Bill Naughton’s Writings, Lecture given on 2 December 2017 at Bolton Central Library for Live from Worktown
  13. Pierce, David. The Irish Theme in the Writings of Bill Naughton, Estudios Irlandeses, 2005,







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