The Significance of Bill Naughton’s Writings


Dr David Rudd

(Emeritus Professor, University of Bolton)


Dr Rudd gave this lecture at a Live from Worktown event, part of a much larger festival, at the Central Library Bolton on 2nd December 2017.

Bill Naughton remains a shadowy figure, despite being responsible for some of the best loved films of the 1960s: Alfie, of course, The Family Way and Spring and Port Wine, and children’s books like The Goalkeeper’s Revenge and other Stories, a collection that has never been out of print, so far as I know. But the majority of people probably couldn’t name the author of these works. And, I have to say, when he is discussed, many reference works get it wrong. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century English Literature (1996), for example, declares that he wrote two volumes of autobiography, A Roof Over Your Head and Pony Boy, whereas he wrote several more, and Pony Boy was never one of them. It was, actually, his first novel (and very amusing too).

So, it’s the purpose of this lecture – indeed, of all these Worktown events – to try and put Bill Naughton more correctly on the map.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why Naughton remains such an elusive figure. He wrote in too many different forms, avoiding that categorisation people like to hang on to. He was a prolific writer of short stories, novels, radio, TV and theatre plays, autobiographies, social commentary, and light comedy series for early ITV in the 1950s (most of which are forgotten today, and wiped, but some might remember series like Nathaniel Titlark, Yorky and Starr and Company. Starr was an early soap, meant to rival ITV’s Emergency Ward 10, which is somewhat ironic, as Naughton also wrote a play about a Northern Street, called June Evening, which was broadcast on radio in 1958, then on TV in 1959. It featured a family called the Tatlocks and had a corner-shop – which might bring to mind another soap, Coronation Street, which appeared not long afterwards, in1960, and Bill always thought the idea had been lifted from him. One actress who appeared in June Evening was Violet Carson, who subsequently went on to play Ena Sharples! (In the film, The Family Way, there’s a lovely moment when we see the mother of the main family, the Fittons, catching the end of an episode of Corrie – as though Bill were reclaiming some ownership of this soap).

So, Naughton’s inability to be categorised is one reason for his neglect, but related to this is the fact that he falls between other stools. He was a marginal figure in many respects: an Irish person living in a colonial country; a Catholic in a Protestant nation; and beyond that, he was a Northerner and working class too. Fortunately, some of these latter qualities would serve him well in the late 1950s when the North started to be noticed (as Coronation Street itself showed, along with the writings of John Braine, Shelagh Delaney, Stan Barstow and others).

But beyond these reasons for Naughton’s neglect, it also needs saying that Bill was himself a very self-effacing man.i He famously refused to contribute an entry to Who’s Who, generally shunned the limelight and, at the height of his fame in London’s “swinging sixties”, retired to the Isle of Man – another betwixt and between place, equidistant between Ireland and England.

As a result of all this, it proves very difficult to do justice to the man in a single lecture. One might talk about his Irishness, his working-class roots, his Northernness, his views on childhood, on masculinity or, more broadly, on gender; or, indeed, his insights into social and cultural history, his spirituality, and so on. So, I’ll try and give a flavour of these areas, showing Naughton’s cultural importance with reference to some of his best works. But if there’s anything that brings all these elements together, it’s the fact that Naughton, like most writers, remained an outsider, looking on.

So, young William Naughton arrives in Bolton aged 4, in 1914, from Ballyhaunis, County Mayo, describing himself as an “Irish peasant by birth and industrial North of England by adoption”. His father had a job as a miner in Brackley Pit, Farnworth. This transition, from Ireland to England, is vividly recreated in fictionalised form in what I think is Naughton’s best novel, his 1957 One Small Boy, one of the most perceptive accounts of a young boy’s development – especially a Catholic boy. Even James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist doesn’t go into such depth about a young boy’s feelings – and especially not a working-class boy. One Small Boy is also a brilliant evocation of working-class life in “Towlton” as it is called here, around the First World War and after, reaching its climax in the divisive Miners’ strike of 1921.

In the novel Naughton describes what sounds like his own recollection of arriving in this strange land, after the quiet of the Irish countryside:

They went out of the station and came to the town before them. He gave a shiver as the hard breeze struck his legs, and he wondered at the solid pavement under his feet, that would never know the touch of any foot going over it. People were thronging the streets in the grey light, men and women, young boys and girls, moving with a determination he’d never seen before, and with a speed that astonished him. A constant clatter of hard sounds went with all this ordered activity, and, after it puzzling him for a moment, he saw it came from the clogs they wore.

The final words of the novel, in fact, are “You’ll get used to the din” (319), but you get the feeling Naughton never quite did. Thus one chapter of the novel is called “A Lancashire lad”, but he uses the phrase with some irony, as shown in this passage where one of the teachers at St Stephens (which is really St Peter and St Pauls in Pilkington Street) finds the hero’s accent unacceptably Irish, picking him up for saying “ting” rather than “thing”. “Don’t you know the king’s English yet, M’Cloud?”, she asks him, while he’s thinking, “King’s English—I’m Irish” (p. 149).

This tension between the Irish and the English was, of course, more intense at that time, but it remained strong to the end of his life, as he records in his 1988 volume of memoirs:

Even as a small boy I was seldom unaware of how vulnerable we Irish were. Although we had a good family sense, which was comforting, we had only a remote feeling of belonging, since we were aliens. That was a feeling I never lost. … The Irish – like many other nations and races – were looked down upon. … At school the huge map of the world would be spread on the blackboard, the vast British Empire marked in red and Miss Newsham [known by the kids as “Fat Alice”] with her long cane would point out the many and various colonies, dependencies, and other possessions, and explain how on the Empire the sun could never set, since it stretched around the globe. … Even the Lancashire little-piecer, undersized and underfed, working from the age of thirteen … had somehow been persuaded into considering himself a vital member, or at least a member, of the British Empire. (Saintly Billy, 1988, pp. 56-7)

And his language in these books certainly captures Bill’s hybrid status, mixing different registers. Here is a fairy characteristic passage, where I’ve picked out the different linguistic elements: Irish phrasings in yellow, Lancashire in green, and educated, literary register in blue:

“To get to know all that was going on in the street it only needed a mother like my own, in whom the neighbours came to confide, and a sister like our May, who loved a right good gossip, and an inquisitive urge to learn more about the peculiarities of human nature, which was myself, together with the sly way I had of pretending to be absorbed in a book – ‘Sure that man hears nothing at all,’ I had heard my mother assure a whispering neighbour, ‘when his head is down into a book.’” (120)

(In terms of what’s said about this character reading, some of you might remember that the same criticism is made of Arthur Fitton by his father in The Family Way: “Readin’ on his weddin’ night – a son of mine! I never thought I’d live to see the day”).

So, you’ll find Irish words in his prose, which are often the most emotional (“agraw”, “musha”, “strooleen”) alongside Lancashire dialect (“coddin’”, “mardyarse”, “warchin’”), including such delightful phrases as “getting off at Lostock”. Anyone here know that phrase? In Bill’s own words:

Even at the best of times the sexual act was more one of relief of tension rather than of pleasure, for in the absence of modern contraceptive methods it had to be coitus interruptus withdrawal, known locally as ‘getting off at Lostock’, a railway station before the main one.” (Neither Use Nor Ornament, p. 138)

Getting back to this tension that Naughton experienced, what makes him a particularly sensitive writer is the way that this material is sublimated, which we see to perfection in what I think is his finest short story, “Spit Nolan”: a story that frequently displaces the title story (The Goalkeeper’s Revenge) from being illustrated on the cover, and has also been published on its own and is much anthologised. It first appeared in Lilliput, an arty magazine in which Bill published many of his best stories. This one’s from 1951, and it begins ominously, with a short, predominantly monosyllabic declaration: “Spit Nolan was a pal of mine”, and there’s a beautiful symmetry in those vowel sounds (I, o, a a a a, o i), pivoting on that past tense at its centre and ending on the longer, drawn out “i” sound. Spit, we are told, was “the champion trolley-rider of Cotton Pocket” (p. 20). He’s an undernourished Irish lad, his nickname “Spit” clearly deriving from his consumption, as he has but one lung (as is pointed out, the rich kids go to Switzerland for a cure). And then there’s Leslie Duckett, “the plump son of the local publican” (again, just appreciate the sonorous and contrasting vowels of this line, which give more a sense of opulence). The latter character is clearly English, his father owning a pub called The British Queen, after which Leslie’s trolley is named. Beyond this, of course, there is the difference in wealth: Duckett (his name even sounds like money, “ducat” being the name for an old, gold coin) has had his “magnificent” oak trolley built for him, “everything chamfered and fluted off to perfection” (p. 24), whereas Spit has fashioned his own. As Spit comments, “That trolley will be a stranger to you to your dying day” – again, a heavily ironic comment.

Spit’s mortality is emphasised in his pale “bony face” – apart from the “two rosy spots on his cheekbones”, which give him a spiritual air, something that builds throughout the story. As the lads go off to watch the contest, Spit’s pal, Bill, pulls his trolley for him as they go up the hill (and one might recall Simon carrying Jesus’s cross, on his way to the hill of Calvary). At the top, “a faint sweated glow had come over Spit’s face”, suggestive, one might say, of a halo, of a numinous quality. As if that isn’t enough, Spit’s trolley is described as a “stout piece of wood five feet in length and eighteen inches wide”, which could equally be described as a trolley for a coffin, a catafalque; and, being fixed with nails and rope, too, with Spit riding on it belly-down, it also presents an image of him stretched out as though on a crucifix. It is said, in fact, that Spit “looked as though he were a bird that might suddenly open out its wings and fly clean into the air”, as in an ascension.

And there’s more, for they race down Cemetery Brew, because it’s “macadamized”. 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. There’s a local Bolton phrase that adds to this, for “going down the brew” is a phrase meaning that one’s health is in decline.ii

I don’t want to spoil the story, but the trollies clash, and Spit lies dying. Leslie, who caused the accident, declares, “Tha just licked me”, adopting local dialect for the first time. (This always reminds me of an exchange in in Bill’s memoirs, where a manager attempts familiarity with his workforce, only to be told, “Don’t thee ‘tha’ me,’ thee ‘tha’ them as ‘tha’s’ thee!”). But, getting back to the story, Spit will have none of this, stating “I didn’t win – I lost”, and the wider implications of the story become clear. For he was doomed from the outset, losing out against mechanisation, money and class; against not only the wealthy and healthy but against the might of the British Empire – historical forces over which he could never triumph.

But we also have a sense that, spiritually, this undernourished figure was the winner. The ducats can be rendered unto Caesar, but Spit has a more spiritual trajectory. Such characters are frequent in Naughton’s work and he clearly plays around with his own destiny in these terms, such that we can see his own name encoded in Spit’s: just swap the t and l consonants and Spit Nolan becomes Spill Notan (or Naughton).

It would be a mistake, though, to try and reduce these tales to autobiography, though they are obviously informed by his experiences and the people he met. So, he calls his second volume of autobiography, Saintly Billy, and mentions how he’s referred to in these terms, sometimes sarcastically: “Trust you to get in first …Saintly Billy!”, as his sister, May, puts it (she’s on the left, with Billy the smaller boy next to her). But again, it isn’t that straightforward, for there is also Naughton’s maternal Uncle – another William – who could claim this title (he’s also pictured here, on the right). He’s 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, dying – like Spit – in a Bolton ambulance. And we’re not done yet. For there’s also another real character who has a chapter in A Roof Over Your Head, a “Young Billy”, with whom Bill Naughton worked at the Mercerising works on Ainsworth Road. The piece begins: “He was under five feet. His hair thrust out in a cowlick, topping his small, round face.” A similar size to Spit, of course, with his five-foot plank. Young Billy was renowned for his happy singing at work, until one day it’s heard no more, and he’s discovered dead, having fallen into a big bleaching container (97). Bill describes him as: “…little heavier than a bundle of yarn. His young feet hung out from the blue overall trousers …. He was so like an infant, laid there, little and dead, in the long man’s arms.” (97). It is then that those opening words, “He was under five feet”, become more freighted with significance, he now being six feet under.

The vibrancy and innocence of this type of figure (and there are others too – like that memorable dog Nelson, that has only one eye, of course) inform a number of other characters in Naughton’s fiction, perhaps most notably Spadger in My Pal Spadger, who shares his food with the animals and birds, recalling St Francis of Assisi, and who is described as singing with a “heavenly voice”, like “an angel” (pp 37-8) – again like Young Billy. “Spadger”, of course, is also a Lancashire word for sparrow – recalling the verse in St Luke about sparrows being fairly worthless creatures, and yet “not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12: 6). This Spadger, a gifted footballer as well, likewise meets an early death: down a mine, trapped between two trucks.

What such figures show is a very different side to how masculinity is often depicted, especially in works about Northerners. The characters frequently central to Bill’s work are often softer, more sensitive and vulnerable, like Spit, or Arthur in The Family Way, or Wilfred in Spring and Port Wine. And, as Bill reflects elsewhere, masculinity, especially in working-class jobs, often depended on an intimacy that could easily undermine it. Bill, for example, talks affectionately about his mates on the street corner, huddling together for warmth, with the “little piecers” grooming each other, squeezing blackheads, and of lads bedding down with their heads in one another’s laps at the pictures.

Such intimacy had to be carefully monitored, though. You’ll recall Ezra Fitton from The Family Way, who took his mate Billy (that name again!) on honeymoon with him, and who recalls “the big moment” of his whole honeymoon being the time the two of them went for an early morning walk together by the sea (another betwixt and between space) – before his wedded bride, Lucy, was even up. It is she, far later, who recalls these times, when there’s talk about their son, Arthur, being different. As she puts it, “The lad’s no more odd or queer than you an’ Billy were. An’ even if he had have been – Nature would ha’ done it, an’ Nature is not to be thwarted.” (43). This was quite a modern sentiment for 1961, when Honeymoon Postponed, as the play was first called, appeared – which is no doubt why Ayub Khan-Din found it still pertinent in 2007, when he adapted Naughton’s play as Rafta Rafta, only seeing it necessary to replace the word “queer” with “gay” in this speech. (It is notable, of course, how the next wave of immigrants into Bolton after the Irish, the Asians, also settled in Daubhill, and experienced many of the problems similar to their predecessors).

We shouldn’t forget that lovable rogue Alfie, either, often thought to epitomise an unreconstructed sense of masculinity. For he several times refers sympathetically to those of a different “bent”: “the thought went through my mind how many a young bloke like me might go over, if you see what I mean, and look round for one of these bent old boys who was rich, and who would take him in, give him a home …” (204) and he repeatedly reflects on how irresistible his own attractive, tanned body is, which he takes great care of, along with his fastidious attention to his wardrobe and grooming. Hywel Bennett, Michael Caine and Jude Law all capture this androgynous image perfectly.

Of course, Naughton was not carrying the candle for gay liberation or anything. Just as he avoided being categorised in his writing, so the characters he writes about are shown to exceed categories and labels. He celebrates the diversity of human existence, about which he is passionate, and as his extensive diaries record. The Mass Observation project, with which he first became involved in 1938, could not have been a better vehicle for someone with his talents, which, in turn, the project helped foster. Across his creative work, then, you’ll hardly find any villains. Individuals might be difficult, mean or selfish, but their behaviour is usually made explicable. One thinks of the highly principled Rafe Crompton in Spring and Port Wine, whose intransigence, we finally realise, is what has helped him and his family survive, as he in turn reacted against his own upbringing, dodging bailiffs and visiting pawnshops, with his father absconding while his mother put her head in a gas oven – all events not uncommon in Naughton’s childhood.

Which brings us back to Alfie, who really tests our understanding. With lines like these, it’s scarcely surprising:

“I don’t know how it is but I look on an evening with just one bird as only half the menu, sausage-and-mash without the treacle pud.” (16)

“Matter of fact, what I like is to have three women …. And I like a bit of variety in them: one thin, one fat and one medium, or, say, one very young, one a bit older and another in between.” (16)

“…you never know with a bird where it’s been, or what it’s done.”

Of course, we are meant to see through Alfie’s Little Words of Wisdom. His depiction of women, or “bints”, as objects, is exactly what Germaine Greer would later crystallise in her appositely entitled “the female eunuch”. Alfie is one of that long line of anti-heroes whose behaviour both appals and attracts us; characters like Falstaff, Don Juan, Toad (in Wind in the Willows), Jack Sparrow to name a few.

In Alfie’s case, he is like a drug-addict chasing – to use own terminology – “pussy” or “crumpet”, always desperate for his next fix. But the genius of Naughton is to make this rogue lovable, rather than have him simply alienate and repulse us. And Bill does this by, of course, shutting down any distance from this character that we might otherwise feel. Naughton, in fact, seduces us by using the same technique Alfie uses on women, as he is seen to confide in us in his intimate way: “Are you all settled in nicely? Right, we’ll start”, as he candidly addresses us, the audience, right at the beginning of both the play and in the film. In the novel, this intimacy is achieved through Alfie’s first-person narration, such that we know about all events from his perspective only. And we follow the meanderings of his thoughts, often interrupting himself – “Now where was I with my little life as a boy – oh yes” (25) and checking we are still with him, with his signature, “know what I mean” (35).

In short, we are as much victims of his chat-up technique as are his “birds” and, indeed, as are many of the men he encounters. His childlike narcissism is irresistible, being ruled by what Freud termed the pleasure principle, seeking instant gratification for his whims (“you should never think about it”, as he says at one point, “you should have it” (69)) – that is, to use his terms again, “nukky” or “crumpet”. I often think the theme song, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”, has a double meaning. It is a question addressed to him, certainly, but it also sums up what is his own problem; namely: What’s it all about? Alfie!

Alfie flees at any whiff of commitment or attachment. And when he is pinned down and something does penetrate his guard – a woman showing emotion, for instance – he cannot bear it. Even his own son, Malcolm, to whom he is only ever a weekend father, he wants removed from his mother and adopted by a rich woman. The most moving scene in Alfie, though, is his confrontation with the aborted foetus of his other, putative son, after he arranges a backstreet abortion for Lily, a married woman he has had “a fling” with (abortion was then illegal):

I thought, “I’m your dad.” Strange I should think that, but it’s exactly wot I did think. This is my son – an’ I’m one o’ them as ’as done this to ’im. See wot I mean? After that I ’ad this job to do of gettin’ rid of it, an’ as I was doin’ it … [there were] tears rushin’ outa my eyes an’ runnin’ down my face, all salty; like I was only a kid myself. Not for ’im I wasn’t cryin’ – nah, he was past it – for my bleedin’ self. (60)

It is passages like this that prevent Alfie from being a quite forgettable gigolo – a mindless and misogynistic representative of sixties hedonism, pointing out the hypocrisies of that age (which he also does, showing that, indeed, most men were “a lot of berks” as he expresses it, such that his own appreciative and sensitive attentions proved a breath of fresh air to many women).

Passages like this, where Alfie breaks down, also turn him into a more inscrutable and tragic figure, like a Peter Pan, trapped in his own narcissism. For, unlike Arthur or Ezra Fitton, or Rafe Crompton, we never get to know what makes Alfie tick. He is locked inside his own image (as he says, he prefers using an old-fashioned razor when he’s shaving, so that he gets a good look at himself in the mirror). Consequently, those defining moments in which characters mature – through the birth of a child, like Malcolm, say, or through discovering a shadow on the lungs, or by confronting an aborted son – pass him by. Alfie backs away from all such “defining moments”. Even at the end, when he gazes out across the Thames and contemplates “going over” – both in terms of becoming bent, as he puts it, and beyond that, of going over to the other side – i.e. contemplating suicide – he retreats into what he terms his “bleedin’ self”, aided by Siddie, the woman we see him with at the beginning, who just happens to walk by. Thus any development by Alfie is inhibited: his story, we realise, is not linear – not progressive or evolving. It is a cyclic one. As Siddie comments, “You never change – do you, Alfie?”, which is a remark he carefully sidesteps, simply stating, “It’s all a giggle” (208). And, disappointingly, this is a theme more extensively indulged-in in Naughton’s rarely discussed sequel, Alfie Darling, which weighs-in at more than twice the size of the original, and has an even more forgettable film, starring Alan Price as Alfie.

Only a little earlier Alfie had reflected: “I’ve got some money … a few good suits, a fair car, and I’ve got my health back. But I haven’t got my peace of mind. And if you haven’t got that you’ve got nothing”. But instead of realising that peace of mind comes only from engaging with the serious issues of life – around birth, death, relationships – Alfie, predictably, retreats. For me, Naughton summed up Alfie’s dilemma in a note he had made some years earlier: “Sexual liberation … tends to nudge towards an abandonment in which there may be pleasure but often at the expense of peace … .” I think this is a key reason for Naughton making Alfie a cockney, and removing him from that experience of community Bill treasured in the North – seen in families like the Cromptons and the Fittons. In fact, in earlier short stories, Naughton had already experimented with Northern versions of his Alfie character, before making the decision to relocate him.

For it is a remarkable achievement that Alfie should emerge from the pen of Bill Naughton, a far more principled, empathetic and spiritual figure. Once again, though, one can trace this character’s genesis, going back to an essay Bill wrote in 1945, called “The Spiv”, which was the first serious account of this fashion-conscious wide-boy to whom pleasure-seeking was central. Bill himself had personal acquaintance with some spivs, and especially a fellow Civil Defence lorry driver called Johnny Harris, with whom Bill remained friends to the end. We certainly know that some “Alfie” incidents are modelled on Harris’s exploits and occur in other stories too. But the emotional truth of Alfie’s character, and what has made such a rogue live on as a cultural icon (with the Jude Law remake in 2004), comes from Bill himself.

It’s certainly true of that most powerful scene, when Alfie confronts his aborted son, for Bill had also experienced the loss of an infant. In Bill’s case, his third child, Sean, who died at less than a fortnight old. When Bill first wrote about this tragedy, in his autobiographical A Roof Over Your Head from 1944, he could clearly not face this head on, using the confiding first-person voice we have elsewhere in the book. Instead, we are suddenly jolted into an anonymous, third-person account:

“His wife came over to him … . She seemed to have no words … “He’s gone …  our little boy is gone.” … The woman had taken the child from his cot.  … Her eyes gazing at the still babe in her arms …” (155)

– an image that probably took Bill back that earlier “Young Billy”, being carried out of the acid container at the Mercerising Works. But it would be another 20 years before Bill could give more imaginative expression to such feelings, as voiced by Alfie.

A pedantic account of Bill’s work might claim that he didn’t return to autobiography for over 40 years after A Roof Over Your Head, till he was in his late 70s, when he produced the first of his three excellent volumes of memoirs, aside from the later Voices from a Journal. However, anyone who knows Bill’s work understands that he was almost always writing autobiography – that for him it was like the confessional, setting the record straight, providing, as he puts it elsewhere, “a neat picture of each single day of my life [so] there would be a record, an account which one could almost hand over to St Peter at heaven’s gate to save any argument” (SB, pp. 141-2). But it is also important to note that Naughton does not just mean a life simply lived, without reflection or contemplation – although Bill is also good at presenting us with characters for whom this is their undoing, who – like Alfie, of course, or Ezra Fitton – are simply too self-centred.

One of the most interesting contrasts between these two types comes with the character Rafe Crompton, who has a more irresolute and immovable ancestor in Rafe Granite, his eponymous precursor from a forgotten novel of 1947. The “Granite” character never comes to reflect on his ways, so his story ends darkly and tragically, unlike Crompton’s, who, true to his weaver’s name, at one point comments that “Knots were made to be unfastened” with “patience”, as we witness with Rafe, who eventually lets people be themselves more, withholding his censure.

This could be Naughton’s own mantra, and accounts for how frequently his characters morph and change across his works, as he was forever seeking the emotional core of events – even though this always meant revisiting the past, which would then sometimes get in the way of his writing:

“On many a morning … I would turn from a story I was writing … to tell about some character or family from that street in Bolton I grew up in – later to put it aside among the millions of words that lie unread in dusty tin trunks in the loft of our present home. [now in the archive here, of course] And truth to tell, no matter where I was to live in later life, no place was to make its mark on me anything like so deep and lasting as that of Unsworth Street, nor to turn up so often in my dreams some sixty years later. I had the notion that it had been ordained that our family should not only settle in Bolton – to see that name in print excited me – but in that very house, so much was it part of me.” (p. 121-2).

James Joyce called these little expressions of emotional truth “epiphanies”, Virginia Woolf called them “moments of being”, and the mystics (whom Naughton read for pleasure) had other names for them: thisness, haecceity, quiddity, the noumenon. It is what lends such poetic vibrancy to his descriptions of even the most mundane things, as, for instance where he talks about hearing the muckmisers, or night soilmen, arriving in the dark, and catches the intricate tempo and gusto of their work. There’s one especially, whom he describes thus: “He was a chirpy sort of fellow who Kicked the Catch of each ash-pit door open with his clog-toe ...” (p. 33 – again, very effective alliteration and a lovely lilt to that sentence), later commenting on what a good left-winger the chap would make. And Bill brings life to everything in this poetic manner, whether it’s playing bladder-football, having a haircut, constructing a trolley, or describing little-piecers picking blackheads off each other. But of course, such writing didn’t come straight out of the pen, as any look at his manuscripts will show us. Of his first published story he confessed that “It took eight months before I was satisfied with it. I had more than two hundred pages of writing and re-shaping. The complete story was eleven pages.” – i.e. it ended up one-twentieth the length. This sense of immediacy, then, was something carefully crafted, as this example from his memoirs shows:

… I saw a girl approaching me on the same side of the pavement, and at the sight of her my heart gave a funny shift – for it was dear Alice, my sweetheart of some three years earlier, the love of my young life. How different she walks from other girls, I thought, as I kept my eye on the slim figure in the gingham school frock, a bright spatter of blue-and-white check, moving with that quiet grace and dignity that had so appealed to my young self. … I got a breath of her old fragrance – still lovely, but perhaps not quite so dainty as of old. Hold on! – did I glimpse some sign of breasts on my Alice – two small breasts peeping up beneath her dress! Fancy, my Alice with breasts! – just imagine going out with a girl with breasts! The very thought made me go faintly husky in the throat.

This is Bill Naughton, nearing 80, recreating that instant so vividly that it is as if he has only just noticed her budding puberty – Hold on! – as though this observation has occurred almost in the course of his writing this piece.

He traces back this need to reflect on the events of his life not just to Mass Observation but to being 12 and seeing a diary in a Boots chemist on Derby Street, and imagining that he could secure the events of his life in order to pass them straight over to St Peter at the gates, as I quoted in the passage earlier.

The recurrence of particular events in Bill’s fiction, then, are often indications of more emotionally freighted episodes, such as this one, with which I’ll finish. It first occurs in Rafe Granite again, from 1947, in this there’s an episode where some prunes have gone missing (just like the herring does, of course) and Wilf admits he’s responsible (as later with the herring). But in this version, this turns into Wilf’s deathbed confession, admitting that it was he, and not Hilda, that took them: “I were all alone int’ kichen. I were thirsty, Dad, an’ I supped juice first, an’ then I ate prunes so they wouldn’t look too may int’ dish.” (168).

By the time we get to One Small Boy, ten years later, it is Michael (another character modelled on Bill), who is tempted by some pears he finds in their back kitchen, convincing himself that they have lain there for a while, forgotten. However, when he takes one, he still decides that it would be better to sneak down to the privy to eat it. The incident works on several levels, aside from its intrinsic power: obviously there is the reference to the tempting in the Garden of Eden (Naughton often uses fruit in this way). And there is the related trace of a sexual subtext, too, beginning with the description of how he has problems extricating the stolen pear from his pocket (elsewhere in the novel he is described as having to adjust his trousers because of sexual arousal). This is built on in a richly sensual passage that follows his brief inner struggle:

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)

Note that shift at the end as the first person “I” breaks through and the writing shifts into the present tense.

Michael then convinces himself that his mother won’t miss the other pear, either. “I’m deaf an’ blind an’ I can’t stop myself”, he declares, and fetches it back to the closet, too. But now he finds that the pleasure has gone: “Guilt—that’s all I can taste …I feel black an’ miserable inside”.

There is much more to this small scene, which is later re-enacted with his girlfriend, who has stolen a tomato—something he’s never even tasted before, but thinks, significantly, might be like an apple. Later Michael goes to church to expiate his sin, but it is when he arrives back home that he really suffers, when he denies to his mother that he’s ever seen the pears, then learns that his father had to go to the pit without any fruit to quench his thirst in the night. Significantly, it is during that night that he hears the privy pails being emptied by the muckmisers, and the stink, we are told, fills his room.

Turning to his second volume of memoirs, Saintly Billy, we find Bill recounting this incident yet again, but this time in a more open, confessional mode, noting the distress that the memory still caused him over sixty years on. For Bill, though, who read religious works assiduously (never fiction), the event was more than personal. St Augustine, in his Confessions, written in the 4th century AD, makes much of a similar incident about stealing pears when young, which he saw as clear evidence of man’s sinful nature: his enslavement to pleasure. Unlike Augustine, though, one has the feeling that Naughton was less impressed by the Old Testament god that rules characters like Rafe Granite; that Bill had moved increasingly towards the more forgiving mindset of Rafe Crompton, who not only becomes aware of human foibles, but comes to rejoice in them. And, of course, with Alfie, Naughton was to become even more indulgent about the pleasures of the flesh.

To sum up, then. Bill Naughton is a writer who defies categories: he wrote for both young and old; he brought a more poetic sense of the North to the nation, and he opened up the nation to the richness of working-class life, while also questioning some traditional notions of masculinity. What made Bill far more than a Mass Observer, a recorder of events – as he himself sometimes tended to belittle his role – was his unrelenting commitment to uncovering the personalities involved, their idiosyncrasies, their skills, their moods and relationships, whether in emptying nightsoil pails, wielding a spade, driving a lorry or, as a little piecer, tying up loose ends. He invests each with dignity and insight. To return to that Biblical imagery never far from Naughton’s mind, he certainly believed that every spadger was noted by God; that every hair of our heads was numbered, and was thereby noteworthy. In Naughton’s best work, these characters’ lives stand out and sing to us, just as Spadger and Young Billy do, reaching down across the decades. But as Bill’s repeated revisions of his work also show, it was not just a case of observing: it took a lot of polishing before this essence would shine – whether for a young trolley rider to rise above earthly conflicts and become a spiritual icon, or for a cockney gigolo to achieve tragic status. They are all characters that, like Bill himself, defy easy categorisation.

As I said at the outset, Bill Naughton’s significance is also taking a long time to shine through. When I last spoke about Bill in 2010, I was looking forward to 2015 when all his voluminous “dusty tin trunks” of material were to be made public. Waiting till 2030 will be harder (I’ll then be the age of Bill in his last days, perhaps!), but I hope by then his place in twentieth-century culture will be more established.


i In the Biographical Note to Spring and Port Wine (1973) we read that “Naughton belongs to no group, has never been fashionable, avoids all publicity, and prefers not to talk about his work.”

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



This project has been developed in conjunction with, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund