We asked Professor David Trotter, teacher of literature and screen media at the University of Cambridge, to share some thoughts about the new Saturday Night and Sunday Morning-inspired app, The Sillitoe Trail.
TLP: Sillitoe’s fascination with maps is brought out in the app, both explicitly in the text, and functionally – it is built around a walking-tour type map. It feels like we actually have several layers of mapping or abstraction, here: the original story plotted onto the location map of the time (with each place representing different themes); the plotting of these places onto the ‘real’ map of our modern world and onto reality itself through QR codes; and perhaps even the new plotting (and new story) that we create ourselves, as we carve a personal route through contemporary Nottingham, clutching our phones and following these stories on the app. What role do you think maps play in accessing the story of SNASM, and do you think iPhone maps and QR codes are in keeping with Sillitoe’s plotting?
DT: Maps are crucial in accessing SNASM. As James Walker and Paul Fillingham say, Sillitoe wrote his Nottingham-based novels with a street plan to hand. From that perspective, he was able to map his own ‘spiritual turmoil’ and the turmoil of others.
SNASM is a novel about upward social mobility at the time of the creation of a welfare state in the UK in the years immediately after the Second World War. The evolving urban landscape is its metaphor for the unprecedented opportunities change creates, and for the damage it does. As to the QR codes, I’m not so sure. QR technology is site-specific rather than map-specific. The sites are where history lives, in this app; the map is just a way to get from one site to the next.
There are two problems here. The first is that the sites themselves – market square, pub, factory, canal, fairground – are by now virtually unrecognizable. The pub’s a curry-house, the factory an Innovation Park, and so on. The app does include some vivid local heritage. The testimony of Dennis Bullivant, for example, who was Sillitoe’s classmate at Radford Boulevard school and like him did a stint in the assembly shop at Raleigh, is moving and informative. Worth the download in itself! After a while, though, the nostalgia becomes a bit cloying. More importantly, the novel has in effect disappeared.
That brings us to the second problem. SNASM is map-specific rather than site-specific. Sillitoe barely describes market square, pub, factory, canal, and fairground at all. These are just places where stuff happens. What interests him instead is the relation between places, and the way that relation alters in time. From the 1920s on, the City Corporation promoted Nottingham as the ultimate modern city, using maps and aerial photographs to show the extent of its potential transformation.
Arthur Seaton lives, as Sillitoe had done, in the labyrinthine nineteenth-century industrial suburb of Radford. His fiancée Doreen lives with her mother in one of the new housing-estates built further out to the north-west in the area around Broxstowe. These estates represent the respectable, safe, all-mod-cons existence that Arthur will come to enjoy after he settles down with Doreen, without ever really having wanted it. When he sets off to meet Doreen on the outskirts of the estate on a fine Sunday in March, he’s wearing suit, collar, and tie. To him, the estate is a source of hope, and a potential trap. ‘Arthur remembered seeing an aerial photo of it: a giant web of roads, avenues and crescents, with a school like a black spider lurking in the middle.’ Or he could just have looked at the map:
It’s Sillitoe himself who consistently, throughout the story, makes a metaphor out of aerial photograph and map. That metaphor, embedded in but rising above narrative, is the means by which we come to understand what it felt like to suffer – and benefit substantially from – the transformation brought about by welfare state capitalism. It’s the reason why SNASM, in its impulsive, troubled way, is such a great novel. Sites are all the rage now, and there’s a lot to be extracted from them. But maps matter, too, in their abstraction.