Nicola Monaghan returns to her hometown of Nottingham – also the setting of Alan Sillitoe’s classic novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – to discover a city struggling to keep up with the times.
It was the middle of summer and a group of us were out on the town in Nottingham City Centre. It was Saturday night – ‘the best and bingiest glad time of the week’, as Alan Sillitoe put it in his classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. We were doing our best to live up to that. There were ten of us – friends I’d known since I was at school – and the evening began with vodka shots and cocktails. As we moved from bar to bar around town, the crowd around us became increasingly dishevelled, many weaving and slurring as they chatted each other up or put the world to rights.
I don’t remember getting home. My husband and I took what we like to call the ‘beer taxi’. On our Saturday night out, nobody fell all the way down the stairs after a drinking contest like they did in the Sillitoe novel, but still, observing us and the city around us, you’d be forgiven for thinking that little had changed in Nottingham since the publication of Sillitoe’s first novel. Of course, it has: my mate Richard is the only person in the group who works in a factory, for Toyota, and that factory isn’t actually in Nottingham at all but on the way out to Derby.
The rhythm of the factory floor used to be the strong heartbeat of our city. When my parents left school at fourteen, the main decision a young person had to make was whether to work at Raleigh, Boots, Player or one of the textile factories. By the time I hit sixteen, just over twenty years later, it was a different picture. The choices were college or Thatcher’s Youth Training Scheme, working full-time hours and sometimes studying as well. The reward for the latter was your £25-a-week dole money: about enough cash to fill your car with petrol. It was an easy choice for me to stay on at school. Although it pains me to concede that particular government credit for anything at all, I wonder if the poor alternatives available to us influenced the significant number of people of my generation who were the first from their families to go to university. My father, for example, would have liked the opportunity of a place in higher education. His choices were restricted in other ways. There was a lot of family pressure for a bright young lad to go out and get a trade apprenticeship and contribute to the household as soon as possible. In Thatcher’s Britain, this was no longer a viable option.
Little remains of the bright lights and throbbing production lines of the city my parents grew up in. They were both textile workers when they met. The factories are long gone; there’s only one remaining lace maker. Boots and Player have downsized production and Raleigh, the factory documented in Sillitoe’s classic book, withdrew all its manufacturing several years ago. They retained just a warehouse outside the city boundary, moving production to the Far East for the cheap labour. It’s a bizarre twist of fate then that Toyota, a Japanese car manufacturer, should move in just down the road shortly afterwards and become a major employer. The factory makes a limited range of vehicles and has a workforce of nearly four thousand people. As well as my friend Richard, my brother works there, as a buyer, and my sister used to work on the production line.
A few days after our Saturday outing, Richard came round to our house. He’d been on good form that drunken night, cracking jokes and trying to persuade my brother-in-law to do press-ups on one of the main roads through the city centre. We hadn’t talked about work, or his life, but I’d taken it from his demeanour that everything was going well. He’d recently become a father for the first time and I knew that aside from sleepless nights, the experience had been all positive. It wasn’t until he arrived looking worn out that I realised things had been difficult.
Richard and my husband met when we were all at school together. They were both into heavy metal and hard rock and spent formative years in the mosh pit at Rock City then, afterwards, bonding over the size of their bruises. He hung onto the Michael Hutchence hair for far longer than he should have, only conceding last year that it had to go. Now his head is shaved. To make up for this, he has grown a small, pointed beard and a moustache. He is heavily tattooed, and has a number of piercings. Although he looks like the kind of bloke you shouldn’t mess with, Richard is a gentleman – funny, intelligent and loyal.
He came armed that day with potatoes from the allotment he’s set up to grow his own vegetables. This development is not about sustainability but necessity, I realised. We’d had a tree blow over in our garden and my husband had chopped it up; Rich asked if he could have the wood for the open fire in his living room.
I asked him how things were at the factory. Had there been redundancies? He reassured me that although, as a car company, Toyota had had things pretty bad, they had for a time managed to ride through it without laying off any permanent staff. The first step had been to get rid of the temps. Although workloads increased, most of the remaining staff were relieved to have kept their jobs. But this wasn’t quite enough. The company was still losing money and the next step, rather than making a handful of permanent staff redundant, was to reduce everybody’s hours. Overtime was frozen and the factory shut for one afternoon a week.
I suggested that this must have been the best way to deal with the issue. ‘I wasn’t sure at first.’ Richard told me. ‘I was used to the overtime and it was a big adjustment. To be honest, it was a relief all the same. Some of the alternatives up for discussion were scary.’ For a while a rumour circulated that the factory bosses were considering using an age-old clause in the employment contract which gave them the right to close the factory for up to three months, suspending workers with just five days’ pay and little warning. Looking back now, it seems unimaginable, but Richard says it was a real fear.
I was once asked at a reading if I thought my first novel, set among council estate drug dealers, was a modern version of Alan Sillitoe’s book. I don’t, and I said so. Sillitoe documented normal working life; set in the same areas forty years on, the story described in my book is far removed from that. A fellow panel member at that event pointed out that an updated version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning would have to be set in a call centre. And he was right. I was once playing with my nephew Frank and he was pretending to run a fish and chip shop. I acted unhappy with the food he gave me, and told him I wanted to see his manager. He protested, ‘I can let you speak to my manager, but he’ll only tell you the same thing I did.’ This made me laugh, but I also felt it was a sign of the times; both of Frank’s parents worked in a call centre, and I suspected that it was from them he’d heard this line. My friends and family in Nottingham have a variety of jobs and careers, but this frustrating line of work is the most common way of making a living.
A couple I know, John and Mandy, worked until recently for Capital One – a Nottingham-based credit card company, rare for supplying cards to ‘people needing to strengthen their credit rating’. In other words, those who would usually be considered high-risk. (Of course, they charge appropriately higher interest for this service.) Not surprisingly, they had a busy collections department – and it was there that my friends worked. I asked John what it was like. ‘It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it.’
They hadn’t set out to take jobs at the same company; being reliant on its fortunes wasn’t in their plan. John had been working there for a couple of years when another position came up that fitted around his hours and the needs of their young children, so Mandy applied. They had a young family to provide for and a mortgage: the money was better than the wages Mandy received working for a supermarket, so it had seemed the ideal solution.
In April 2008, following large losses, the firm announced a massive redundancy programme. Profits had taken a nosedive of 72 per cent in the last quarter of 2007, and they’d had to write off nearly two billion dollars in loan losses. The cull would affect 750 Nottingham jobs – a whopping 40 per cent of their workforce in the city, most of them from the call centre. John and Mandy both lost their jobs.
Not long after the redundancies were announced, I went out for lunch with Mandy, her little girl and my stepdaughter. We didn’t go posh that day, for obvious reasons, and Mandy had a discount voucher, so we felt we could enjoy ourselves fairly guilt-free. We met at a pub with a soft play area, and the girls ran around and after each other like feral creatures playing hunting games. Mandy was pale and looked tired; her white blond hair pulled back in a harsh ponytail, a style my husband refers to as the ‘Broxtowe facelift’. During our conversation, she reminded me about something I’d altogether forgotten. ‘You warned us,’ she said. ‘You told us ages ago that they were going to do this to everyone.’
I had, in fact, predicted everything that was happening to them. Capital One wasn’t just closing down its business in Nottingham; it was moving the call centre operations to India and Sri Lanka. The way the past was repeating itself made me think of these companies as parasites; pale, greedy creatures that made their homes in the guts of the city and left it wiped out, diminished. My warning wasn’t born of any unusually astute foresight. Someone had told me. A girl I played badminton with worked in a senior position in the company and was taking regular trips to the East to train managers and other workers. She actually suggested I warn the people I knew who worked for the company. So I did. Years had gone by since that conversation and we’d all come to the conclusion she had been mistaken, or that the company had abandoned the plan. Presumably, they had just been taking their time over it. The thought that I should have probed and found out more put me off my pudding that day. If I’d been surer of my facts, perhaps I would have been more insistent about it and that may have persuaded my friends. I felt slightly guilty for the position they found themselves in.
I went round to see John and Mandy at their home a few weeks later. Their house is on a main road just down from the Catholic secondary school Mandy and I attended, in the neighbourhood where we’d all grown up. The houses are red brick terraces, council properties mostly, but John and Mandy aren’t the only people who have exercised their ‘right to buy’. The result is an interesting variety of frontages, some double glazed or cladded, gardens scattered with kids’ toys or garden ornaments. Until speed bumps were installed, the road was much favoured by joy riders. Walking down the streets around Aspley you can often smell the cannabis on the breeze. Youths walk down the road wearing hoodies emblazoned with seven pointed leaves. I’ve heard stories that more people are setting up attic grow rooms, people who never would have considered it before but now see this as a way to make money. In fact, a working class Nottingham lad, Damione Thomas, was recently jailed for drug dealing and blamed the recession for his turn to crime. It sounds an unlikely excuse, except that twenty-seven year old Thomas did have a full record of employment in various manual jobs since leaving school and right up until a redundancy in 2008.
Across from John and Mandy’s house is the shell of a school that used to be the worst in England, although it was closed down years ago. A new building is scheduled to go up. I doubt it’ll be a school; every school on that site has so far has sunk to the bottom of the national league tables. My aunt went to the secondary modern that stood on the site for some of her teenage years, back when it was called Player, named for the factory where many of its students would have ended up working. I think it says a lot about the way Nottingham used to be that there was actually a school named after a factory, and that Jesse Boot, the founder of the chemist chain and another large local factory, donated the land and paid for the development of the University of Nottingham.
Cast adrift in the middle of a recession caused by badly managed lending, two people whose main work experience was at a credit card company were not best placed to find new employment. Although I could tell she hadn’t been sleeping – dark circles shadowed her eyes – Mandy was smiling through it. John arrived back from work as we were talking. I mentioned that at least they’d had plenty of notice to get themselves organised. It wasn’t even summer and they both had their jobs until September. Mandy pulled a face. ‘It’s not that simple. We’ve both got interviews at places,’ she told me. ‘But the problem is that even if we get the jobs we might not be able to take them. If we leave before the exact date they’ve given us, we lose our severance pay.’
As we carried on talking, it became clear to me that superficially, at least, the company was handling the redundancies sensitively. They had given their staff several months’ notice and, along with reasonably generous lump sum payments, each employee was entitled to a training allowance to invest in their own professional development. But the truth was that such a long notice period with absolutely no flexibility made securing alternative employment difficult. John and Mandy persevered and were eventually both offered new jobs. Then Mandy’s fears were confirmed when John was forced to turn down a well paid position because he couldn’t negotiate a suitable start date – he’d been at Capital One for many years and his payout was just too much to walk away from. Mandy found a job with the call centre at Experian, a credit data management company.
A few weeks after I’d spoken to Mandy about her new job, she phoned me, obviously distressed. Capital One had changed their D-Day. It turned out the company had miscalculated and wasn’t yet ready to open its call centres overseas. As a result, the ‘lucky’ staff in Nottingham had a few weeks more employment and Mandy could no longer keep the arrangement she’d made with Experian without losing her severance pay. When I went round to see her again recently, I found her distracted. The house was in disarray – they are having the loft converted and an extension built. There’d been more bad news. After less than a year at his new firm, John is to be made redundant again. The company hasn’t given him a leaving date yet, so some of his colleagues are living in the hope it could all be cancelled. But John is past believing in that kind of miracle. All this could not have come at a worse time; they’ve just remortgaged to pay for the building work.
This time, they plan to make major changes to their lives. John has applied for a job as a teaching assistant in a local school and Mandy is thinking of training to be a teacher. They want to become recession-proof, and they realise that working for finance companies is not the answer. John has had enough of doing the ‘dirty’ work that is credit collections. ‘It was never what I intended to do with my life,’ he told me. ‘I used to coach football to kids and I preferred that, and with my development allowance when I left Capital One I did a course in training. I think I’d be good as a teaching assistant or learning mentor, especially with some of the kids from round here.’
My friends will find new jobs. They’re resourceful and bright and tough enough to live through this. Richard is doing fine; his young son is thriving and the worst of the cuts at the factory appears to be over. Despite planning for several half-day closures over the course of six months, in the end, the bosses at the Toyota factory didn’t feel the need to go through with them all. Although there have been rumours of similar ‘dark days’ in the coming months, as far as Richard is aware, the production company is much healthier. The government’s scrappage scheme, enabling people to trade in old cars for two thousand pounds towards a brand new one, seems to have achieved its purpose: orders have increased. ‘Who knows what’ll happen next,’ says Richard, “but I think we all feel confident now that Toyota won’t shaft us over. Personally, I’ve learnt how to get by on less and that was good for me. It’s amazing how many things you buy that you don’t really need.’
In an interesting coincidence, I was born on the same road as the bicycle company and from which it took its name; Raleigh Street. I’ve settled in my hometown and love it; I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The people here are tough; they’re from generations of workers used to doing proper hard jobs. There’s a pinch of rebelliousness in the air here too, always, with a measure of hedonistic abandon. In that sense and, right at the core of it, the city hasn’t changed as much since the days of Arthur Seaton as it might sometimes seem. The people here haven’t changed at all, not really. Just the jobs that they do. It’s still a place where folk are prepared to get their hands dirty and this is perhaps what attracts so many businesses here. There will be more, I don’t doubt it, but none of them will destroy the place.
Photograph courtesy of David B. Gleason