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Mrs Bull and the Importance of Gossip

Date published: 16 Oct 2019

Posted by: Joe Pick

Mrs Bull from Saturday Night & Sunday Morning

This is the first of three blogs written by James Walker about our Words for Wisdom project, which aims to bring older and young people together through literature. We commissioned James to explore Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning with local people aged 55+. Here’s how James and the groups he worked with decided to call their project ‘Cheap Gossip for Retail Later’. 

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a book of two halves. The first 75% is Saturday night “the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty-two holidays in the slow-turning Big Wheel of the year.” Here we follow Raleigh worker Arthur Seaton as he tests the elastic capacity of his guts by necking seven gins and 11 pints down his local before getting it on with women, he shouldn’t be getting it on with.

The last 25% is Sunday morning, when Arthur goes fishing and accepts “Everyone in the world was caught, somehow, one way or another, and those that weren’t were always on the way to it”. He has to settle down and get married because “If you went through life refusing all the bait dangled in front of you, that would be no life at all”.

Any analysis of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning rightly focuses on the wonderfully quotable antics of Arthur Seaton, the charismatic anti-hero of Alan Sillitoe’s debut novel, published in 1958. But for the Words of Wisdom project I wanted to switch focus to Seaton’s nemesis Mrs. Bull.

Mrs. Bull may not slug her guts out at the lathe, but she certainly puts in a shift at the yard. For twenty two years she has observed people coming and going, earning the nickname of the ‘Loudspeaker’ and ‘News of the World’. We are told that “her malicious gossip travelled like electricity through a circuit, from one power point to another, and the surprising thing was that a fuse was so rarely blown”.

Sillitoe’s descriptions of “Fat Mrs. Bull the gossiper” are wonderfully evocative, albeit derogatory, and led to some heated debates in the writing workshops that we held at the Meadows and Central library, Radford Care Group and the Marcus Garvey Centre. She is described as a “tight-fisted defender of her tribe” and as “queen of the yard” and so is not someone you want to provoke. But neither is Seaton. When he finds himself the subject of her tongue he shoots her in the cheek in the book (later toned down to the backside for the 1960 film adaptation), suggesting she is a real threat to his freedom, though given his behavior (sleeping with a pair of married sisters, one of whom he gets off with while the other is having a ‘gin bath’) it is no wonder he is the subject of gossip.

This led to some interesting conversations in our workshops. Had anyone ever been the subject of gossip and how did this feel? Was anyone in the group a self-confessed gossip? Was gossip a positive or negative thing?

It also opened up debates around the origin of the word gossip which led us to Silvia Federici’s Witches, Witch Hunting, and Women where she argues “Tracing the history of the words frequently used to define and degrade women is a necessary step if we are to understand how gender oppression functions and reproduces itself”. It turns out that gossip referred to “companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations. In either case, it had strong emotional connotations.” The digested read: It’s good to talk.

Based on this, we decided to call our project ‘Choice Gossip for Retail Later’ as this is essentially what we had been doing in the workshops: we were gleaning gossip from each other, sharing stories, finding commonality through words. That choice gossip has taken the form of a series of illustrations with audio recordings which will be released bit by bit over the coming months. You can decide for yourself if this gossip is worthy of retail on 12 November.

Join us for Words of Wisdom: Choice Gossip for Retail Later on 12 November (6pm – 8pm), an event where participants will share the work they created during the project.